Wax Poetics: Record People - DJ Koco aka Shimokita
Written by Hashim Kotaro Bharoocha (originally published on waxpoetic.com)
An old soul, DJ Koco brings a classic beat digger’s approach to his impeccable 7-inch selections but peppers them with new-school DJ tricks. In March of 2017, Kosuke Suzuki posted his first videos to Instagram. Beginning with a needle-drop loop of Baby Huey’s “Hard Times” 45, quickly followed by meticulous cutting of two copies of Freda Payne’s “The Easiest Way to Fall” 7-inch, Suzuki—better known as DJ Koco aka Shimokita to vinyl connoisseurs and aficionados of DJ culture—had started making waves that would rapidly grow and reverberate worldwide.
An old soul, he brings a classic beat digger’s approach to his impeccable 7-inch selections but peppers them with new-school DJ tricks, and is always a delight to watch. Taking inspiration from OGs like Kid Capri and Rockin Rob, he juggles, beat-matches, and scratches everything from hip-hop, rare funk, obscure disco, and even modern house 45s with ease while being completely blind in one eye. Many have discovered him through his DJ sets on YouTube and Instagram, but he’s been active professionally in the Japanese club scene since the early 2000s.
Residing in the Shimokitazawa district of Tokyo, which is known for its high concentration of record stores, he still gets excited discovering tunes that he never thought were pressed on 45.
Here, he speaks in depth about how he got into DJing, his love for 45s, and his approach to building his DJ sets.
You go by the name of DJ Koco aka Shimokita, but are you actually from the Shimokitazawa area of Tokyo?
No, I’m originally from Kagawa Prefecture in Shikoku. My hometown is Marugame.
Were you already into DJing or collecting records when you were living there?
I was living there until high school, and back then I was buying mostly CDs. If I wanted to buy records, I had to travel all the way to Osaka. After moving to Tokyo, I seriously started collecting vinyl.
How did you get into DJing?
At first, I was just into collecting vinyl. The first records I bought were all hip-hop. I only got interested in DJing after I had amassed a bunch of records. The first record I bought was a 12-inch of A Tribe Called Quest’s “Scenario.” I started buying 12-inches because I wanted the remix versions of hip-hop tunes that weren’t on CD. When I would see the names of records sampled on hip-hop tunes, I would sometimes buy those LPs.
You came to Tokyo to go to university?
Well, it was the opposite. I wanted to go to Tokyo, so I decided to go to university. [laughs] After getting into college, there were two students that were older than me that were really into hip-hop. They were dressed in hip-hop gear, and I started hanging out with them. They were also DJs and after seeing them spin, it made me want to try it out too. I was in my late teens, and it was around 1994. The guys I met in college had already been DJing for a while, so they taught me in the beginning.
So when you started DJing, you were only spinning hip-hop?
Yeah, it was all hip-hop 12-inches.
Who were the DJs you were influenced by?
My favorite DJ is Kid Capri. The reason why I named myself DJ Koco is because I wanted to wear the Kansas City Royals baseball cap with the KC initials that he was rocking. [laughs] Whenever Kid Capri would come to Japan to perform, I would go see him. I visited New York two years ago, and DJ Scratch explained to him why I started using the name Koco. Capri was laughing hard, but I was so happy to meet him.
How did you get the name Shimokita?
I started living in Shimokitazawa in the ’90s, and there was a record store in the area that I would frequent. One day, the owner of the store asked me, “Where do you live?” and when I answered Shimokitazawa, he said “I’m going to call you Shimokita from now on.” [laughs] I still live in Shimokitazawa to this day.
I heard that when you were young, one of your eyes was injured in an accident. Does that affect your DJing in any way?
I was in a car accident when I was in the sixth grade. I was sitting in the back seat and not wearing my seatbelt. When the car crashed, I was catapulted out of the front window and that’s when I injured my eye. I’m completely blind in my right eye, but luckily, I can see out of my other eye. I’m used to it now, but since I’m always looking at things with one eye, my body is kind of out of balance. I don’t think it affects my DJing, but if somebody comes up to talk to me on my right side, I can’t see them since my right eye is blind. When that happens, people who don’t know me well might think I’m ignoring them. [laughs] I’ve adjusted to it, so I don’t notice it when I’m DJing.
DJ Koco at the Do-Over Tokyo 2021, November 14, 2021. Photo by Localmaze.
You’ve made a name for yourself DJing and juggling 45s. How did that all start?
The first reason is because of the huge Tohoku Earthquake that hit Japan in 2011. When that happened, all the records in my room fell on the floor. I had high shelves because I had so many records, but I got really scared since I could’ve gotten seriously injured by being buried in my own vinyl. So I was wondering what I could do, and since 7-inches are smaller, I figured that I could switch to them since they don’t take up as much space. The other reason was, I was getting a little bored of DJing with 12-inches around that time. I don’t have a computer, so I’ve never used anything like Serato. [laughs] So I’d been DJing with 12-inches, but I’d lost the excitement of spinning with them. When I started DJing with 7-inches, it was super difficult, but that made me want to perfect my style of using them. After that, I started practicing only with 7-inches. The fact that it was more challenging made it more exciting for me.
Cut Chemist, DJ Shadow, 45 King, and other DJs are well known for their all 7-inch sets, but who influenced you in your style?
The people you mentioned all influenced me heavily. Kid Capri also DJs a lot with 7-inches too. There’s also a DJ from the Bronx named Rockin Rob who I love. After seeing pioneers like that rock 45s, I wanted to try it out and get better at it. At first, it was super difficult, but I was thinking, they’re all human like me and doing that, so I should be able to do it too. [laughs]
Were you influenced by Japanese DJs like Muro?
Sure, I was influenced by Muro. I get to perform with him at events, and he always has records I haven’t seen before. I always discover something new when I see him play.
How much did you practice when you started out?
I practiced a ton to get to where I am now. My DJ style for when I play 12-inches versus when I play 7-inches is different, so I had to practice a lot to get accustomed to it. I have to use a very light touch when I play 7-inches. I have a four-year-old son now, so I practice when he’s at school. I don’t get to practice as much now though. When I started out during my college days, I would practice eight hours a day and record a mixtape every day. I did that for several years. The mixtapes were mostly for me to listen back to and critique my own DJing, but I would sometimes give them to friends. I would also listen to mixtapes from American DJs and copy what they did by ear. That’s how I learned how to juggle. I was practicing Rob Swift’s juggle routines by listening to tapes and was able to emulate what he did by ear. Later, I saw a video tape of his juggling routine and realized that the way I was doing it was different. But I realized that it doesn’t matter what kind of technique you use. Since I was relying on my own ears, I was able to come up with my own unique style.
So you didn’t have access to video tapes back then?
I did get to see some of the ITF [International Turntable Federation] battle videos, but I’ve always been a record otaku [Japanese term for nerd]. I was more into collecting vinyl rather than just working on my DJ skills. That hasn’t changed even now. I’m always searching for songs that people haven’t heard before. But when you play records that people don’t know, you have to do something special with those records to get people’s attention. That’s why I started practicing a lot. I never entered a DJ battle, because I wasn’t really interested in competing. I did go see some DMC battles and was impressed, but I came back thinking I was better. [laughs]
Do you use special gear for your 7-inch sets?
I use a thicker slipmat to prevent the needles from skipping. The slipmat I use is from Stones Throw, and it’s really thick, which is what I need for my style because if the 45 is a little warped, the slipmat absorbs the shock. I did a lot of research into the best gear for playing 7-inches. The 7-inch adapter I use is custom made and I did a lot of back and forth with the company that makes them to get the specifications I wanted. I told them what I need in my routines, and they made it for me, but they had to remake it numerous times until it was perfected. It’s now a product that’s being sold in stores. I also use custom needles now, which are going to be released soon. There’s a company called Nagaoka that I work with, and I told them the specifications I needed so the needles wouldn’t skip. Nagaoka is known for making audiophile needles, but they wanted to get into the DJ needle market. They asked me for advice, so we went back and forth a lot, and after making a bunch of prototypes, they developed a model that I was satisfied with, which I use now. It’s going to be sold to the public soon, but they don’t have a name for it yet. [Nagaoka recently announced that this needle will be sold as the DJ-44G.] When 7-inches are warped even a little bit, record needles skip a lot more compared to 12-inches, so they had to develop a needle with an angle that won’t skip easily. The company told me that the more hi-fi a needle is, the more easily it skips. So we had to find the perfect balance between audio quality and playability. I told them not to put my name on the needles though. Depending on the skill level of a DJ, the needles are going to skip regardless of what they use. If I put my name on a needle and they skip when somebody uses them, I didn’t want to take responsibility for that. [laughs]
You’re known for very intricate juggling, but do you work out your DJ sets beforehand or do you come up with a lot of stuff on the spot?
I work out my sets beforehand to a certain extent, because there’s a limit to the number of records I can bring. But while I’m DJing, I’ll add different records to the mix. I don’t decide on the exact order of the records I’m going to play, but I tend to use the records that I’m listening to at that moment. And then while I’m DJing, I’ll be thinking, “I can mix in this record next,” or maybe I’ll change up the vibe with a certain record. But I’ll work out the juggling patterns beforehand. If the needle skips, then I’ll change my DJ set on the fly. During the pandemic, my DJ sets were all live streams, so for those I worked out the sets beforehand. When there’s an actual audience in the venue, I’ll read the crowd and change up the records as I go along. Luckily, I’ve been getting to play to actual crowds again.
I’m always impressed when I see you perform because you’re able to satisfy the deep record heads as well as get the casual music fans to dance. Is that something you’re conscious of?
Yes, I’m definitely conscious of that. I want to make sure that everyone is having fun. I play the records that I love, but I also add in records that people know to keep a balance. I’ve been especially conscious of that since I became a professional DJ. I want to make the heads happy, but I also want it to be entertaining for everyone there. The events I’ve been performing at have been getting bigger, and I need to be conscious of the entertainment aspect for those types of events. And obviously, everyone has more fun at a club if the girls are dancing, right? [laughs]
A lot of people around the world took notice of you from your DJ set on Boiler Room’s YouTube channel. What was that like?
I arrived in Las Vegas five days before the event, but I didn’t have any turntables to practice on. I had a soundcheck before the show, but it wasn’t that long. Cut Chemist performed at the event, but he had a super long soundcheck. I didn’t get much time for my soundcheck, but it was okay since I had picked out my records while I was in Japan, and I used the routines that I had worked on back home. It was a forty-five-minute set, so it wasn’t that long. Since I was in the U.S., I wanted to make sure I played some Japanese records.
There were many legendary DJs like Jazzy Jay, Cut Chemist, and Kenny Dope watching at that event. Did that make you nervous?
Not really. I had performed with Jazzy Jay at a park jam in New York before that. I also performed with him in Toronto. He’s a legend and when he walks into the room, you can tell that everybody tenses up. But to me, he’s like a kind uncle. [laughs] I had so much fun that I didn’t feel nervous. I had met Kenny before that too and was so happy to share the bill with him.
Had you performed overseas before that?
Yeah, I had played overseas before that. I wasn’t doing any social media for a long time, but I started Instagram about four or five years ago. After that, I started getting a lot of international offers. The first time I played abroad was in Taiwan, which was around ten years ago. After that, I started performing all over the world.
You play a really wide array of 45s in your sets, but what are your top three 45s off the top of your head?
1. James Brown “Funky Drummer.” The drum break on the 45 is at the end of Part 2 and fades out after the fourth bar. Any DJ who can play that record skillfully is good at playing 7-inches. If you panic during your DJ set, the song ends. That’s a record I practiced a lot on. I have like eight copies. [laughs]
2. The J.B.’s “The Grunt.” This is another James Brown classic, but you can tell if a DJ’s got style by listening to which parts they loop up on this record. This is a record I always have in my record bag.
3. Honey Drippers “Impeach the President.” This is another classic break, but when you hear a DJ who plays this 45 with a lot of hiss noise on it, you get a sense of their history. You can tell that they’ve practiced a lot. My copies have too much noise on them, so I don’t play them out. The noise is louder than the actual drum break. [laughs]
I’ve seen you juggle records from disco and all types of genres, but what kinds of records do you like to do doubles with?
If I can find a break or groove on a record I like, I’ll do doubles with that record whether it’s Latin or any kind of genre. Doing doubles with hip-hop records or sample sources is something that everyone does, so I wanted to add my own twist to it by doing doubles with unexpected types of records. I love house music, so I’ve been doing a lot of juggling with house 45s recently.
When you dig for 7-inches, I’m sure you come across records you never thought existed on the 45 format.
Yeah, that happens a lot! I still find 45s that surprise me. You can search for anything on the internet, but a little while ago it was more difficult to get that kind of information. I sometimes find songs that I never thought were on 45 but were pressed in countries like Brazil or Argentina. I found a 45 of James Brown’s “Blues and Pants” that was pressed in Argentina. When I found that, I got super excited. They changed the title to “Blues and Pantalones,” but it’s an official release from back then. [laughs] There’s a lot of weird hip-hop 45s out there too. The song “Jazzy Sensation” was released as a 45 only in Brazil, Philippines, and Jamaica, but not in the U.S. There are a lot of obscure 7-inches like that. I find records like that at record stores in Japan, but I also know a lot of record dealers around the world who will contact me when they find any 45s that I’m searching for.
Why do you love 45s so much?
As a DJ, they are hard to play with, so they make me want to improve my skills even more. And as I mentioned before, finding 45s that you never thought existed is really exciting. I still get hyped when I find songs that I would have never expected to be on 7-inch. There’s also a lot of songs by African American artists that were only released on 7-inch in Japan. Sometimes they use a different take of a song on the Japanese release that might have a drum break on it. Some of the Japanese versions are actually worse because the label got rid of the drum break that was in the original. [laughs]
What are some interesting 45s by American artists that were only released in Japan or other countries?
The Japanese 7-inch release of “I Can’t Stop” by John Davis has a drum break on it. The same song was also released in the Philippines on 7-inch and also has a drum break. There’s actually a lot of unique records that were released on 7-inches only in the Philippines. Zhané’s “Hey, Mr. DJ” was released on 45 in the Philippines. There are also hip-hop 45s from groups like Nice & Smooth and Cypress Hill that were only pressed in the Philippines. I don’t think those songs were ever pressed on 7-inches in the U.S. There’s a record that I have a copy of and I’m searching for the second copy. I don’t really want to tell anyone what it is, but it’s a Bob James record. The B-side of that 45 on the Japanese version has a different song. I haven’t been able to find that at local record stores. A friend of mine told me he’s seen it selling on Japanese auction sites for a lot of money. I’ve kind of given up on finding it, but hopefully I’ll find it.
Are there any genres of music that you’ve been searching on 45 recently?
I’m doing my best to not to miss out on new 45s released by modern artists. Nowadays, you can’t go to a record store and find everything you want. There are so many artists that are releasing their songs independently on 7-inch. I have a lot of friends that will tell me about interesting tunes, so I make sure to get those records. I search for all genres. It doesn’t matter what genre it is, as long as it sounds good to me. I think it’s a shame if you miss out on new records like that.
You also release a lot of edits of other people’s music. What’s your criteria for choosing those tunes?
I usually get asked by labels or artists to work on edits for certain songs. If I get to choose from the catalog of a label, I’ll choose the songs that I like. My condition for working on an edit is that I get to edit the song the way I want to, and the label isn’t allowed to complain. [laughs] Since I don’t have a computer, I work with an engineer to do my edits. I produced a cover of “Step into Our Life” by Roy Ayers and Wayne Henderson that was performed by a Japanese trombone player named Miomatic. I arranged the track in a way that will definitely make the hip-hop heads smile. When I edit a track, I usually approach it in a way so that I can play it when I DJ. They’ll usually include the original on side A and my edit on the flip, so I’ll be conscious of editing the track so I can mix the two together in a set. One of my favorite edits that I worked on was First Choice’s “Let No Man Put Asunder” on Salsoul. There’s a new Japanese band called Cat Boys, and they did a cover of Crystal Waters called “Gypsy Woman.” After I started playing that record, apparently a lot of people from overseas bought it. Because of that, the band recorded a new version of the song and asked me to work on a remix, which is going to be released on 7-inch. I changed up the song a lot, so I can use it in my DJ sets and mix it with the original.
Japanese music from the ’70s and ’80s like city pop has been very popular in U.S. and Europe lately. What do you think of that?
I think it’s a great thing. When I started performing abroad, I started bringing Japanese records with me to play. I think it was in Toronto, and I saw Supreme La Rock playing Japanese records, so I started noticing that overseas DJs were taking an interest in Japanese music. I dig for Japanese records, but I only buy the ones I really like. It has to fit my taste. I’m not going to buy it just because it’s Japanese. I got my start playing records from the U.S., so the wamono [Japanese records] stuff I buy has to be at the same quality level. I don’t want to compromise on the quality of the music and buy it just because it’s wamono.
I lived in Shimokitazawa for around ten years, but I’ve heard that a lot of record stores in that area went out of business. Are there still a lot of records stores in that neighborhood?
There was a period when a lot of record stores in Shimokitazawa disappeared. Then a bunch of new stores opened up. There are about ten record stores in my neighborhood that I can walk to in ten minutes. They’re all different types of genres too. I still dig in Shimokitazawa a lot, and I just went to Disk Union today. [laughs] There’s a record store called Flash Disk Ranch that has been around for a long time, and I actually used to work there. Just this year, two new record stores opened in this neighborhood. I think there are more record stores in this area than Shibuya.
When international DJs toured in Japan in the past, a lot of them would dig at local stores. Would you say that Japan is still a good place to dig for records?
Yes, definitely. I think that Disk Union is an amazing record store chain. The LPs there are really cheap and so many people trade in their records to their stores, so they have a huge selection all the time. Due to the pandemic, there aren’t that many overseas visitors, so the records aren’t being taken overseas. Before the pandemic, I used to see a lot of people from Australia coming over just to buy records and send them back, so there weren’t as many records. But now, it’s not like that.
Where do you go digging for records besides Shimokitazawa?
Mostly areas like Shibuya, Shinjuku, Jinbocho.
When you go to any club event, most DJs are using CDJs and Serato. What are your thoughts on DJ culture becoming almost completely digital?
As long as they’re playing good music, I don’t think it’s a problem. The weapons of choice are just changing. Whether you’re using vinyl, Serato, or CDJs, they’re just different tools. Ultimately, it’s better as a DJ if you can use all these tools, but I only know how to use vinyl.
Why do you stick to vinyl only?
The biggest reason is because I just love vinyl. I’m not good at learning all types of different formats, so I’m sticking to what I’m good at, and trying to master those skills.
Having performed overseas a lot, what differences do you see between overseas and Japanese audiences?
Overseas audiences react to my performances in a very direct way. Now when I get asked to perform overseas, audiences usually know who I am, but before I started using social media, audiences wouldn’t know anything about me. But after I’d perform, I’d always get such a big reaction from the audience. Their attitudes would change 180 degrees. [laughs] When I perform overseas, if my DJ set is good, the audiences always show me love. In Japan, DJs usually get booked only for their name value. I hate to say this, but in Japan, DJs get a better reaction if they’re already famous.
What differences do you see between the styles of Japanese and international DJs?
Japanese DJs are very meticulous and technical. But a lot of them are too concerned with technique. This may sound harsh, but it sometimes seems like I’m watching a figure skating competition. [laughs] That’s not what DJ culture is about. Sometimes, it’s good to be rough around the edges. It’s all about whether the DJ has flavor or not. Being technical and being a DJ with style are two separate things.
You haven’t been able to perform that much for the past two years due to the pandemic. How have you been keeping busy?
Since I couldn’t DJ at clubs for a while, I was doing a lot of live streaming DJ sets. I also worked on a lot of edits. Now clubs have started back up in Japan, but I was using my time to prepare myself for the reopening. I wanted bookers to remember me and book me for shows. My streaming shows were a good way to prepare for the clubs opening up. I also worked on new DJ sets. Now that I’m playing in clubs again, I’ve realized how fun it is to perform in front of an actual audience. [laughs] I really want to perform in the U.S. and Europe again. When I would perform overseas in the past, after a show I would just go to local record stores. Now I’m regretting that I didn’t do more sightseeing in those countries and check out World Heritage sites when they were close by. Next time I get a chance to perform in other countries, I want to actually do some sightseeing. [laughs] So I’m looking forward to getting international offers.
Do you have any advice for people who want to get into DJing or collecting vinyl?
Find the thing that you love and just keep pursuing that. That’s what I’ve been doing all these years. If you keep doing that, opportunities start presenting themselves to you.
Lastly, what are your upcoming plans and projects?
The Cat Boys “Gypsy Woman” remix I worked on is going to be released in February 2022. There’s a Japanese trio called Nautilus that did a cover of Lonnie Liston Smith’s “Expansions.” I worked on an edit of that that will be released next year. I hope everyone gets to hear those releases.
Los Angeles–based journalist Hashim Kotaro Bharoocha conducted the interview in Japanese and translated it to English. When not writing, you can find him interviewing city pop artists for Dublab. Special thanks to Danny Holloway
DJ Koco at the Do-Over Tokyo 2021, November 14, 2021. Photo by Localmaze.