Once upon a time, YUNG BAE was yet another anonymous Bandcamp producer working in the vaporwave subgenre of future funk. In non-nerd language, that means he was essentially chopping up old samples of disco and Japanese city pop and adding modern house music drums and cover art swiped from screencaps of Sailor Moon.
Future funk died down a bit, but BAE remained, releasing album after album of smooth, glamorous dance cuts even the introverted, awkward, internet-dwelling otaku that popularized his music (myself included) can get down to. The best part? In the egalitarian spirit of vaporwave, the plunderphonic, underground music revolution that launched a thousand Tumblr blogs, all his music is still pay-what-you-want on his Bandcamp. His latest release is the third volume in his Japanese Disco Edits series, which is exactly what it says on the tin.
To prep you for YUNG BAE’s set at Valley Bar this Thursday, October 11, we’ve put together this list of five essential vaporwave and future funk cuts. Pay attention, you just might learn something.
MACINTOSH PLUS – “Lisa Frank 420 / Modern Computing” (2012)
Before we talk about BAE, we have to talk about MAC. Though not the first vaporwave release, MACINTOSH PLUS is, for most, the entry point into the genre which detractors call “just a bunch of slowed-down Diana Ross songs.” And while that is exactly what you’ll get from listening to “Risa Furanku 420 / Gendai no Konpyuu” (Lisa Frank 420 / Modern Computing), it’s also so much more. MACINTOSH PLUS is one of many pseudonyms for the producer Ramona Xavier, best known as Vektroid. Her project Floral Shoppe, released in the post-recession days of 2011, has been hailed by critics and listeners as a both a hypnotic, trippy experience and an abstract, yet salient critique of capitalism. Don’t believe me? Listen to the words, cribbed from Diana Ross’ “It’s Your Move”: “I’m giving up on trying / To sell you things that you ain’t buying,” “Do you understand, it’s all in your hands.” Is it about love? Or is it about the failure of the economy and the omnipresence of advertising? Did that uncanny voice say “All in your hands,” or “All in your head?” It’s your move.
Saint Pepsi – “Private Caller” (2013)
About a year after vaporwave broke, when Vektroid ran out of alternate names and vaporwave seemed in jeopardy of running out of ideas (and obscure samples), a new wave of bedroom producers came in and injected new life into the stagnating genre. These star-blazers, enamored with the allure of vintage Japanese advertisements, the nostalgia and glamour of the hyper-capitalist ‘80s that Vektroid was supposedly satirizing, jettisoned the radical politics of the vaporwave OGs and focused on a purely aesthetic approach. “Private Caller,” by the artist formerly known as Saint Pepsi, can be seen as the moment when this shift from vaporwave to future funk occurs. The crescendo of its synthesizer intro, the hard hits of its drums, the woozy, sensual sound of its sample of “Pillow Talk” by Lustt – it announced something totally different, new, and unskeptical of pleasure.
MACROSS 82-89 – “YEBISU (YUNG BAE EDIT)” (2014)
Generally, the easiest way to tell a song’s age is by listening to its drums. A trap song from 2018 and a drum and bass track from 1996 can have the same melody, but listen to the drums, and you’ll know when it was made. There’s a similar rule at play with this tune, YUNG BAE’S edit of MACROSS 82-89’s “YEBISU.” The original MACROSS version is much slower and cloudier, but BAE takes the same sample and puts it at original speed, chops and screws it a bit, fades it in and out and between channels, and adds snappier, Daft Punk-style house beats to give the track a fuller sound. The result is a tree ring for where the movement was going: faster, louder, and more sophisticated (in terms of production, if nothing else).
YUNG BAE – “Magic” (2016)
Since its creation, vaporwave has had more variations and permutations than any one musical scene ought to. Besides future funk, there was the vapor-trap of Blank Banshee. There was the ambient vaporwave of 2814, perhaps the most un-ironically celebrated act in the genre’s history thanks to their brilliant 2015 album Birth of a New Day, which even Rolling Stone covered. Then there was the “hardvapour” movement, which swapped the Japanese characters for cyrillic and the soft disco samples with hard techno beats. BAE, meanwhile, has remained BAE. He spent all of 2016 on a tear, releasing five projects in that year alone: BAE 2, Japanese Disco Edits 2, BA3, the Motown-centric Skyscraper Anonymous, and Bae: Side B. He also revealed his face, which, in a scene where most producers are comfortably anonymous, is a big deal. Saint Pepsi has had a somewhat similar journey; he changed his stage name to Skylar Spence (Pepsi Co. must not have been fans), signed to the indie rock label Carpark, and released the pop album Prom King in 2015.
Mariya Takeuchi – “Plastic Love” (1985)
Finally, we truly come full circle with the oldest and, oddly, the most recently popular entry on our list. Indeed, the prevalence of music made with samples of Japanese city pop has led to a reappraisal of the genre by modern listeners. In other words, fans of future funk got sick of cut product and went straight to the source. “Plastic Love,” a single by ‘80s pop singer Mariya Takeuchi, is the most visible beneficiary of this trend. Though popular in its day – the accompanying album, VARIETY, was once No. 1 on Japan’s Oricon Albums Chart – a seven-minute disco version of the song posted to YouTube in 2017 had, by January of this year, gained 5 million views with no promotion. Blogs took notice. An article on Noisey called it “the best pop song in the world.” The video is now up to 20 million views and counting, and Takeuchi herself has decided to come out of retirement. Who says the internet can’t do any good?