Jesse Lopez Is Pretty Fly for an NHK Guy

AT YOUR DOOR, the best local record of the year thus far, has its roots all over the globe.

The NHK Guy is not someone you want to meet.

“He’s the reason why Japanese people don’t answer their door,” says Seattle-based electronic producer Jesse Lopez, aka DJ NHK Guy. “He’s the person who gets lied to probably more than anyone in the country—I’ve lied to his face multiple times.” A universally detested cultural figure in Japan, the NHK Guy’s job is to randomly visit people’s homes, ask if they have a television, and if they do, collect an obligatory $200 subscription fee for the national public broadcasting organization.

The joke behind Lopez’s performance name might not land stateside, but you don’t need to understand the reference to appreciate the humor inherent in DJ NHK Guy’s excellent debut LP, AT YOUR DOOR. An early front-runner for the best local record of 2017, the superbly inventive album is a rapturous portal into a Technicolor world of leisure. Even though the majority of AT YOUR DOOR was written and recorded on Lopez’s laptop at Victrola Coffee on Pike Street, the record’s singular blend of sounds and styles is actually a globally sourced synthesis, one Lopez was uniquely positioned to brew.

The story behind AT YOUR DOOR begins in 2010, when Lopez relocated from his native California to the rural Nagasaki Prefecture town of Isahaya to teach English through the JET (Japanese Exchange and Teaching) Program. “For an analogy,” Lopez says, “If Tokyo is New York, Osaka is L.A., and Seattle is Hiroshima, Isahaya is like… well… its sister city in America is Athens, Tennessee. I was way out there.”

Loneliness started to set in.

Nobody listened to the Jersey club and future bass music Lopez liked to DJ at the time, under the name Phüey. “In Nagasaki, the main scene at any club you go to heavily revolves around straightforward hip-hop or Japanese reggae—I call it Jeggae—which is surprisingly a huge thing.” After fishing around on Twitter for like-minded Japanese artists, a track he landed on a Tokyo-based electro compilation attracted the attention of an upstart music collective named Yesterday Once More, based in Japan’s fifth largest city, Fukuoka. Soon, Lopez found himself taking the hour-and-a-half trek north every other weekend to play shows with the new crew, working on his music on the train.

One fateful night, Lopez went to a DJ set by Yesterday Once More’s AnammastrA. The 160-bpm rhythms skittering out of the speakers, a Chicago-born style of dance music called footwork, enthralled Lopez, who had unwittingly recently downloaded the key record by the genre’s messiah, DJ Rashad’s Double Cup. “It wasn’t until then that I realized footwork was its own entire thing,” Lopez says. “It just immediately clicked. I started really deconstructing DJ Rashad, discovering [seminal Chicago footwork collective] Teklife, and figuring out how that music worked.” Shortly thereafter, in 2014, DJ Rashad tragically died of a drug overdose. The death would lead to the birth of Lopez’s DJ NHK Guy project—creating his first footwork track in response to a call for DJ Rashad tribute tracks by Team Supreme, a music collective out of L.A.

“The energy of footwork really appealed to me, the pattern of the drums,” Lopez says, referencing the kinetic rhythmic avalanche that defines the sound. “That, and the sense of humor. Sample anything—the sky’s the limit. There’s the kind of set bpm, 160, but you can include as much humor as you want in it and really make it your own.”

Footwork’s origins are squarely in Chicago, where it was concocted by R.P. Boo to soundtrack high-speed dance battles on the city’s South Side. While other traditionally black music styles like hip-hop and house have launched debates around cultural appropriation when outsiders pick up the sound, R.P. Boo has explicitly stated that footwork is for everyone. “When you get very successful at something and you got a blueprint on it, you can either be shady to the point where you don’t want nobody to have a part of it, or you gonna be able to watch it outlive you,” Boo told Mass Appeal in 2015. “There’s nothing to steal! You have to be able to use what’s around you.”

Near the end of his tenure in Japan, Lopez began to notice something around him that had fallen on deaf ears: a late ’70s/early ’80s style of Japanese music called city pop—a fusion of disco, smooth jazz and funk whose hits live in the same place American hits of that era do today. “It’s in drug stores, grocery stores; some radio stations still play it continuously,” Lopez says of the ubiquitous background music. During his last year in Japan, thanks to a few music recommendations from one of his students, he fell in love with the genre’s leisurely sound, which to him evoked “eternal summer.”

In 2015, as his JET contract came to an end, Lopez decided to move to Seattle, partially because of family in town, but chiefly due to his contact with Allen Huang, the force behind Seattle electronic booking collective CUSTOMS. Huang, who has since moved to Taipei, was one of DJ NHK Guy’s earliest supporters. “When I first put out NHK Guy tracks, Allen was actually one of the very first people to share them,” Lopez says. “I was like, ‘who is this?’ I was exctied to go to Seattle and meet him.” Huang happened to run a city-pop DJ night in Seattle called City Hunter, cementing Lopez’s love for the style.

DJ NHK Guy’s trademark “UHH!” comes from a Latin moombahton sample pack, pitched down in the style of A$AP Rocky. Photo by Kelton Sears

After settling on a goofy, pitched-down sample of a man sensually saying “UHH!” as his sonic trademark—littered throughout nearly every song on AT YOUR DOOR—Lopez fused brilliantly chopped-up city-pop samples with a rubbery, at times video game-influenced take on footwork. Lead single “NATSU1000” is a masterful marriage of sounds, brimming with chintzy, elevator-Muzak chords, hyper-speed funk guitar, and clattering, giddy drum sequences that sound as if they’re getting ripped through a vortex. “CHACHAしようや” sounds like a 500-mph, swagged-out version of the soundtrack to an island level on Mario Kart, spliced with the classic “Woo! Yeah!” break and copious city-pop riffs cut into breezy, crystalline oblivion—a calorie-burning workout of a track.

“I’m trying to tread that line between making something that pays respect to the original pure styles but also making it my own without people accusing me of appropriating each genre,” Lopez says. “My own particular style came naturally.” Being a Filipino-American, Lopez says, he’s caught flak from people stateside accusing him of “falsely trying to identify myself as Japanese.” And being that footwork is so thoroughly Chicagoan, he sometimes feels pressure from purists who might accuse him of ruining the style’s sound.

That said, this Friday, Lopez will play one of his biggest shows yet, with the Teklife-approved, non-Chicago footwork crew Mall Music. The collective’s core artists, DJ Paypal, DJ Orange Julius, and DJ Mastercard (whose goofy corporate names inspired the name DJ NHK Guy), are creating some of the most impish second-wave iterations of the sound right now. While Lopez’s own take on footwork is completely different from Mall Music’s mutations, they all share a fascination with the inherent playfulness at the style’s core, representative of its vital elasticity and continued staying power. Would-be critics aside, DJ NHK Guy has crafted something that’s indisputably his own on AT YOUR DOOR—the product not of one particular place, but the authentic result of his many artistic environments. The ecstatic sound that’s resulted couldn’t have come from anyone but DJ NHK Guy. For that, Seattle, and anywhere else people like to dance, should be very thankful. CUSTOMS presents a Mall Music Inc. showcase with DJ Paypal, DJ Orange Julius, DJ Mastercard, and DJ NHK Guy. Kremwerk, 1809 Minor Ave., $10 adv./$15 DOS. 21 and over. 10 p.m. Fri., June 10.