A few months ago I came to know the Japanese Rock A Shacka label through a package I received by surprise. Masaya Hayashi (Massa) runs the business for over 20 years, bringing Jamaican vintage vibes from on Island to an other.
There are lots of stories which have never been told. So this isn’t just an interview about Rock A Shacka and Drum & Bass Records. It is an unique insight into the Japanese reggae scene as well. A must read as I would say. Dear Massa and Matthew, thank you very much for making this possible.
Masaya, when and how did you get into Reggae business?
Masaya Hayashi: I started Drum & Bass Records around the end of 1980. It was a time when Tiger and DJs like that were really popular. At that time there were very few reggae record shops in Japan and there wasn’t a single shop which sold original 60s and 70s vinyl like Prince Buster, Studio One or Channel One. A friend of mine went to Jamaica to buy those kinds of records. Until then we had only really been able to buy them from auctions in the UK. So my friend went to Jamaica and came back with records he bought there.
I realised there were a lot of records to be bought over there, so I went there myself. After that I started the business. I didn’t have a shop back then. I was working as a carpenter at the time. So I saved money, went to Jamaica and after that I made a list and started selling records by mail order. I put an ad in a reggae magazine.
So when did you get the shop?
A DJ friend of mine said he was going to open a soul and hip hop record shop so I asked if I could sell my records there, too. At the time I was trading under the name of Drum & Bass Records, so he said let’s use that name for the shop. That was around 1988-89. That was in Umeda in Osaka.
When did you move to Amerika Mura? [note: Amerika Mura is trendy part of Osaka like Soho or Camden in London or the Village in New York]
That place was really far from the centre of Umeda. It didn’t seem like any customers would come and the first 3 floors of the building we were in was a gay hostess bar! The one day a guy from a real estate agent came by saying he was looking for tenants for a building in Amerika Mura. It was right in the middle of Amerika Mura, but for some reason customers weren’t coming so this guy was looking for shops that would attract people in. He said he didn’t need a deposit or guarantee money so we went. Until then we had a really tiny shop, but after we moved we had three times as much space. At that time records were really cheap in Jamaica. I was going regularly so soon I had absolutely loads of stock.
When you have been to Jamaica for the first time during the 1980s, has it been like you had expected it to be?
No, it wasn’t anything like I expected. I saw the film Rockers before I went, but that film was made in the 70s. Well, I suppose the streets and the clothes people wore were kind of like in the film, but the music was completely different. I thought everything would be easy going and irie, but when I went there people were always trying to get money from me and I realised it must be a pretty tough place to live.
What was the music like?
Shabba Rankin was the rage at the time. Everywhere you went dancehall would be playing. There weren’t any places playing the Skatalites.
Was it very difficult to link up with producers like Prince Buster and Sonia Pottinger or artists like Alton Ellis?
Meeting up with them was really easy. Over there I got to know a guy called Echo Vibration. He had been running a sound system since the 60s and Jamaica’s a small place, so people who are involved in music all know each other. He introduced me to loads of people, like Coxsone Dodd. Meeting people like that in Jamaica is really easy, what’s difficult is what comes after that. Prince Buster, Alton – they were all tough to make deals with at first.
Do you remember the first record you brought back home from Jamaica and the first signing for your label Rock A Shacka?
I don’t remember the first record I bought. I have bought so many over the years. The first Rock A Shacka signing was with Prince Buster for the live album he did with the Determinations when he came over to Japan. That was the first signing I did. Then because I had done that signing Universal wanted to release the CD and that was the moment I decided to start the Rock A Shacka label. The [Japanese Ska band] Determinations were playing as Prince Buster’s backing band and Universal wanted to cash in on that. It’s not really a happy story.
So I invited Prince Buster over for the tour and then Universal wanted to get in on it and they said they would sort everything out for me. I didn’t really know any better at the time, so I entrusted Universal with everything and lost out big time as a result. They sold something like 10,000 copies, but I didn’t make anything out of it and neither did Buster.
You say you can’t remember the first record you bought, but are there any records that stand out in your memory from the period when you first started going to Jamaica?
The first time I went to Jamaica I was really into roots rock. I didn’t know anything about Ska, so I wasn’t really interested in it and basically didn’t buy any Ska records. If there was a blank label record I would automatically discard it! But there were about 3 records that I thought were really good and which I brought back to Japan with me.
One of those was Prince Buster’s Linger On. It is a really rare killer Ska track. From then on I started collecting more Ska. I didn’t really have any at the time. I also didn’t know about checking the matrix, so around that time I would label all Buster blanks as “the Skatalites”! Then Gaz released a Prince Buster compilation called King of Ska and that tune (Linger On) was on it, but credited as an unreleased track, so I knew I had found something special!
How did people react when you have played your tunes in Japan for the first time?
Before I started playing records I was the bassist in a reggae dancehall band and we used to play at various festivals. At the time Sleng Teng was a really popular dancehall rhythm in Jamaica. People would come to see us because they wanted to hear reggae, but when we played, they would come up to us and ask us why we weren’t playing reggae! Everyone thought reggae was Bob Marley and dreadlocks and they hadn’t even heard of the dancehall style, so when we started up with Lord have mercy, everyone was like, what is this?
So we did that for 3 or 4 years which was fun, but then dancehall got popular in Japan and we got tired of being asked to play Sleng Teng. All the while I was listening to reggae and getting into older stuff – realising that dancehall tracks were based on oldies rhythms – so after I quit the band I became a selector playing oldies reggae at clubs.
At that time dancehall had caught on in Japan, so when I played oldies music no one would come. But because there was this reggae movement in Japan, you would get these tiny clubs packed with customers. As soon as I started playing though, within 3 tracks the dance floor would be empty and you would have about 10 people left sleeping at the counter! Ha ha ha… It was like that for a long time…
But you didn’t give up and eventually other people came to understand what you were doing?
When I first started playing it was at a place called Kingstone Lounge. I played there every Saturday for 2 years. Whenever the owner Okumura san ad I played no customers would come. For about 10 years we would only ever get around 10 customers coming to see us play.
But then the Ska movement came to Japan and suddenly customers started coming. Suddenly we were getting 300-500 customers coming. But eventually that phase passed, too. Japan is dominated by fads. But I didn’t want to be driven by fashion, so that’s why I set up the shop and have kept doing the same thing all these years – so real music lovers could come and enjoy good music anytime.
Could you please explain the philosophy behind Rock a Shacka?
It’s not really a philosophy but I’ve been running this record shop for a long time and searching out records in Jamaica and, you know, everyone is always after those really special tunes. I don’t know why, but with Jamaican music the coolest tunes are always really rare and original copies sell for terrifying prices. For example Let’s Get Together sells for about 100,000 yen (885 Euros) – most people just can’t afford to spend that kind of money on records. So we wanted to put out those really rare tunes and make them available to ordinary people.
„So we wanted to put out those really rare tunes and make them available to ordinary people.“
I didn’t want to just go into it thinking: “how can we make money” – having to worry about pressing too many copies or wondering how to keep costs down. It seemed to me if you think too much about those things you end up with a finished product that is no good. So we just put out tunes we wanted in a high quality format – and didn’t worry too much about the costs.
I think it is kind of strange to get Jamaican vintage music from Japan.
I think in Japan you don’t just have vintage Jamaican music, but vintage music across all genres. Japanese don’t really understand lyrics, so I think that means they listen to the music even more closely and can be moved by various different types of music. And there are shops which offer those different types, including ours. Most Japanese don’t understand English so they just listen to the melody!
But do you think there is a special relationship between Jamaica and Japan?
I don’t know. Do you think so? From my point of view Jamaica and Japan are completely different. I think Japanese people and Jamaicans are the complete opposite of each other. There are aspects of Jamaican culture I admire, but also aspects that I can’t understand at all! Ha ha..
But it is said that Japan is Jamaica’s biggest export market for vintage vinyl.
Yeah, I think Japanese have a tendency to collect obsessively. You get people like Tommy [Tommy, Rock A Shacka].
Beside your label you are running the Drum and Bass Records shop, an internet radio show named Pirate’s Choice and the Stereo Club, where are events almost every night. From time to time you bring Jamaican reggae artists over for a tour, too. How did that develop during the past 20 years?
I started going to Jamaica to buy records and then sell them in Japan. Then I set up the small record shop. In Japan it’s quite difficult to start up a record label. In Jamaica it’s a pretty ordinary thing. You go to the UK or US and you see owners of even tiny record shops putting out records for local DJs to play. I wanted to do the same thing.
I was inspired to do Pirates Choice web radio after I went to England. In the UK you have all these people running their own pirate radio stations, playing music they like and which doesn’t get played on mainstream radio stations. The listeners call in when they hear tracks they like. I was really impressed by that.
But when I came back to Japan and put on FM radio all I could find was Japanese pop. There’s nothing good at all, so I thought I would start a radio show myself. So I was running a record shop and DJing and just thought it would be a good thing if I could run a club as well.
Do you run a sound system, too?
No. The manager of the shop runs the Touch the Sky sound system and we use his set up at the club.
Let’s talk about the Japanese reggae scene. The world famous sound system Mighty Crown celebrates its birthday in a stadium with 40.000 spectators; there are vinyl shops all over the country; some albums from European and Jamaican artists have been released in Japan only. Why are you people so crazy about reggae and dancehall?
I don’t think it is just dancehall that is big in Japan – other types of music are also really big. This is a difficult question. It may seem like Japanese especially like reggae because 40,000 people turned up to Mighty Crown’s event, but you get the same kinds of numbers showing up to events for other types of music.
When I first came to Japan I was surprised to meet young people who had never heard of Bob Marley. Even my parents know who Bob Marley is.
Yeah, as I said Japan is dominated by fashion. Bob Marley became really popular around the end of the 70s – beginning of the 80s when he came over to Japan. Then when he died, his music kind of disappeared. Then when Shabba Rankin came to Japan the reggae movement began in Japan and that was what all the youth were listening to.
That’s why when I was starting out as a selector and playing roots rock I would get people coming up to me and asking me to play reggae – meaning, of course, they wanted me to play dancehall. They thought dancehall was reggae, because they never heard any of the older stuff.
I would play Ska era Bob Marley and people would ask me to play Bob Marley, thinking that Bob Marley was just about Buffalo Soldier and One Love. That was what reggae was like in Japan then. Nowadays I think people have a much better understanding of the music.
Who are the key players in the Japanese reggae industry?
Me (smiles)? I guess Mighty Crown. Kudo san, the owner of the club Open in Tokyo, is a key player, in my opinion. It’s a good club and it’s been going for a really long time.
You have a lot of very popular local artists like Pushim, Ryo The Skywalker, veteran deejay Rankin Taxi, Papa U-Gee. Would you say they are more important to the people than Jamaican artists?
I think you have two parallel dancehall scenes in Japan now. In the Japanese reggae scene local artists are definitely more important than Jamaican artists. You have these big festivals with artists like Buju Banton playing, but everyone starts to leave when the warm up Japanese DJ finishes.
I think, you know, Japanese don’t understand the language, and the people who are into dancehall now are all young kids and they want to follow artists who sing in their language and whose lyrics they can understand. That’s why artists like Mighty Crown are more popular than Jamaican artists.
But then you have events like when Ras Digby played here the other night and the customers are all blown away, because it is something they just don’t get to see every day.
Yeah, that’s right. In Jamaica you had a dance called Passa Passa that was that kind of dancehall style and then all the dancehall events in Japan copied that kind of style. For people like me we just got fed up with it. You know, you go to the UK and see these people like Ras Digby and Asher G. I really want people here in Japan to see those kinds of selectors.
What’s next on Rock A Shacka in 2011?
This year we have some releases lined up that I think will cause a stir around the world …
Some more impressions …