For a man who has played a critical role in the development of the international clubbing scene since the early '90s, serving as a vital sonic conduit between Europe and the Far East (and later, America), Alex Prat has a curiously low-key profile. It's not because the Prat, better known as Alex from Tokyo, isn't a talented producer: As a member of Tokyo Black Star with Isao Kumano, he's spent the past decade crafting warm, tightly-focused analog house, much of it for the Innervisions label. It's certainly isn't because he's not a great DJ: Anyone who's caught him at any of his many worldwide gigs can tell you that he not only possesses an impressive knowledge of a wide swathe of dance music past and present, but also knows what to do with that knowledge, and has an obvious joy when working his magic behind the decks. No, the reason that Prat, born in France but raised in Tokyo (hence the nom de musique), has remained a bit under-the-radar is simple: He's simply a subdued, easygoing kind of guy, not the type to go in for cheap and easy self-promotion.
His profile might be about to change, though, as he's finally launched his own label, World Famous; the imprint's debut release, Tokyo Black Star's richly acidic Edo Express EP, hit the shops last month. XLR8R recently caught up with Prat in New York, a city he's called home for the past decade, to find out about his beginnings, Tokyo Black Star, World Famous and more.
You’ve been around for a while, so it’s a bit surprising that it’s taken you until now to have a label.
I know! I’ve been involved in music since…well, it’s hard to give an exact date.
How did you get started along this path?
I eased into it, starting as a teenager in Tokyo when I began to DJ. I moved back to Paris in ’91 to go to university, and I meet pretty much everyone who was in that little Parisian house-and-techno scene.
This was a bit before the French house scene really took off, right?
Definitely—it was still pretty small. But I started DJing in Paris with my two great friends, DJ Deep and DJ Gregory. We had a little unit called A Deep Groove—“A” for Alex, “Deep” for Deep and “Groove” for Gregory. We had a show on Radio FG, which was a gay station in Paris, and the first one to promote electronic music.
When did that show run?
From around ’93 to ’95. We were pretty much the only ones playing this mixture of New York–inspired house and garage, mixed in with a lot of different things; we had a pretty distinctive sound for the time. But in ’95, I I went back to Japan to finish my studies, and that when I would say that I really started my professional career.
I started working in a record store called Mr. Bongo. The original Mr. Bongo was in London, but in they opened a Mr. Bongo store in Shibuya in ’95. While I was working in the shop, mostly taking care of underground European dance music, especially house music, I was also starting to play professionally around Tokyo as a DJ. At the same time, I was becoming a kind of coordinator between Japan and different labels and artists, especially in Paris but also elsewhere.
You were the connection between East and West.
Something like that. I was helping to organize parties, making record deal…that kind of thing. I was slowly getting deeper into the scene. I stopped worked at Mr. Bongo around 2000.
What were you doing after that?
I was focusing more on my own projects. I was starting to travel a bit outside of Japan as a DJ.
Didn’t Tokyo Black Star start up around then as well?
Exactly. Tokyo Black Star really started around 2000, but even in ’98, I had done a couple of little remix projects with my partner Isao. But we weren’t calling ourselves Tokyo Black Star yet, just as Alex from Tokyo and Isao K. I was also part of this project on Yellow Productions called Bossa Très... Jazz. I basically coordinated the Japanese side of that, and we did a remix for that project. I was starting to get more of an international…thing going on, I guess. Then, around 2000, there was this partner of Kerri Chandler who was living in Japan, and he started a label called Bass Mental. He had liked what we had done in the past, and asked if we would do a remix for the label—which we did, and he really liked it. And while we were celebrating about that, somehow the name Tokyo Black Star came up. And that’s when we started as Tokyo Black Star.
But still, that was 15 years ago—why so long for a label?
Well, I had always dreamed about it, especially since I had been helping out with other record labels. For instance, I represented Laurent Garnier’s label, F Communications. All that was happening though the ’90s, which were like my formative years. And all my DJ friends were starting labels, too. But at the same time, I didn’t really feel ready; I was being cautious. Then, in the early 2000s, I did a couple of CD compilations for an independent label in Tokyo called Flavour of Sound. Through that compilations series, in 2003, I decided to release a vinyl on a sublabel, which I actually called World Famous.
What was that record?
The A-side was this kind of lost Japanese deep-house classic that came out in the second half of the ’90s from a friend of mine named Dan K. He doesn’t produce anymore, but he had made this really beautiful track called “Melancholic Dub.” It was a beautiful track, but the pressing it first came out on wasn’t that great. So I decided to remaster it and rerelease it, and on the B-side we had a Tokyo Black Star remix of an artist called Black Ark; he sounded a little bit like Sting, actually. So that was actually the first World Famous release. I was already spending a lot of time in New York, and I decided to get the mastering done at Frankford/Wayne.
Herb Powers's place!
That’s right. That was the first step of releasing music on my own label.
That would explain why the Edo Express EP is World Famous 002.
Yes! Anyway, it did take me a while to find my own path with the label.
But it’s certainly not like you haven’t been busy, anyway.
I had been mainly focusing on the music…on production. And it was very much about DJing, too. But like I said, a label was always in my head—and in the past couple of years, the idea was coming up more and more inside me. And finally the moment has come where I felt comfortably enough to do it.
Until this latest EP, Tokyo Black Star had been a bit quiet for a while. Was there any reason for the hiatus?
After the album [Black Ships] came out in 2009, we met some audiophiles in Tokyo and started to collaborate with them. In the summer of 2010, we all started an audio brand called Phonon; I represent the brand outside Japan from here in New York. And that’s been keep us pretty busy, as you can imagine that launching a new company would. But we started it purely out of passion, so even though it’s been challenging, it’s been really interesting, and we’ve been getting great feedback from the pro-audio and DJ worlds. It’s like a whole other Tokyo Black Star project, especially with the SMB-02 headphones; they’re kind of a Tokyo Black Star creation.
You guys had a lot of input with their development?
Yeah, we conceptualized them. Isao is a sound engineer, and over the years he’s been acting more and more as a mastering engineer. He is the engineer behind Phonon, really; he’s the one tuning the sound.
He’s really helped define the overall Tokyo Black Star sound itself, right?
Definitely. Our sound comes from his studio. The studio is customized by him; he even makes his own cables, for instance. It’s a very unique place, and our sound comes from his set up. That’s true of the Phonon sound as well; it’s really an extension of the Tokyo Black Star sound and spirit.
Tokyo Black Star now has a third official member, correct?
Yes! His name is Kenichi Takagi. We’ve been working with him pretty much since when our first Innervisions release came out—which is almost exactly ten years. He’s a very talented multi-instrumentalist, a real musician. And a real equipment nerd! He’s a huge fan of Yellow Magic Orchestra, and he has almost all of the same gear they had. [laughs] He totally knows how to recreate that YMO sound—but he’s very versatile, too; he can do pretty much anything. He’s been around helping us for so long—and after the week-long session we had making this record, really immersing ourselves in it, it seemed natural to bring him officially into the family.
As is often the case with Tokyo Black Star, the cover features some great artwork.
That’s from Tomokazu Matsuyama, a great Japanese artist who’s been based in New York for a while. We met through some common friends, and he’s actually be doing our visuals for quite a bit now, since early on in our adventures with Innervisions. He’s another part of the Tokyo Black Star family, and even after this long break, it seemed natural to bring him back. I think we share a similar sensibility, though he expresses his through brushes and colors. It’s like a meeting of East and West, with Japanese roots mixed in with New York pop art and street art.
What’s next, for both the label and Tokyo Black Star?
The second World Famous release will be in February; it’s a collaboration between Bing Ji Ling, who’s based here in New York, and myself. We made a track together in his East Village studio, and the release will be that original track along with a Tokyo Black Star remix. Then, on the B-side, there will be this really nice, acoustic cover version he did of Lil Louis’s “Club Lonely,” which I love, along with a Tokyo Black Star version—just like a club edit. It’s something completely different, but with a Tokyo Black Star edge to it. And then the third release will be in the springtime—it’s a 40-minute track.
Yeah, it’s almost like an album, a soundtrack that we created with six different sections within it. And then we’ll just see what’s going to happen! We have lots of music that’s half done that we would like to finish up, and we’d also like to release music from other people around the world. I’d really like to release music from Japanese artists who might not be that well known, so we can showcase them and introduce them to the world. And I hope to be doing a lot more collaborating as myself, as Alex From Tokyo, with all kinds of musicians. I wanted an outlet where I can really express myself, as fully as possible, while connecting all those cities that I’m connected to.
Between all that, your DJ schedule and Phonon, it sounds like you won’t be getting much sleep in 2016.
That might be true. [laughs] But I love it—being busy is what keeps me excited.
Top photo: Neil Aline