I think we can all agree it feels like it’s getting a little “crowded” out there in the DJ/producer game right now. It takes more than just a few great tracks to get fully swept up into the hype machine — you also need a “snappy brand” and “engaging personality” as articulated through tweets and pics and vids. I’m getting bored just talking about it, I want to learn about kids who are finding Another Way and converting more disciples to the Church of Rave.
Enter Vena Cava aka Noah Koroman: for a year, this 19-year-old producer who came from rural Ohio to Hollywood has been telling me that there’s about to be a massive crossover in North America between EDM and the “Con scene.” He says that soon everyone who Animes will also be EDMing and vice versa. Over the last 12 months I’ve watched him build a real fan base solely marketing to fans of Japanese culture. Almost every major show he’s booked in the last 12 months came from networking at conventions and now his favorite Cosplay girl is a Vena Cava fan.
“The scene isn’t just centered around anime, it’s about Japanese pop culture,” says Noah. “And as a producer when that’s your input, your musical output is distinctly recognizable to any weeab.”
Oh yea, let’s clear up some lingo confusion before we continue. Weeab is short for weeabo, it’s a derogatory term for someone obsessed with Japanese culture that the scene just fully embraced. Otaku is a synonym for weeabo, and Comiket is the comic market held twice annually in Japan that is the origin of Comic Con, Anime Expo, and every other weeab convention. Dōjinshi translates to self-published works, and Comiket is the largest dōjinshi fair in the world. Its primary focus is art, comics, games, and music. And yes, you’ll need to know all of this in order to proceed.
Noah says that he, and every other producer friend he’s made at conventions, got into electronic dance music because they heard it in Japanese cartoons and rhythm games like Dance, Dance Revolution. Now the Rave is starting to show up at the Convention — the most PLURnt dance parties you’ve ever seen are going down in hotel ballrooms populated by overwhelmingly grateful kids who aren’t are too fucked up. Plus they have some BADASS COSTUMES.
“The crowd-seeing a DJ at a convention is infinitely better in my opinion. There’s an underground feel to it, people are packed together but they all make room to dance, there’s proper go-go dancer Cosplay girls onstage,” Noah explains, describing a party he went to during Anime LA last January. “Everyone is super conscious and dancing so hard, just getting down to whatever. It doesn’t even matter what you play, that’s what I like the most about it. They’re just down to have a good time.”
The whole “doesn’t even matter what you play” concept was most intriguing to me. I turned my attention to another American producer subject who has arguably “made it” in this scene. At the very least, you can say Akira Complex aka Brandon Thompson is legit big in Japan.
Brandon is a 21-year-old who lives in Raleigh, North Carolina and just got back from his second Japanese tour. He’s sold over 2,000 physical copies of his latest release, The Synthesis Collective, through S2TB Recordings — as in ACTUAL CD’s — and this is his 13th release in Japan. The Japanese culture is ultra respectful and they don’t steal music, so CD’s are still a real commodity that sell well online and at Comiket. This flow of income allows for tons of specialty items like posters and collectible toys to be made, and the fans buy everything.
“People go to Comiket to buy because it’s the Mecca of all anime stuff,” says Brandon. “The label can make posters and promotional CD’s and give away stickers without having to worry about losing profit because the culture is so supportive.”
But, he insists, sales is hardly the most exciting aspect. “When it comes to live performances in Japan, you can play anything. You literally play anything you want in your set as long as it’s signature to you. And it’s all about the melody, 100%. In the US when the drop’s coming they’re like YAAAAAAA, but for them it’s the melody that’s so uplifting, they barely pay attention to the drop.”
A simple question about the Akira Complex live setup revealed an even more bizarre nuance. “Oh yea, I change live set-ups like hairstyles. Right now I play on CDJs routed to a Focusrite audio interface, which is routed to Ableton. iZotope Stutter Edit is used for glitchy effects and modulations, I use an Akai APC Key 25 to tap and sync those glitchy effects to whatever tempo I’m playing. The keys control Stutter Edit’s modulations, the knobs control Tone2 Warmverb for more effects, the pads launch loops and synth stuff. A Midi Fighter 3d specifically launches samples, the Axis control manipulates the samples, and a Microsoft surface is used as a second screen so I can see all the plugins that are manipulating the incoming audio from the CDJs.”
And I’m like, “Whoa, wait wait, wait – you can’t possibly need all this stuff.”
Brandon smiles, “Well of course not, but your performance is a matter of how much you express yourself and how cool it is. We don’t consider ourselves to be DJ’s mostly, we’re just controllerists because we adapt to any setup and evolve it as much as we can. Experimenting with how you express yourself is in a way becoming its own trend.”
This guy blew my mind. Both he and Vena Cava pointed me towards one such master-controllerist called Shawn Wasabi aka Shawn Serrano from Salinas, CA who’s built a up a fat following on Youtube (58,000+ subscribers and he’s only been “pushing buttons” for a year), just releasing videos of himself playing songs on MIDI controllers. Raised as a classical pianist, Shawn now uses a small Midi Fighter Spectra and a custom 64 for the bigger jobs. Here’s an original song he casually made about hot dogs, I feel like more hours went into creating, performing and showcasing this track than go into many major releases.
The deeper I got down the Otaku rabbit hole, the more I could see what a pure sub-culture this still is. The expression rather than product-centered focus places a greater emphasis on creativity. Drugs are nearly impossible to get in Japan, so that element is largely removed, and the result is a far more conscious crowd. Income is flowing from all facets of the industry, which allows for an even greater artistic output and more innovation. And, what I think is the coolest part, is the fans are hungry for dōjinshi, the self-published, often amateur-created works, so new artists can count on support from the community. The weeabs are all about the new new, they honor amateur and professional creative works with the same degree of respect.
After writing this story, I can guarantee I’ll be at Anime LA this coming January. If us cheese-fed American EDMers start crossing over into the Con Scene and experiencing this more pure form of raving, maybe we’ll take it back with us into the mega-fests. Maybe the weeabs will bring their amazing attitudes and wicked Cosplay outfits to The Rave and elevate the whole EDM live experience just by being there. We have a lot to learn from our otaku brothers and sisters, they’re doing it right. Maybe I can be a weeabo and raver too.