In junior high, when Kentaro Okamoto first encountered DJing on a televised DJ battle, he could never have suspected that he would end up winning the 2002 DMC World Final Championship for his talent on the turntables, or spinning alongside hip-hop royalty like The Roots and Pharcyde.
But that’s what happened, and now he can add to a growing list of his hip-hop accomplishments a new contract with the U.K.’s Ninja Tune and Japan’s Beat Records labels. The new partnership will be celebrated tonight at Zen TV II, a huge bash in eastern Tokyo’s mega club Ageha, with a performance alongside new label mates Coldcut, Hexstatic and others.
DJ Kentaro, age 24, is hard to define. A self-proclaimed crossover DJ with obvious technical deftness, his mixing style crosses from hip-hop, jazz, jungle, downtempo, breakbeat to dancehall, dub and drum ‘n’ bass.
His 2005 album, “DJ Kentaro on the Wheels of Solid Steel,” is a smooth concoction of cool underground hip-hop sounds, and is not so overloaded with self-indulgent, scratching exhibitionism that it feels like your CD player has come down with Tourette’s Syndrome.
The CD only gives you half a taste of Kentaro’s skills on the decks, though. Anyone who has seen him live once is probably a fan — his heavily cut-up mixing is turntablist genius, and his stage presence, and dexterity as a scratcher, is undeniable.
Kentaro’s rise started soon after watching that first televised DJ battle, and was phenomenally rapid. A number of tournaments function as the World Cup of mixing and turntablism skills, and many DJs focus their entire careers on trying to win them. After entering his first at age 16, Kentaro quickly placed well in a succession of them, before what he considers his biggest success, taking home two gold turntables at the 2002 DMC World Finals with the first perfect score in the competition’s history.
Despite these accomplishments, there are still many beat junkies who may not know who DJ Kentaro is — he simply lacks the international name-recognition of other Japanese DJs such as Towa Tei, Satoshi Tomie or DJ Krush. This should change with his signing with Ninja Tune and Beat Records.
“I was always a fan of Ninja Tune and used Ninja tracks in my mix tapes. Maybe one of the Ninja Tune staff came and saw my show on my first U.K. tour when I was spinning. One day I got an offer out of the blue to do a CD for them, and I thought, ‘What?!’ And straight away agreed. Then last month I went on a bus tour to Switzerland and France with Coldcut. ” he said in an interview last Friday with The Japan Times.
Ninja Tune represents a sound some consider leftfield, but it isn’t so abstract as to be inaccessible. This has made it one of the larger labels of the underground hip-hop scene. Their artists run the gamut from instrumental, jazz, abstract hip-hop, broken beat to downtempo, and have been hugely influential on both hip-hop and electronica musicians, as well as multimedia artists.
The label’s name became almost a genre in itself, synonymous with experimental, “intelligent” electronic music. Many of their musicians are purveyors of an essentially postmodern music typified by sonic collages — cut ‘n’ paste compositions that use computer-generated music, sampling and the reappropriation and recycling of sounds in often ironic or unintended ways. Such a style puts them halfway between hip-hop artists and IDM (intelligent dance music) artists such as Aphex Twin and Boards of Canada.
Kentaro thinks that hip-hop is ripe for musical explorations across genres, especially in Japan.
“I hope there will be a chance for each of the genres to crossover, like at the festivals where there are hip-hop, house, techno and drum ‘n’ bass artists, so you can see artists that you don’t regularly see, and get stimulation and inspiration. . . . As a genre, hip-hop has roots as sampling music — it’s anything goes.”
Similarly, he looks for inspiration from the countries he’s toured.
“On my 2002 DMC tour, I was really conscious of my ‘Japanese-ness,’ and felt some kind of pride. But now I’m not that concerned with it. Whether you are from England or America, we are individuals . . . but I do still have the desire to represent Japan as a country.”
The gig at Ageha is a rare live performance, given he currently is hard at work producing a new CD.
“I want to put my own album out, make my own records, and juggle ‘n’ scratch those live. This will enable me to do raw remixes and live shows — this is the kind of style I’m looking at now.”
Other than that he’s hoping to tour America and collaborate with artists such as Chicago rapper Common and French director Michel Gondry. And, apparently, to live like Japanese woodblock artist Hokusai.
“I’m really inspired by Hokusai — not only his art, but the way he lived. He lived till 90, surpassing the average life span of a person in that era, and as he got older, instead of becoming more calm, he became more lively and vibrant.”
Given his indefatigable energy on stage, it’s likely that he will keep up this tireless pace like his mentor. And whether or not you are a huge hip-hop fan, DJ Kentaro’s fervent mixing style is nothing short of brilliant, and well worth witnessing.