Japanese Gentlemen Come to Soul Train
The Japan – Soul Train Connection, Part 2 (with a hip-hop bonus)
In 1980, a group of Japanese people got on stage in front of some black people, gave everyone a history lesson about black music, and then pronounced themselves the best funk band out.
Let me back up for a second. So, in the last installment, I said I’d talk about a guy named Haruomi Hosono. Before the late 1970s, he was entirely unheard of in America, and even in his home country of Japan, he wasn’t well known at all.
But on November 2nd, 1980, he appeared in a few million American households, as he and his band, Yellow Magic Orchestra, took the stage at the Soul Train studios.
YMO weren’t the first non-black band to perform on Soul Train, but they were the first (and only) Japanese band. Also, they were the first to, in the first few seconds of their song, make one of the boldest statements ever:
Now, ‘Tighten Up’ was very popular in Houston Texas, with Archie Bell and the Drells, …now, we are the number one, I think so.
That is, they were playing a cover of one of the first funk hits ever recorded, a track called ‘Tighten Up,’ and slyly implying that they were better than the funk originals:
Claiming to be better than the originators might seem a little insensitive*, but well, YMO was pretty weird. Maybe one day I’ll go into YMO’s whole story, but suffice it to say that YMO spent most of its career trolling everyone.
For example, take the guy that Don Cornelius mistakenly calls ‘Ah-Ito.’ That was their manager, Youichi Ito, who they’d dressed up as a stereotypical Japanese tourist, complete with big glasses, a salaryman suit, and a camera around his neck. They planted him in the audience, and every time they sang ‘Japanese Gentleman, Stand Up Please,’ Ito would jump around and wave a ‘WOW!’ sign.
Even though they’d started out their song with the following announcement:
Hi, everybody! We are YMO, from Tokyo, Japan! We don’t sightsee, we dance, you understand?
They knew how Americans viewed Japanese, and they liked screwing around with the stereotypes.
They also played another track that day, called ‘Firecracker.’
Weird? Yeah. Funky? Also yeah. That’s what YMO was into.
So, sure, they got the whole room dancing, but did they do better than the funk originators? It’s not my place to say, but hey, at least they didn’t kick the mic:
Three years later, in 1983,
a young English guy named Peter Barakan, who had just started working for YMO in Japan, went to a music convention in Europe. He’d been listening to this new sound from New York that people would eventually call ‘hip-hop’, and was pretty into Afrika Bambaataa (the guy who basically made the name ‘hip-hop’), but those records weren’t so easy to come by in Japan at the time. So when he saw the Tommy Boy booth, he wandered over, thinking he’d be able to score some free vinyl.
It just so happened that the owner of Tommy Boy Records, Tom Silverman, was manning the booth. Tom noticed that Barakan was wearing a badge that said he was based in Japan, so he got curious, and asked who he worked with. Peter told him that he was working for a band called Yellow Magic Orchestra.
Tom freaked out, saying ‘YMO?! No way! Afrika Bambaataa loves those guys!’
So, it’s probably no surprise that Bambaataa worked ‘Firecracker’ into a live party at a high school, which was later bootlegged and sold in 1983 as Death Mix.
(Special thanks to Peter Barakan for telling me that bit of hip-hop history. I’ve got some more where that came from.)
After all, if you listen to Bambaataa’s early work, it sounds a lot more like electro bands like Kraftwerk and YMO than anything else his peers were doing at the time. I’ve got 5 dollars that says Bam was planted in front of his television set that day in 1980.
One last thing. After the performance, Don Cornelius did a quick interview with Yukihiro Takahashi, the drummer for YMO. Before a pretty hilarious back and forth about music, Don asked Yukihiro if he’d seen Soul Train in Japan. Yukihiro replied, pretty matter-of-factly, ‘Yes, sure.’ He also said that a lot of people in Japan watched Soul Train.
Which, you know, is kind of crazy, considering that Peter Barakan, who was in the music industry and had plenty of connections, was having a hell of a time getting new black music records.
So, why was Soul Train even on Japan in the first place? I’ll talk about that next time.