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BIG IN JAPAN
Toshinobu Kubota


Toshinobu Kubota

There was a time in Japan when soul, funk and R&B music was American and mainly the domain of smoky little six-seat counter bars in Shimokitazawa and Golden Gai. Japan had, until the mid ' produced very few soul singers and fewer funk groups. Those who tried never quite broke into the mainstream and were seen as novelty act for hotel banquet halls and second rank clubs. Today you only have to look in any youth center, club or record store to see that Japanese R&B is now an eclectic mix of influences from American rap, hip hop, '70s funk and '60s Motown and Eurohouse. The dynamic change in J-Pop's direction owes a great deal to the first Japanese man of soul, Toshi Kubota.

When Kubota first came to Tokyo he knew exactly what he wanted to do: Be a soul singer. But the agency that signed him and his management had trouble finding him a place in the market as the media had absolutely no idea what to do with a soul singer. His first album, Shake it in Paradise (1986), caused a bit of a quandary for radio stations and record companies with their outdated ways of categorizing music into "idol, rock, group sounds and enka." However the album sold a million copies, making Kubota the first self-proclaimed soul/R&B singer to make it into the major leagues.

His progress was slow but radio play, club play and his fan base began to grow attracting some big name commercial sponsors as well. His next three albums also sold over one million copies each, but artistically it wasn't enough for Kubota. In the years following his successful debut, he sought to challenge himself as an artist writing for other acts, taking part in the production of his own music and eventually Kubota's search for the funk would lead him to New York City. Having gone as far as he could artistically in Japan, he wanted to work with musicians, engineers and producers who were actually a part of the R&B scene. He was not the first artist to make the crossing, but he is the first to stay. Many have tried but within a year or two they return to the safe, familiar professional territory of Japan.

Not Kubota, in 1993 he made the move permanent and has been commuting back and forth ever since. This cross-pollination has certainly had a profound impact on J-Pop and the R&B scene in Japan. His later releases began to show a maturity and growth that would have been denied him had he simply remained in Japan. Unlike other artists who are content to draw from secondhand sources Kubota is drinking at the wellspring and living his dream-working with the likes of Angie Stone, Raphael Saadiq and Soulshock and Carlin. In particular Kubota was lucky enough to meet the man who inspired his whole career, the grandaddy of the entire funk scene, George Clinton. Kubota credits Clinton's music with teaching him everything about funk back when he was boy going to junior high and working part-time at his parents vegetable stand in Shizuoka. Yet it wasn't until 1995 and his multi-million selling hit "La La La Love Song," a duet with Naomi Campbell, and his first all-English album Sunshine Moonlight that Kubota would have his redemption.

Kubota has now racked up some 11 albums, including his latest, As One, four mini-albums, nine videos and 25 singles including "Poly-rhythm," Fuji TV's theme song for the Sydney Olympics. In spite of his New York residence for the past five years he also still manages to do a weekly late night radio show for Tokyo FM Sundays 10pm to 10:55pm entitled "Planet Flava." His singles frequently picked for TV drama opening/closing credit songs, TV commercials (you know that sausage parties are just the rage in New York lofts now don't you?) and feature films (he wrote the theme for last summer's hit comedy Messenger).

While it may be a bit of a stretch to claim that Kubota single-handedly pioneered the Japanese R&B boom, it would certainly be true to say that more than any artist in the movement, he has given it funk and respectability. And Kubota may just be the first Asian soul singer to break into the exclusive club of the US R&B charts. After all, if the creator of the "groovatational pull theory" can't do it, maybe nobody can. His album Nothing But Your Love, on release in the US too, may just be the vehicle to bring Kubota recognition in the land whose music first inspired him.

Jordanna Potter

BIG IN JAPAN:
349: Toshinobu Kubota
First Japanese man of soul
348: Midori Ito
Ice skater
347: Tomohiro Hoshino
Paralyzed artist and poet
346: Tetsuko Kuroyanagi
UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador
344: Norika Fujiwara
The Japanese "It Girl"
343: Ikebana
Flowers kept alive
342: Hirotada Ototake
Author of "No One's Perfect"
341: Korean food
Hot and popular in Japan
340: Tsuyoshi Kunasagi
Pointy-faced SMAP member
339: Koji Ishizaka
Heavyweight veteran actor
338: Kokichi Mikimoto
Founder of Mikimoto Pearls
337: Warren Cromartie
The "Messiah" of the Yomiuri Giants
335: Bonsai
Japan's dwarfed trees in a pot
334: Salaryman Kintaro
New icon in Japanese pop culture
333: Nagare Hagiwara
Rugged Japanese actor
332: Noboru Takeshita
Kuromaku politician
331: Ihara Saikaku
Radical 17th century writer
330: Ikkokudo
Okinawan ventriloquist
329: Takashi Murakami
The centerpiece of artist
328: Hideki Togi
The Imperial Palace Gagaku Orchestra
327: Konoshiki
Japan's most feared and most successful wrestler
326: Tarepanda
The floppy panda of Japan
325: Suziki Ichiro
Orix Blue Wave right fielder
324: Jakucho Setouchi
Nun re-writes "The Tale of Genji"
323: Otohime
Helping women's bathroom etiquette
322: Dragon Ash
Hip-hop revolutionists
321: Kimiko Date
Tennis player
320: Kan Fukuhara
Flautist
319: Godzilla
Mutant dinosaur movie star
318: Thee Michelle Gun Elephant
Popular punk band
317: Ken Kutaragi
CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment
316: Masahiro Motoki
High-rising entertainer
315: Katada Kikuyu
Japan's premier female taiko player
314: Keizo Obuchi
Prime Minister
313: Booska
The big, orange bucktooth monster
312: Shizuyo Sato
Japanese martial arts master
311: Yujiro Ishihara
Actor, singer and Japanese icon
310: Saburo Kitajima
Japanese enka singer
309: Kaya Yamada
Japan's hippie god
308: L'Arc en Ciel
Japanese pop band
307: Shintaro Ishihara
Governor and author
306: Morita Akio
Sony co-founder
305: Miyazaki Hayao
Film producer
304: Sailor Moon
Girl's comic
303: Hachiko
Shibuya's loyal dog
302: Hayashi Chie
Japanese dancer
300: Kobayashi Sachiko
Enka singer

Issues 350 +
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