music, The Canon

The Canon: Hiroshi Fujiwara – Nothing Much Better to Do

The first album from fashion designer and style icon Hiroshi Fujiwara found him moving from punk and hip-hop to Shibuya-kei with a smooth fusion of laid-back styles. Fujiwara may be far more well-known as a fashion designer than as a musician, but on Nothing Much Better to Do he proved himself equally adept as both.

While the origins of Shibuya-kei as a musical genre are most commonly traced back to Flipper’s Guitar at the end of the 1980s, the elements that coalesced to form Shibuya-kei’s postmodern kitsch aesthetic were already in place at the beginning of the decade. At the end of the 1970s, inspired largely by the British punk and new wave scenes’ fusion of art, music and fashion into a complete aesthetic, groups like The Plastics and Yellow Magic Orchestra were proving that the Japanese could use Western influences to do more than just emulate as the earlier “eleki boom” bands did. Along with the rise of Japanese fashion designers like Rei Kawakubo of COMME des GARÇONS, Issey Miyake and Yohji Yamamoto, the music scene of the late ’70s and early ’80s announced Japan’s emergence as a major player in the realm of international style – and the luminaries of the Western world’s arts scene paid close attention.

One of the most influential figures in establishing Japan’s reputation as a style capital and ensuring Tokyo’s worthiness of being mentioned in the same breath as Paris and Milan was Hiroshi Fujiwara. Working with Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood in London and New York, Fujiwara experienced the Western new wave and hip-hop scenes firsthand, and was eager to bring what he had found back to Japan. Starting Japan’s first hip-hop record label, Major Force, with Toshio Nakanishi of The Plastics, Kan Takagi and others in 1988, Fujiwara brought a defiantly new style to the Japanese musical landscape, mixing his own punk sensibilities to ensure that Major Force would never fall into the trap of mere imitation. Continuing to work in the fashion industry parallel to his work as a musician, Fujiwara also bridged the gap between Japanese and Western streetwear through collaborations with American labels such as his friend Shawn Stussy’s eponymous brand, and co-founded the NOWHERE store with Jun “JONIO” Takahashi and Takashi “NIGO®” Nagao – the latter of whom adopted his name (which literally means ‘number two’) as a tribute to Fujiwara, who he saw as ‘number one’.

Although getting his start as a hip-hop musician, Fujiwara’s musical palate was always more diverse than most of his peers’, so it was of little surprise that in the early ’90s he fell in with the Shibuya-kei scene, along with fellow Major Force affiliates Scha Dara Parr. Shibuya-kei’s eclectic genre-blending was perfectly in line with his own sample-heavy aesethetic, and leaving hip-hop behind gave him an opportunity to show off his accomplished guitar-playing. His first proper album as a solo artist (he had released mixes before on Major Force, but never an album of originals), 1994’s Nothing Much Better to Do, found him mixing AM radio-friendly AOR elements with jazz, hip-hop and downtempo electronica for a musical cocktail that would be impossible to describe as anything other than “Shibuya-kei.”

One of the main things that set Fujiwara apart from his Shibuya-kei peers (with the notable exception of Towa Tei) was his access to the Western musical scene, and Nothing Much Better to Do found him playing to this strength with aplomb. Featuring Kathy Sledge (of Sister Sledge, most famous for disco mega-hit “We Are Family”) on three songs, with Terry Hall of The Specials and Neneh Cherry also contributing (along with a number of likely-pseudonymous contributors lacking in any other musical credits), Fujiwara got a guest lineup as equally as impressive as it is eccentric. As the album came out in 1994, Neneh Cherry’s contribution “Turn My Back” served as the lead single (Terry Hall’s presence may have been the biggest draw for music snobs, but Cherry had the most pop cachet at the time), but of the featured vocalists, it’s unquestionably Sledge whose performances make the album.

On album opener “Let My Love Shine”, Fujiwara established right out of the gate that Nothing Much Better wasn’t going to sound anything like a Major Force album. With Fujiwara’s own soft electric guitar lines, Fender Rhodes and even a flute lending the song a sound that sits halfway between 1970s R&B and a particularly high-quality porno soundtrack, the message is as clear as possible: Nothing Much Better to Do is most certainly an album you can have sex to. As if the musical backing wasn’t hint enough, Kathy Sledge’s passionate, breathy vocal annihilates any doubt as to the song’s intention, running the gamut from sensual whispers to ecstatic cries as she sings lines like “you’ll be forever mine.” It’s the musical equivalent of a zipless fuck, all pleasure with none of the mess – and she’s featured on three separate songs. Fujiwara knew what he was doing.

Outside of Sledge’s erotic performances, Fujiwara pays tribute to hip-hop’s history with Cherry’s contribution and album closer “Mind Game”, hearkening back to rap’s origins in the jazz and spoken-word performances of artists like Gil Scott-Heron. While not nearly as sensual as the disco diva’s contributions, these songs provide the most interesting counterpart to his work with Major Force; looking back to hip-hop’s beginnings, in stark contrast to the zeitgeist-chasing of so much of the influential label’s output. It’s largely due to the album’s status seemingly entirely outside of time that the Silence of the Lambs references on “Mind Game” stick out like a sore thumb, but even that is a relatively inconsequential detail – easily ignored in the face of an otherwise timeless composition.

While not for everyone – it does legitimately sound like a porno soundtrack at least a third of the time – Nothing Much Better to Do is a vital document of both the early connections between Shibuya-kei and the Western musical climate in the early ’90s, and the musical career of one of the scene’s most prominent icons. It’s also one of the most accessible Shibuya-kei albums for the Japanese-impaired, as the lyrics are completely in English – and with nary a Japanese accent to be found.

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