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Towa tei

First known for his work with Deee-Lite, Towa Tei is a producer, remixer, and DJ with boundless creativity and an unmistakable style. His group's funky yet whimsical 1990 smash hit "Groove Is in the Heart" hinted at the sampling finesse and knack for the surprising, imaginative pop he made as a solo artist and collaborator. On 1994's Future Listening!, Tei brought the bossa nova, jazz, and easy listening influences that enlivened Deee-Lite's music to the fore and reconfigured them in fresh ways; on 1997's Sound Museum, his collaborations with Kylie Minogue, Bebel Gilberto, and Biz Markie were eclectic, but always in keeping with his playful, optimistic vision of pop music. In the 2000s and beyond, Tei remained a fixture of Japan's dance music scene and charts with albums such as 2005's Flash and 2013's Lucky. Later in the 2010s, his work with the supergroup METAFIVE -- which also featured members of the pioneering act Yellow Magic Orchestra -- reaffirmed his reputation as one of his homeland's most innovative and well-respected artists. With 2021's LP and 2023's Touch, he continued to unite generations of forward-thinking Japanese musicians. Born in Yokohama, Japan and raised in Kawasaki, Towa Tei started making music in his teens and recorded demos of himself playing his Korg MS-10 synthesizer. As a student at the Musashino Art University Junior College of Art and Design, he sent some of his music to Ryuichi Sakamoto's radio program Sound Street, sparking a long-running creative partnership with the Yellow Magic Orchestra member. While working as a roadie for Sakamoto, Tei wished to improve his English, and moved to New York City to attend Parsons School of Design in 1987. During his time studying graphic design there, he became active in the city's club scene, and met the Jungle Brothers' Baby Bam. The pair hit it off, and Tei designed the artwork for the group's second album, 1989's Done by the Forces of Nature. Tei also met Super DJ Dimitri at New York's clubs and became the third member of the innovative dance-pop trio Deee-Lite in 1988. The group's 1990 debut album World Clique became a multi-platinum hit, while its lead single "Groove Is in the Heart" -- which drew many of its hooks from Tei's sampling wizardry -- was a Top Five hit on the Billboard Hot 100 Singles chart and reached number one on the Billboard Hot Dance Music Club Play chart. Fresh off this success, Tei collaborated with Sakamoto on his 1991 album Heartbeat. While DJ Dmitri and Lady Miss Kier toured in support of World Clique, Tei began work on Deee-Lite's second album, the politically minded Infinity Within. Arriving in 1992, the album peaked at 67 on the Billboard 200 Albums chart, while the single "Runaway" hit number one on the Billboard Dance chart. Creative differences prompted Tei to leave Deee-Lite before the release of 1994's Dewdrops in the Garden, though he appeared on the track "Call Me." Along with reuniting with Sakamoto for the album Sweet Revenge, in 1994 he returned to Japan and settled in Tokyo. He became an in-demand producer for artists ranging from Pizzicato Five and Yellow Magic Orchestra to A Tribe Called Quest (whose member Q-Tip famously appeared on "Groove Is in the Heart"). Tei debuted as a solo artist with October 1994's Future Listening! A lively mix of the bossa nova, house, jazz, and pop that he began exploring as his time with Deee-Lite was nearing an end, the album included a cast of equally wide-ranging collaborators such as Pizzicato Five's Maki Nomiya, Joi Cardwell, and Bebel Gilberto, as well as Sakamoto and another YMO member, Haruomi Hosono. Released on the For Life label, it reached number 50 on Japan's Oricon Albums Chart. Elektra issued the album in the U.S. the following April. Tei had a busy 1997: that February, his project Sweet Robots Against the Machine debuted with its self-titled album, and that May, his second album under his own name, Sound Museum, appeared. Featuring contributions from Kylie Minogue, Biz Markie, and Gilberto, the album peaked at number 17 on the Japanese charts. For July 1999's Last Century Modern, Tei combined Y2K-era anxiety with retro pop, drum'n'bass, funk influences, and vocals from Ayumi Tanabe and Cory Daye. The album was another success in Tei's homeland, reaching number 20 on the Oricon Albums Chart. Last Century Modern was released in the States in May 2000. The producer returned to his Sweet Robots Against the Machine alias for 2002's album Towa Tei, then issued Flash under his own name in April 2005. A set of songs that reflected his frequent DJ gigs at the time, it featured Atom TM, Luomo, and Buffalo Daughter, and hit 26 on the Japanese charts. By 2009, Tei's creative empire had grown to include the concept party Hotel H and the collective hug inc., which manufactured his designer sunglasses along with other products. That February, he released his fifth album, Big Fun, which reached 25 on the Oricon Albums Chart and found him connecting with contributors such as Taprikk Sweezee and Cibo Matto's Miho Hatori through social media. In the 2010s, Tei continued to juggle his many projects. On 2011's Sunny, he once again worked with Sweezee, Hatori, and Hosono, and once again, the album fared well commercially, peaking at number 23 on the Japanese charts. For 2013's Lucky, he teamed with all three members of Yellow Magic Orchestra, Buffalo Daughter's SuGar Yoshinaga, and Sheena Ringo. It reached 36 on the Oricon Albums Chart. The following year, Tei celebrated his 20th year as a solo artist with a series of collections of songs, covers. and remixes spanning those two decades. Also in 2014, he became a member of the supergroup METAFIVE, which also featured YMO's Yukihiro Takahashi, Tomohiko Gondo, Cornelius' Keigo Oyamada, Denki Groove's Yoshinori Sunahara, and singer Leo Imai. Beginning as the backing band for Takahashi's tour, the group released its debut single "Split Spirit" that year. Several METAFIVE members, as well as Hosono and Atom TM, appeared on July 2015's Cute, which reached 25 on the Japanese charts. In 2016, Tei returned to his METAFIVE duties with the album META, the EP METAHALF, and the live album METALIVE. During a break in the band's activities, Tei created his ninth album under his own name. Arriving in March 2017 and peaking at 34 on the Oricon Albums Chart, Emo also included performances from his METAFIVE bandmates as well as contributions from the Bird and the Bee's Inara George, UA, and Minogue. The following year, Tei delivered the third Sweet Robots Against the Machine album. Entitled 3 (pronounced "san"), it found the producer working with Sunahara, actresses Aso Kumiko and Yoshioka Kaho, and comedian Bakarhythm on a set of spoken techno pieces. Also in 2018, he produced the music for a documentary on artist Yayoi Kusama and supervised Neue Tanz, a compilation commemorating YMO's 40th anniversary. He returned in March 2021 with his tenth album LP, which featured HANA as well as Hosono, Takahashi, and Sunahara. The album reached 44 on the Oricon Albums Chart. Around the time of LP's release, Tei also remixed Scandal's single "Eternal." In November, Towa Tei's soundtrack to Netflix's animated adaptation of the comic book series Super Crooks appeared. He remained busy in 2023, releasing a pair of albums that September. His first entirely instrumental album, Zoundtracks, arrived on his own Machbeat label, while Touch continued the cameo-laden pop experiments of LP with contributions from Cornelius as well as Hosono and Takahashi.
© Heather Phares /TiVo


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