It's easy to think about music scenes in the abstract, especially when we read about movements on the other side of the world. But of course, it takes real, living, breathing people to build a culture – or subculture – and tragically nothing brings that fact home like the loss of someone who's been a lynchpin for a given culture.
These last few weeks have seen a lot of discussion about precisely this theme, most prominently around the passing of the British polymath DJ/producer Andrew Weatherall, and also around that of Alex T (aka Alex Theodossiadis), who though only 26, as a DJ and record store worker had built untold links throughout the British and international underground community.
Another keenly-felt loss has been that of Naoki Iijima, a man who forged uniquely strong links over three decades between his home city Tokyo, and Bristol in the West of England. Bristol is maybe best known for the trip hop of the 1990s, when Massive Attack, Tricky and Portishead became global names – but they are just one part of a close-knit scene that has evolved through the decades.
From post-punk, alternative, hip hop and reggae sounds of the 1980s, through trip hop and drum 'n' bass, on to dubstep and grime, and beyond, Bristol's sounds have echoed with deep bass and countercultural inventiveness. And Iijima was there all the way, keeping track of the complex interlinked acts, importing vinyl and CDs, visting regularly and forging real world friendships.
So it is that the news of his illness and eventual death on Feb 11 (at 48) was felt as keenly 10,000km away as at home in Tokyo. And so it is that the Bristolian music community has rallied around to support Iijima's wife Miwako and their family – which has resulted in an extraordinary 50-track compilation out this week.
It's a who's who of Bristol music, but also features some serious Japanese talent, as well as a few friends and allies from London, Glasgow and Brussels, and it's a potent document of the interlinked genres, with heavyweight dub reggae as its backbone, but techno, grime and other styles sitting comfortably alongside purist dub.
It is a document of a living, interconnected scene with deep local roots but global appeal, precisely as Iijima appreciated it. Bristolian mainstay Rob Smith, of Smith & Mighty (who among other great achievements, produced Massive Attack's first single), More Rockers (who released the UK's first ever jungle/drum ‘n’ bass artiste album), and his solo project RSD (through which he connected with the dubstep scene of the 2000s), is a key part of this.
Not only does his music run like a thread through the album, but he's been one of the prime movers behind it as a close friend of Iijima's over almost quarter of a century. We spoke to Smith about the project, and about how those real-world connections are built over time.
Caption: Ray Mighty (left) and Rob Smith (right) with Naoki Iijima.
When did Naoki's connection with Bristol come about? And when did you personally first meet him?
He apparently started collecting music from Bristol in the 80s and first came to the city with his partner, now wife, Miwako in 1994 – their favourite band at that time was [psychedelic rock and funk collective] The Moonflowers. They hooked up with them and became friends. I didn’t meet him until 1997, which is when I made my first ever visit to Japan with Peter D Rose as More Rockers. We were touring with [much beloved London dub reggae sound system operator] Jah Shaka. We had a show at the Liquid Room in Tokyo and after the sound check Naoki and Miwako came up to me. I was completely surprised that anyone knew who I was out there! He didn’t really speak too much English at that time, so Miwako did all the talking – and they asked if they could interview me. We became friends, and have been ever since. So the story goes, Naoki basically improved his English just so that he could speak to us Bristolians, ha! The following year they came to Bristol as part of their honeymoon.
Can you remember what it was like seeing your own hometown scene through the eyes of someone from the other side of the world? Did his appreciation make you think differently about Bristol?
To be honest it didn’t really occur to me for a while that his passion was specifically about music from Bristol, I just thought he was a great lover of music... but then I remember visiting his shop in Shimokitazawa in Tokyo for the first time – it was really like “Oh! Ok, I see!” There was so much Bristol vinyl in there, I remember seeing remixes I’d made that I had forgotten about or never even seen before! All of our Bristol mates were there, in vinyl. It wasn’t just Bristol stuff though. There were loads of gems, loads of rebel music, New Age Steppers, lots of Adrian [Sherwood]’s pieces, and local Tokyo producers too.. He was a solid supporter of up and coming artistes. The shop was amazing – you could spend hours in there.
How was the connection strengthened over the years? Were there particular people in Bristol other than yourself who maintained that relationship?
I think he pretty much became friends with everyone he met from Bristol. He was always so current and up on whatever was new from the city, it was never just the old stuff. He’d often play me tunes from Bristol artists I hadn’t yet heard of. I guess I was spoilt because after my first visit I completely fell in love with Japan and Tokyo and went back there every year. They’d let me stay with them in their family home for months on end – there’s actually a suitcase permanently there full of my T-shirts, winter coats, old trainers and stuff. One time I gingerly asked him if It would be ok to stay a couple more weeks, he said “Rob san, you can stay forever!” Ahhhh…. When he eventually started the BS0 events along with people there like Osama, Dx, Ichi, etc, he began inviting Bristol artistes over regularly. The first BS0 in 2015 with Kahn & Neek – it was called BS0 1KN – like an imaginary Bristol postcode – was a ridiculous success. Most of the Bristol artistes would stay with him and the family while in Tokyo.
And he was documenting what you lot were doing, even as he was supporting it?
Naoki started out as a journalist back when things were printed on paper. As well as writing for magazines he’d make these folded news leaflets telling us about new music and events, with features about Bristol and Tokyo. Definitely a communicator, he kept us informed. He wrote a big spread, around 30 sides, just on Bristol, in a Japanese magazine called Remix in 2008. He was always joining the dots between Bristol artistes and famously made flow diagrams linking everyone’s various musical connections. He said it was his life’s work. “What that man didn’t know about Bristol…” we'd always say.
The links and friendships started before the internet was popular but I guess they grew alongside it. Naoki and Miwako had an online presence before I knew what “online” was. I remember on one of their early visits to Bristol they asked me if I could take them to an internet cafe – I think that was the first time I’d ever been to one!
You mention "rebel music", and him supporting things outside of Bristol like Adrian Sherwood's On-U Sound. Was there a strong DIY, counterculture ethos to what he did?
Very much so. He was a gentle being. Underneath that bearded look he was a soulful punk with a bit of rasta. He did have an edge, too:. He took me on anti-nuclear protests in Tokyo. He’d make banners and flags. He had a badge making machine and would press them out with all kinds of pictures and logos in true punk style. One of his last ones was “Make Bristol Shit Again” – a joke campaign started by [Bristol drum'n'bass hero and founder of the Gutterfunk collective] DJ Die, against gentrification.
Not just Naoki but others vital to underground music culture have recently passed away before their time – the appreciations and sharing of music that result have been in many ways beautiful, but that doesn't take away from the sadness. Is there one thing you think we should learn from this?
We can’t and shouldn’t take things for granted, we should cherish what we have, while we have it. Naoki was my very good friend and his passing came so quickly, took us all by surprise. We thought he was forever.
Sean O'Neill, Aka The Reverend Sonik Ray Of The Moonflowers, On Naoki and Miwako's very first visit to Bristol
Naoki and Miwako arrived for their first visit in Bristol in the autumn of 1994. I knew Naoki worked in a record shop in Tokyo, as he had contacted me a several times regarding a visit to Bristol. Naoki enjoyed the Moonflowers' music and his interpretation of our attitude, and did a lot to promote us in Tokyo so I agreed to host them.
The Moonflowers had just spent the summer recording their Colours And Sounds album in a ramshackle smallholding in Normandy, France. Returning to Bristol with my partner Kate, we had only been together for a few weeks and though we didn’t know it yet, she was carrying our first child - and we didn’t have anywhere to live or to host our guests!
When Naoki and Miwako arrived we were sleeping on a mattress on the floor of a spare room in the home Alexis and Niall from the record label and the Dig Inn club – and we had no money either. We were a bit embarrassed about what we could offer them – a mattress on the floor of a dining room of someone else’s rented house – but Niall and Alexis were very patient with us all.
Caption: Sean O'Neill has shared a long and enduring friendship with Naoki Iijima.
Naoki and Miwako were so beautiful and funny. They photographed everything, they laughed at everything. We made meals of toast with no butter or jam, just toast or spaghetti with nothing else – we didn’t even have salt! We weren’t really aware of food or money and were in a transient state, but we did have music, love, friends and, mystically, a big lump of pot.
They were so amazing in their perception of the cultural richness in our lives – and their immediate softness and warmth won them acceptance everywhere they went, so as they moved deeper into Bristol culture they were quick to make friends. They had such an incredible knowledge of the musicians and artists of the city, their genuine love of Bristol culture shone out of them, and in return the city loved them back and their Bristol family continues to grow.
It was hard to comprehend the depth of their knowledge without them ever having been to Bristol before it was like they really “got it” and it just resonated with them. They knew it and doors opened everywhere.
I can’t remember now how long they stayed, and the next time they came we hosted them much better, but their first visit will remain a joyful and embarrassing cultural exchange – one that they were brave to accept and wise to enjoy.
Naoki and Miwako’s impact on the cultural scenes of both Bristol and Tokyo is profound. It’s the stuff of legends and could only have come from genuine love, humility and appreciation of life, people and art.
Cover Image: Naoki Iijima
Writer | Joe Muggs
Joe Muggs is a writer, DJ and curator of many years standing, covering both mainstream and underground. His book 'Bass, Mids, Tops', covering decades of UK bass music, is out now via Strange Attractor / MIT Press, and you can subscribe to his newsletter at tinyletter.com/joemuggs