Beatmaker’s Corner: Last Japan

Words: Yemi Abiade
Photography: Hyperfrank

To the untrained ear, the sounds of grime may comprise of nothing but distorted basslines, unpolished drums and glacial synths. Some may dismiss the musical aspect, unknowing of the graft required to make it sound so original. This is where producers like Last Japan come in. A maverick in every sense of the word, the Sutton-born, London-based beatmaker has reinforced grime’s sonic foundations while simultaneously challenging tradition by injecting intense cinematics and structure, giving his soundscapes an added layer of gravitas. For a beatmaker almost a decade deep in the game, with tracks and beats that can sit beside some of the genre’s very best, his style is comparable to that of a film composer, and one in particular has guided his journey in earnest.

“My sound is raw, gritty, atmospheric grime,” Last Japan tells me in the heart of Bow E3, grime’s ground zero. “Hans Zimmer is a big source of inspiration; his music-making skills are just amazing. I discovered him through Inception and that was the first time I watched a film and thought the music was amazing. Then going back and discovering he did The Lion King, Gladiator, Interstellar—his portfolio is amazing. I’ve always been a big fan of outer space, and Hans encapsulates that. I think I take the suspense factor from his music—the idea that you’re waiting for something to happen before it does. I love his simplicity; he doesn’t overcomplicate things.” Zimmer’s influence is embedded in Japan’s DNA, and this approach is evident in his varying sounds. Underneath its dark and contrasting sounds and textures lies a sense of adventure, with every kick, snare and bridge acting as flashpoints in an audio movie—a soundtrack, if you will. A highly methodical approach, it highlights his intense focus on perfecting each component to make the overall product stronger. 

Japan owes this to his time in university studying music production, placing an overlooked academic edge on a sound born on the streets. He had been immersed since childhood, where he picked up the drums and guitar, but his education would have an early impact. “That was more focused on pop music,” he explains. “In doing that, I learned how things should be mapped out, and I add that to my music. People don’t realise how well produced pop music is; they tend to think it’s very microwaved and throwaway, but it’s actually produced to a tee. People don’t appreciate the work that goes into grime either; they think it’s made really quickly without much thought. They don’t realise the production value that goes into it, and what it takes to make grime sound like grime. To make it sound relevant and of an era that it still encapsulates is hard to do sometimes.”

Being naturally drawn to grime as he entered university, Last Japan had to start from scratch after a childhood in which, musically, he was on the other side of the tracks. In fact, the impetus to make beats came from a source unrelated to grime. “It was a mate of mine showing me the Justice album, Cross,” he remembers. “Back then, I listened to grime but was just going to university and got out of that phase of liking rock music. I didn’t have any black friends growing up—I went to a white school where I was one of two black boys there—and I just listened to what everyone else was listening to. I remember listening to that album and thinking, ‘Shit! I don’t have to rely on bandmates or other people—I can do this myself.’”

“For the listener, I’m trying to build an aesthetic where they feel something—intimidation or even inspiration.”

Beginning his career in 2009, equipped with a formal education, a booking agent and a manager, Japan set about separating himself from other beatmakers, leaning towards the lush, speaker-shaking sounds that the likes of Justice made popular. As he lays out his creative process, the detail behind his beats are given more focus: “I’m very much on the idea of finding a sound. I have to find the mood to make what I want to make, finding a melody that fits with me, and quite often I’ll take that from what I can see out my window, or what I hear going for a walk—the general vibe of where I am. Then I build around that sound. I’m heavy into percussion and drums and building the different element from there. For the listener, I’m trying to build an aesthetic where they feel something—intimidation or even inspiration.” Localising his music to maximum effect, the harshness of London life—with all its twists and turns—are encapsulated precisely and in varying degrees, creating an endless cycle of innovation that grows with every release.

By Last Japan’s second evolutionary stage in 2012, sans agent and manager, a collaboration with the legendary emcee Trim, “Blood Diamond”, was a bubbling period in which his atmospheric powers shined brighter. This opened the path for the release of his Ride With Us EP in 2014, with features from Trim, Rapid, Mr. Mitch and Treble Clef, further confirmation that his name carried weight among respected MCs, DJs and producers. By now, his sound had evolved from the heady gloss of Justice to the icy grit of grime, and the craftsmen in him had fully blossomed.

Running in parallel with his own music was the journey of Japan’s label, Circadian Rhythms. Co-founded with fellow music-maker Blackwax in 2013, it has jettisoned from its humble origins as a (still functioning) two-hour monthly show on NTS Radio to a fully-fledged imprint, and the brains behind some of UK club music’s most forward-thinking releases in recent times. For Japan, the label’s concept was, and remains, simple: “We wanted to do something that we weren’t seeing with labels that were about, and it was a good melting pot for people who were into music and did radio together. Everyone’s ideas are put in and out comes the music, art design and stuff that people are really passionate.” But how has he gotten accustomed to releasing his own music through his own means? “The label gets me out of my comfort zone,” he says. “When we started doing it, there was always a feeling when we did something about whether it was good or not, or if I’m being mental. It’s great to channel stuff that I wouldn’t normally do into the label.”

This personal growth and evolution is no more apparent than on his magnum opus, the AJ Tracey-assisted “Ascend”—an hypnotic, layered and intergalactic banger for the ages that sounds like grime in the year 3000. “I’m happy to know that if someone asked me to play a song that encapsulated my sound, it would be ‘Ascend’,” he reflects, such is the level of personal and musical triumph the track represents. Creeping its way into club nights and DJ sets, the track, released in 2016, is quintessential grime that looks to the future, serving a dual purpose of appeasing elements old and new.

The cold and crisp confines of his Bow surroundings inspired the track, and they are the focal point of his upcoming EP, LUNA (set for release on March 23 via Coyote Records), and recent track “Wrong One”, featuring Prynce Mini, is a fiery sign of things to come. But, even as our conversation draws to a close, I get a sense of ease as he enters a new phase: contentment. Gone are the restless days of balancing music with normal life in the hopes of being seen and heard; in their place is satisfaction at the journey taken, and the unpredictability that continues to come with it.

“I’m proper relaxed about [music] now,” he says. “I think that’s down to the fact that I have a kid, and that’s made me more content. I think I’m enjoying it more now because it’s gone back to being more of a hobby. When I was doing a zero-hour contract job struggling to pay rent, desperately trying to make music, it was giving me the worst writer’s block, and now I’m at a point where I’m not forcing myself to make music—it flows so much more naturally. I enjoy it a lot more, and I’d love to get it to a point where I’m making music for film, but I’d equally be as happy doing what I’m doing now. They’re equal to me now.”