Always Punk and New Wave: Kan Takagi Reveals the Reality of Tokyo Pop Culture

Kan Takagi has been a leading figure in Japanese culture from the 1980s to the present, as can be seen from examples of his unit Tiny Punks with Hiroshi Fujiwara, the establishment of Japan’s first club music label MAJOR FORCE, and his creative practice as a solo artist. The event he hosted in March at Liquid Room to commemorate his 60th birthday is still fresh in our minds. This interview delivers a valuable testimony of a witness to the dawn of Tokyo pop culture, a time when all kinds of music crossed over, who continues to evolve today.

Is bringing back what I witnessed in NY to Tokyo innocently the right thing to do? Shouldn’t I be more honest and do what I want to do?

–I found your book Tokyo in the Flesh very interesting because it contains so many things that I didn’t know.

Kan Takagi: Thank you very much. This book was initially intended to be a collection of conversations with guests who came to my radio program TOKYO M.A.A.D SPIN on J-WAVE. But if I was going to publish a book, I thought I would tell my own story as well. On the radio program, I always take the role of the listener. So I included a brief autobiography in the first half of the book.

–I was thinking about the relationship between art and business after reading this book. At the same time, I saw the news that Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe had been sold for $25 billion at Sotheby’s auction. Hiroshi Fujiwara once told me, “Basquiat used to paint graffiti on the wall of his apartment in Roppongi. The building has been demolished, but if it had remained, it would probably be worth a great deal now.” Art is an act of pure and free expression, but now a price is put on it. As a creator, you want to be pure, but it’s always good to have more money. That is the dilemma I felt.

Takagi: I heard that Basquiat came to Japan to follow his then girlfriend who was a fashion model. At that time, foreign models were living in the same apartment room in turn. I heard that he drew a lot of graffiti on the refrigerator as well as on the walls of the room. I am sure they are already gone. If there were, they would have been sold for high prices. At the time, the people involved must have been like, “He defaced the place with graffiti” (laughs).

— In your book, Jun Takahashi (designer of Undercover) says, “In apparel, the pace of selling products is based on the frequency of catwalk show, and the term is fixed, so if you don’t follow that pace, you can’t do business” (p. 127). At the same time, however, he also said, “It is also impossible <to present something> unless it is related to something I am interested in, something I want to express, something I was influenced by, or something I really want to do” (p. 127).

Takagi: I always feel that kind of discomfort. For example, I don’t have many memories of the 1990s. I think it is probably because music had become my “job.” It was fine to do the work I was asked to do, but rap music comes from within you, and the important element is the lyrics. The record company once asked me to write a love song, and I worked hard to write it by the deadline. I ended up writing an anti-love song, but I put a lot of “I love you” phrases in it. Now I can make a joke about it, but at the time it was a dilemma. I even had two dancers dancing next to me on TV, but one day I suddenly asked myself, “Is this what I really want to do?” I was touring with Scha Dara Parr from 1992 to 1993, but when I started to feel obliged to do it, I asked myself, “Is this the right thing to do?”

— You have had those periods of suffering, too, haven’t you? That’s because you genuinely love music, right?

Takagi: Yes, that’s right. Eventually, in 1994 or so, I thought, “It’s not right for me to be doing hip-hop.” It all started when I went to New York with Scha Dara Parr to see a big party organized by the Rock Steady Crew. There were a lot of b-boys on stage breakdancing, and I was watching them intently, and I thought to myself, “Maybe, I’m going to bring this back to Japan and do a Tokyo version of it. “Until then, I thought of myself as a hip-hop guy. I thought I was part of hip-hop community. But I thought to myself, “Is bringing back what I witnessed in NY to Tokyo innocently the right thing to do? Shouldn’t I be more honest and do what I want to do?”

–In contemporary terms, maybe you were like, “That’s not real!”

Takagi: Maybe so (laughs). In the latter period of Tiny Punks, I was so into hip-hop that Hiroshi thought, Kan-chan is too into hip-hop.” At the time, the axis of my thinking was based on hip-hop. But when I got to the core of it, I realized that hip-hop music is supposed to be funky, and I began to feel constrained by that format. People who can perform within the hip-hop format are amazing. But I saw hip-hop as an extension of the new wave, a new rock trend. I also saw Lamp Eye at a club in Tokyo around the same time. Lino Latina II was so cool that I decided to express myself in a more personal way.

–Then, you got into Boredoms, which is completely different musically.

Takagi: They were just so cool. Especially before the Boredoms sound became more trance-like, around 1993-94. I thought it was like Japanese techno-pop band Plastics. I was so shocked when I saw them for the first time that I immediately called Hajime Tachibana (one of the members of Plastics) right away (laughs). At that time, rock music was beginning to be mixed with hip-hop. Public Enemy made songs with Anthrax. I was influenced by that free atmosphere surrounding the scene. Also, around the same time, something that belongs to what is called scum culture started to emerge. I could relate to Beck’s rough, lo-fi feel. Then the Beastie Boys also moved in that direction. I gave form to that feeling in my own way with the album “Art Man,” released in 1997. But it seemed I was regarded to be a hip-hop person in the scene, so that album was received with astonishment.  

–When you were into Boredoms and lo-fi, the world was in the midst of a “Urahara boom.”

Takagi: To be honest, I had no idea what was going on. I knew Hiroshi Fujiwara’s Good Enough, but I didn’t really know who was involved in NIGO’s A Bathing Ape. So I even asked Shin-chan (Sk8ightTing), “Why does Planet of the Apes so popular now?” (laughs). Since he is not the type of person who says much about something on his own, he just replied with a blank tone “I wonder why”. But I later found out that Shin-chan was doing the graphics for A Bathing Ape, so I was like, “You should have told me!”

–That’s surprising (laughs).

Takagi: It was actually like that. Takishin (Shinsuke Takizawa) invited me to make some T-shirts under the brand name Aftermath, but I didn’t go that way, partly because YANN (TOMITA) told me that it was not cool to wear two hats. Also, at that time, the record company paid me a huge amount of money to produce an album. We made the album in London as a matter of course. I also went to New York and Bali with the production money. That was how it worked at the time. When I worked as a producer for a rap group called Dassen Trio, which belonged to Yoshimoto Kogyo, I said, “Let’s record it at Grand Royal’s (Beastie Boys’ label) G-SON Studios in LA,” and they immediately agreed. In this way, I was able to make a living only through music, so I  initially looked at the Urahara movement as an act of just wearing the clothes that everyone else had made. At that time, I could get a good salary just for doing one remix. I also turned down Hiroshi’s offer. Looking back, I wish I had done it (laughs). The economic sense in the music industry was completely different from now.

In those days, people in the new wave scene were going from coffee shops to discos, such as the one called Climax in Roppongi. Hiroshi must have gone there too. We hadn’t met at that time.

At that time, people who were into new wave were also going to discos

–In 1993, you produced Kyoko Koizumi’s 女性上位ばんざい (Josei Joi Banzai; Cheers To Women On Top).

Takagi: I wanted to produce her. So I suggested a Yoko Ono cover.

–There was no such thing as feminism in Japan in 1993. So I think it was quite amazing that you had Kyoko Koizumi, who was then a top female idol, sing this song.

Takagi: Thank you (laughs). I only suggested it because I thought it was interesting. There was a picture of John Lennon and Yoko Ono wearing helmets like the left-wing student groups of the 1960s. I wanted to make a music video with that kind of visual, but they didn’t go through with it. I’ve always loved the New Wave, and Kyoko Koizumi’s Josei joi banzai is an extension of that.

–In your book, you have mentioned many times that the New Wave was a very important experience for you, and the Plastics seemed to be particularly special. How did you feel when you saw it for the first time?

Takagi: I saw Plastics for the first time in 1978. It was a live concert at a curry shop called “Waltz” on Meiji-dori Avenue. Toshi-chan (Toshio Nakanishi) and Chika-chan (Chika Sato) were famous figures in Harajuku. Toshi-chan was walking around in a punk outfit with his hair erect. He was very conspicuous. But that was the first time I saw their live performance. They were all dressed in white and used a rhythm box. It was really cool. Hajime-san told me quite recently that it was Devo’s influence that led to that style (laughs). Hajime saw Devo’s live in 1977 in LA, and he shifted the music he had been making to rhythm box-based music. I didn’t know that at the time.

–When I talk directly to Hiroshi-san and you, I often find out new facts that have not been reported in the media until now (laughs). For example, Hiroshi-san was said to have imported DJ mixing techniques from overseas, but in fact, when he was in his hometown, he learned DJ mixing techniques on his own by listening to “A Night At Studio 54,” a compilation of nonstop mixes by Studio 54.

Takagi:His precociousness was astonishing. He said he originally bought the Sugar Hill Gang records to surprise his older sister who loved R&B band Chic.

–You met Hiroshi at “Tsubaki House,” right?

Takagi: Yes. As I often say, there was a guy who looked exactly like Annabella (Lwin) from Bow Wow Wow. Hiroshi stood out because of his exotic face. I was also wearing Seditionaries, so Hiroshi was also looking at me a lot (laughs). In the 1980s, there were almost no one dressed in punk outfits. It was already old-fashioned. But I loved Johnny Rotten from the Sex Pistols era. So no matter what kind of music I was playing, I always tried to incorporate the element of Johnny Rotten into my fashion. I would wear a Seditionaries T-shirt under my hawaian shirt and say, “I’m like Johnny Rotten when he visits Jamaica.”

— But you started listening to hip-hop in 1982, right?

Takagi: Hiroshi did, but I started later. I was listening to Malcolm McLaren’s albums, but as a Johnny Rotten follower, Malcolm was his enemy, so I didn’t wear World’s End because I didn’t want to affirm him totally (laughs).

— It is true that Johnny Rotten and Malcolm did not get along well with each other.

Takagi: Yes, that’s right. My Johnny Rotten fever cooled off when P.I.L. (Public Image Limited) came to Japan for the first time. It was really uncool. In retrospect, it was not that bad, but at that time, I was disillusioned. What disappointed me was that they sang “Anarchy in the UK.” (When Johnny Rotten left the Sex Pistols,) he said he wouldn’t sing it anymore. Also, the band was lame. And there was no Keith Levene.

–Another thing that struck me in your book was the story about the biker gangs listening to Philly Soul. That reminded me of something Hiroshi Fujiwara once said: “the discos in Kabukicho were terrifying.”

Takagi: At that time, the word “yankee (Japanese word roughly translated as gangsta)” did not exist yet, and people called them “tsuppari.” People like that were listening to the Stylistics and the like. I also used to go to discos in Kabukicho. In my opinion, “Tsubaki House” was too classy. Maybe because I was underage (laughs). The first time I listened to music at full blast was at a rock cafe called “Rolling Stone” in Shinjuku. My friend took me there when I was in my first year of high school.

–Was that a normal way to hang out for a high school student at the time?

Takagi: Not normal at all (laughs). At the high school I went to, Bunka Gakuin, there were a lot of students who were held back, and it was common to see 18-year-olds in the first year of high school. So older people took me to rock cafes and discos.

–So you met punk at a rock cafe?

Takagi: I first learned about punk from magazines. After that, I heard it on the radio program of Kensho Onuki. I loved it and listened to it every Saturday without fail.

–What made you go to Tsubaki House?

Takagi: There was a new wave cafe called Nylon 100% in Shibuya. Shingo Kubota of 8 1/2 and others were there. We became friends while going there, and we started going to Tsubaki House together. The majority of the students at my high school were into surf culture, and they mainly went to the discos in Roppongi. So they had different tastes. So I was able to meet people who shared my taste at Nylon 100%. It was a very important place for me. Also, at that time, people who were into new wave were also going to discos. There was a disco called “Climax” in Roppongi. Hiroshi must have gone there too. I had not met him at that point.

–It is interesting to have unexpected encounters in a place like this, isn’t it?

Yuka Honda happened to pop up at the interview location

Takagi: Thank you for earlier. Yuka-san.

–Yuka Honda, former member of Cibo Matto?

Takagi: Yes. She was a guest on my radio show just now.

–I’m a big fan of you. Your song “King Of Silence” released in 1999 is a timeless classic for me, so I’m a little upset right now (laughs).

Takagi: This is literally what you meant by unexpected encounters. This kind of thing is always interesting. I heard that when one of my acquittances was talking to a young girl recently, she said that for her nightclubs nowadays are mainly about hitting on girls. That young girls is into culture, so she told him, “I wish clubs could be a place where new movements are born.” And he said, “No, it’s always been that kind of place!”

–I think the values of the world are changing now. In the past, it was rather lame to make money. But that was probably because Japan was still an affluent country. Nowadays, the gap between the rich and the poor is widening. I think the younger generation, which has no memories of the affluent Japan, can naturally relate to the values of hip-hop.

Takagi: Oh, I heard that story from Hiroshi. He said that punk is a movement of middle-class kids trying to get out of society, and hip-hop is a movement of the poorer, lower class as a tool to get into society.

–Young kids who are in the majority seem to think that the comments section is more important than the YouTube video itsef. They look for opinions that are the same as their own. The values are completely different from those of our time. As for new wave and alternative, it was important to do something different. Of course, there are probably kids who still have that sense, but I think they are in the minority.

Takagi: Seriously? That’s a surprise. But you know, I think minority kids are rather disseminating information on YouTube. Recently, I am getting into a channel in which young kids give an explanation of the US rap scene. According to that channel, a bunch of kids who were in New York drill rap scene were arrested  (laughs).

— Oh, that’s Shama Station, isn’t it? I always look forward to watching it too.

Takagi: It’s really interesting, isn’t it? I think it is essentially the same as what Hiroshi and I were doing for the magazine. The spirit is to disseminate what you think is interesting. It’s just that the medium has changed from magazines and radio to YouTube. It was NIGO’s album I Know NIGO that triggered my interest in that sort of channel first. Various people participated in that album, right? But I didn’t know any recent rappers, so I started watching their music videos on YouTube. Then I thought, say Pusha T was really cool. And Pop Smoke was cool too. That’s how I came across the commentary videos.

Shama Station

“You can dote on yourself. It’s important that you like what you make.”

— I think you are so open to interesting things. Generally speaking, as you get older, you are less involved with younger kids, you become unable to relate to their sensibilities, and you are stuck in the values of your youth. When something new comes out, older people tend to dismiss it out of hand, saying, “This is just an imitation of that.”

Takagi: Of course I have that feeling. But Pusha T is exceptionally amazing, isn’t he? I also tend to make a comparison with something else. It’s like when I saw the Boredoms and thought they were like the Plastics. Or I thought Machine Gun Kelly’s punk songs are like the ones of Green Day, which are lame, but Playboy Carti is cool. I also like the decadent lyrics of Lou Reed and David Bowie, and I feel that vibe in recent US rappers. I imagine, “If Lou Reed were still alive, he would play music like this.” In the past, there was no hip-hop with such abstract lyrics in the US.

–What was it about hip-hop that appealed to you at the time?

Takagi: I’ve said this in many places, but when I heard Hiroshi playing “Planet Rock” by Africa Bambaata and P.I.L. together. That freedom. Also, hip-hop people usually praise other rappers, don’t they? With punk sense of values, that wasn’t possible. You can’t imagine Johnny Rotten praising The Clash or The Damned (laughs). Then there are the breakbeats. It’s the idea of using two records and playing the coolest part of the drums endlessly.

–I was personally most impressed by the episode in Kan’s book about when ∈Y∋ DJ’d.

Takagi: He looped the intro of Deep Purple’s “High Way Star” and added effects to develop it as a track. ∈Y∋-chan was just saying, “You simply want to listen to the intro all the way through, don’t you (laughs)” (p. 428).

–Yes. I thought it was a breakbeat-like idea, minimal music, and above all, a statement that summed up the coolness of the Boredoms I saw in the 1990s.

Takagi: He did it in a trance party, I think. I didn’t like trance at all, but everyone around me loved it. Even Bravo Komatsu was wearing what were called Goa Pants (laughs).

— Really? I don’t think anyone knows about Goa Pants nowadays, but Goa Trance originated in Goa, India, was very popular at the time, and people of both sexes were wearing flare leggings with psychedelic patterns (laughs).

Takagi: People who were not into hip-hop and people who liked punk music all got into trance in the 1990s. The trance club that I was taken to by ∈Y∋-chan was in Kansai. It was full of muscled men of naked tops, in Goa Pants. It was like a metal disco. The band called ONE that ∈Y∋-chan was playing in at the time was also really cool and I loved it. His inspiration was always interesting. He is still cool as an artist. When we first talked, I still didn’t like Harsh Noise at all, and I asked ∈Y∋-chan, “What do you think is good about Harsh Noise? ” And he said, “The dead silence after the tune was over” At that moment, I thought he was amazing. He changed my way of thinking. ∈Y∋-chan is such a person. Hiroshi is the same. He makes you change your values. The things done with normal values can embody stylistic beauty, which is fine. But I like something different. I mentioned Basquiat earlier, but now I think Chim↑Pom is cool. They had an exhibition at the Mori Art Museum. They turn trash into art, don’t they? What they are doing is something similar to graffiti back then.

–I am sure there are minorities who are doing that kind of practice now. There should be people who are not appreciated at all and have no money, but actually are wonderful. I think it’s hard for such people to stay pure in this age of information overload. I would like you to convey a message to such people.

Takagi: I think there is the idea of knowing a framework and then breaking it, but I think it’s fine to start with a broken framework. Even Chim↑Pom was not able to do many things from the beginning, but their ideas were amazing. If there is a moment when you think you’ve done something, you should be able to evaluate it for yourself. You can dote on yourself. It’s important that you like what you make.

–I think it’s also connected to what I was saying earlier about the YouTube comment section, but it seems that self-affirmation is very difficult for young people today.

Takagi: Ah, I see. But, you know, I think it’s good to appreciate oneself. There is no need to worry about other people’s evaluation, much less price tags attached by capitalism. My guests on the radio are people who can do that. I’m not just reminiscing about the past, I’m talking about what I want to leave behind for the present and the future. I still like what I liked in the past, but I am not bound by it. I want to keep updating and always feel the sparkle of real time. I want everyone to know this kind of feeling.

Kan Takagi
Kan Takagi is a musician, DJ, and producer who made his debuted in 1979 as vocalist for the punk band FLESH. After forming Tokyo Bravo in 1981, he formed the hip-hop unit Tiny Punks with Hiroshi Fujiwara in 1986. In 1988, he launched dance music record label MAJOR FORCE with Toshio Nakanishi, Gota Yashiki, K.U.D.O. and Hiroshi Fujiwara. In 2018, the label celebrated its 30th anniversary and restarted it in earnest. He is a Tuesday personality on the radio program TOKYO M.A.A.D SPIN (J-WAVE). In March of this year, he published TOKYO IN THE FLESH, an aanthology of his autobiography and interviews from the radio program.

Edit Jun Ashizawa(TOKION)


Keita Miyazaki

A music writer. Born in 1977, in Kanagawa-prefecture. He became a freelance writer from December, 2015. He is fond of Alternative dance music, movies, manga, anime, drama, and animals. He mainly contributes to FNMNL, Natalie, Asahi Shimbun Digital (Kousho-Koujitsu, &M) and otherwise. He was in charge of structural editing for the autobiographies of rappers D.O and Wanyudo. He currently writes for Rapper-tachi no Dokusho Method (Rappers' Reading Methods), which is a series of articles where rappers introduce their favorite books.Twitter:djsexy2000