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By Dan Grunebaum

Towa Tei

The whiz kid behind ’90s house icons Deee-lite is back with his first solo disc in six years

Photos Courtesy of V2 Records Japan

Many, especially those who came of age in the ’00s, may never have heard of Towa Tei. But they’ve probably heard his music: No less than five of the ten songs on Tei’s new album Flash (V2) have tie-ins with TV commercials.

The frothy single “Sometime Samurai,”
featuring Australian pop minx Kylie Minogue, is being used in an ad celebrating the 80th anniversary of mayonnaise maker Kewpie. Other songs on the album provide the soundtracks for spots by air-conditioning giant Daikin, camera maker Olympus, cell-phone provider AU, and car maker Mitsubishi.
While these sorts of commercial tie-ins are typical of the music industry, the preference for Tei’s unapologetically bubbly pop among Japanese advertisers underscores the success he’s had in transforming himself from New York house producer to Japanese music industry icon.

Tei first shot to fame as the prototypically geeky Asian sampling wunderkind behind Deee-lite, a trio that put a pop face on the house music currents bubbling up out of the New York clubbing underground. If nothing else, the group will be forever remembered for the unbridled, booty-shaking pleasures of the track “Groove Is in the Heart.”

Flash is out on V2 records

But when Deee-lite inevitably split, Tei relocated back to his native Tokyo (he is, in fact, of Korean ancestry) to pursue his own muse. The result was a string of eclectic releases, including Future Listening! (’95), Sound Museum (’98) and Last Century Modern (‘99), that contained occasional reminders of Deee-lite’s dance-pop, but also experimented with breakbeats and ambient textures.

In comparison to his previous albums, Flash is perhaps the most kindred in spirit to Deee-lite. “Sometime Samurai” is about as kitschy as they come, with the lithesome Minogue burbling over a four-to-the-floor house beat and elastic, sampled sitars, while “Melody” featuring Byron Stingily is an emotive hard-house workout. As is customary, Tei also collaborates with a who’s who of Japanese pop talent, from Ryuichi Sakamoto to Buffalo Daughter on, oddly, a cover of ’80s hit “My Sharona.”

In contrast to the deliciously disposable pop fluff of Flash, Tei has also cultivated a career in Japan as a club DJ, where his style recalls the more muscular approach of the New York DJs that influenced him early on. “When I used to go to nightclubs in New York, the DJs would give me goose bumps,” Tei told Metropolis. “I try to be rambo [rough], not carefully finished. I might make a mistake, but then I just change the record.”

Published concurrently with Flash is Look (Rittor Music), a book that documents Tei’s record jackets, event flyers, artwork and photographs by a man who has also taken a great interest in his own visual presentation over the decade and a half of his career.

The Flash tour launches Apr 1 at Ageha and returns to Ebisu Liquid Room on June 12. www.towatei.com


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