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first album, Shake it in Paradise (1986), caused a bit of a quandary for radio stations and record companies with their outdated ways of categorizing music into "idol, rock, group sounds and enka."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

349: Toshinobu Kubota
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