180g “Wamono” series revives obscure Japanese grooves
By Patrick St. Michel May 19, 2022
The birth of wamono series of Japanese jazz-funk and rare groove compilations were born from a chance meeting in a bar. “I met Max, one of the co-founders of 180gin a bar of [Tokyo neighborhood] Kichijoji called Baobab pure coincidence,” says DJ Yoshizawa Dynamite Daily Bandcamp. “I gave him one of my mix CDs. Later, Max contacted me by email, and I was happy that this Frenchman remembered me!
Maxime Brottes (Max) and Gregory Gouty, co-owners of 180g. In his home country, Yoshizawa is an established DJ and curator bringing attention to rhythmic songs long ignored. He helped compile one of best books devoted to the “Japanese Groove” ever alongside DJ Chintam, and subsequent compilations have brought these gems to listeners.
“It’s great, but it has to be on vinyl. This needs to be distributed outside of Japan,” says Gouty from his home in Nantes. The pair spoke to Yoshizawa, who connected them to Nippon Colombia, and they began bringing the Wamono sound to the world.
The first installment of wamono arrived in September 2020, offering a new perspective on older Japanese music amid a boom in urban pop and ambient recordings. 180g has released three volumes so far, along with a jazz-funk set featuring traditional instruments such as koto and shakuhachi and, more recently, a Collection “WaJazz” compiled by Japanese jazz expert Yusuke Ogawa.
“I think they help send unique Japanese music out into the world, making sure to highlight its charm,” Ogawa says of 180g. “The end product is beautiful.”
The label aims to bring both ancient and modern sounds to a wider audience that were once hidden away in a specific part of the world. Besides the wamono comps, 180g also releases albums by contemporary Japanese artists and reissues older albums by creators like Minoru “Hoodoo” Fushimi. They also work with a Japanese record store disk union stream modern Brazilian music in Japanese stores and digitally.
The way 180g operates isn’t like a Western label curating and showcasing non-English music, but rather a collaborative effort between artists and labels to bring their work to a wider stage.
Gouty lived in Tokyo from 2008 to 2015, working at Dub Store Records in Nishi-Shinjuku, a brick-and-mortar store and label specializing in reissues of Jamaican music. “I was the only foreigner in the company and learned a lot about the Japanese way of working and attention to detail.” After his stay in Tokyo, he wanted to create a label to help export Japanese music abroad. In 2017, he founded 180g with Brottes, a compatriot he had met at home and who, as an avid record collector, frequently traveled to Japan to dig and hang out at the Baobab.
“In fact, he brought [our first artist] Ajate to us because on one of his trips he met one of their members, and they gave him a CD at Baobab,” says Gouty. When Brottes brought it back to France, they listened to it and loved the fusion of afro-groove with traditional Japanese sounds, some of which are generated by instruments invented by the band.
“Usually the people who run labels value achievements and popularity, but 180g was fascinated by our music itself,” said Ajate singer Junichiro “John” Imaeda. “That was the deciding factor for our membership.”
Early on, 180g released releases from modern Japanese acts such as the exotic twist producer videocassettemusic and the freewheeling multi-instrumentalist Naoito. Ajate delivered the label’s very first release in 2017 Abrada; they remain one of the most important bands for 180g, and Gouty speaks highly of them, happy to have helped them tour Europe and plan future releases across the continent.
Gouty and Brottes’ experience in Japan had connected them with Disk Union, a popular series of stores specializing in physical music. “They asked us a few years ago if we would be interested in trying to release contemporary Brazilian music records together,” says Gouty. “They push today’s Brazilian music a lot in Japan, mostly on CD, so teaming up has allowed us to release a few records on vinyl and release them both in Japan and overseas.”
This partnership has led to many modern Brazilian albums being released through 180g, although Gouty singles out one performer as particularly important. “I would say the pivotal artist of this series is Leonard Marks, who is a multi-talented musician, singer-songwriter, and studio owner/engineer in Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, Brazil. His album 2019 Up early stands out, offering a snapshot of his mix of tropicália and psych rock. He’s produced other albums in the series, and Gouty says his next original release will arrive later this year.
Wamono A to Z Vol. 1
Once 180g met Yoshizawa in Tokyo, they focused on releasing a mix of his “wamono” sound to the world. The DJ connected the duo to Nippon Columbia, one of the country’s oldest record labels, and they set to work securing the rights to the songs. However, based on his experiences with major Japanese labels, Gouty anticipated a slow and potentially fruitless quest.
“But the guy in charge of Columbia, Tanaka-san, was like yeah, that’s a great idea, let’s do it. Surprisingly, it went really fast. Everyone was really excited about it.
Gouty says they envisioned it from the start as a three-volume series – the first would be more jazz-funk instrumentals, with the second with more votes and the third drifting in 1980s disco boogie. Yoshizawa says the compilations could only take inspiration from Nippon Columbia’s offerings, which ultimately limited the amount of music that could be released, but he still considers it a success. “I wanted those who live outside of Japan to hear some groovy old Japanese music that isn’t generally known.”
WaJazz: Japanese Jazz Show Vol.I
The 180g crew also kept tabs on Tokyo record store owner Yusuke Ogawa Universeounds and a comprehensive jazz encyclopedia. Like Yoshizawa, Ogawa had already released a compilation of deep Japanese jazz with HMV, and Gouty and Brottes wanted to help open new sonic worlds to listeners overseas. For almost two years, they managed to make it a reality.
“The goal of this series is to focus on Japanese jazz and help people discover this music from the 60s, 70s and 80s,” explains Gouty. “You will enjoy it, but you will also learn.”
It was equally important to Ogawa, who says his goal was to assemble the tracklist for WaJazz was to highlight the unique sonic and cultural significance of jazz in Japan. “It was the music of the time. This coincided with a period of rapid cultural and economic change in Japan. This historical context has definitely had an impact on the music.
Gouty says they are already hard at work on the second volume of WaJazz, and hope to spotlight even more contemporary designers from Japan in the coming months. They are also ready to take the next step to bring Japanese music to the world. Gouty hopes they can bring Ajate and Yoshizawa overseas soon.
“And I hope that this year we will go back to Japan. To go to concerts, meet artists, meet people.