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Friday, Aug. 22, 2008

Champion 'turntablist' Kentaro gets mixed up


Special to The Japan Times

It's been a busy few years since DJ Kentaro won the 2002 DMC World DJ Championship and became the first Japanese to bring back the prize — a golden pair of Technics record decks (the turntable of choice in clubs around the world) — to the land where they were made.

News photo
One of his turns: Kentaro takes some time out from being a superstar DJ.

Soon snapped up by Coldcut's Ninja Tune label, Kentaro, when not lugging his record bag across the globe, has turned out a number of albums for the label, including his "On the Wheels of Solid Steel" DJ mix, released in 2005 and comprised exclusively of Ninja Tune material. His first original album of his own material, 2007's "Enter," saw him collaborating with, among others, hip-hop giants The Pharcyde and Japanese acts Little Tempo and Hifana. In addition, he also remixed various songs for pop giant Ayumi Hamasaki.

The Japan Times caught up with Kentaro on the eve of the release of his latest project, a DJ mix for the British-based reggae reissue label Pressure Sounds.

Kentaro is not a DJ in the sense of seamlessly blending tracks together into a dancefloor-friendly stream of grooves. Rather, he is a "turntablist" and does pretty much the opposite — mashing, clashing and scratching records together into a wild and unpredictable explosion of beats, sounds and surprises.

Turntablism isn't really music for dancing, but sound collage as performance — making something new out of snippets of the familiar and the unusual and, as anyone who has seen Kentaro perform live will attest, doing it with precision timing and flair. Although coming out of the hip-hop tradition, turntablism's penchant for abstraction, experimentation and collage links it in some ways to musique concrete, the avant-garde practices of John Cage et al, and the studio science of dub. Scratching records is just one part of it, although a big part.

"The scratch sound can only really come from records," says Kentaro. "It's perhaps a strange way of expressing it but it's like outer space. You can go back in time, go forward in time. You can hear sounds you've never heard before, sounds you can't get from any (other) instrument. The turntable really is an instrument I think."

"Ruff Cuts" largely eschews vocal songs in favor of the raw riddims of tracks by the likes of Dennis Brown, Prince Far-I, the Upsetter (in fact, Lee Perry), King Tubby and Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare in their Revolutionaries guise. Dub is a music about space — the space between sounds, the space between beats — and excessive scratching and sound effects could easily ruin this effect. But this is something Kentaro was particularly aware of.

"I didn't want to scratch too much on this mix," he says. "As there is no vocal in dub, there is room for lots of scratching in there, but I wanted the listener to hear the dub."

Instead, Kentaro employs other techniques to spice up the mix, including quickly running through tracks, often mixing each one in and out within just a minute or two ("Ruff Cuts" features 28 tracks in roughly one hour). He also throws in some beat juggling (using two copies of the same track to play the rhythm against itself), repeating intros or key phrases and sometimes speeding up records in order to heighten the tension while keeping the rhythms, and the fun, flowing.

"I was happy for him to work in that area of deconstruction, rather than stringing lots of songs together," says Pete Holdsworth, who founded Pressure Sounds in 1994 (originally as a sublabel of U.K. dub label On-U Sound).

"I thought it would be interesting to have someone young and new to approach the records," continues Holdsworth.

There are also some guest vocal appearances in the mix, with snippets of spoken words from the late Prince Far-I, Jamaica's prophet of peace and Rasta belief; veteran reggae singer Jimmy Riley; and, representing another Japanese champion, Cojie from Mighty Crown — the Japanese soundsystem that won, in Brooklyn in 1999, the World Clash (a battle between international reggae soundsystems). Cojie bigs up Kentaro with traditional reggae-style bravado, a convention often taken to extreme lengths on Jamaican soundsystems.

"I am glad it wasn't just covered in jingles, putting loads of shouting all over it," says Holdsworth. "It's more minimal. It's something people could go back to and listen to again and again."

Pressure Sounds will hold a "Tuff Cuts" release party in Tokyo in September, when Kentaro (playing an exclusive "Ruff Cuts" set), Holdsworth and Cojie will DJ alongside a special guest, deejay/MC originator U-Roy, who will play with a Japanese band for the first time — Dry and Heavy.

Meanwhile, I ask Kentaro if his experience mixing dub tracks for "Ruff Cuts" may have fed back into his approach to turntablism and DJing.

"Yes, definitely," he replies. "Dub uses the mixing desk, and DJs use the mixer. It's the same kind of thing; manipulating sound with the faders. I want to re-study turntablism. I want to go to a faraway place, with just a box of records, make a little studio and just play. That way, I'd like to find something new with turntablism."

"Tuff Cuts" is out now. Pressure Sounds Presents "Tuff Cuts" takes place on Sept. 5 at Liquidroom and Liquid Loft, Ebisu, Tokyo (9 p.m.; ¥5,000 plus one ¥500 drink in advance, ¥5,500 plus one ¥500 drink at the door). www.pressure.co.uk

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