The veteran DJ is still going strong after over 15 years on the top of Japan’s electronic music scene

by Kevin Jungnitsch

One of Japan’s most renowned DJs, Ken Ishii also acts as a musical ambassador from Japan to the world. The Sapporo native first debuted in Belgium on R&S records in 1993, and hit the local music scene the next year. Over the course of his career he has released several albums, graced the cover of Newsweek, earned MTV Europe’s dance music video of the year award, composed the theme songs for the Nagano Olympics and the Japan pavilion at the Aichi Expo, mixed a selection of music featured at Tokyo Midtown Galleria, and produced tracks for popular movies and video games. Last year saw the release of two retrospective albums to celebrate the 15th anniversary since his debut in Japan. These albums, entitled K15 – The Best of Ken Ishii and The Works + The Unreleased & Unexpected, include a variety of Ishii’s best work from the past decade and a half.

In a country where the music industry is saturated with ‘one-hit wonders,’ Ishii is one of very few artists, and even fewer DJs, who have made a name for themselves not only at home, but also abroad. Currently Ishii spends about half of his time in Japan and the other half touring around Europe. He has also played at some of the biggest electronic music venues in Asia and North and South America. His music is heavily influenced by Detroit techno, and Ishii also cites early Japanese electronic musicians Yellow Magic Orchestra and Isao Tomita as sources of inspiration.

Ishii’s Japan debut in the mid-90s was well-timed, as these years marked the beginning of techno’s heyday here. “Everybody began craving more of that genre,” he recalls. This led to the constant pressure of having to produce more mainstream dance tracks to satisfy the demand. Although this is still the area in which Ishii is most well-known, he now also devotes time to side projects such as one called ‘Flare,’ which gives him the chance to experiment with less conventional types of electronic music. “It’s a good musical change,” says Ishii. He has just released a two-disc set under the Flare name, entitled Two Albums, and he plans to continue working on this project over the coming years.

Ishii cites a performance in the Amazon Rainforest of Brazil as one of the most memorable experiences of his career. The crowd, which was accustomed to hearing samba music, was at first “confused” by his edgy, churning electronic sounds. But Ishii managed to get them into the mood, and techno is still popular in Brazil today.

His jet-setting career has taken him around the world to cities and venues both large and small, but Ishii remains humble—and loyal to his roots. He considers being chosen to compose and produce the theme song for the Nagano Olympics, Fire in White, to be one of his biggest achievements yet. “At the time I still felt that I was more of a ‘listener’ than one who creates music,” he said, recalling how daunting the task seemed at first. But not wanting to turn down such a great opportunity, he immediately agreed, and the rest is, quite literally, history.

Electronic music is still very popular in Japan, with live performances by Japanese DJs at club venues across the country attracting huge crowds. But few of these musicians are ever able to break into the international scene, and Ishii thinks there’s little chance these numbers will increase. The global electronic music scene is so saturated that “there’s no space for another super DJ. There are so many talented musicians in Tokyo and Japan, but very few make it big,” he says. But Ishii still thinks that talented young Japanese artists shouldn’t be afraid to step out of their comfort zone. He names DJs Nobu and Shin Nishimura as up-and-coming artists to watch over the coming years.

Despite the fact that most DJs’ careers fizzle out after just a short time, Ken Ishii is still going strong after over a decade and a half, and he has no plans of slowing down anytime soon. He plans to continue touring, and would like to expand to even more international destinations. “I have been playing in Europe almost every month, however it has been a few years since I played in the Americas. I believe visiting foreign cities and towns give me different kinds of inspiration.” His passion for discovering new things, along with his willingness to approach unfamiliar territories, has played a key role in Ishii’s success, and will likely keep him going for years to come.

photo courtesy of Ken Ishii (English and Japanese)