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by Don Crispy

Ko Kimura

With turntables trumping guitars and Japanese DJs winning international contests, there's no lack of turntablists in Japan. But when high school kid Ko Kimura was making trips from rural Gifu Prefecture to play Tokyo clubs back in the mid-'80s, he was one of a few pioneers.

"At the time I started to play house, most people thought it was cheesy because house superficially sounds the same as Eurobeat," says Kimura over coffee in Aoyama. "It was difficult to explain that house is a kind of soul music."

Kimura, whose career dates back through the fabled Gold of the early '90s to seminal clubs like Picasso, says that a 1987 trip to New York awakened him to the power of house. "It was then I realized that house is a hardcore kind of dance music. First I went to Nell's, but then I thought this is not what I wanted: too yuppie. So I went to the gay clubs after asking around at record shops. Then I realized that this is what I was looking for, but it was a bit scary as it was all men. I was probably the only straight or Asian guy there."

With the explosion of dance culture in the early '90s, Kimura became a fixture at places like Gold and Yellow, where he has held his Kool parties on the last Saturday of the month for seven years now. But Kimura says the spread of club culture has taken some of the fun out of his job. "Back then, DJs played all kinds of music: I used to spin rare groove, house, R&B, all in one set," he recalls. "But now DJs specialize by genre."

Kimura also notes the impact of the bursting of the bubble economy on Japan's club scene. "In the last few years it's become difficult to get sponsorship," he says. "Only a few guys can survive by organizing parties; most do it as a hobby. Now in Japan it's really tough. Even if someone has talent, they can't succeed without connections."

To put himself in a better negotiating position, Kimura founded the management company Futique ten years ago. The company is one of the leading players on the Japanese club scene, and recently hosted UK superstar DJ John Digweed, whose Bedrock label Kimura represents in Japan. "Pioneer, which owns the Bedrock catalog, asked me to put together a Japan edition for the series," he says. "Even though I'm influenced mainly by US house and Digweed is known for more trance-y stuff, recently he plays deeper stuff, so our sets worked well together."

As one of Japan's most respected DJs, Kimura gets plenty of fresh vinyl sent to him, but the DJ still hits Shibuya shops like Cisco for new material. "Most of what the record labels send me is garbage," he scoffs, lamenting the lack of good new vocal tracks. "If they have a nice track, they don't need to promote it. It sells itself."

Meanwhile, Kimura says he's still got plenty of DJing left in him. "Last week I went to the last big gay party at Liquid Room before it closed. As I listened to classic house tracks, it brought back great memories from the past. I really noticed how a DJ can make people happy. I thought if I can continue to make people happy then I want to DJ as long as I can."

Kool@Yellow, 1/31, 10pm, ¥3,000. Tel: 03-3746-2368.

En@Air, 2/12, 10pm, ¥1,000. Tel: 03-5784-3386.

credit: Futique