In Pictures: Japan’s electronic scene in the ’80s and ’90s

By in Features





Alex From Tokyo takes us through a photo archive of two decades in Japanese music.

Having moved to Tokyo at four, Paris-born DJ Alex From Tokyo has spent a lifetime nestling in the Japanese electronic scene. Working for the Tokyo branch of Mr Bongo and Disorient from 1995, Alex played a curatorial role in compilations Bossa Tres Jazz…When East Meets West and Showa 64 before pursuing a production career in the late ’90s under the moniker Tokyo Black Star.

In the time since, Alex has launched his own label (World Famous), provided sound design for brands as far-reaching as Y-3 and Louis Vuitton and now hosts a show on Brussels’ Kiosk Radio each month.

His latest project, Japan Vibrations Vol. 1, is a “sonic memoir” compilation that captures two decades of Japanese electronic music.

“In 1988, I set foot into Tokyo’s underground club scene and opened the door to a life-changing world. The Bank club, tucked away in bustling Roppongi, was like a gateway to a new universe. The music was electrifying, the crowd like nothing I’d ever experienced. The dance music sounds of New York, London, Chicago and Detroit symbiotically blended in a unique sound vibration that was incredibly international and yet distinctly Japan,” Alex explains.

“Vibrant nights at The Bank led to small underground clubs P Picasso, Gas, Another World, The Cave, Mix, and Milos Garage, to the legendary Conny’s parties, to the openings of mega club GOLD in ’90, Space Lab Yellow in ’91, Maniac Love in ‘93. And endlessly onward.”

Alongside contributions from Ryuichi Sakamoto, Haruomi Hosono, Yasuaki Shimizu and many more, Japan Vibrations Vol. 1, glimpses into Alex’s photo archives from the period. To mark the release, Alex From Tokyo joined us to explain the stories behind these iconic shots.

Yasuaki Shimizu Subliminal Japan Tour (1987)

The Japanese versatile and prolific composer, saxophonist and producer Yasuaki Shimizu recorded his album Subliminal (Invitation) in Paris (he lived between Paris and London from 1985 through 1991), collaborating and performing with various local international artists capturing the spirit of his everyday encounters with the people around him. He made a special band (from left: Jimmy Murakwa, Marten Igle, Mali Mango, Valery Lobe, BANANA and Yasuaki Shimizu) for his Japan Tour to celebrate the release of the album.

Hiroshi Watanabe at Save The Robots, NYC (1995)

Kengo Watanabe & Dai Sato from Frogman Records

After studying composition at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Hiroshi Watanabe recorded under his alias Quadra his debut album Sketch From A Moment for the Japanese techno label Frogman Records (ran by Kengo Watanabe and Dai Sato) between 1995 and 1996 in New York. He had just put out two great deep house EPs and he was DJing regularly in underground clubs in Manhattan, spinning hard house and techno, like at the legendary East Village club Save The Robots. I had the chance to visit him.

Meisa Fujishiro – 90 Nights

The photographer Meisa Fujishiro took pictures while hanging out in underground clubs in Tokyo in the early to mid-90s. In 2018, he published a collection of his photos in his great book 90 Nights. I highly recommend it. When I started planning this compilation, I absolutely wanted to feature some of his great pictures on the artwork, which he accepted. One of my favourite pictures is the GOLD dance floor picture I used for one of the inserts. Also, the Japan jacket and the promoter Connie’s iconic pictures I used for the record labels’ artwork.

2013: Alex with Ryuichi Sakamoto

I had the chance to meet personally our ‘professor’ Ryuichi Sakamoto a few times between New York, Tokyo and Berlin. He is definitely one of my music heroes since my childhood growing up in Tokyo. One of the highlights was when in 2013 he played live over the Christmas holidays with Haruomi Hosono at the venue EX Theater Roppongi. Yukihiro Takahashi joined them on the second part of the show and the three Yellow Magic Orchestra members performed for the first time YMO music with only live instruments. I went backstage after the show to congratulate everyone!

Alex, Rev, Yokotaさん, Ayakoちゃん & friends at Skintone party at LUST

Susumu Yokota and I met in 1995 through Yamazaki Manabu from Sublime Records. Yokota was about to release his new album Metronome Melody, under his alias Prism. We became friends and we would DJ regularly together in Tokyo. He invited me in 1997 to start with him and some friends (Rev, Ayako Kataoka and Misuzu) a little party called Skintone (that would become his own personal little record label) at this new little underground club called Lust in Ebisu, Tokyo.

DJ Nori, Taka & Larry Levan at GOLD (07/20/1992)

Larry Levan’s Birthday at GOLD (1992)

GOLD DJ booth

On his last visit to Japan, Larry Levan played two consecutive nights on July 18th and 19th at GOLD, the Tokyo mega club, around his birthday. The NYU student Takahide Kawakami who was a regular at the Paradise Garage brought Larry to Japan with Dj Nori who was sharing his time between New York and Tokyo. A few weeks later, I would meet Larry, Taka and Francois Kevorkian in Osaka during their Harmony Tour which totally changed my life.

DJ Milo & Major Force Crew in Nagasaki (1987)

The pioneering hip-hop powerhouse record label and posse Major Force led by Hiroshi Fujiwara and Takagi Kan shaped the Tokyo and Japanese hip hop and club scene and street culture from the mid-80s. The legendary musician and producer Toshio Nakanishi aka Tycoon Tosh (Plastics, Melon, Love TKO) and K.U.D.O. would join the family as well as DJ Milo from the Wild Bunch (Bristol) who visited Japan regularly. They would perform all over Japan, spreading these new sounds (here in Nagasaki in 1987). They were a big influence on me.

Alex at Mr Bongo, Tokyo

Alex at Shibuya crossing with Carhartt by Beezer (1995)

My great friend Raphael Sebbag from United Future Organization introduced me to James Vyner who opened the Tokyo branch of the Mr.Bongo record shop in the centre of Shibuya in 1995. I started working part-time at the shop in late 1995 as a buyer, a promoter for the new in-house label and record pool Disorient and a coordinator between Paris, London and Tokyo. We would receive every week all the latest white-label releases from the UK. We would be the first record store to install listening booths.

I would DJ all day in the store. I learnt so much there. By then, the scene in Japan was exploding. Very exciting times! I love the artwork inside the store that was created by the great Japanese artist Yuri Shimojo. The English photographer Beezer from Bristol was shooting all over the club scene. I asked him to take a portrait of me at the famous Shibuya scramble crossing in Tokyo in the evening.

Alex DJing at Space Lab Yellow (Mid ’90s)

Space Lab Yellow Dancefloor

Space Lab Yellow Soundsystem

Produced by Daizo Murata, the underground club Space Lab Yellow opened its doors in December 1991 in the Nishi-Azabu neighbourhood. It had two floors, a lounge space on the B1 and a bar and the dance floor on the B2. They had a Japanese custom-built sound system by Rey Audio. My very first DJ gig at Yellow was in January 1996, part of the world connection parties hosting New York and International house music DJs and producers. I would become a resident until its closing in 2008. Yellow was my temple and I learnt everything there as a DJ.


My great friend DJ and record buyer Charlie at Dance Music Records in Shibuya with the legendary Walter Gibbons (who would visit and play in Japan regularly) in 1994. They both left us too soon. This picture has always been in our hearts with all of us in the scene in Tokyo! KAMI WA AI – LOVE IS THE KOTOZUKE (God is love – Love Is the Message).

Alex from Tokyo presents Japan Vibrations Vol.1 is out now via world famous. See more of our In Pictures series here.

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