Artist Spotlight: Towa Tei, music

Artist Spotlight: Towa Tei (week one)

Every month, Memories of Shibuya will be taking a look at a different artist or group, with featured songs – one per week – highlighting the peaks (and, occasionally, troughs) of their musical career.

While the majority of Shibuya-kei stayed confined to the fringes of Western pop culture, endorsed by the darlings of the 1990s alternative scene but never made too visible (with collaborations often limited to remix exchanges, like Damon Albarn of Blur reworking Cornelius’s “Star Fruits Surf Rider” and Oyamada returning the favour with a remix of Blur’s “Tender”), to Western radio listeners in the ’90s, Towa Tei was something different entirely: a one-hit wonder. Odds are you know the song, but its connection to Shibuya-kei may possibly come as a surprise. What was this one hit? Well, if you look in your heart, you might find it…

Towa Tei moved from Tokyo to New York City in 1987, initially looking to study graphic design, but fate had a different path in mind for him. He had barely gotten settled in his new home when he joined up with dance-music group Deee-Lite in 1988 (then a duo), playing clubs throughout NYC and gathering an enthusiastic following with alarming speed. Only 3 short years passed between Tei’s arrival in the US and Deee-Lite’s first album on a major label, World Clique, and in that short time the group had managed to gain a wholly improbably number of high-profile endorsements; their massive first single “Groove is in the Heart” boasted contributions from funk legend Bootsy Collins and A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip, both admitted Deee-Lite fans.

It’s not difficult to see why “Groove is in the Heart” succeeded as resoundingly as it did. Taking the sample-heavy aesthetic that was beginning to take over the American alternative thanks to albums like the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique (and was echoed back in Tei’s home country in the work of emerging groups like Pizzicato Five and Flipper’s Guitar), Towa Tei’s funk, soul and world-music collage set the backdrop for a powerful musical statement of equality and acceptance. Generational differences, disparate ethnic and cultural backgrounds, genre distinctions, anything other than the sacred groove was rendered entirely meaningless in the song’s super-flattened utopia. None of Deee-Lite’s three members were born in the same country, with Tei from Japan, DJ Dmitry hailing from Kiev, Ukraine and Lady Miss Kier originally from Ohio, and the addition of Bootsy Collins and Q-Tip made for a music video as colourful and inclusive as a Benetton ad, although infinitely more danceable.

Of course, with a single as perfect as “Groove is in the Heart,” the “one-hit wonder” accusations were inevitable. Although Deee-Lite would ultimately score four #1 dance-chart hits in the US and abroad, the band’s strange decision to go in a more political direction with their sophomore release paid off in diminishing returns. Released 2 years after World CliqueInfinity Within never came close to the commercial performance of its juggernaut predecessor, failing to spawn a single even half as successful on the overall charts as “Groove.” By the time Deee-Lite’s third and final album was released in 1994, Tei had already left the group and gone back to Japan to start on a solo career; a fortuitous move, as the Shibuya-kei scene that was just starting to blossom when he left for America was picking up steam, popularizing the exact kind of music he had been making all along.

Tei has been adamant that Deee-Lite won’t be one of the many departed 20th-century groups to do a 21st-century reunion tour, and it’s easy to see why; despite launching his career and still being his biggest single to this day, commercially, “Groove is in the Heart” was a product of its time, not something that can ever be properly replicated. Not just because sample-clearance issues would instantly kneecap any attempt at releasing a pop single with as diverse a variety of musical sources, but because everyone involved, Tei himself most of all, has long since moved on.

Part two, part three, part four.

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