A Conversation With DJ Healthy

Michael McKinney speaks to DJ Healthy about moving to New York, starting his own record label, supporting Japanese and Korean artists, and more.
By    June 16, 2023

Image via DJ Healthy/SoundCloud

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Masahiro Ueda keeps a low profile. The DJ and promoter, better known as DJ Healthy, started spinning records in Yokohama’s club circuit, playing trance and techno at a club where he once tended bar. After a move to New York, he has deepened and broadened his sound, pushing a heady fusion of techno, breaks, and trance. His approach is both omnivorous and highly specific; it takes the million venn diagrams of modern dance music as an invitation to go deeper and stranger still. Tune into one set from Ueda and you’re liable to hear alien breakbeat-techno, steamrolling hard-drum, and light-speed percussion workouts; tune into another, and you might find stomach-churning ambience and black-hole drum-and-bass.

This may make his methodology seem all over the map, but that isn’t exactly the case. In his practice, Ueda focuses on low-end frequencies and head-nodding kick-drums; his sound is focused on keeping ravers moving even as he threatens to turn the dancefloor inside out. In this manner, he recalls several critical contemporaries: Aurora Halal, a similarly-minded techno-etc. DJ from New York; Special Guest DJ, who specializes in head-spinning ambience and drum-and-bass; and Huerco S., who, after making his name with otherworldly ambience, has since pivoted towards anything-goes club-music delirium. It should come as little surprise that Ueda has worked with each of these names—his sound, like theirs, is rooted in classic dancefloor idioms and filled with promises of parts unknown.

Ueda’s work behind the decks is hardly the whole story, though. Just as DJing is about bridging styles and sounds, the rest of his work is about furthering the links between Tokyo and New York, putting two wildly different dance-music cultures in conversation with each other. In late 2021, he launched Will Records, a label intended to showcase the talent in Japan’s electronic-music scene while branching out across the Atlantic. Alongside the aforementioned Halal, Ueda is responsible for Sustain-Release Tokyo, an international outgrowth of one of the States’ most prized underground dance-music festivals.

Following a gig in Minneapolis, we got a chance to catch up with Ueda, digging into the intersections of DJing and promotional work, the challenges of promoting clubs in Japan, and the communal spirit of dance music.

How did you first get involved in club music?

DJ Healthy: I’m from Japan—I was born in Osaka, but I grew up in Yokohama. I was listening to a lot of punk, but, somehow, I got into trance music when I was a teenager. It was just in the air at the time; a lot of people were listening to it, and there was a real scene for trance.

What prompted your move stateside?

DJ Healthy: I started working at a nightclub in Tokyo when I was 20 or 21. I worked there for three years, and then I wanted to grow my career a bit more. A friend of mine recommended I move to New York, so I did.

Prior to working there, were you attending shows regularly? Or was that job your entry point?

DJ Healthy: Yeah, the job was my entry point into clubs. As I said, I was getting more into trance music: psychedelic trance, progressive trance, and then techno. This club—a big nightclub in Tokyo—focused on techno. I started working as a staff member there: running the entrance, doing a little bit of bartending. But I started DJing there, too, and organizing parties.

Who got you into DJing?

DJ Healthy: My friends who worked at nightclubs—Everyone was a DJ, everyone was a raver. An older coworker gave me turntables, actually: I was very lucky.

Out of curiosity: what model?

DJ Healthy: It’s a Technics SL-1200MK2. I don’t know how long she had it before me, but I’ve been using it for fourteen or fifteen years at this point. When I started DJing, I exclusively used vinyl—I still do that, sometimes, but now I play more digital music.

What prompted that switch?

DJ Healthy: CDJs are just more functional for what I do. Additionally, the music I play is often only released digitally.

How would you describe your approach to DJing now? I’m thinking of your Animalia set from last year, as well as the set you did alongside Significant Other as Maserati—that’s a pretty wide range.

DJ Healthy: Yeah, I think I play a wide range of material. I try to find material with similar structures or aesthetics and connect those elements when I DJ. But, more than that, I want to engage with the dance floor. I want to play material that works in that context while making something aesthetically cohesive.

Where do you dig for that material?

DJ Healthy: I keep an eye out for what my friends recommend, but, honestly, it’s mostly Bandcamp. I used to search through Discogs for particular sounds—something like “Axis Records releases from 1988-1991″—but I don’t do that as much any more. Since I’ve pivoted to digital music, I find Bandcamp to be more useful.

I mentioned Maserati earlier, which brings to mind the 3XL crew. How’d you hook up with them?

DJ Healthy: I met Shy [Special Guest DJ] at an event with the Kansas crew, the c- crew. I also met Brian Leeds [Huerco S.] and Beta Librae in New York in 2013. That’s before they got more famous. And I met Ryan [Loecker, co-founder of c-] through this Japanese guy, Ultrafog. Are you familiar with Ultrafog?

Yeah, I’ve heard some of his work.

DJ Healthy: He’s a good friend of mine. He helped introduce me to that circle, and now that circle has expanded substantially. Since then, I’ve been to Kansas twice—that was my first real Midwest experience.

Was that for a weekender with the c- folks?

DJ Healthy: Yeah. They’re doing one in June, actually. The lineup is pretty solid. I was invited, but I’m going to be busy with Sustain-Release Tokyo things in mid-June.

That actually leads nicely into my next question. I first saw your name on the Sustain-Release Tokyo flyers a few years ago—how did that come about?

DJ Healthy: I met Aurora Halal, who runs Sustain-Release, in 2013 or 2014; I was DJing similar material to her. In 2016, I moved back to Tokyo for a few years; I had a student visa, but I was running out of money. When I was back in Tokyo, I thought about all those artists I’d met in New York; their careers were all starting to pick up speed. So I thought to myself, “It’s a good time to bring them to Tokyo.” I actually brought Aurora Halal on her first tour of Asia, in April of 2016. And that just kept going: I brought her to Asia a few times, and then DJ Python—just finding ways to get my friends to play here.

I booked on a very small scale: two people at a time, maximum. But I wanted to do more; I wanted to bring everyone together. And so many of the DJs I know are part of a similar scene; everyone was playing Sustain-Release. So I reached out to Aurora—would she like to do Sustain-Release Tokyo? Fortunately, she said yes.

What’s your approach with Sustain-Release Tokyo now? Are you trying to say, “Here’s some talent from New York that I want to highlight?” Is there some kind of musical or aesthetic difference in the scenes that you’re trying to explore?

DJ Healthy: Aurora directs everything, but we decide everything together – we’ll suggest artists to each other until we’ve narrowed it down. But the Japanese scene is a bit different; we need to figure out who fits best at any given time.

What makes the scenes distinct from each other?

DJ Healthy: It’s harder to promote a party in Japan. Underground music just has a broader audience in New York. There are a lot of great artists, of course, and great venues, but it’s a cultural difference. You have to push for people to go out in a way you don’t have to in New York. In Japan, getting people to go to a party has its own set of hurdles: people don’t go partying casually. I also try to work with up-and-coming artists, which makes it difficult. I want people to recognize new talent, but it’s harder when people don’t necessarily know the name at the top of the poster.

I want to support Japanese and Korean artists; I’d actually like to bring more Japanese artists to the United States, too. But that’s actually more difficult than doing the opposite. There are a lot of great DJs in Japan, but fewer producers, I think. That makes it harder for them to be recognized by audiences overseas.

Does this tie into your approach with Will Records?

DJ Healthy: Yeah. That’s a way for me to support producers that I want to get overseas; it’s a way for me to get people outside of Japan and get them shows in New York.

So a placement on Will is an endorsement of sorts, then? A way of saying, “I want to see this person in Nowadays?”

DJ Healthy: Yeah. When I moved back to Tokyo, I started working at this experimental music venue called Super Dommune. And I got really into listening music and ambient music; at this point, I became interested in making more unusual records. So of course I’d like to support other Japanese artists making this kind of material.

So, in that context, Food Poison Center [Will Records’s debut release] makes sense: it’s almost a bridge between those two worlds, with noise and ambient and experimental sounds connected to club sounds, to juke, to footwork.

DJ Healthy: Exactly.

What kind of listening music are you into right now?

DJ Healthy: I’ve got an upcoming record by 荒井優作 [Yusaku Arai], who produces R&B and hip-hop, but it’s very avant-garde: very piano-centric and ambient. There’s also Kazumichi Komatsu, of course. There’s Dean Blunt and Motion Ward. On the club music side, I’ve really been enjoying aya, georg-i, and Malibu.

Where do you want to take Will Records next?

DJ Healthy: As I mentioned earlier, I want to support Japanese artists, but I also want to support my friends; it’s not an exclusively Japanese proposition. But I’m pressing all the records myself—this takes time. So, for now, I’m preparing for our next release, and I’m figuring out what comes next.

Let’s go back to the Japanese scene. You mentioned that when you started DJing, there was a lively trance scene. Is that sound still relevant? What would, say, a Super Dommune club night sound like today?

DJ Healthy: Super Dommune is really great, but not for those reasons. Their program isn’t exclusively DJing; they also host conversations around electronic music. It’s very culturally supportive; their founder is a legend in Tokyo’s scene. He started VJing pretty early, and started Dommune before, say, Boiler Room took off.

In 2019, Yoshio Ojima and 柴野さつき [Satsuki Shibano], a Japanese pianist, put out an ambient record with Visible Cloaks. I booked them for a show at Super Dommune—with Huerco S., actually—and it went really well; the club was really happy with the show. From there, I ended up working as an overseas coordinator for them. I worked as their tour manager in Europe and Japan in 2019. We had a chance to do a few more shows, but then things shut down due to COVID-19. I’ve been wanting to bring them to the United States, which might happen soon.

One possible tension I see in your work is that you seem to be moving in two directions at once: you’re DJing more frequently, but you’re also doing more and more external promotional work. Do you see much of a difference in how you approach those practices?

DJ Healthy: It’s one continuous whole. At the end of the day, each of those practices are about promoting the things I love.

What’s next on the horizon for you?

DJ Healthy: Well, in June, we’re doing Sustain-Release Tokyo, and in July, I’m going to tour Europe, which I’m looking forward to. I can’t go into much detail yet, but I’m planning to do a small festival in October. It’s a culmination, in a way: ever since I was 20 and started working in nightclubs, I’ve always wanted to do this. So I’m very excited about that.

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