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Thursday, June 28, 2012
DJ Kentaro set to scratch a new itch
By MARK JARNES
Special to The Japan Times
Only a handful of artists can say they've reached the top of their trade, but Kentaro Okamoto is one of them. As DJ Kentaro, his record-scratching skills got him noticed by beat heads worldwide back in 2002, when he won the DMC World DJ Final in London. But, now this DJ wants an image change.
"You know, it's been 10 years (since the DMC event) and I'm pretty much over the hype that came with winning. It's in the past," he tells The Japan Times. "Besides, being No. 1 didn't make me any more of a someone." Modest words for a man who gets the kind of recognition abroad that many of his peers here only dream about.
Okamoto, 30, also established himself as a producer with seminal first album, "Enter," his released in 2007 on the Ninja Tune imprint. His second full-length, "Contrast" (out yesterday on Beat Records/Ninja Tune), continues to demonstrate his talent as a beatmaker.
"Dig in," Okamoto grins as he gestures to a small mountain of snacks and energy drinks laid out on a table at his office in Tokyo's fashionable Nakameguro district. "Today is all-you-can-eat."
With a hectic summer and fall schedule looming, it's no wonder he has stockpiled the energy drinks. After playing Tokyo club ageHa and Osaka's Joule this weekend, he'll head off on a six-nation tour of Europe before coming back for a set at the Fuji Rock Festival on July 27.
Things have always moved fast for Okamoto, though. After achieving a perfect score at the DMC competition and walking away with the top prize of two gold Technics turntables and a mixer to match, his star kept on rising. However, he didn't always have his mind focused on being a producer — or being a turntablist. Already the proud owner of some turntables, he got his first taste of the dance-music scene in high school when he and some friends went to a club for the first time.
"In the beginning, it wasn't so much about the scratching or techniques at all," Okamoto says. "I just saw how fired up everyone got with the music playing and when the songs changed. Along with the drinking and the dancing, I thought it was so cool. That's when I decided I wanted to become a club DJ."
He began to organize hirupa, Japanese slang for "day parties."
"We printed and cut out 1,000 tickets and distributed them among the neighboring high schools," Okamoto says. "We got around 800 high school students alone to come to the first one. It was hilarious, by the end my school backpack had ¥2 million in ¥1,000 notes inside! It was puffed out like this big," he beams as he holds his arms out far in front of him.
It was only when he saw a DMC video for the first time that Okamoto became interested in the looping and scratching skills he is so well-known for today.
"Until then, I was using an MD MTR (mutlitrack recorder that records to the mini-disc format) to layer tracks," Okamoto says about his first forays into beat production. "It only had two channels, so I had to record, then bounce, and repeat again with different layers. First I would put down the scratching, then the bass line and the melody line. It was really a monotonous process. But then I got an MPC (drum machine and sampler) at the DMC championships." And the rest is history.
His latest album, "Contrast," is more suited to the club scene than "Enter." Mind-numbing sine waves are layered over Okamoto's signature beats, which are hard-hitting and cleanly produced, catering more to dancefloor tastes. "Contrast" also incorporates a heavy dose of bass music, influenced by the trendy dubstep and grime scenes, with appearances from popular producers Matrix & Futurebound and U.K. grime group Foreign Beggars, as well as Japan's own DJ Krush. When asked whether he thinks bass music had any sway on his production choices, he responds, "With this album, more than anything, I wanted to make dance music. I'm not sure about the term 'bass music' to describe music. I mean, there's no 'high music' is there? I don't really have a clue about a lot of the new genres coming up these days, like brostep and stuff."
Fans of Okamoto's scratching skills won't be disappointed however, as the album is generously peppered with his trademark skipping and stabbing of drum beats and samples, exemplified in the track "Crossfader." The tune highlights his own skills, as well as showcases the talents of D-Styles and fellow Ninja Tune DJ/producer Kid Koala in a three-way turntablist exposition.
DJ Kentaro may have built his career on his deft maneuvering of vinyl, but he hopes his production prowess will define him as a fully matured artist from now on.
"My future gigs will be sort of 'live-DJ sets,' a combination of other people's music and my own," he says. "I'll always be a music fan, and what I want to do is make beats, but since my forte is DJing, I'll be able to play them out too."
"Contrast" is in stores now. DJ Kentaro plays Basscamp 2012 at ageHa in Tokyo on June 30 (doors open at 10 p.m.; ¥3,300 in advance); and Joule in Osaka on July 1 (doors open at 5 p.m.; ¥3,000;  6214-1223). For more information, visit www.djkentaro.jp.