tofubeats: from Netlabels to Warner, the Portrait of an Online Prodigy


WordsRebecca Zissmann

With his sounds marked by 8-bit, an overload of synthesisers and virtuosic use of autotune, tofubeats creates dance pop that’s young, resolutely urban and with a party vibe. Aged just 29, Yusuke Kawai, to use his real name, has managed to make a name for himself as a producer on the contemporary Japanese music scene.

An online debut

His far from ordinary journey began in the realms of the internet in the late 2000s. This period saw the emergence of ‘netlabels’, online music publishers who allowed apprentice producers to gain an audience off the beaten track of the traditional music industry. One of the most famous netlabels, Maltine, founded in 2005, quickly set itself apart due to the richness of its sound world. This is the label tofubeats used to release his first music under the name DJ Newtown, while still at college in his hometown, Kobe.

Recognition from a record company

Thanks to netlabels, tofubeats met other artists with whom he organised events like Lost Decade club nights at Club Unit in Tokyo, which enjoyed a long period of popularity until his work was noticed by Warner Music Japan, who he signed with in 2013. A first single, ‘Don’t stop the music’, was released, featuring J-Pop singer Chisato Moritaka.

This was quickly followed by a first album with Warner, appropriately titled First Album and produced in just two months in summer 2014, which was quite a feat. Collaborations with top singers followed, some from Japan such as Bonnie Pink, and others including America singer LIZ, signed to the label run by DJ Diplo.

tofubeats - First Album

Music without boundaries

After committing himself to producing and writing songs for others, including some of the most popular J-Pop groups such as Momoiro Clover Z, tofubeats returned to centre stage with his third album with Warner, Fantasy Club, released in 2017. He takes to the mic on razor-sharp raps like ‘Shoppingmall’ where he discusses serious subjects, particularly the post-tryt era created by the democratisation of the internet and social media.

It’s a critique of the instrument which made him famous, and which makes Fantasy Club his most mature album to date. His diary became packed and the DJ performed sets, at the major Japanese music festival Summer Sonic and on stage in Taiwan, in spite of an illness that prevented him from travelling by plane for too long a period.

The following year, director Ryusuke Hamaguchi entrusted him with creating the soundtrack for the film Asako I & II, on which tofubeats excels. ‘River’, which closes the final sequence, is particularly memorable.

Since then, the talented producer has continued to provide the soundtrack to nights out in Japan and make the younger generation dance. At the start of March 2020, before the spread of coronavirus and the closure of many clubs, tofubeats released a new track, ‘Club’, from the mini-album TBEP. It’s an ode to the world of nightlife and endless DJ sets, almost like a premonition and a mirage which everyone is eager to see become a reality.

tofubeats - Fantasy Club