Japan's party scene: Exclusive interview with DJ Tony Booya

by Dave on Sep 19 2014 |

I bet you don't know too much about the DJ scene in Japan... OK maybe I'm projecting a bit. I didn't know a whole lot, which is why I'm excited to share this interview. Tony and I connected a few months ago via email regarding a video I posted of a street musician I stumbled upon in Kyoto last year. I quickly found out he was a DJ in Japan under the pseudonym Tony Booya for the DJ group Volcanic Gang. My own curiosity got the best of me and I really wanted to know what the DJ scene was like in Japan compared to the rest of the world. Cue my barrage of questions - enjoy!

JapanYay: Tell us a bit about yourself - where did you grow up and how'd you end up in Japan as a DJ?

Tony Booya: The east coast of the United States is my home. I spent most of my youth in and around Atlanta and Florida, but my family moved a lot and lived in a few other places including Japan and Bali, Indonesia. Now I'm back in Japan once again.

I didn't think I'd ever get back into it in a foreign country after having DJ-ed for over 15 years in the States, but a unique set of circumstances offered someone like me such an opportunity back in 2008. A friend of mine was working for a bilingual FM radio station here and told me that they were looking for some new fresh leg, so I sent them a demo. I stayed with them till last year, and now I'm a resident DJ at a local hangout spot.

JapanYay: DJ'ing in Japan - how does it compare to the U.S. and Europe's scene?

Tony Booya: That's a tough one to answer in a simple sentence. All true skills and artistic expressions should translate regardless of where you are, theoretically speaking, so it shouldn't really matter… But I’d be lying if I said, “it’s all the same.”

Overall, the crowd participation is much better in the U.S. and Europe just because the audience has much broader knowledge of contemporary music, and the venues tend to give out much more reasonable compensations. Not that Japan doesn't, but you have to deal with a lot more peripheral matters like seniority, politeness, sometimes bar tending and even cleaning. (Yes! Some places expect the DJs to be just like any other part-timers.) It all depends on the owner of the club.

There are more stages and opportunities for newcomers to shine overseas than within Japan. Seniority trumps everything here – I personally believe this is one of the main issues hindering the advancement of young musical talents in this country.

Japan is also faced with another issue right now - the authorities. The police are cracking down on any and all sorts of "dance clubs” throughout the country. In their defense, I completely agree that the current Japanese club culture brings more harm than good to the community. Some people just don't know how to have fun and not ruin it for others. It happens in the US and Europe, but it’s worse here in the mainstream Japanese club scenes. But it’s just my opinion. I would like to change that somehow though.

The world is smaller today, and it all depends on how much you can dig deep out here in Japan, too. That niche you are looking for is most-definitely out there in some corners of Kanto area somewhere, and that niche is often way more pure than what you typically find in the U.S. People tend to be in it for the culture, not for the money or any other factor. They love each other, they care about each other, and they hold tons of events for themselves. It's just that it's very hard to find them for the most part.

JapanYay: Roppongi is Japan's hottest night club scene and has a reputation with foreigners for being the place to be if you're into clubbing. Any experiences you'd like to share about the music scene or DJ'ing in this infamous district? Any misconceptions you'd like to shoot down?

Tony Booya: I was recently involved with a pretty sizable Latin event there. It turned out to be one of the most respected salsa/Latin dance competitions in Asia. It is no coincidence that they hold this annual event in the heart of Tokyo – Roppongi, specifically - where lots of international cultures come together. The area tends to draw a lot of diversity and money that you can find the best of any genre of music in and around this area all throughout the year. You name it – from internationally oriented nightclubs to some geeky, unheard-of, obscure subcultures, you can find an event for it there.

I guess, that’s the only misconception I’d say there is about Roppongi… that it’s not for everyone. I’d say it is as long as you know where to look. Another example is a club called “Maharaja.” Japan had its own dance/disco culture back in the 80’s, and this place still plays popular tracks from this era. You would not meet a westerner here. It’s predominantly the Japanese natives in the 30’s and 40’s getting lost in the music of Japan’s classic Eurobeat.

No matter where you go, you have to keep your ears open and embrace it. I’d say that’s the key to enjoying it especially in Roppongi. Visit lots of places and make some connections, have some curiosity and venture out; then you’d be surprised to find what’s out there for you.

JapanYay: "Gangnam Style" shot KPOP into headlines across the United States and other countries. Do you think Japan's music/hip hop scene would benefit from a viral hit like this?

Tony Booya: I’m fascinated with this question because I can see how it would boost the Japanese music scene; however, the essence of it has always been that it is primarily for the Japanese public and that it is often too mysterious for the people of the world to understand/get a clear grasp of what’s going on. Take “Kyary Pamyu Pamyu.” Could you say she’s gone pop/viral on the worldwide scale? I’d say yes and no because of its bizarre nature.

I think that’s what makes anything of Japanese art form its own kind – it’s so hard for the rest of the world to relate, but a typical 12 year-old girl from Japan totally gets it.

Because of this, the Japanese entertainment culture has sustained itself for so long without the help of the outside market. I think that for something to go viral on the global scale, it’d almost have to be a deliberate effort, just like it was for Gangnam Style. At that point, what would it have to offer artistically to the core fan base in the domestic market? I’m not sure it’d have that kind of significance to them.

I personally think that it’d be better for it to remain as it is and let the market come to them, instead of spreading themselves too thin trying to take it to the world market. I believe those who are drawn to Japanese music will come whether or not the rest of the world understands it, and THAT right there to me is the beauty of anything “Japanese.”

Follow Tony and the Volcanic Gang on SoundCloud!