Mitsu the Beats: Transnational Soul

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Twenty-eight-year-old DJ and producer Mitsu the Beats hails from Japan’s wilder northern climes (Sendai in the Miyagi prefecture)–think snow monkeys and hot springs, not bullet trains and the world’s largest city. Nonetheless, his ruthlessly smooth hip-hop is as metropolitan as it gets. Balancing an ear for hooks reminiscent of ‘93 with the boundless, borderless skills of Japanese MCs and occasional forays into broken beat, Mitsu is fast becoming a global talent.

Growing up on his father’s Japanese soul music and what he called “standard jazz,” Mitsu found hip-hop as a youngster through a Japanese TV program. “It always featured a dance battle with new jack swing-type music–artists like Heavy D,” he recalls. Mitsu was hooked, eventually becoming a battle DJ and teaming up with 2002’s DMC world champion DJ Kentaro. His horizons expanded even further when he met Taro Kesen of Jazzy Sport Production, who at the time was licensing tracks for the British label Laws of Motion. Mitsu developed a taste for the broken beats of West London and it was some of those DJs and producers, plus tastemakers like Michael Reinboth (Compost) and Patrick Forge (Kiss FM), who in turn began to champion Mitsu’s production.

Mitsu says that he follows the basic formula for making hip-hop (“Listening to records, sampling and adding dope beats to samples”), yet his New Awakening LP (Planet Groove) is anything but formulaic. From the shimmering guitar that rests beneath Rich Medina’s rap on “Do Right” to the restless rim shots and bass synth that push forward “Fly Away” with Lady Alma, it’s clear that Mitsu has a special talent for adapting his production to the differing strengths of vocalists. Mitsu’s collaboration with Dwele, “Right Here,” features delicate-but-earthy singing from the Detroit soul vocalist and an unforgettable sax sample over gritty hip-hop beats ‘n’ bass–it’s guaranteed to fill floors, though it’s been two years since it started its rounds on CD-R. And watch out when his Japanese cohorts (like Hunger from Mitsu’s hip-hop group G.A.G.L.E.) get on the mic, because their whip-crack, hard-edged consonants are the perfect compliment to Mitsu’s extra-crispy beats.

As the forthcoming Planet Groove album of remixes, a planned G.A.G.L.E. full-length, and new 12”s for Jazzy Sport will show, DJ Mitsu’s Sendai style can hold its own against anything from L.A. or London. Despite all this, Mitsu maintains a healthy perspective, adding modestly, “Me? I’m just a hip-hop producer.”