Making his debut under the Xtra Large moniker in 2003, LA-based producer/rapper XL Middleton has been releasing music that is inspired by the G-funk tradition but has also been responsible for expanding the genre into regions it has never gone before. Besides being an artist, he runs the MoFunk Records label that brings the modern funk sound to the world, and has become an integral part of the modern LA funk scene. He released the album XL Middleton & Delmar Xavier VII in April of 2021, which was strikingly different than his past work because it was based on Japanese city pop samples and was devoid of the blazing keyboard sound that he is so well known for. We asked him about the inspiration and background of this record, as well as his attraction to city pop and its similarities to G-funk. He also shared his experiences as the owner of the Salt Box Records store and his numerous collaborations with Japanese artists.
A blend of lyrics based on LA city life and mellow city pop samples
――Can you tell us about the concept of the “XL Middleton & Delmar Xavier VII” album that was released last July, and why you and Delmar Xavier VII decided to sample a lot of Japanese City Pop on this album?
XL Middleton: Delmar Xavier VII is actually the name I use when I make sample based tracks and edits. I’m actually also rapping on this record. I wanted to document my life during the pandemic in 2020 and I knew that I could be the most detailed if I was rapping about it. Since I don’t sample often, I’ve always wanted to challenge myself to do an entire album of sample-based songs. I wanted to make it an even more interesting challenge for myself by establishing the parameter of only sampling City Pop.
――You normally create music with your synthesizers and don’t sample from records in your productions, but why did you decide to do a lot of sampling on this album, and what was your criteria in choosing the samples?
XL Middleton: I had never done an entire album of sample-based tracks. Working with samples is its own craft, just like playing any musical instrument, and I’ve never been as comfortable with it as I am with playing the keys. My goal was to gain more of that comfort and improve my technique. I think I was able to do that so hopefully the next time I do a project like this, it’ll be even more refined.
As far as how I chose the samples, there wasn’t really a specific criteria to it other than feeling like I had a sample that I could craft a great song out of. I listen to a lot of music, generally speaking, and I think that’s helped me to always keep a decent sense of being able to hear music from the listener’s perspective. So if the music listener in me was feeling a sample, then the producer in me would want to bring it to life as a song.
――Are most of the samples from Japanese City Pop or did you use records from other genres and countries?
XL Middleton: Every song is centrally based around a City Pop sample though there are a few tracks that have secondary elements that didn’t come from City Pop records. There’s one song I did play some synth on. It’s crazy for me to be able to say I put out a whole album and I’m only playing synth on one song.
――On the Bandcamp page it says that the album is about LA life in the corona era, but the samples you used have a mellow sound to them. Did you purposely choose samples with a mellow sound to contrast the more serious themes of the lyrics?
XL Middleton: When the pandemic hit, I’m sure a lot of people felt a deep sense of loneliness from having to isolate. I know I did. I just wanted to choose music that I thought was a perfect backdrop for that feeling of being in deep thought, in solitude. A lot of City Pop songs really do have this beautiful kind of loneliness to them. You can’t really say why, especially if you don’t understand the lyrics like I don’t, but it’s just a feeling.
――What kind of lyrical themes did you explore on this album?
XL Middleton: I went a whole lot of places. On “Lament For The Angels” I was basically giving up a little LA history on wax. I think of it sort of like the book “City Of Quartz” in rap form. That’s why I mentioned it in the song. On “Strange Dance” I was talking about people being outside in the middle of the pandemic as if it wasn’t happening. I talked about the deep corruption and cruelty of the police in our city on “LA Noir,” and about gentrification on “LA Holiday.” I purposefully ended the album on a more hopeful note, so on the song “Perfect Time To Come Over,” it’s about reconnecting with a love interest that you haven’t been able to see since before lockdown. And on “Too Late,” well, it’s actually a song about it not being too late for positive changes to take place. The way that any human being might feel different ways on different days, down today but up tomorrow, I wanted that to be reflected when you look at the album as a whole.
The intersection of G-funk and city pop
――How did you first discover Japanese City Pop? I think that you have roots in Japan as a Japanese American but did you grow up listening to music from Japan from childhood?
XL Middleton: Yes I’m Japanese American. Okinawan actually to be specific, though my family relocated to Hawaii some generations ago so I don’t know if I have any family in Japan or Okinawa still. I didn’t grow up listening to Japanese music, but to find City Pop later in life, it was a moment for me because it allowed me to find a connection to my culture that I didn’t have up until that point, a connection that was still based in the framework of the music I love most, R&B, funk, soul.
――It depends on the artist, but in general, Japanese City Pop was influenced by soul, disco, AOR, and fusion from the US. From your viewpoint, what makes City Pop so interesting and what attracted you to the sound?
XL Middleton: There’s a few levels to it, I think. People out this way grow up with a certain sense of wonder when it comes to Japan, subtly realizing that it must be a very different culture from ours. When you boil it down to its simplest, City Pop is the Japanese take on western music, influenced also by Japanese traditional music, so in terms of chord progressions or arrangements, they may take a song somewhere very different from where a US artist might have gone with it. So there’s a sense of familiarity and simultaneously a sense of something unfamiliar.
――As a modern funk artist from the West Coast, do you find a similar aesthetic with City Pop grooves and West Coast funk? How are they similar/different?
XL Middleton: There’s some similarities for sure. If you think about the laid back, Sunday BBQ feel that a lot of G-Funk has, you can also find that feeling in City Pop, especially the breezy AOR type stuff. The ‘light mellow’ subset of City Pop. They’re both equally good vibes to soundtrack a palm-lined sunset. And of course when you get into the more uptempo, boogie funk side of City Pop, well it goes without saying that 80’s funk has always been the sound of the west coast.
――Please tell us about some of your favorite and influential City Pop records and artists, and why they are important to you? What was the first City Pop record that grabbed your attention?
XL Middleton: There’s so many to choose from and I’m sure I’d give you different answers if you asked me on a different day. But obviously Tatsuro Yamashita’s “For You” is high on my list, as well as Toshiki Kadomatsu’s “After 5 Clash.” Junko Ohashi’s “Point Zero” album also made a big impact on me, as well as “Magical” which is technically a compilation but really feels like an album because it’s just so good and so cohesive.
The first City Pop song I ever caught on to was Tatsuro’s “Dancer.” It was on one of those bootleg rare groove compilations that you would get down on Melrose back in the days. One of my DJ homies had picked this comp up and that was one of the songs that blew my mind. It was incredible. It sounded like something that would’ve been sampled on Jay-Z’s “Reasonable Doubt.” This was right around 2000 or so. I didn’t really have any other portals to learn about City Pop until the internet really became a thing. But thanks to the internet I’ve been able to connect with people who have shared their knowledge with me. I much prefer talking and sharing knowledge with other people over regurgitating album credits that you read on Discogs. People like DJ Notoya who have shared so many sleeper tracks and albums with me, and outside of Japan there’s folks like Famous Lee, Walla P, and Amadeo85 who have put me on to a bunch of Japanese heat. I started a City Pop party in LA called Tokyo Love Song with my homies Kaistar & Tremaine. We were just getting it started right before the pandemic hit so it couldn’t grow the way we wanted it to but we’re bringing it back on Twitch now. Kaistar and I are constantly sharing different albums and tracks with each other like, “yo, you got this one?”
――For fans of City Pop, please recommend some G-Funk and modern funk they might enjoy. And vice versa, for fans of G-Funk and modern funk, what is some City Pop they might enjoy?
XL Middleton: When it comes to G-Funk, I think most fans of City Pop could appreciate Warren G’s “I Want It All” album. It’s so full of beautiful chords on top of funk bass. DJ Quik’s “Rhythmalism” has such a heavy jazz fusion element to it, it’s almost like hearing rapping on top of some T-Square or Casiopea tracks. You can say the same about most of his albums but especially that one.
In terms of modern funk? You’ll surely want to check out both Psychic Mirrors albums. On their latest one, “Ophilia,” there’s a track called “Gables By The Sea” that really has a strong City Pop appeal to it. Definitely listen to everything from Shiro Schwarz, they’re a modern funk/synth wave duo from Mexico City.
Of course I’m a big fan of Saucy Lady, she’s a Japanese-American artist who sings in both English & Japanese. She’s really in tune with City Pop music too and it definitely informs the music that she creates. She’s got a great cover of Minako Yoshida’s “Town.” You’ll also want to check my homie Kazzey, he’s a French modern funk artist and he incorporates a lot of Japan-inspired, retrowave type imagery into his artwork and does a lot of collaborations with Japanese vocalists. Speaking of French modern funksters, I’ve also gotta mention Mofak & Dabeull.
If G-Funk and modern funk are your thing, then you’ll want to sift through Tatsuro Yamashita & Toshiki Kadomatsu’s catalogs. The stuff that Kadomatsu produced for the group Jadoes is really brilliant. Listen to Rie Murakami’s “TNT” for an uptempo boogie slapper, and then check out Myx’s “Take It From Me” to hear some J-funk that’s a little on the slower side. Oh, definitely listen to Toshinobu Kubota’s “Shake It Paradise” album too.
Being a record store owner and the importance of digging for music from the past
――Your a producer, rapper, vocalist, and you also run the MoFunk Records label as well as own the Salt Box Records store. What is the concept behind Salt Box Records and what are you conscious of with the selection of the records at the store? Looking at your Instagram, it looks like you sell a lot of records from Japan.
When I started Salt Box Records, I wanted it to have its own identity apart from my MoFunk Records label. I wanted it to be a place that you can go and dig for records no matter what style of music you’re into. It doesn’t just have to be funk or City Pop or whatever. But of course, I have my specialties so the shop is naturally going to lean in those directions. I’m lucky to have some people on the ground in Japan pulling records for me and shipping them out here so I can continue to supply City Pop fans in the states with the music.
――As an artist and record store owner, what are your thoughts regarding the importance of listening to music from the past along with newer records, and researching the roots of all types of music, regardless of whether it is City Pop or other genres?
XL Middleton: I think it’s so critical. Listening deeply to music and understanding some of the history behind it just gives you more context that can allow you to enjoy the music even more. If you’re a producer yourself, it can add so much depth to the music that you’re creating. I feel like I wouldn’t be able to produce the music that I do if I wasn’t also spending so much time hunting down records from other artists. It doesn’t matter if the music is in physical form or if you’re just getting lost in YouTube rabbit holes or whatever. All of it is good for your ‘musical IQ.’
Collaborations with Japanese artists and future plans
――You recently remixed the “Metro” track by Schuwa Schuwa, but what was your concept in working on this song?
XL Middleton: I heard that Schuwa Schuwa are big fans of Prince so I wanted to give them something that had that “Purple” feel. I deliberately used the Linn Drum just like Prince did and just tried to add the right amount of funk to compliment their sound, which I think is rooted in R&B/soul & electronic music.
――Who are some other Japanese artists you have collaborated with?
XL Middleton: I’ve done some things with some of the rappers out there, I’ve produced for Multiplier Sync & done features with DS455. DJ PMX from DS455 has done a few remixes for tracks of mine too. I was working closely with a Japanese hip hop label called G-House back in the day. I’ve worked a lot over the years with 2Tight Music, they’re a label and a chain of record stores which is fun because I can always talk with the owner about digging up rare music and that whole side of things.
――Who are some other Japanese artists that you think are interesting right now?
XL Middleton: Top of my list would be Milk Talk. I recently did a remix for their song “Transistor Lover” but well before I had ever connected with them, I heard their song “Ah Be Rue” and I was instantly hooked. I’ve just recently been getting into this group Philosophy No Dance who I think has a great modern interpretation of the City Pop sound. Of course there’s T-Groove who is always producing some great disco and funk inspired stuff. I like Maliya a lot. I drop her song “7 Signs” a lot in my DJ mixes. Hitomitoi is really great too.
――Please let us know about your upcoming plans for releases and any other projects we should know about.
XL Middleton: My next release will be my first ever beat tape, and then I’ll be putting out my next proper album, “Tap Water II.” I’m calling it that because the first “Tap Water” really established how I was formatting things as far as the modern funk sound. Since then I’ve done a lot of different stuff but this album is gonna be me getting back to that straight ahead boogie vibe. Slaps for the streets and the dance floor, things like that. I’ve got a compilation in the works with Soul Clap where we’re aiming to bring together the worlds of house and modern funk. Those two sounds really go hand in hand if you ask me. They’re like close cousins.
――Please write a message for your fans in Japan.
XL Middleton: I will forever be grateful to everyone in Japan who has been rocking with my music ever since I started putting it out there in the 2000’s. Your kind words and support of my music have truly inspired me to keep making it. I’m looking forward to coming back to Japan in the future, so I’ll see you all soon!