DJ Kentaro Scratches the Surface

DJ Kentaro

Japanese turntablist DJ Kentaro creates routines that will blow your mind. Judging by his debut album, Enter, we’ve only known half of his musical abilities.

Turntablists intentionally toil in the bowels of the underground. In this netherworld they use parts of the brain that lie dormant in most people to converse in a musical language that few comprehend. In recent years, icons like QBert, MixMaster Mike, Z-Trip, Rob Swift and DJ Craze have attempted to crossover from turntablist phenomenon status to recording artist. The results have been (pardon the pun) mixed.

Japan’s DJ Kentaro is the first champion turntablist to produce an album that draws on his precocious scratching prowess and doesn’t suck like his predecessors’ efforts. Signed to the revered Ninja Tune label, Kentaro’s Enter, which follows his On The Wheels of Solid Steel mix CD, is a sonically majestic masterpiece. Full of bass-heavy fatness, glitchy rhythms and cameos from The Pharcyde, Spank Rock, New Flesh, Little Tempo, Hifana and Fat Jon, it’s proof that turntablism’s brightest star is living in Tokyo.

I was in Tokyo in May and saw you on a TV show teach two young boys how to scratch. Does that sort of media attention happen a lot for DJs in Japan?
DJ Kentaro: I have been on NHK (a national Japanese TV channel) a few times now, but I have never seen them feature other DJs. Fortunately, DJs have gotten more exposure and recognition by the masses. My brother and I know a few producers in Tokyo. Whenever an idea is interesting, I say yes to TV. This time, I taught two 10 year old boys who have never seen turntables in their life how to scratch. It’s really important to pass the culture to the next generation, and I had a really good time with them. I’d like to continue teaching turntablism to younger people.

Music is often an integral part of many children’s lives. What inspired you to become a turntablist?
I grew up this city called Sendai; it’s about four hours north of Tokyo. I don’t come from a family where my dad is pianist and mom is violinist or anything like that. I got into punk, melocore and grunge around age of 12 and was skateboarding. I discovered hip-hop music one night while watching late-night TV and saw this DJ battle on a local channel. My meeting point with scratching was from TV, and that’s when I met turntablism. I got a newspaper delivery job and saved up money to buy my first decks when I was 13.

Tell us about your first DJ set-up and how you learned to scratch records.
Same decks I use now: Technics MK3. The first mixer I bought was made by Audio Technica, I think. My teacher was battle videos. I did not have any friends or DJs around me who scratched at that time. Videos were a really exciting tool for me, and I watched them a few million times. I am a self-taught DJ, I guess.

A lot of turntablists tell stories about spending hours in their bedrooms perfecting their routines. Did DJing come easily to you?
I don’t have much time like I did before, but when I was entering battles I was practiced for many hours. I purposely spent more time [on a routine] until I was more confident. I would play until I was exhausted and my eyes would start to close. Looking back, I was really into it and full of passion.

You’ve toured extensively and have played at many major festivals. How do you create your routines?
It’s not easy to develop routines and create one that you love because they don’t happen that often. I can’t touch my decks in studio as often as I’d like to. So when I can I try to create something hot or some easy routines to put between the mix at my performances. Sometimes these routines come to me two days before the gig. I get the ideas and play with it, and I include those mini ones in my sets.

“Routines are for live sets, and I started to feel that I wanted to make some tunes that I can play in the club with a big sound system.”

Your debut album sports a lot of musical styles. How did you approach making it?
I thought a lot before I got into this project. I thought it would be a series of routines and sessions with other instrumental players; a collection type of record. A few people were saying, “We’d like to see more new routines!” But as the project went forward, [I realized] routines are for live sets, and I started to feel that I wanted to make some tunes that I can play in the club with a big sound system. Plus, I have met so many artists over the years and they’ve become my friends—this is like my sphere of influence. So instead of showing my scratching skills, I produced tunes that I like to hear in a venue. People say the record has many genres of music, but to me it came together so naturally.

Spank Rock appear on a few cuts. How did you make the connection?
They are also Ninja Tune artists and we did live [shows] in Tokyo together before so we knew each other. I love Naeem [Juwan]’s rap and technique, too. They came to Tokyo and we recorded in the studio and he drank a little vodka during the recording. “Space Jungle” features all of the members from Spank Rock—even their live DJs—which is a first for them.

On “Trust” you delve into drum ‘n’ bass, a genre that has plenty of elitists. How are you able to work amid so many different musical genres without worry?

There are some risks when you make album with many different types of music. But to me it’s riskier to go in a direction that I don’t want to go. I always try to do things as I’m feeling; if I’m motivated to do so, I will follow along naturally. I blasted out all my feelings on this album, and I think that’s real. I didn’t make this album for you, my friends or even for people who critique music out there. I made it for me.

“One Hand Blizzard” is a sonically interesting track. How did you make it?
The skipless loop I had from before. When I was playing around with that loop on the deck, I came up with this beat by scratching. I do this song live as well. So this song is one-loop beat scratched only with one hand. The concept is influenced by the blizzards we have in in Sendai.

Give us a quick tour of your studio.
Basics are turntables, MPC, Mac, synth, mic, and percussion. Many of the samples I use come from vinyl. To make beat jugglings with records is my daily job. Some songs are from the records I found at this local matsuri [festival] and I found them the day before the recording sessions. I played some flute myself on “Harvest Dance.” I really enjoyed all of the recording sessions, especially the one with New Flesh at Ninja studio in London.

Do you still get a thrill out of battling?
Well, I guess I can always come back to the battle scene. When I feel like I want to, I’ll come back to it. But I am luckily there are things that I have to do to make money at the moment, plus it takes time to make hot routines.

MC Hunger appears on the album and represents Japanese hip-hop. How does the Japanese scene differ than America’s?
To represent Japan is the meaning to have it on the record. This time one of the concept of the record is to have my integration from my past, so that’s why he is featured. He is my homie since I was 14 , and he is also from Sendai. He is one of the best rappers in Japan, so it was real natural thing to have him on the record.

Who do you dream of making music with?
Common, Björk and Paris Hilton.

That would be a hot record, I think. Last question: Udon or soba?
Udon, man. Big time. How about you?

Curry udon, no question.

Q&A: Darren Ressler
as featured in Issue 17

Darren Ressler