|BIG IN JAPAN
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record companies with their outdated ways of categorizing music into "idol, rock,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.