Interview: m-flo's Taku Takahashi

by Zac Bertschy,

m-flo, the Japanese electronic group composed of DJ Taku Takahashi, rapper Verbal and vocalist lisa, scarcely needs an introduction – they've been experimenting with a unique blend of electronic music and hiphop for the last 20 years, continually surprising their fans with an inventive sound that has evolved many times over the last two decades, creating a deep, eclectic and highly respected catalog alongside a small mountain of truly inspired visual art (and even a fashion line). Although they've always managed to find success in Japan, their first performance in the United States happened only just last year as part of Anisong World Matsuri. This year, they're coming back, bringing both that unique sound and prodigal vocalist lisa with them, ready to headline OtaQuest Live, an EDM showcase featuring a handful of Japan's big electronic acts in an attempt to bring the Tokyo club experience straight to fans in Los Angeles.

We had the chance to sit down with Taku Takahashi ahead of their performance to ask him a few questions about his legendary career, performing in the states, and collaborating with Western artists.

So how did you originally get in to hiphop? What about the genre spoke to you, and which artists inspired you to try your hand at it?

When I was young I'd visit the record store and browse the genres – everything from rock to Chicago House to European House, one of them was hiphop. I loved them all, but I loved that the sound of hiphop was very crunchy, using love – samples, and on top of it there was rap. I loved the whole essence of it, I got into it.

Which artists specifically inspired you to think “OK, I can do this. I'm going to do this.”

My favorite artist will always be A Tribe Called Quest. And Pharcyde. Lord Finesse. Gosh, that makes me feel old – I shouldn't say that, though, Lord Finesse is amazing. I love his flow. It's interesting – we kinda started a hiphop, R&B group – especially because Verbal is a rapper, he's very hiphop oriented. m-flo is a very diverse sounding group – I don't mind being categorized as hiphop, but we don't just play typical hiphop-sounding tracks. I get a little nervous when people tell me “so you're a hiphop group” – and I'm like, yeah, a lot of the same spirit and mentality we got from hiphop culture, we were totally exposed to that. But honesly speaking, I'm more of an electronic artist who loves hiphop.

I really don't mind being categorized that way – it says that on our Wikipedia page. Which is great, but I get nervous. There are a  lot of people who really get serious about what “authentic” hiphop is.

But I'm like – whatever. We make music. We make whatever we think is really cool.

You've collaborated with dozens of world-famous artists, like Kanye West and the Beastie Boys. Which of those encounters were you intimidated by?

m-flo has three members – lisa, Verbal, and myself. We've collaborated with western artists before, but most of that stuff was done by Verbal. I wouldn't say he was intimidated by them – more that he was inspired by them. He worked with Kanye West on his side project, Teriyaki Boyz. Recently he worked with Pharrell on that song for Detective Pikachu.

I was with Pharrell the other day – people like that don't intimidate us. They're very down to earth, nice people – they just like music. They're legends, but they're also just people.

In your earliest days, you threw dance parties in Tokyo. Do you miss that?

Well, truth is we never stopped doing that. We have OtaQuest Live at the Novo Theater – after that we have another event, we're DJing the OtaQuest Kickoff, which is basically a dance party. So technically we just never stopped.

Taku Takahashi

There's a ton of wild visual art in your promotional materials and music videos. Although it might sound like an oxymoron, how important is visual art when it comes to making and selling music?

Aesthetics are very important. The music always comes first – unless we don't have the right music, then it doesn't work. But at the same time, how it looks is very important, especially nowadays with internet culture. This is post-MTV; we're in a different era. We have to show our identity not only with music but also with visual art. Fashion's very important – Verbal has a brand, Ambush. His stuff is very unique. You really don't have to stick with only one medium to express what you want to express. You can just do whatever you want – have fun. 

Do you enjoy the visual art aspect of it? Have you ever considered something like an art gallery show of your visual art?

We actually are doing an m-flo 20th anniversary party in Tokyo – it'll be a restaurant with a gallery exhibition. Photography, art, music, fashion - all those different aspects – that's very m-flo nowadays.

Where do you like to perform the most? Do you have a favorite venue in the USA?

Last year's performance at the Microsoft Theater, that was a very unique performance for us. We usually only perform in Japan. We had some foreign fans thanks to the internet, which I am very greatful for, but that was our first performance in the US. I'd say my favorite venue is probably Chicago Synergy – Hyatt Ballroom. People go crazy there.

In Japan, my favorite venue is in Kyoto, called Kyoto World.

 Among your legendary albums, which do you think was the hardest to make?

Every time it's a challenge. There's never been an album that was easy to make. I tend to think a lot, I dig up a lot of different music and samples. The music gods, the music goddesses – they never smile at me unless I work really hard.

It's always a big challenge, but frankly speaking, the album we're working on right now, that's the biggest challenge. Not because lisa came back to our group. We haven't released an album for over 5 years. But it isn't only that, but the entire music industry is changing. We're professionals – of course we have to satisfy the listeners, that's very important but more importantly, we have to be true to ourselves. We have to do something that we believe is truly “us”. Something we feel energized by, proud of. It was very hard for us to find that place.

We finally started to find the point where it felt “Correct” – we released a new song a short while ago called “Starstruck”. It's a little controversial with fans, it's a new style for m-flo, but just as a reminder, we've always been evolving. We'll keep changing and changing. The next song will be totally different too – I hope you get to check it out!

Among working rappers today, whose flow do you respect the most?

I'm always impressed with love. I'd say Shinichi Osawa – he's my mentor, my friend. Towate is great. Younger artists, like Yasutaka Nakada. You might know Kyary Pamyu Pamyu – all that music is created by Yasutaka. He and his group Capsule will be performing at Otaquest Live. He's a very good friend – always gives me inspiration.

The whole idea behind Otaquest Live is to work with artists I like, artists I'm inspired by, and bring the experience of what's actually happening in Tokyo to Los Angeles.

Our thanks to m-flo for this opportunity. You can catch m-flo – and a parade of other electronic artists from Japan – in Los Angeles at the Novo Theater on July 3rd. Tickets are available right here


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