Iconic Japanese techno DJ Ken Ishii once graced the cover of Newsweek. On the jacket of his most recent album, he’s pictured encased in a fearsome suit of samurai armor. Turns out the new, battle-hardened look is more than metaphorical.
“In Madrid I was robbed by a group of teenagers,” Ishii recalls dryly in a recent interview at a cafe in Roppongi Hills. “They attacked me from behind and held me by the throat. I passed out for a few minutes, and when I came to, I’d lost my voice and was bleeding from my throat because they’d gripped me so hard.”
Such is the life of one of the few Japanese DJs who can earn their crust on the international touring circuit. As he celebrates 15 years since debuting on legendary Belgian techno label R & S Records, Ishii spends as much time abroad as he does at home.
“I’ve never done a residency in Japan,” he admits. “Japanese people give me the best reaction, but I love traveling and meeting new peoples and cultures.” While it was Ishii’s squelchy, Detroit-techno-inspired 1995 album "Jelly Tones" that brought him worldwide recognition, it’s his skill behind the decks that keeps him in demand as a DJ.
“I play for many kinds of people — some are musically educated, some are in new territories, some are in commercial clubs,” he says. “When I debuted, I wasn’t a good DJ. Technically, I was OK, but I didn’t watch the crowd. But now I’m confident that I can play to anyone anywhere, and make any kind of crowd dance.”
The shift from touring as a way to promote a big release to doing it as an end in itself can be seen in the trajectory of all dance music producers. “My activities have been getting more basic and primitive,” notes Ishii. “Partly it’s because nobody buys CDs anymore. At the same time, I have more confidence as a DJ. So DJing and traveling are the main part of my activities now. Of course, I still make music and do releases, but the pace has slowed.”
It’s been nearly three years since Ishii’s last album of original productions, and his current disc arrives in the form of the second in his "Play, Pause and Play" mix compilation series. “Each one has a different concept,” he says. “This one is a collection of my DJ classics. Basically anybody can download some DJ’s set at a club, so I didn’t want to make the usual mix album. These tracks are still in my record box but some of them go back to 1993. It’s kind of like a collection of my secret weapons.”
Contributions come from producers like Fix and Devious, but surprisingly, none are household techno names. “I get a lot of promos — nonstop — from major labels, minor labels, and also through MySpace,” Ishii says. “I play music by Japanese, Chinese, American producers… I don’t care where they come from. With the internet, anyone can get involved, so now I play music by producers from anywhere from Romania to Indonesia.”
While Ishii’s fans will have to wait a bit longer for a new full-length album, the DJ continues to create new music at his home studio in Shinagawa. His latest project is an application for the Apple iPhone. “What I did is called Play-Pix,” he explains. “The user can make a moving photo album set to my music, and then they can upload a movie to YouTube. It’s going to be released in a month or two.”
Those wanting to interact more closely with the DJ can also take part in his ongoing collaborative remix contest through Sound & Recordings magazine and his dedicated 15th anniversary MySpace site. Participants use parts from Ishii’s tracks and remix them into any genre of music they please. The contest runs through Aug 31, and the winner gets a chance to release the track worldwide through Ishii’s 70 Drums label.
This story originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).© Japan Today