The Incredible Story Of Future Funk, Vaporwave, and The Japanese Music You Loved But Never Heard
Tales From The Dork Web #9
Some see Music as the soundtrack to our lives. To me, music is our lives’ punctuation. For me, discovering new Music is one of the purest forms of joy. This issue introduces hopefully new-to-you genres of music. It’s my sincere hope that inside these musical worlds you'll find something as special as you.
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This issue features a lot of music so I’ll introduce pieces as they’re explored. For now, lets start with Friendship’s Jazz classic, “Let’s not talk about it”. Trust me on this. Even if you hate Jazz, give it 30 seconds then read on. You can stop it if you don’t like it.
Nostalgia For A Sound That Was Never Yours
Last year I went touring UK security events with two Commodore 64 computers from the 80s. The thing about the Commodore 64 is it’s very specific sound thanks to an audio chip called SID. People who grew up with the computer know that sound. When we played Bubble Bobble, Ghostbusters or certain C64 games, grinning 40-somethings would flock to our table. It got me wondering why this is. Why does music people haven’t heard in decades have such an effect on people?
If you’ve ever played Nintendo games growing up there’ll be certain music carved into your mind. Whether it’s Mario, or Zelda, the music of Koji Kondo stands out wherever you hear it. Koji Kondo is behind some of the most recognisable music in Nintendo’s early games. He joined Nintendo from school. Western rock, Jazz and a style of music called Japanese (Jazz) Fusion were major influences.
If you’ve ever played Mario games you’ve heard Kondo’s music. If you're playing Friendship’s Lets not talk about it, it may sound familiar. If you haven’t pressed play earlier, scroll up, hit play and give it 30 seconds before continuing. If you have, pause it when ready, and give the video below about 20 seconds of play time.
Japanese Fusion is a style of music heavily influenced by western Jazz, soul and funk but with a completely Japanese take. At the time soul and funk became popular, English wasn’t a commonly well spoken language in Japan. Consequently, a lot of Japanese Fusion was either instrumental or (obviously) sung in Japanese, with a sprinkle of English words. Albums like Friendship’s were popular in Japan, and artists like Koji Kondo drew inspiration from them as well as Japanese Fusion.
If you’d like to explore Japanese Fusion, Tatsuro Yashita’s Come Along is a great starting point. For the funkier end, and CasioPea’s Mint Jams for more Jazz-fuelled influences. Fusion is related to another style of music, City Pop. Some see a single City Pop narrative stretching from the 60s through the 80s, but there are substantial differences between 70s fusion music and 80s City Pop. It’s a bit like the difference between The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper and Madonna’s Vogue. They’re on the same pop continuum but aren’t really the same sound.
I’m unsurprised Japanese musicians inspired by western styles would inspire Japanese musicians. That music western kids never heard inspired a generation of producers blew my mind. Take Piper’s Summer Breeze above. It’s a light, fluffy bubble-gum-flavoured up-beat 80s City-Pop song.
Summer Breeze came out two years before Super Mario Bros. Compare it to this music from the original Super Mario Bros NES game, below.
As well as Japanese music, Kondo also borrowed from Deep Purple and other Western bands. Kondo never claimed originality in his music. Nor was he the only Japanese video game musician to draw inspiration from other songs. Game music in general drew on all kinds of musical inspirations. Once you start looking it's everywhere. From Kondo's Mario to Sega Rally 2 ripping off John Coltrane’s classic Giant Steps.
As an aside, Vox made an amazing video about Giant Steps covering the song’s story and the theory behind it. It’s worth a watch even if you’re not into Jazz.
Whether it's Zelda's Fairy Fountain theme, Super Mario Bros 3's Water Map theme or Tatsuro Yamashita’s Morning Glory doesn’t matter. Japanese Fusion and City Pop music rarely made it to Western shores. The music inspired by this did, througho ther mediums. Millions of kids grew up indirectly with this music. Thanks to the modern Internet you can now explore the source.
What does it mean to have songs etched into your head from a genre you never knew? Listening to the original music, is the nostalgia we experience our own, or Kondo's?
Are our feelings about Zelda's Fairy Mountain theme linked to Kondo’s feelings for Tatsuro Yamashita's Morning Glory? We form emotional attachments to the same notes, but have none of his experiences. There’s an English term for this, Anemoia. The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows explores this word above.
In the same way we may experience Anemoia, the Japanese experience Natsukashii. It’s a form of nostalgia or yearning for the past in our memories, with a subtle implication that these memories may be incorrect or incomplete.
But if the sounds of our childhood were influenced by music we never heard, itself inspired by music we did, have these influences travelled in the other direction?
猫の恩返し (The Cat Returns)
Outrun is a musical sub-genre with an associated aesthetic, closely linked to Vaporwave. French Producer Kavinsky pioneered Outrun's music and aesthetic. For me, Kavinsky’s outrun feels like the evolution of Daft Punk’s Interstella 5555. 70s and 80s western music, Japanese art and culture influenced both, and it shows.
Outrun music loads up on 80s synthesizers, reverb effects and drum machine beats. Some, like Vosto Vlad above refer to Outrun as Synthwave. I see Outrun as a Synthwave sub-genre.
Hiroshi Kawaguchi’s Sega work inspired Kavinsky’s genre-defining music. “Hiro”, wrote 80s arcade game music for After Burner, Space Harrier and Out Run. If you listened to Kavinsky’s nightcall earlier, the same notes play at the start of Kawaguchi’s Splash Wave. Just as City Pop inspired Kondo, Kawaguchi inspired Kavinsky.
If you want to get into Synthwave or explore Outrun culture, the Outrun reddit is a good starting point. NewRetroWave on YouTube is great for playlists. Artists of note include Perturbator, Com Truise, Kavinsky and College. Com Truise and College highlight how I see Synthwave as distinct from Outrun. Their sound is often softer, lighter and less Kavinsky-esque than Perturbator. The most Outrun movie is probably 2011’s Drive, Laser Unicorn’s Kung Fury notwithstanding.
Kung Fury has everything Outrun. The car, the synths, the neon purple lights. If, like me you were alive in the 80s, you’ll recognise all this as Natukashii writ large. The 80s weren’t filled with neon lights, synths and sports cars. They were filled with bad hair and bad fashion. For every great John Carpenter movie, there were 10 as bad as Amazon Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death. This Smiths music video shows how the 80s really looked. It features scenes of Morrissey that some may find disturbing.
Outrun’s biggest aesthetic elements are founded in a false image of the 1980s. It’s built on and evokes nostalgia for a time that never was, in a place that never existed.
But back to the music. If a genre can arise out of Hiroshi Kawaguchi’s 80s musical scores, from where did he draw his inspiration?
If Japanese Fusion was old Japan's funk soul brother, 80s City Pop was something else. Tied to the 80s Japanese boom time, for better or worse City Pop was everything new Japan. As with Fusion, City Pop inspired Japanese video game music, and Hiroshi Kawaguchi was no exception.
Outside of Japan, very few people had heard of City Pop until recently. A few years ago Mariya Takeuchi’s Plastic Love rippled through the Vaporwave community. YouTuber StevenM covers the bittersweet song’s story and it’s revival below.
Online Interpretations of Plastic Love tend to miss the actual lyrics. Like The Smiths video earlier, they were far more bittersweet than the upbeat melody implies. Regardless of Plastic Love as a song, if it broadens people’s musical horizons that can only be a good thing.
Much of City Pop sounds upbeat, but like the Smiths earlier, it can be bittersweet. 80s City Pop grew out of new Japan’s boom. It shares syncopation found in earlier music but FM synthesizers and modern guitar sounds make 80s City Pop stand out. Although the new age was filled with hope, earlier lyrics often reflected the loss of old Japan. This in itself was often Natsukashii in action. Early songs would often lament the loss of good times while conveniently forgetting the bad.
Akira Terao’s Ruby Ring, a song of loss in a windy city is probably the first definitive City Pop song. Just like how The Sugarhill Gang’s Rapper's Delight draws a line between toasting and Rap, Ruby Ring does the same for 80s City Pop. The line isn’t immediately visible, but it's there if you look for it.
Plastic love’s growth on YouTube and Reddit introduced Vaporwave listeners and producers to the world of City Pop. Inspired by this, a new western music genre and aesthetic appeared called Future Funk. Michael Seba’s deep dive above charts the journey from City Pop to Future Funk better than I ever could.
As Japan’s boom continued City Pop became intrinsically linked to the boom's optimism. Finally in the early 90s, the bubble burst overnight, giving way to Japan’s lost decade. City Pop’s upbeat, optimistic vision didn’t fit in with this period, and in Japan it’s popularity waned till it almost completely faded away.
Just as with video game music, Japanese City Pop would find new audiences in other mediums. From the 80s onwards, Japanese Anime began to build a cult following in the west. This following started moving towards the mainstream through late night TV. Prior to this, City Pop beamed into 80s kids heads through Saturday morning cartoons theme songs from Trans-Formers, Jem and others.
Listen to the Inspector Gadget theme above. Note the use of 80s Japanese synthesizers, syncopated riffs and a bubble-gum City Pop style chorus. That City Pop vibe is no accident. Toei Animation, a Tokyo-based animator made these shows.
Japanese Fusion and City Pop was rarely seen outside of Japan. There was an assumption at the time that Western ears wouldn’t like Japanese language music. It's post-YouTube success shows this assumption was wrong. Japanese video game, cartoon and anime music made City Pop a familiar sound we could never explore. The vacuum helped create nostalgia for a time we never experience, in a place we couldn’t have been. Nowhere is that more visible than in Outrun and Future Funk.
Future Funk is to City Pop as Outrun is… to City Pop. Both genres feature that same sense of 2nd hand nostalgia and many common themes, but sound completely different. From the catchy, up-beat infectious vibes of Macross 82-99 above to Yung Bae’s Bae City Rollaz, Future funk is the upbeat vibe for all tomorrow’s parties.
Despite it’s obvious Japanese connection, Future Funk is considered by some to be a Vaporwave off-shoot. Vaporwave is probably the first completely online genre, with no discernible unique origin. As well as a music genre, it’s an aesthetic defined by pastel colours, glitch art, Greco-Roman busts and Japanese influences. Some say that Vaporwave’s origins trace back to two albums. The Eccojams album and James Ferraro’s Far Side Virtual are considered by commentators to be proto-vaporwave, being distinct while sharing common elements. The two albums are different, but styles from each came together in the album Floral Shoppe by Macintosh Plus.
One song in particular helped define vaporwave, "リサフランク420 / 現代のコンピュー", translated as Lisa Frank 420 / Modern Computing. It was an underground hit. It’s sample heavy, slowed down loops from Diana Ross’ “It’s Your Move” are reminiscent of Eccojams. The song’s upbeat vibes sound more like Far Side Virtual. Artists like Saint Pepsi dance around the line between Vaporwave and Future Funk.
What links Vaporwave to Future Funk is the wholesale sampling of entire tunes, and using them to create something else. To western ears, Future Funk sounds familiar but fresh. We grew up with the style, but never heard the source material. With Vaporwave, we’ve often heard and quickly recognise those sources as borrowed.
Sampling is integral to Future Funk, and even present in Outrun. Vaporwave was born out of recycling others’ sounds. Unsurprisingly, it’s songs are used, re-used, and abused to great amuse. In some ways Vaporwave is a meme-driven feedback loop.
Black Banshee’s albums have provided a more approachable and less rip-driven sound. Spin-off, remix and response genres such as Hardvapour, Simpsonwave and Mallsoft pop in and out of existence. Mallsoft’s background lounge music aesthetic is great for coding sessions. More so when Outrun's hard synths become too distracting.
It’s quite a thing to see music we’ve heard, inspired by music we haven’t heard go on to inspire new generations of music. That music can create nostalgia for things that don’t exist, or for things borrowed from people we never knew.
When music artists who were never there look back in completely different directions, strange but familiar things happen. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but sounds or the notes, almost all music ends up recycled. Even if it takes Giant Steps.
Things You Might’ve Missed
I wanted to write about Michael Jackson’s Sonic The Hedgehog 3 game soundtrack but I ran out of space. So instead, I’ll leave it to The D-Pad, above to explain.
Iyahshikei is a Japanese Genre of ‘soothing’ games. If you’ve played Animal Crossing, you’ve played Iyashikei. I have Ni No Kuni for PS3 and it’s definitely calming and beautiful, much like the work of Studio Ghibli. It’s recently been remastered and re-released on Nintendo Switch. Yamatufa Gaming has a walkthrough YouTube playlist.
I love Mitxela’s hardware projects. Every time I hit a brick wall, I look at projects like his tiny Midi contraptions, portable Jacob’s Ladder and his games console. Likewise, I’ve found Mohit Boite’s sculptures a souce of inspiration for years since I first saw his SevenSeg clock above back in 2015.
Sylvain Lefebvre designed a CPU and implemented it on an FPGA with no instructions, no opcodes and no program counter, just to run the first level of Doom. Meanwhile, LeadedSolder documented the process of repairing a fairly useless but pretty Japanese Casio MSX computer.
MNT’s Reform Laptop crowdfunding campaign is up. I’ve decided not to participate based on the fact that I already have more laptops than uses. If you’re interested in a sustainable, repairable laptop that’s almost fully Open Source, this is it. I know I’ll regret not buying this when a usable RISC-V CPU board eventually comes out.
I’m not a fan of posting passive aggressive stuff, but I got bored a while back and made this as an excuse to play with Bootstrap 4. Feel free to use it, or not.
Here’s some of Joe Hisaishi’s beautiful music. If you’ve ever seen a Studio Ghibli movie, you’ve heard his music. If you haven’t seen a Ghibli movie you’re missing out.
I’ll end with a quote from Studio Ghibli’s From Up on Poppy Hill:
“There’s no future for people who worship the future, and forget the past.”
I hope you’ve enjoyed this issue of Tales From The Dork Web. I also hope you’ve found some enjoyable new music. If you know someone who might enjoy this, please share it with them. I’ll be back in two weeks writing about some of the things I’ve been hacking around on. If you haven’t subscribed, you can make sure you never miss The Dork Web using the form below. Until next time.