Tohji (@_tohji_) has generated an expansive force in the Japanese scene. With his music and vision, the artist wants to be the catalyst that connects Japanese alternative talent with the world. If there is one thing that any member of a generation shaped by the internet knows, it is that we have common feelings and desires, no matter where we are on the planet. Music is a powerful way to remind us of this.
When I arrived in Tokyo from Barcelona in 2020, the first recommendation I received to find out what was happening in Japan on a musical level was Mall Tape by Mall Boyz, the duo made up of Tohji and Gummyboy. Their universe of malls and suburbs and their eurobeat and trance influences of the 90s were elements that I also felt like mine despite having grown up thousands of miles away. His rap, born in SoundCloud, with trap bases and ambient mixes, is part of a generational wave. The references that made Tohji who he is came from a global world, so his aspirations are also global.
Tohji often collaborates with international artists and invites them to perform in Japan — the members of the Drain Gang, Mechatok, Yeule, Palmistry, Namasenda, etc. He also works with Japanese artists — Le Makeup, Loota, Elle Teresa, Shaka Bose, E.O.U, etc. — and brings them to his overseas performances as a way of giving visibility to the Japanese scene. To facilitate this global movement, Tohji has also been a guest on NTS and collaborates with the Asian artist diffusion platform Eastern Margins, promoting greater interaction between Japan and the rest of the world in the music scene.
Tohji’s attitude, personal style, and way of life expand his music and give it meaning. Rides in sports cars by the ocean, pool parties surrounded by friends, tank tops to work up a sweat while dancing, and saggy pants showing off underwear — from his brand, Vanillani. If the best things in life are those little moments of pure enjoyment, why not create songs that capture them forever?
In Japan, Tohji tours nationally and performs at major festivals, but he also hosts his own parties — public or secret — offering his fans performances by the artists he loves. Despite being a close artist with his fanbase and with other artists, Tohji doesn’t often describe his music, his creative process, or his purposes in words. After a couple of years of chatting at parties, I asked him to let me change that with this interview. We ended up talking for hours while eating seafood and sweets in Shin-Ōkubo, Tokyo’s Koreatown.
Chorareii: You grew up in Tokyo and Yokohama, but you were born in London. You have a good connection with music scenes abroad — London, Seoul, Taipei … Would you consider living outside Japan and keep making music?
Tohji: I like going back and forth, from Tokyo to other places. Just staying in Japan makes me uncomfortable sometimes, I want to live between places.
What is good in Japan for a music artist?
After traveling to other countries, I have realized that Japan has ambient vibes, there is something emotional here.
I’m from the suburbs, where there are only big roads and houses that look the same. These same-sized houses remind me of electronic music — the beat goes “dum dum dum,” the same way the houses go one after another.
What would you be doing if you weren’t making music? What career would you have chosen?
I think I would have been an architect.
It is interesting that you just made a connection between music and architecture when you talked about your neighborhood. What about your house, how is it?
I always live in old houses. There is a vibe there, a mystery that makes me curious.
I want to live in a comfortable place, but I can’t keep it clean, it’s always messy! It’s difficult for me to focus on different things at the same time. For example, I don’t care about the trash while I’m cooking. I want to change that, it’s a bad habit.
How is your process when you make music? Is it messy too?
It is messy! My laptop is full of files, I should keep it clean but I can’t.
When I get ideas, I can see that each one points in a different direction, but my head is still messy.
However, the final results are good, when I make music and also when I cook!
Making music is easy. You can do it by yourself.
If you want to make movies, you need a cast, staff, cameras, and producers. You need to make a schedule, shoot plans, go location hunting, check what the light looks like, etc. After you shoot it, you have to edit it, find a company to release it… It’s a process that takes months.
However, I can make music by myself and just release it with one click!
You are talking about the process, but what about the vision and creativity needed to make music? Why do you think your music got people interested?
That’s a good question, I have never thought about that. Maybe my music feels more real than others for my listeners.
When I was a teenager, I used to think that music was not real, not for me. When I went to shows or clubs, I was always feeling “this is not my place, I can’t believe this from the bottom of my soul”.
Around ten years ago, at the club, everyone was rocking New Era hats, like fake Americans. If I started making music, I didn’t want to do something like that.
I couldn’t spend my life imitating others. I wanted to make something for us, something personal.
Did you expect to become famous when you started, to achieve that lifestyle?
I wanted to be famous and make money from music so I could enjoy that money with my friends, the Mall Boyz.
After releasing my music, I started getting booked from outside Tokyo. I and the Mall Boyz went to Osaka together, it meant a big thing for us because we had never been outside of Tokyo.
“We came to Osaka because of my music, that is crazy!!” I thought. I wanted to keep that happening, I needed to be famous and make more money so I could pay for them.
Tell me about the Mall Boyz, your people. How important are they in who Tohji is?
They are my friends from the beginning. After high school, I didn’t see people that much, but I always wanted to have close friends. If I hadn’t met them I would be still lonely in my room.
There are problems sometimes, that always happens, but they opened my mind and my heart and that’s why I’m thankful to them.
You wanted to include your friends in your music lifestyle, but what about you? What does music give you?
Music is something that constantly changes my life. After I release music, things that I never expect happen.
In early 2020, I did my first Japan tour. I met some music industry people and I got to understand how things work. “If I do this, I will have a show in a bigger venue”, or “if I befriend these important people, maybe I can get this to happen”. I could see what may happen, but it was not interesting for me after all. That was my first disappointment.
For this reason, I decided to start my own parties. I want to grow while respecting our culture.
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Talking about your music, I see two sides of Tohji — a hedonist side, and a deep side. When does each of them arise?
When you are alone, you tend to be deeper than when you’re hanging out with your friends. That happens to everyone, doesn’t it? Maybe when I create music in winter it will be deeper than the one I create in summer.
I can feel that seasons definitely influence your songs, especially summer. Is it your favorite season?
Yes! Summer is the most romantic season for me. Everyone is sweaty, they show their skin, and we can hang out in the street till the morning or go for a swim in the river at midnight. Summer brings more possibilities for having fun.
Sometimes I have bad memories. I feel vulnerable, with a heartbroken vibe. Having fun can kill that feeling. That is why we also like parties, don’t we?
I enjoy parties because I feel that by listening to the same music in the same space, we connect with each other. How is it for you as a performer? How is your connection with the audience?
People give me energy. Before the show, I’m like an empty bottle, but after the show, I’m filled up with their energy.
My show is my favorite part. I always put care into my live performances. There, I can talk to people directly, I’m closer to their own lives.
A live show is a hub, a connecting station for our lives. As a performer, I give something to the attendants, and then they continue in their own ways. In the next show, we will be back together. I like that.
If I only released my music on the internet, I wouldn’t be able to feel connections to my listeners. I would only see some numbers. In my shows, I can feel the people.
How is it for you the private part of making music, the creative process in the studio?
For me, making good music is like cutting a diamond from a rock. I already have it in me, but if I polish it the right way, it is going to shine.
Recently, I enjoy making music more than before because I’m studying, which for me means collecting new “rocks”.
I used to not care about learning new things. I didn’t care about talking to people because I didn’t care about what they might think. I wanted to focus only on my own thinking. Lately, I’m more curious so I have mountains of “rocks” in my head.
You are now more willing to learn and listen to others’ opinions about your music. Is that a sign that you have matured as an artist in some way?
Maybe before my mind was older than now, my way of thinking was stiff. Now, I feel more natural, more neutral, and pure. I don’t feel more adult, just freer than before.
I’m 26 now, but I hate when people talk about ages. We may die at 100 years old, so is 40 old? It’s a waste of time to think about it.
In your music, but especially in your live performances, you project a very powerful image. Sometimes it strikes me as very masculine as if it evoked for me the male archetypes of the superhero, the warrior, or the sports star. Do you feel like that?
For me, it is all about the swag. It’s a swaggy image, not masculine.
Swag is something difficult to explain. If it represents a new way of masculinity, that’s swag. Conventional, traditional masculinity, that’s not swag.
I think swag means that something has fresh new air, a new meaning. It is not meaningful, but it is meaningful.
A big part of swag comes from personal style. Your clothes, your cars, tell me about them.
When you see really cool, tuned-up cars on the street, look at the drivers — their outfits are bad! They may have a sense of visuals for cars but if their outfits are not good, they don’t have the whole vision.
You can see cosplay in Akihabara, people dressed as manga characters. Musicians in Japan are similar. Some pretend to be Sid Vicious, some pretend to be others. I would never wear this kind of clothes.
I don’t know much about fashion, I think it’s not something serious. It’s like a casual philosophy. Maybe today you want to tie your hair, or wear loose outfits, maybe you want to hide your body… Choices have meaning. Why red today, why yellow?
In your case, why blue? Is blue your color?
Don’t you think that Japan is somehow blue, that it has a specific kind of blue? When you take a picture in London or in Barcelona, the light is different, you can tell.[He shows me a picture where a bright blue sky can be seen] This kind of blue is really “Tokyo” for me. It connects my memories and childhood, it’s important and feels natural and comfortable for me.
If you had to pick what defines you as an artist, would that be your swag?
The swag would be one of the things, but I also think I have a poet’s perspective.
I’m not a musician type of musician. I don’t play guitar or piano, I hear sounds as a poet — if I sample something and it sounds good, that’s ok for me.
Some of my friends who are real musicians pay attention to technical details, but for me, music is just a big poem.
If you were a superhero, what superpower would you like to have?
Hmm. [Stays silent for a while] I’m thinking about it seriously, huh?[A while after] Maybe I don’t need any superpowers! Imagine how lonely superheroes are. There will only be one Superman, only one, ever. I think that’s sad.
I would be like Ironman, he doesn’t have a superpower, he creates his own powers but he is still human.
Do you believe in fate? That you’re a musician for a reason?
I’m still a beginner in this life. I just want to keep going and see how it turns out.
Do you sometimes imagine how your life and your music will be in the future, or rethink how they were in the past?
I just can imagine next year. I don’t have any specific goals. When I get ideas, they are 100% pure. After they come out, they tend to be shinier than in my head, but I really try to keep that purity.
At the same time, the things that I didn’t do well are like a diary for me. When I did my first song, the mixing was not good, maybe now I would do it better, but I also really love it. It has a meaning.
I really like my music! Sometimes I think “what is good to listen to? Tohji? I will listen to Tohji right now!” [laughs]
Do you always feel confident about what you do? Don’t you doubt yourself sometimes or question if you are good enough?
Only climbable walls come to us. Even if I feel that something is wrong, I will still be able to fight. Compared to death, these are easy issues. It should be fine!
Do you think about death sometimes?
I don’t think about death that much. Maybe I’m an optimistic person.
I just don’t want to regret my life. I focus on making the best choices.
Sometimes creating is a way to leave something in the world that can outlive you. Do you wonder if people will listen to your music when you are not alive anymore?
I want to make music at the greatest level, but for example, take the Sex Pistols. 50 years from now, no one will care about them. Of course, their impact still remains, but what they did was something great for them. I think that’s the important thing.
I just want to do the greatest things for myself. I don’t care about how long my music will remain if it’s perfect for me while I’m alive and can enjoy it.
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You said that performing live is what you enjoy the most about music. Is it also where you feel more alive, more connected?
My live show is my greatest moment of happiness.
I can be the air in the venue. I’m there as a human but at the same time, I’m the air. I’m flying, spreading through the space.
If you have found the key to your true happiness, then what’s next? Is that the meaning of life for you?
It is a really good feeling but it disappears easily. After the show, it’s gone. Maybe because I want to feel it again, I keep making music.
When I make music that I truly like, that feels really good. When I fall in love with someone, it feels really good. When friends become really close friends, that feels really good.
I can’t say that life is a tragedy. I can’t say that. It’s not like that.
What feeling or emotion is the most inspiring for you?
Freshness. Touching something new, finding something new. That’s the best feeling for me.
Finding a new me.
How do you find a new you?
I beat myself, I beat my past. If you get to recover, then you are a new you.
You have collaborated with many artists, both Japanese and from overseas. How has that been?
These days I’m not as interested in collaborating as before. I want to collaborate with my friends, but I need to push them! It’s a bit difficult for them.
For example, my Korean friends say that the only way to be famous in their country is by appearing on a TV show called Show Me the Money, a rap competition. Every rapper wants to be in that show, so they change their styles to fit on TV. My friends say that’s the reason why there are only a few interesting underground artists in Seoul, especially rappers. In that way, the situation in Japan is better than in South Korea.
Do you think young underground artists can become famous in Japan easily?
In Europe, artists that have different jobs and make music as a hobby may become huge in the underground. However, in Japan, most people have to make a decision between having a job or keeping making music.
In Japan, a job means you have to work sometimes until midnight, wages are small, and on the weekend, you just want to sleep! If young artists don’t get to the mainstream in 3 or 4 years, most of them will quit making music.
Many of my friends that make music are in the last grade of University, so the time to make a decision is coming. If I make a little economy for them, as I did with Mall Boyz, maybe they will be able to make it. I need to make a little economy around us.
I feel that the Japanese youth is quite aware of the global music scene. Do you feel that happens the other way around? Is the Japanese music scene known abroad?
I feel that being Asian is somehow cool right now. Asian artists are starting to get booked in the West. I think that’s because BTS and K-pop got to the mainstream, so bookers from overseas may look for Asian underground musicians as well. It’s just the beginning. I think this will be different five years from now.
That being said, I also think that Japan has a big industry. Mechatok and Bladee were amazed about my appearance at the Pop Yours festival. They said that performing at a big festival like that would be a dream for them, as it is not common in Europe for musicians like us to be included in events that big. However, in Japan, I’m making music that is not traditional hip-hop but I can be there. That is really surprising for them.
After being in London, I noticed that the Japanese scene is big, and there are many fans. That’s why artists can focus only on the Japanese market. That has a good side and a bad side.
You have the feeling that the situation will change. Do you mean that there will be more connections between the Japanese music scene and other scenes around the world?
I think so, that is why I bring my friends with me when I go to Europe, and why I always bring international artists to Japan.
I’m trying to create a whole new scene involving Europe and Asia, and a scene between Japan, Seoul, Taiwan… I already feel that it’s there, there is something happening.
What are the good and bad sides of Japanese artists that focus only on the Japanese audience?
There are two big streams in Japanese modern art industries, Takashi Murakami’s side and Makoto Aida’s side. Takashi Murakami really cares about the Western context of art. He always knows what’s going on in the Western art industry, so he always produces works that put him in the right position in that context. That is why he is one of the big artists right now.
However, Makoto Aida doesn’t care about the Western context, he is really Japanese. Maybe from a Western perspective, what he does is just crazy hentai stuff — which is true, though!
The two views are in conflict. The different sense of context, Japanese and Western, is always stressing me out. So my next move is to create a new context between both worlds, not only Western, not only Japanese.
What should be done to achieve this new context, this new scene where Western and Japanese music connect more?
We need to express everything, not only music. We should make more videos, videos have a lot of information. For example, if you see reggaeton videos you can see not only music but also the culture. Also, I think Japanese artists should learn more English!
First, we need to know the world. Let’s watch the world and then let’s make the alternative. This is the step one right now. I already know a bit about it, so I’m trying to make that new context, a new scene.
You always mention the artist Ayumi Hamasaki as being a big inspiration for you. That makes me happy because, unfortunately, I think it’s not common among male rappers to state female pop artists as an influence. Tell me about her.
That may be true. I have never thought about her gender or the genre of her music, I simply like her whole vibe. Her high-pitched voice is really good and she is swaggy!
Ayumi Hamasaki’s music from the 2000s is really good. She is a symbol of that era. She represents my favorite side of Japan at that time, my good old memories.
When I went to a big water park, her music was always playing from broken speakers. When I went to a theme park and I was on a rollercoaster with a girl. If I went to a purikura center to take pictures together, her music was playing. If I went to my friend’s house, her mother was listening to her.
Her shiny, ghetto, intense vibe fits those locations. She is not my only influence, of course, but she connects me with my good memories.
Would you like your music to be played at those places, like theme parks, water parks, or purikura centers?
The point is that I liked Ayumi Hamasaki’s music played on broken speakers.
I also liked Drake’s music with shopping mall reverb. In front of some sports stores, they played Drake’s music that echoed in the hall. I really liked that as a kid.
I find this spatial perception of music very interesting. Which is the best place to listen to your music?
My music is good to listen to in the car!
Apart from Ayumi Hamasaki, what other people are an inspiration for you?
Takeshi Kitano, of course. I like his personality even more than his work. He is huge, he is the whole thing. He is more rapper than rappers!
He is a symbolic person to me. He started with owarai, the Japanese type of comedy. Now, owarai is enormous in Japan, but when he started, it was really underground. It became big because of him.
In the 80s – 90s he was the king of TV as a comedian, but he comes from a poor area, and he has always cared about the people there. He has a comedian team, Takeshi’s army, and he provides them with food and houses. When he has a show on TV, he brings them.
Takeshi Kitano broke a lot of rules. He changed the entertainment industry because of his sense of justice. He always pushed his own faith, his own perception of what’s good. And it always worked.
When he was in his 40s, he started making movies. He is really good at showing the real Japan. There are many cheesy TV shows about Japanese life, but for me, that’s not Japan. Takeshi Kitano can film the real Japanese soul, and the emotional side of Japan.
He even got awarded at Venice Film Festival. He won in two contexts, in Japan, and in the world. That is cool.
Change the rules, follow one’s vision, give back to the community, and represent the real Japan in Japan and overseas. Is that what you want to do? That seems like a lot!
That is why I feel this is just the beginning for me. I have still a lot of things to do. If I continue, I will be able to do it, but continuing is difficult. We can go crazy and make good things for a limited period of time, but following up, and caring about everything, is difficult. I need to care about money, I need to care about my people to be able to continue. And also, I need to care about myself.
Do you feel that you have the power and the energy to change the current Japanese music scene?
Not just the music scene, for me it is a whole – music, video, live shows, etc. The culture. And not just the Japanese culture, I think it will be mixed in the future.
That’s why I started, I thought I could do better than other artists. I’m just enjoying the process, there are no goals.
No goals but big goals!
That is my way of thinking, everything is unlimited. Paul McCartney is still making music today, so there are no goals, no limits.
I think the most important part is enjoying the process big time. After that, we will see.
Who is Tohji today?
It’s still a process, but I wanted to build a gate to the next dimension, to a new scene. I have planted a lot of seeds, so this year I think my friends will do better than ever.
Also, artists from overseas are starting to come to Japan. Maybe the coming years will be years for exploring. For now, I have just opened the gate.
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