The Tokyo underground music scene of the late ’70s and early ’80s evidenced a national psyche in flux. As the second generation of Japanese baby boomers passed through their teens, this notoriously insular nation was dramatically impacted by the punk explosion in London, as well as the bourgeoning New York hip hop movement. Another important element came with the offbeat cadences of Jamaican reggae, which reached Japan largely filtered through the 2 Tone and ska revival scenes of the British Midlands.
These diverse styles greatly appealed to Japanese youth that were searching for a sound to claim their own, during a time when the nation’s sustained economic growth and creative innovations saw Japanese fashion houses and architectural firms make an impact on the world stage. There were many significant acts to emerge from the whirlpool of challenging sounds in Tokyo’s musical cauldron; Mute Beat was certainly one of the most influential, and easily the most enigmatic too.
Widely touted as a distant forerunner to the acid jazz and trip hop scenes, Mute Beat was probably the first group in the world to have their own dub mixer as a permanent band member. Drawing from dub reggae, punk, and electronic, with a subconscious underpinning of Japanese traditional music melded to a jazz-combo format and the aesthetics of a brass marching band, Mute Beat fashioned something as-yet unheard, something beyond genre.
The group’s genesis came out of a number of interconnected acts from the Tokyo underground of the late '70s and early '80s. Plastics was perhaps the first. Centered on the singing/shouting team of Toshio Nakanishi and Chica Sato (then husband and wife), Plastics drew on punk, glam, and New York No Wave, but never allowed their influences to get the better of them.
“Plastics formed in 1976, very influenced by Bowie, the Velvets, Roxy Music, and the Pistols,” says Nakanishi. “Our guitarist Hajime was in the same boat and on the Trans-Siberian Express to London with Bowie in ’78 – just a coincidence. Bowie and Iggy Pop advised us, ‘Do not imitate us. Write your own music.’” The group heeded that advice and their debut single “Copy”/“Robot” was picked up by Rough Trade in England.
The problem of needing to retain enough of a unique musical identity that proclaimed Japanese-ness, but also acknowledge the advances made by artists from the West, was a throughline in the bands that led to the formation of Mute Beat.
It was the same for The Spoil, another Tokyo underground act. Inspired by punk, new wave, and 2 Tone, the group’s driving instrumentals were led by the wild alto saxophone lines of founder Tadamasa Yokoyama. The lineup was often in flux, but at some point, Yokoyama’s sax fed off the spiraling, funk-influenced bass patterns of Takano Matsumoto; in its later incarnation, trumpeter Kazufumi Kodama and trombonist Hoshi Hiroaki gave the group a fuller, more rounded sound.
The Spoil lasted a few years, but never really achieved a major breakthrough, though they did record a couple of tracks for the first two Snakeman Show albums, released by the creators of a satirical radio program. (Snakeman Show also featured on the original Japanese edition of Yellow Magic Orchestra’s X Multiplies LP, breaking up the music with comedic vignettes.)1
As the Spoil stagnated, Matsumoto formed Rude Flower as a side project, fronted by a singer and guitarist called Mori and a percussionist that aimed for a Latin feel; Hoshi Hiroaki and Kazufumi Kodama later formed the horn section. The final piece in Rude Flower’s puzzle was drummer Gota Yashiki, recruited through an ad Mastumoto placed in a monthly music magazine.
Like most of the other members, Yashiki was not originally from Tokyo. “I’m born in Ayabe, north of Kyoto city,” he explains. “It takes about one and a half hours to get there from Kyoto, as you have to go over two mountains, so I’m really a country boy.” Yashiki says his father introduced him to Japanese traditional drumming from a young age. “In Japan, most villages have their own style of drumming, and at the end of the summer we have a big harvest festival. Our village has one big drum that two people can play, maybe two meters high; one guy plays the basic rhythm pattern, and the other guy expresses whatever he feels, like a solo player. I remember I was around six years old, and my dad took me, and I played there every year after that.”
Western rock and jazz, which his father also exposed him to, made a very strong impression as well. “When I was 12 or 13, he bought me the Beatles’ Let It Be, and I thought, ‘Wow, this rock music is very expressive.’ I think Ringo Starr’s drumming sounds very similar to the Japanese taiko drums; it has the same kind of architecture. So I just really got into that. Also, my father was listening to jazz a lot; he liked Art Blakey, and Art Blakey’s drumming is kind of like our festival drumming. I used to like A Night In Tunisia Live At Birdland, and my father got the poster, where Art Blakey had his mouth open; he put it in my room, so I was looking at it every day. Before, he was playing a Gretsch drum kit, but then he started playing a Pearl drum kit, which is Japanese. I felt some similarity between the festival drumming and what he was playing on the Pearl, so I thought, ‘Mmm, maybe I can do something like that.’ So when I was 12, I got me a Pearl drum kit – the very cheapest one.”
Yashiki describes Rude Flower as “between Latin and reggae, more like The Specials or something like that,” with Fania All Stars being a main role model on the Latin side, along with shades of The Clash. The group played at hip venues like Red Shoes and Tubaki House, drawing a positive response. They soon settled into a residency at Crocodile, a basement dive in Harajuku run by a notorious figure called Gunsan, but within a year, a schism forced another split in the group, resulting in the formation of Mute Beat.
As Yashiki explains, “When Kodama joined, it kind of changed things, because the percussionist and the guitarist were more into Latin, and me and Kodama and Matsumoto were more into reggae and dub music. Matsumoto told me about the first EP of UB40, and the sound was really new for us, because it’s not only like Jamaican dub music, they play a sophisticated British style. Me, Matsumoto and Kodama really liked it, and also Jamaican dub music, like King Tubby.”
“I took reggae as the music of music,” Kodama told me when I first interviewed him through a translator in 1998. “Discovering the instrumentals and dubs of reggae is just like discovering the horizon which I have been looking for but never found yet.” Kodama comes from Fukui Prefecture, which lies to the northeast of Kyoto. Like Yashiki, he has a background in marching band music, though he was a bit older than the other members, and had a foundation in fine arts too.
When Rude Flower split, Mute Beat just sort of happened. “It’s like we said, 'We’re not really doing Rude Flower anymore, so maybe we should form a band,'” says Yashiki. “It started off with just the three of us – trumpeter, drum, and bass – going to a studio called Abo to experiment, to get something that we were looking for, searching for the style of music that we can do. We didn’t want to get a saxophone or guitar, like in UB40. We thought, that is just enough to do a bassline and a good melody, and good rhythm was there, so we thought it was going to be complete.”
“I was influenced by music and culture from so many different parts of the world,” adds Kodama, “but the music of Mute Beat is something that didn’t exist anywhere except inside my mind, where there was a melody. For me, jazz is not a musical genre, it’s more like freedom. And then I progress to a much freer music format: dub.”
“We said, 'We are not Jamaican, African or English,” adds Yashiki, “so let’s do something only Japanese can do.”
At this time, Yashiki continued to play in other bands, most notably Melon – the group Toshio Nakanishi and Chica Sato formed after Plastics had run its course. Yashiki’s association with the group helped bring the evolving Mute Beat into a whole new orbit, since Melon was one of the house bands at Pithecanthropus Erectus, the club jointly run by Snakeman Show co-founder Moichi Kuwahara, Toshikazu Ishihara, and Nakanishi. The club opened in March 1982. “We were playing at Crocodile and Toshi and Chica came back from New York and saw us,” continues Yashiki. “At that time, Melon was always playing at Pithecanthropus Erectus, like three to four times a week. The place was amazing, because sometimes you go there and David Bowie was there, Bryan Ferry, Keith Haring, Basquiat. And the music was always stuff I never heard before – hip hop music had just started to be big, so we were very into it.”
“Pithecan was the base station to connect to the club scene of the whole world,” says Moichi Kuwahara. “I think Mute Beat is like a signal flare. Before, all Japanese music was confined to one sub-division; all regular members of Pithecan were the same as Mute Beat, crossing genres.”
Yashiki’s dual membership in Melon and Mute Beat led to Melon’s keyboardist Mitsuwa Sakamoto also becoming part of the other group. “Mitsuwa was interested in reggae, I think The Specials and UB40 was a bit like her style, so she saw Mute Beat as a new style of Japanese reggae, or a new Japanese kind of music,” Yashiki explains. “She had a really good sense of playing that kind of style, very simple. She never over-played, and we really liked that. And that is the first real Mute Beat. The three of us were good, but didn’t quite work properly. When Mitsuwa joined, Hoshi (the trombone player from The Spoil and Rude Flower) came into Mute Beat as well. In a way, it’s like a modern jazz-combo style: piano, bass, drums, trombone, and trumpet.”
Meanwhile, the group’s lineup was in flux. Within six months, Hiroaki Hoki dropped out and was replaced by Akihito Masui, brought in by Takano Matsumoto; as with the others, Masui had a marching band background, which gave him a good foundation to a be a harmonic foil for Kodama’s melodies. “Kodama made 70-80% of our music, and I made all of the harmony parts because he only brought a melody line into the studio,” Masui explains. “I was always focused on how much I could enrich the expression or emotional changes by adding one simple trombone phrase to the simple melody line... Classical music, especially JS Bach and Baroque or Renaissance music affected me when I was a child.”
Their time at Picanthropus Erectus also brought Mute Beat arguably their most distinctive member, Sapporo-born dub mixer Izumi Miyazaki, better known as Dub Master X. “Mixing first interested me when I was in high school,” DMX explains by email. “I wanted to go to a school for sound engineering, but after I came to Tokyo, I did not study that much; I was always goofing around with friends, there were too many temptations around for a guy like me from the countryside. My friend told me about a new nightclub, Pithecanthropus Erectus, where they were looking for mixing engineers. When I first saw Mute Beat, I thought, is that like a UB40 copy band? But I understood shortly after that I was wrong.”
“They didn’t have an engineer of their own at the beginning,” continues DMX. “I was a rookie engineer, but I asked the chief engineer to be Mute Beat’s engineer, and luckily the chief engineer said yes. First I was only doing ‘operations’ (i.e. a standard mix), then I thought, 'They are doing dub by themselves, so if I helped to do the dub, maybe they can concentrate more on what they are playing.'”
I like Trevor Horn and Steve Lipson, and I’m very influenced by ZTT Records productions, as landscapes made by effects are very influential to ZTT’s product.
Although dub mixing has distinctly Jamaican origins, DMX is keen to point out that he drew greater inspiration from the dub-influenced music coming from the UK. “It was 1983, and I was not so into dub music then. Of course, it is a very interesting music form, so I listened to so many records then, but I couldn’t get into roots reggae and roots dub, because only Jamaicans can do that. However hard we try here, I didn’t think it was possible to make roots reggae and dub like Jamaicans. Mad Professor is the only dub mixer I am really influenced by. I love Steven Stanley’s dub arrangements, but also I like Trevor Horn and Steve Lipson, and I’m very influenced by ZTT Records productions, as landscapes made by effects are very influential to ZTT’s product.” The overall point, though, was not to copy anyone else. “Our leader, Mr. Kodama, used to say, ‘Let’s shave off unnecessary sound, to make tough and strong music.’ Everybody else also had the same opinion. We wanted to be a live dub band, and nobody else can copy us in the world.”
Improvisation was a constant element that helped them achieve this goal, especially when playing live – when members would spontaneously stop playing, DMX would apply dub effects to their instruments. As Kodama explains, “Improvisation is freedom, a thrill, and a flash of inspiration. We didn’t make any rules for playing a song, and dub was the most effective style for this music. So Dub Master X was using effects and equipment, and he gave us a thrilling effect.”
In late 1983, as Mute Beat continued making an impact on the live scene, a 10-inch single, “Butterfly”/“Still Echo,” was issued in extremely limited number on Pithecan Records, the short-lived record label that spun off from the club. Recorded at Phenomenon studio in September 1983, both tracks featured guitarist Yoshikazu Matsudome, who would not record with the group again. “Butterfly,” unusually, was an upbeat vocal duet between Yashiki and pioneering reggae rapper Nahki, who was probably the first Japanese artist to attempt the art of toasting; the sparse “Still Echo” would be re-recorded by the group on more than one occasion.
Then, Matsumoto was replaced by Takayoshi Matsunaga, a more versatile instrumentalist that could also tackle acoustic standup bass. “I’ve never seen other bass players playing like him,” says Yashiki of Matsunaga. “It’s more solid, powerful. He knows many styles, but he really likes reggae, funk, and Argentinian tango music. I learned lots of things from him.” Both Matsunaga and Masui helped the band explore the jazz dimension, even if reggae was the most striking undercurrent.
In 1984-5, more noteworthy music releases surfaced from Mute Beat, this time through TRA Project, which issued a series of cassettes, together with an arts and culture magazine. “TRA is the reverse spelling of art, and the function of it is like a new artists’ index,” says producer Kioshi Shikita, who founded TRA with photographer Izima Kaoru and graphic designer Mic Itaya. “We really wanted to change the whole culture scene in Tokyo, because most things were quite boring and very old style. In fashion, music, or any other cultural scene, we really tried to do things which never happened before.”
In 1984, Mute Beat’s driving song “Shonen Tiger,” an audio counterpart to Soji Yamakawa’s graphic tale of a “tiger boy” from the 1930s, appeared on the cassette that accompanied TRA Project’s Comics Special, a hefty bilingual package, issued in a wooden cigar box, which featured music and art by The Residents, along with various Japanese practitioners. The track gave a sense of Mute Beat’s instrumental power, its plaintive trumpet introduction soon giving way to a galloping rhythm. Unlike much of their subsequent material, these chord changes and percussion sounded distinctly Japanese – no doubt because of the subject matter of the artwork it accompanied.
In April 1985, TRA issued an entire Mute Beat cassette album, Mute Beat TRA Special, again housed in a cigar box, the cassette wrapped in silver foil like a chocolate bar “to maximize the pleasure,” according to Shikita, who says he thinks around 2-3,000 copies were pressed. “TRA Special took quite a long time to make,” recalls Yashiki. “Because it was not a big budget, we recorded it in LDK studio, which Haruomi Hosono, one of the members of YMO, opened. I remember those first few recordings were just live recordings, but I brought it back to my house and did the dub, like adding a little funny delay stuff, with Dub Master X.”
The resultant TRA Special album was a mixed bag, showing that the group was still figuring out its overall direction: the most reggae-influenced numbers were “De Jey Style,” a dubwise track with wordless scat vocals, its title referencing the art of Jamaican toasting; “Break A Road,” an abstract interpretation of Horace Andy’s “Money Money”; and “Dub No 5,” which was a dubbed-out reworking of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five.” Compare those with the funky groove of “Downtown,” which had an electro backbone, courtesy of a Roland 808, and “Fiolina,” which was a plodding piece of melancholy jazz, and you get a snapshot of everything the band stood for, though “Mixed Up,” with Yashiki’s garbled vocal, was perhaps less successful.
Mitsuwa Sakamoto was present on about half of the tracks, but left the group by the time the album was released, replaced by Hirofumi Asamoto, a synthesizer specialist and Clash fan from Hakata in the distant South. “I don’t really know why Mitsuwa left. I think she started getting bored,” suggests Yashiki. “And I don’t know if it’s for real or not, but Kodama, on stage, would be getting drunk and saying, ‘Mitsuwa, please kiss me,’ and she said, ‘You must be kidding’ – I’ve seen it a few times. But I think, with where the music style was going, Mitsuwa did not really want to go that way.”
A link with Overheat Records in 1986 put Mute Beat on more solid footing. Overheat proprietor Shizuo Ishii says he was approached by the band to manage them, after hiring Kodama and Masui for a Mighty Diamonds gig. “I really didn’t want to do band management,” he insists, “but we were friends…” Ishii was well-respected in the music business, having already released material by the Wailing Souls, Sonny Okosun, and graphic artist Gary Panter.
The group soon began recording at Tamco Studio for a series of 12-inch singles, the first releases that really showed what the band was capable of, though changes were soon afoot yet again in the line-up of the band. Yashiki had travelled to London with Melon in 1985 to record for Virgin; the band had since signed to Sony and was now preparing to return to London to record an album with Trevor Horn at Basing Street, so Kodama brought in Hideyuki Imai as a temporary replacement.
“When I first saw Echo playing trumpet on stage, I immediately became a big fan of him and Mute Beat,” says Imai, who’d been playing with Kodama in a short-lived side project called Jungle Gym. “He was very hip and unique. I was really fascinated not only by his sound and music, but also by his personality. He played me lots of great Jamaican records, most of them were dub music. One day, he said, ‘Take these records home and check them out.’ King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown, Super Ape, In The Light Dub, Man From Wareika, Seven Seals, Dance Hall Style, Macka Fat. These were the bomb! Next day, I sold all the records I had in my apartment, and started to buy dub records. That was spring ’86.”
When the first Overheat 12-inch EP surfaced in October 1987, it showed a far more 3D sound than on previous releases. The driving, ska-paced “Coffia” had an emotive horn fanfare atop a melodic bassline marked by shifting semi-tones, embellished by swirling organ chords and sprightly keyboards, with just enough echo on the breaks to remind of the reggae influence; the solos traded by Kodama and Masui heightened the tension.
If you check the official video release subsequently issued for “Coffia,” you get a sense of the various personalities that came together in Mute Beat. Matsunaga appears as a long-haired warlock, playing an acoustic standup in a trance. Kodama delivers his intense trumpet solos with an inscrutable look on his face, as the taller Masui shadows his moves on trombone, before launching into an expressive flight of fancy of his own. Asamoto is full of energy, looking like a synth pop guy gone rogue; since the drummer’s role was in flux, he is represented only by Imai’s ghostly shadow; towards the end, we see the magic hands of DMX, adding that ever-crucial echo and delay.
The second 12-inch, which followed in December, had further surprises. “Still Echo” was finally given the full stereophonic treatment the band must have envisioned when they first recorded it for Pithecan, but the version on the B-side was nothing short of a revelation, since it featured Jamaican melodica master Augustus Pablo; the song had been recorded the previous July, when Pablo was in town to perform at Japan Splash 86. “At the beginning he didn’t look too enthusiastic,” says DMX of Pablo, “but after he listened to the sound of it, he seemed to be motivated to play.” This version of the song also had a new one-drop drum part from Imai, which marked his recording debut with the band.
Soon, the band was recording its debut Overheat album, Flower. Putting the album together gave the band the chance to re-cut several songs from TRA Special (namely “Metro,” “Rhythm And Echo,” “Landscape,” and “Beat Away”). Of the new material, “Whisky Bar” had a delightful honky-tonk piano riff atop a reggae rhythm, with a bouncing bassline and some organ chords during the breaks. Perhaps the most noticeable difference on the album came in Imai’s drumming, which sounds less rock-based than Yashiki’s; Ishii suggests Imai was a great one-drop drummer, though Imai himself says punk and New Wave were his original reference points.
“I wasn’t mature enough as a drummer, but all members of the band encouraged me and I greatly appreciate that,” says Imai. “I really think that I brought nothing special to the band in the early period, in terms of providing a strong presence as a reggae drummer. First of all, I’ve never played reggae or ska until I joined Mute Beat. I always hung out with Echo and Matsunaga; we often went to the record store and they showed me what I should get. They introduced me to lots of records played by Roots Radics, which [bassist] Flabba [Holt] and [drummer] Style [Scott] always sounded formidable on. Eventually, Style Scott became one of my favorite drummers.”
After backing Jamaican keyboardist Gladdy Anderson in Tokyo on Valentine’s Day, Mute Beat played a couple of tours around Japan in support of Flower that summer. By this time, Yashiki had finally returned from recording in London with Melon. But he was avoiding the band: Travelling had opened his mind, making him anxious to leave Japan for good. “I went back to Tokyo but I was kind of lost in space,” he explains. “Recording at Portobello Road was really an experience for me. I start realizing Japan was only Japanese culture, only Japanese people doing things, and when I came to England, I thought, 'This is much bigger, in a way, because it’s multicultural. Everyone’s here: African people, Jamaican people.' I was thinking to myself, ‘What am I doing?’ So I want to quit Melon, I want to quit Mute Beat, because I want to go by myself to do something or learn something, because if I carry on like this in Tokyo, I think I’m not going to grow. I spoke with Kodama, and at that time, Mute Beat had started selling records, before it wasn't selling at all! So Kodama was a little bit upset.”
Before the next Mute Beat album surfaced, there were some other significant live events, which took place in the spring and summer of 1988. In May, they shared billing in Japan with the Roots Radics; in July, the band backed legendary Jamaican saxophonist Roland Alphonso at Club Quattro, a venue newly opened on the fifth floor of the Parco department store in Shibuya. “Three shows were scheduled, on July 15th-17th, so in the beginning of July we started to rehearse,” says Imai. “Kiyoshi Matsutakeya from the band Tomatos joined the rehearsals as a supporting guitarist; since Kiyoshi knew lots of Skatalites and Studio One music, it was a natural fit for the band.”
There was a last-minute hitch, however. Problems with Roland Alphonso’s visa application meant that the saxophonist was unable to travel until Ishii pulled some serious strings. “Roland’s visa situation was pretty serious and we couldn’t hear any development until the 15th of July,” continues Imai. “We loaded up our equipment to the venue on the morning of the first show and heard that Roland was on the plane heading to Tokyo – he finally arrived as the venue opened, so we delayed opening the venue and rehearsed for about five minutes with Roland on stage, and then the show started. It was so dramatic, because at some point, we all were doubtful about Roland coming to Tokyo; Roland walked very slowly because of his leg problem, but on the stage, he was so powerful that his solo lasted for several minutes on every song we played. It was a joyful three days.”
Before Alphonso joined the band on stage, they played a couple of numbers from the next Mute Beat album, Lover’s Rock, which was composed of eight entirely new songs, along with an instrumental cover version of Ian Dury’s “Lullaby for Francies.” “We worked on the album from scratch for the first time, in terms of all the songs being new to the band,” says Imai, “so we took a longer time to rehearse, compared to the recording of Flower. The band was extremely democratic, so each member had their own idea, and everyone listened to each other’s opinion and built up the song together, which was great. But there were some pros and cons in going through those democratic procedures. For instance, the song itself could lose the focus and lose the fundamental strength. So I learned lots of things from this experience.”
The title, Lover’s Rock, invoked the romantic ballad-driven reggae sub-genre that was spawned in Britain, yet none of these tracks fit its mold; if anything, the album had an overriding feel of sentimentality, as heard most obviously in songs such as “Old Air” and “Everyday,” though the Masui-penned “Down Train” was a typical stand-alone Mute Beat abstraction and “Kiyev No Sora” another slice of dubbed-up Kodama melancholy.
More confusing still was the front cover photograph of Three Mile Island’s nuclear power plant. “All the band members had a common thought regarding the nuclear business,” explains Imai. “We all were, and still are, against nuclear power plants and the whole nuclear industry, and of course, the usage of nuclear material for war weapons (or even war weapons itself). Since Echo was from Fukui, where most nuclear power plants stand in Japan, he knew how the community was unfairly related to the nuclear industry, and how many people got involved with corruption. When I first met Echo, he gave me a whole lot of knowledge about the absurdity of human beings fooling around with radioactive materials. And the Chernobyl disaster was still a big topic in the band, after two years. It was Echo’s idea to use a strong image of a nuclear power plant for the album cover (and it was always his ideas, regarding the album covers in general). I think it is still a powerful album jacket – especially after we experienced the Fukushima disaster in 2011.”
The next Mute Beat release was something of a departure, though one that made perfect sense: Mute Beat Dubwise, which was initiated by Ishii, featured dub remixes of the band’s material. In typical reggae style, the album was not quite as it seemed, since the front cover showed drawings of King Tubby, Lee “Scratch” Perry, and DMX, though Tubby was “represented” by his associate Ken “Fatman” Gordon, who mixed three of the tracks at Tuff Gong, and Perry added vocal accompaniment on a couple of tracks that were mixed by Lloyd “Bullwackie” Barnes at his New Jersey headquarters. Nevertheless, the results were stellar, beaming classic Mute Beat tracks such as “Beat Away,” “Still Echo,” “Down Train,” and “Summertime—Frozen Sun” fully into the dub dimension.
Imai explains why Gordon – and not Tubby himself – provided the remixes: “At the time, there was no internet and not many fax machines in Kingston, so there was no way to get any information regarding what kind of tape machine King Tubby had in his studio. DMX made a one-inch 16-track tape copy from the original 48-track digital master tape. Ishii [who was taking the tape to Jamaica] was always like, ‘Whatever it’ll be, I’ll deal with it in Kingston,’ or ‘Fuck that, I’ll fly to Kingston anyway.’ I really liked Ishii’s aggressive attitude. When they visited Tubby’s studio in Waterhouse, Tubby was building his new studio. Unfortunately Tubby didn’t have a one-inch 16-track tape machine, and he had a policy of never mixing outside of his own studio. But Tubby offered Ishii to send one of his disciples, Fatman, to Tuff Gong Studio to make a dub mix for Mute Beat. Also, Tubby allowed Ishii to use King Tubby’s credit on the record. Personally, I loved the drum sound of Fatman’s mix. It sounded like how it should be done. But the reality was that there was no Black Ark studio or King Tubby studio of the late ’70s anymore, which we all dreamed of.”
Mute Beat Dubwise explicitly showcased DMX’s skills as a dub mixer, the three tracks he was responsible for sounding entirely in sync with the rest of the material, even if DMX himself feels they were a little flawed in retrospect. “The first songs I ever mixed myself, that I was in charge of the dub mixing, were ‘Deep Drift Dub’ and ‘Per Head,’” he explains. “But thinking about it now, maybe they sound a bit stiff. If I had more patience, maybe I could have made a much tougher and more interesting dub. ‘After The Battle’ is mixed in that kind of style, because I wanted to do it more like a remix than a dub. So I slowed down the tape speed and lowered the key, then I added the piano. The Art of Noise’s song, the remix of ‘Moments in Love,’ had a similar method, and I was inspired by that.”
Mute Beat’s final studio album, March, was released in 1989, featuring an expanded line-up that included Koya Naito of the Tomatos and Kenji Kitamura of Jagatara, who had recently replaced Hirofumi Asamoto; their presence helped create a fuller sound. As usual, there was a mix of abstract jazz with a reggae backbone, as heard on “Michisrube” and “Carrilon.” “Harmony In Martinique” was straight-forward reggae, led by a cheesy synth line, and the first version of the title track paid homage to the band’s marching band roots, though its reconfiguration as “Rebel Music In The Air” morphed it into roots rock reggae. Somehow, there was even a version of “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head,” as well as a new take of “Fiolina.” The album is noteworthy as the first to benefit from DMX’s sole vision on the mixing desk.
Mute Beat toured extensively in support of March, as international curiosity peaked. Following a number of Japanese dates, the group headed to America for a series of gigs. The trip was, by all accounts, an incredible experience. As Imai explains, “Lloyd ‘Bullwackie’ Barnes helped us as a tour manager. He was a legend, and we all were big fans of him and his music. After the first show in SF, Lloyd came backstage and told us how impressive the performance was. He was smiling all night, telling us how Matsunaga looked like Family Man Barrett. Then we did a show in LA and headed to New York City. The vibes of New York really inspired me a lot: a friend of DMX named DJ Nori (now a house DJ in Tokyo), who was living in New York at the time, took us to the legendary clubs Sound Factory and the Choice. It was an amazing experience: the sound system was crazy, and the sound was incredible. I finally understood how house records should be played in the club.”
With such positive experiences resulting from their time Stateside, the future should have been bright. And yet, just as the band’s popularity was surging and interest in their music growing amongst audiences outside of Japan, there were serious problems. An appearance in Washington DC was cancelled and a UK tour totally scrapped; plans to record in Britain with Ali Campbell of UB40 were also abandoned. The cracks that had been bubbling under the surface for some time were widening, with a number of longstanding issues now seeming insurmountable.
Looking back now, I was too selfish and I regret it. But it wasn’t only me; each member had some conflict and a difference of opinion.
“March was the first time I did all the engineering myself,” says DMX. “But after Dubwise, I had a conflict with other band members – I wanted to force the other members to submit to my will. Looking back now, I was too selfish and I regret it. But it wasn’t only me; each member had some conflict and a difference of opinion.”
“Personally, I was battling with chronic wrist pain in the middle of recording March,” adds Imai. “In order to deal with the pain, I changed my playing style. But nothing worked out for me. I was really miserable. Right before the US tour, I decided to quit playing drums, and I planned to inform the band when we get back from the US that I was leaving Mute Beat. I thought it was time to move on and go toward a different direction. After the first show in Tokyo when we got back from the US tour, the band and Ishii held a meeting, and I told them that I was leaving the band. At the same time, Koya told us that he wanted to leave the band to join Super Bad, which had a more rock- and R&B-oriented sound.”
Imai and Koya Naito were apparently not the only ones thinking about jumping ship: in November 1989, bandleader Kazufumi Kodama also announced his departure. Ishii implies that Kodama was feeling emotionally fragile during this period, and there is some suggestion he was partly affected by the drastic conditions suffered by homeless people in the USA, which was something of an unexpected phenomenon for him. Alcohol may have also been a factor. But Kodama himself cites the need for unfettered musical articulation as his main motivation to leave: “I quit the band because I wanted to be alone, to have more freedom of artistic expression.”
When I ask for further details, he says finding the right replacements for departing musicians was also part of the problem. “The band breaking up was a very negative thing for the band and for myself, so there’s not that much to look into. For all reggae bands, the drum and the bass is the foundation; Gota quit, Imai came in, Matsumoto quit, Matsunaga came in, so we had a very hard time keeping the best members. We are not a rock band or a jazz band – it’s easy for them to find new members – but it’s the rhythm section of Mute Beat that creates the original sounds. So after having a hard time, then I realized I can make my music without a band, and I changed the negative situation into a positive situation.”
By early 1990, Mute Beat completely disbanded, but the story doesn’t end there. In the aftermath of the break-up, Hideyuki Imai moved to New York to collaborate with Bullwackie, travelled to Jamaica for the first time with Ishii’s brother, Sonny Ochiai, and remained in New York thereafter. Takayoshi Matsunaga was quiet for a few years, but began recording sporadically from the early ’90s. Kazufumi Kodama initially retreated from the public eye, but by 1996, he was back in action, both with his own sparse solo work and on a surprise collaborative project with Gota Yashiki called Something. “Because I left Mute Beat, I thought Kodama hated me. But since it was already ten years later at that time, we had both grown up, and we had such great fun doing the album together with Tony Gad from Aswad, Dennis Bovell, Rico Rodriguez, and Janet Kay. That was like a dream come true.”
After collaborating with Gota, Kodama went on to release albums such as Quiet Reggae for Sony, which featured Lee “Scratch” Perry, and Requiem for Speedstar, featuring Bullwackie. Matsunaga worked as a session player and issued his debut solo album, The Main Man, in 2004. Hirofumi Asamoto played in various bands and made a few excursions into deep dub, jungle, and trance in the same era.
Kodama and Gota’s mid-’90s collaboration was evidence of the enduring closeness of certain band members; Gota and Matsunaga would later collaborate on the Matsunaga Rhythm Section project, and Imai has kept up his friendship with several members, despite having moved overseas. “Echo, Koya, Matsunaga, and I have been really close since a few years after the break-up of the band,” he explains. “When I go back to Japan, we drink and talk for hours.”
In 2008, there came a surprise call: Shizuo Ishii’s Riddim magazine was celebrating its 25th anniversary, and Ishii wanted to mark the occasion with a one-off Mute Beat concert, held at Liquidroom on April 2. Could the original band members overcome their differences just for one night? Kodama, Gota, Matsunaga, DMX, Masui, Asamoto, and Koya Naito all said yes. “We never talked about reforming Mute Beat,” says Yashiki, “but because we respect Ishii so much, we thought, ‘Okay, let’s do it!’’”
Despite whatever tensions may have existed between individual members, the reunion performance was a resounding success, and it’s an event that can never be repeated, since Takayoshi Matsunaga died in July 2012, the tragic victim of pneumonia; at the time of writing, Hirofumi Asamoto remains in a coma in hospital, after sustaining serious injuries in a bike accident. But even if Mute Beat ultimately allows the silence to take over, their legacy is a lasting one. They were obvious role models for acts like Dry and Heavy, their most immediate successors in the realm of Japanese dub – and later practitioners such as Mighty Massa and Ras Takashi – as well as younger artists such as neo-folk singer Chitose Hajime. In prefiguring the acid jazz and trip hop crazes by some considerable time – and by helping bridge the gap between Japan and the West – they were true pioneers of the Tokyo underground, whose music transposed the borders of time and place.
Thanks to all Mute Beat, Plastics, TRA, and Snakeman Show members who agreed to be interviewed, as well as Shizuo Ishii and Daisuke Sawa for initial translation assistance.
Header image © Hiroshi Nirei