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Photography Yaona Sui

Tokyo rapper Tohji: ‘I don’t pretend to be mysterious – it’s just me’

We catch up with the elusive Japanese rapper ahead of his T-Mix mixtape – a euphoric mix of 90s eurotrance and J-pop that’s meant to be blasted at max volume

As one of the more elusive figures in Tokyo’s underground, Tohji has built a reputation among the city’s disaffected youth for his distinct strain of Soundcloud rap that combines elements of trance and dance-pop with an appreciation for suburban Mall culture. One half of Mallboyz, along with friend and collaborator gummyboy, the 26-year-old is considered part of a Drain-adjacent wave of artists, who – united in their strong sense of collective style and terminally online approach – have earned them an extremely dedicated fanbase among the internet’s cool kids. 

When I meet him over Zoom, Tohji’s own painfully cool exterior can be felt even across the computer screen. Camera off, he spends most of the interview speaking in Japanese to his girlfriend, who translates his answers into succinct soundbytes. Occasionally his manager will pipe in to elaborate – and, at one point, he exits the call completely only to return ten minutes later without any explanation. He routinely avoids any questions about his music, despite me sending through talking points ahead of the interview. “It’s hard for him to put into words, which is why he makes music,” his manager tells me. It’s an acutely bizarre exchange, but such is the enigma that is Tohji.

“I don’t pretend to be mysterious,” he asserts, “it’s just me”. We’re speaking ahead of the release of his mixtape T-Mix, which features contributions by the likes of Bladee, Mechatok, Yeule and Palmistry (a group he describes as “really unique”). Inspired by the Tokyo suburbs where he grew up, the 11-track record overflows with a sense of dreaminess, with euphoric synth lines and glossy electronic production conjuring saturated snapshots of residential pool sides and video game arcades. “There’s no culture or history in the town I grew up in,” he explains, “It’s just big rows of houses that all look the same – and shopping malls”.

On T-mix, Tohji translates this suburban drawl into a heady blast of 90s eurotrance and J-pop that’s meant to be heard at max volume, blaring through open car windows while speeding to and from the shopping mall. “I felt like I needed to make my own culture,” he explains. It’s a homage to the sort of music heard in video game arcades; and a nod to turn-of-the-millennium rave culture via J-pop label AVEX and pop idol Ayumi Hamasaki, whose eurodance Ayu-mi-x inspired a generation of rebel kids in rural Japan. “You can find Ayumi Hamasaki merch on cars with huge sound systems going down the motorway,” he adds, “it’s a huge culture”.

Music videos of Tohji hanging out with his friends in cars (“Higher”) and poolsides (“POOLSIDE”) embody this carefree attitude. The rapper’s aesthetic is instantly recognisable and is, arguably, just as important as the music itself. Scenes of youthful hedonism are rendered in saturated pink and blue tones, while Tohji’s personal style, too, is equally idiosyncratic; a slouchcore combo of baggy jeans and pale blue ocean tones. For the past two years he has been organising secret raves and hotel parties across Tokyo, which aims to cultivate this unique aesthetic. Yet, typical to character, he refuses to describe exactly what sort of scene he’s trying to develop, putting it simply: “Previous generations in Japan would look at the US for inspiration. But we believe in our own style and culture; we believe in ourselves.“

T-Mix is out now