Duncan A. Stephenson
Hometown: London, UK
In Japan: 4.5 years
Identity: DJ/Promoter/Party Boy
Otherwise known as Das — stemming from his stage name, Das Funkt — Duncan is far from your typical DJ. A dedicated follower of electronic music hailing from London, England, Duncan already had a notable amount of DJ-ing experience at house parties, bars and clubs under his belt upon his arrival. But a combination of his ambitious exploration of the local dance-music scene and a timely opportunity early in his arrival to open for well-known U.S DJ, Derrick May, soon made Duncan an instrumental part of Fukuoka’s nightlife. Today, Duncan spends his time DJ-ing at several different clubs across town, putting on events offering credible dance music to underground scenesters and new listeners alike, teaching Fukuoka’s future DJs, and co-running an online publication, Experimence, geared to make Fukuoka’s club scene more accessible to fans and curious listeners alike. Duncan’s talented artistry has taken him to various other parts of the world as well, including Shanghai and Hong Kong. There’s no knowing where DJ-ing will take Duncan next — but for now, he’s currently making Fukuoka a better place to party in.
Catch Das Funkt at the “Film Festival Party by Fukuoka Now”
Fukuoka Now reporter Rachel Cantrell sat down for a chat with Duncan about his transition from DJing house parties in the UK to the clubs of Fukuoka. Read more below…
Where are you from?
There’s been a few hometowns. Easiest answer is London and Brighton. London’s where I went to university and stayed about 8 years, and that’s where all the parties really sort of took off.
How did DJ-ing get started for you?
A misspent youth spent being in clubs at a young age. Initially, drum-and-bass was the music that I went clubbing to. Never really got dance music until I went to a club. Before going to clubs I was much more a kind of “indie kid,” listening to a lot of old music like 60’s, rock-and-roll, big fan of The Doors — wanted to be Jim Morrison for a long time. I was aware that it was around me, but I just didn’t get it.
Then I went to a club and saw the music being played in a proper situation, through a proper sound system. And the atmosphere…people just going crazy for that music. It was just so powerful — it completely changed things for me. And that was where it all kind of kicked off — I became a weekly club-goer.
But I didn’t want to DJ at that time. I was quite happy just being on the dance floor. And then I went to a big festival where there were lots of different kinds of music going on. 10 hours of drum-and-bass is enough for anybody, so somewhere during that time, I took a break and stepped into the house tent. Really liked what I was hearing. That tent was being put on by a local night, so next weekend I went to their party and was converted — it was house from then on. I saw the resident there, and I just wanted to be him. That was it — I said to my mate, “Right, come on, I want to DJ. How are we going to do this?”
Now I was going to university, and in the UK you get a student loan that you’re supposed to use for your living expenses while you’re at uni. The day I got mine, I went and bought my first set of decks, a mixer, and then spent about 6 months putting my housemates through hell by just practicing every single night. Didn’t sound too good then. There’s only so much someone can show you — the honest thing is, you’ve got to listen, you’ve got to know, and when you’re first starting out, it’s practice, practice, practice. If you’re going to do it properly, you’ve got to learn how to match tracks together and stuff — you’re not going to be able to do it, unless you’re phenomenally good — for at least 6 months with hard daily practicing. It just takes time. It’s not exactly the same as an instrument, but it is similar.
How much DJing were you doing in the UK before you came to Japan?
Being at university gave me an opportunity to be involved in a lot of house parties. Living in London when you’re a student is fairly expensive — when you go out to a club, you’re going to drop a lot of money — so although people like me still regularly went out to clubs, at least twice or three times a month there would be a house party. Quite often it was at the house which I was sharing with four other mates– we were lucky to have an old vicarage, where traditionally the local vicar (or Priest) would live. Big old house, big garden — my friend was also DJ-ing, and we had the equipment to start doing these house parties. Soon, they took on a bit of a life of their own.
From that, when other people had house parties, they would ask me to come and play. And it was at one of these parties that I met a girl, who was managing a cool little bar in North London and liked what I was playing that night. Her regular DJ at the bar was going on holiday for a couple of weeks and she asked me if I would fill in. That was how I got my first paid gig.
That’s also when the name got made up as well. I was a bit nervous, because it was a bit different from just playing for my friends and guys from uni. I turned up at this bar on the first night and manager asked me, “I’m going to put a sign out to announce you, what’s your DJ name?” I don’t know, I thought, I’m just Duncan. But she insisted I couldn’t use my real name and I needed to come up with a different name right there and then.
Now when I was at school we studied French and German. German has three genders: male, female, and neutral — so “the” can be der, die, or das. Some smart so and so in class realised that my initials were “D.A.S.” and made a joke and this then became a sort of a nickname. So “Das” was already there. When I was still in my indie/rock thing one of the first dance acts to catch my ear was Daft Punk who had a big influence of me. And back then and still now, actually, there’s one particular track that I love called “Da Funk,” so it didn’t take a huge amount of thought to stick “Das” and “Funk” together, and put a “t” on the end of it just to add a different sound to it. I never thought it would be anything, but it stuck.
Especially since coming to Japan where I meet so many people out when I’m playing or who are connected to parties I’m often introduced just as ‘Das’ plus in a noisy club and across the language barrier ‘Das’ (or ‘Dasu’) seems to be easier for some than ‘Duncan.’
So I played a couple of weeks there to cover the DJ, and when he came back, the bar asked me if I would stay on. We split it so I played every Friday and every other Saturday — and that’s when I really started to get experience. A bar is a different thing from a party — people go to bars to drink and to talk, and so I really had to learn how to pace a night. I couldn’t go in there and just bang it out so it really honed my skills of building a night. And you know, near the end you can really pick it up and maybe get a few people dancing on tables, but the only way a night ends like that is if you put the four hours in beforehand of slowly building people up.
I’m so thankful for that chance and opportunity to have that job, because I was getting paid to learn, basically. Plus it meant that I had to hunt for a lot of different kinds of music, because suddenly I had to keep it fresh every week — I had to be buying a lot of different records. The fact that the job was paid meant that I could support my widening vinyl habit get some kind of to know other kinds of music besides just the house I had been playing.
Then I wanted to get more into the clubs. But it’s tricky in London. They’ve got some of the best clubs in the world, international guys flying in all the time, some fantastic home talent as well. So it was a real challenge — you could try to speak to the promoter but unless you had name already it was really tough, especially at that time. I couldn’t find any openings, really.
So I thought I’d try and do it myself. Me and the best mate were playing similar kind of stuff, so we thought we’d try and put our night on together. After uni I started running a furniture shop in Camden Market and one night — I think it might have even been a weeknight — we shut the shop up, moved the sofas and coffee tables out of the way, set the decks up, and had a party.
We’d both been regulars at this party down in Brighton called Pussycat which did theme nights with fancy dress, decor, etc which gave a nice vibe to the night. So that was something that we always did with our events. I think the first one was fairly simple — like a sunglasses party or something.
It went well, people seemed to like it, so we then started to do it every other month in the upstairs of a kind of quite crazy bar in east London called “Urban Bar.” A two-story, old Victorian pub painted in bright orange and black tiger stripes — perfect for our night. It was really an invite-only, friends catching up kind of thing. In London, unless you plan very carefully, you never really see people you know out just by chance. But our parties were different, you didn’t need to know who was going as you knew it would be your friends or friends-of-friends. It was great and lived up to its name: ‘Kind of Fun.’
It ran for three years, and in that time we had to move venues three times just because it was getting too big. One of the most memorable was one New Year’s Eve we did “Happy Zoo Year.” We used an old warehouse style space and turned it into a zoo; we had a part as the ape house with tires which people could swing on, the Arctic part using the polystyrene balls from inside bean bags for “snow,” a cage for the DJ booth plus somehow we had this full size plastic horse that we found — stuck the decks on its back. And then everyone who came dressed up as different animals; we had two zebras, an elephant, a butterfly, I think I was an orangutan. Quality stuff.
That night also proved my theory that the costumes played more of a role than just making it fun. Being New Year’s Eve, there were a lot of people out and about. We had considered having security, but thought it probably was necessary since we were kind of tucked away. However during in the night, one of my friends who was running the door came and told me, “There’s a big bunch of guys who want to come in but don’t have invites and don’t look like our kind of friends” I said, “Oh, let them in, it’s New Year’s, it’ll be fine.” And so this big group came in– probably not troublemakers in any way, but a bit dodgy looking. They were surprised that we were friendly and let them in and then spent about ten minutes in the corner looking at this crazy thing happening around them, realised that it wasn’t really for them and quietly left. The costumes helped self censor the party and kept everything happy and fun.
As well as the regular parties in London, once a year we’d always do a party down in the countryside. In the U.K there’s a three day holiday weekend at the end of August when usually the weather’s usually good and it’s the last big weekend of the summer. We did a Wild West theme, a Lost theme — and those were nice; camping and barbeques.
So that was three years doing “Kind of Fun,” and then I came to Japan.
How did you end up in Japan? Fukuoka?
I went to a katana (Japanese swords) exhibition at the British Museum. As well as the swords they had some screens and kimonos and just a bit of information about this culture that was kind of completely new to me. I mean a lot of foreigners that come to Japan are kind of Japan “otaku” — they’re really heavily into manga, kanji, etc. For me, I’d been lucky enough to travel a little bit, but not so much in Asia. And Japan — I just didn’t know anything about Japan, really. But yeah, this exhibition really interested me, and I thought that this was a place I really want to go and check out.
So I came out just for a trip, initially — three weeks. Spent a bit of time here in Fukuoka and also visited Tokyo and Kyoto — you know, the normal tourist places.
But Fukuoka just has something about it. Coming from London, Fukuoka felt small, but not too small and in some ways big, but not too big. I liked the fact that it had the beach — reminded me a bit of Brighton. I hit some clubs while I was visiting and it felt like it had a bit of a scene — and I thought, yeah, everyone goes to Tokyo. And Kyoto, I think, is a place I like to visit, but I don’t know if I’d want to live there — it feels too magical. So out of the three places that I knew — Tokyo, Kyoto, and Fukuoka — Fukuoka seemed like the place to be.
To be honest, I feel blessed to be here. Having lived here I’ve got to know it more, and I’ve spent more time up in Tokyo. I was up there last weekend, and I had fun, but it made me realize how lucky I am to be here. You know, having to get in the subway really early to get to the club [in Tokyo], and wait all night. But in Fukuoka, my bike is my trusty stead — I can get anywhere I want on it.
How difficult was it for you to start getting DJ gigs in Fukuoka?
I was very lucky. I got here in December — and in January, they have an event here called “Night Walker.” You buy a wristband for ¥1000, and it gives you entry to all of the clubs and bars on Oyafuko-dori. I knew Oyafuko was the clubbing street, because when I’d been here before, I’d been to a club there and I’d been record shopping there. I heard about “Night Walker” and thought this was the perfect opportunity to visit every club this town has, listen to the systems, meet the people, and instead of having to take a couple of months to do it, I could do it in a night!
So I was really strict. No booze, because you have to buy a drink in every place and I didn’t want to end up a mess. I did ginger ale all night, went to as many clubs as I could, listened to the music being played, checked out the sound system and DJ booth and worked out which were the places would be good to play. Then I would try to meet someone connected with the club or the speak to the promoter. I mean, my Japanese is not that great now, but back then it was pretty much zero. I just tried to find the right person, handed them out one my mix CDs and hope for the best.
A couple of months later, I got an email from a guy called Masa — in Japanese. The only thing I could see in English was a name, and that name was “Derrick May.” Derrick May is a famous techno legend from Detroit. When I saw that name, I couldn’t help but think, “This might be an email saying that I’m going to be warming up for Derrick May.” But of course, I couldn’t read it. So I think I put it through one of those online translation things — but it just came out kind of weird. Then I contacted a friend to help and he let me know what the message said — but he had no idea what it would mean to me, and he was very kind of casual, saying, “Yeah, yeah, the guy’s asking if you would be interested in playing with some bloke called Derrick May.” I was made up. It was my first chance to play alongside a serious name. Plus, the night of the party was special as it fell on the same night as my birthday. It felt like fate.
On the night I was probably the most nervous I’ve ever been. But the set went well, I played early on. Again, I was doing kind of warm-up stuff, which I’m very comfortable with but in a big club for me at that time — Air. It’s not huge in worldwide standards, but for Fukuoka, it’s one of the bigger ones and for me at that time it felt like a step up.
It was a big moment for me and a great night. Derrick May played great, good set; he’s always very much appreciated in Japan. He played a long set — three or four hours. He had a bit of a quiet moment, maybe in the third hour of the set, and I saw some of the staff organizing something — and then they brought a birthday cake up for him. I couldn’t believe it — it’s his and my birthday! At the end of the night I went up and had a bit of a chat with him, and we shared a bit of fun since it was our birthdays and then he left.
As I’m picking up my records at the end of the night, I found that he left a record for me — so touched. For me, that was the perfect first night — it doesn’t get much better than that.
From that point on, I then started to get asked to play at other parties at Air and this meant I started to get to know people in the scene. It’s all down to Masa, really — Masa gave me that break. He was manager of Air at that time — we had a kind of a strange friendship; he didn’t speak much English back then and I couldn’t speak any Japanese, but somehow we communicated.
It was long after that I then became resident and helped co-run a bi-monthly event called “ATHED,” standing for Acid-Techno-House-Electro-Disco and pronounced like ‘acid,’ but with a lisp. These parties were a lot of fun and an important learning experience as over the three years that they ran for I was able to see what differences there were from running events in London plus they led to me making even more contacts and friends within the local scene.
What are the differences between the clubbing scene in Fukuoka and the one you first experienced back in the U.K?
The big difference between Japan and the U.K is in the U.K, although it’s changing, the culture is still that bars close ’round about 11:30~12:00 at night. It’s been that way for so long that it’s ingrained in people’s minds– you go to the pub after work, and at midnight you go home. But of course there are those who don’t want to go home, and that means that you go to a club. They’re probably not listening to dance music at home, and they’d probably not make a big deal out of going to a particular club. But they end up in clubs because they’re out drinking, and their friends are moving to a club, or they want to keep chatting up the girl they’ve met or something like that. People just naturally go to a club. So in a club in England, you’ve got hardcore people like myself that know exactly who’s playing, you’ve got people that just love to dance, and you’ve got people that are there for fun — they don’t know who’s playing and they’ve never heard of the DJ before, but they’re just enjoying it.
Now the big difference here in Japan is that situation doesn’t really happen. The bar closing at 11 probably doesn’t close at 11. And if it does close at 11, there’s plenty of other bars that are open. So this whole culture of leaving a bar and going to a club doesn’t really exist. If you want to leave the bar, you can go to an izakaya; you can go do karaoke with your mates; you can go to a pachinko center; you can go play mahjong — there’s about a hundred different things you can do besides go a club. People that go to clubs here tend to be really into the music. It’s a small scene, but it’s passionate. These guys know their music. So for me, I’ve really found that when I’m playing the real club events, I’ve got to know my music. It’s got to be good, not necessarily new, but you can’t play too commercial for that crowd. These people are real dance music lovers, and that’s fantastic. That, for me, is such an amazing chance to be able to play to a crowd so in touch with the music in a nice little club with a good system.
But I also have these other events (which is going to be the one I’m playing for Fukuoka Now) where people coming may know what a DJ is, they may have seen one, but they’re not going to clubs that often and probably don’t listen to that much dance music at home. They are not going to get that music that I’m playing at the underground places. It just takes time to get into that kind of music, you know? So for that style, I need to play a little bit more popular music. But for me to be able to look at myself in the mirror and be honest, I can’t just play the latest top 40, or whatever. So then comes the skill of trying to find a track that is well made and has a good sound to it, but is also accessible to everyone. I think that’s what I always do at the Fukuoka Now parties, because it’s such a mix of people. That’s one of the great things about those parties — they bring a lot of different people together. And I hope my place in that is to try and just find a sound that for that night, they can just understand what is like to be in a club and have some fun. I mean, dance music is very fun. It may have some deep meaning and all, but mainly it’s about dancing with your friends and having fun.
What kind of advice do you have for someone trying to break into the Fukuoka scene?
Because the scene is smaller here, you need to become like somebody in the scene. You need to start going to the events and meeting people there. Especially if you’re not very well-known and don’t yet have a following, you need to know the sort of people that are going to the events. And in Fukuoka it’s not that hard, since everyone’s going to the same events. I call these people friends, but we only ever see each other in clubs. But we’re always at clubs, so I see them every weekend. It’s not so difficult to come to this town, start partying a bit, get to know people, and then when you’ve worked out which event would cater best for your sound, then that’s the time to try and speak to the promoter and hand them a mix. But just walking into town with a bunch of CDs and hoping it works out — I don’t think that happens, normally.
Tell us about your career in Fukuoka now. What’s an average day like for you?
Unless I was going to drastically change the type of music I play, I don’t think I could DJ enough to make it my full-time living. I would like to say that I’m confident I could move to Tokyo and make it there, but to be really honest, DJ-ing has never been a “job” for me. It’s my passion. Of course, there’s been times where I’ve been fortunate enough to be paid to do events, and sometimes I feel that is necessary because it’ll be a huge, long event and quite taxing. But it wouldn’t take a lot to get me behind a pair of decks at a party — I just love it so much.
So I’m teaching to pay my bills — that’s how I do it. I get a big kick out of that. It was not the plan when I first got here, since it’s what everybody does. I was like oh, I’m not like that — I’m going to DJ, or work behind a bar or something. But I had a chance to do a bit of teaching and I just loved it. I’m lucky as I get to do a lot of different styles of teaching, actually.
A normal day for me can be pretty crazy. I start by heading off to one of my yochien (kindergarten) jobs in the morning — off to see the little kiddies — singing and dancing with them. Then in the afternoon, I could be at my Junior High school or I could be at Jeitai — (Japanese self-defense force) officer training school. Then evenings will be either eikaiwa or perhaps a business class. My teaching takes me all over. It’s more like freelance teaching. I like the variety, meeting different people, the age ranges, skill levels. It just suits me, and it suits my schedule as well.
So teaching takes up a fair bit of the day, but it also gives me some gaps in between. A lot of my life is just listening to music, finding new music. I mean, the thing that’s changed for me in the last 5 or 7 years is that I used to go to my favorite record shop and one of the guys behind the counter would have an idea of what I liked so he would have picked a few things out for me, I spend a couple of hours there, have a drink with them, listen to music, buy probably ten records a week, and that was it. But now, it’s just so easy now. It’s easier than ever to make music. It’s easier than ever to distribute music. It’s easier than ever to buy music, which means you’ve got a wash of new music. Instead of going to a record shop and hoping one copy of one record hasn’t sold out, you go on the internet and almost everything’s there in unlimited quantities. So as a DJ the search is endless.
Now I’m pretty strict about my music — I’m not preaching or anything, if you want to download the new Madonna album, I don’t care; Madonna’s got loads of money as far as I’m concerned and she’ll make tons from concerts and merchandising. But the sort of people that are making the music that I listen to, are not making a lot of money from it. So I’m pretty strict — I don’t download illegally. I buy my tracks. I think that’s an important thing — if you’re getting paid to play your music out, pay the artist that made the music! I think that the DJ has an important role (and of course many DJs are also producers), but in the role of being a DJ, you are only as good as the music you have. If that music’s being made by someone else, I believe you should pay them.
Also, for me it’s about quality. I started out on vinyl and if I could choose, I would still play everything on vinyl, but just the logistics of being in Japan, having a ridiculously big record collection at my parent’s place. Every time I go back, they ask me, “What’s the plan with all these? Are they ever going to go? Are you going to sell them?” Obviously there’s a look of disbelief on my face — of course I’m not going to sell them. But I can’t send them all out to Japan. I already maxed out on my luggage when I came here plus I shipped another heap over too. So I had to make the change and started moving over to CDs.
But I was very concerned about the sound quality. For me, listening on your iPod or listening at home — you can’t tell the difference. When you’re playing in a club with a decent sound system (and thankfully, one nice thing about Japan is that they do know their sound) — the thing about the MP3 is that it has to compress the music, which means that you’re losing some at the top and you’re losing some at the bottom; it’s that bottom that I’m concerned about. Not so much the sounds you can hear, but the sounds you can feel. I just love that bass.
As well finding new music I’ve also got the planning of my own events which involves sorting out designs for flyers, booking guests, finding venues and of course lots of promotion. Currently I’m co-running my new project Frieden Kab, am resident for the Luv It! events, and have a weekly Friday night slot at Dark Room so I keep myself busy.
Apart from DJing, how else are you involved in the local Fukuoka scene?
One of the other big things that I do, which is related to the DJ-ing and the music, is a website called Experimence. It’s a mixture of experience and experiment. The girl that I work with, Junko, feels that when you go out clubbing, it’s an experiment, but it’s also an experience. Junko is a sort of main player in Fukuoka, she’s been here a long time, used to run her own parties but is now just someone in the scene that people go to, to make things happen. She lived over in London and Berlin, so her English is great. So when local promoters book international guests, Junko’s often asked to be a translator. For a long time she was just doing a keitai-mail magazine every week sending out party information to people.
We wanted to do something for Fukuoka — we thought there were so many good parties happening, so much talent here, but they needed help getting the word out. I would find flyers for quite famous people who could command a crowd of a thousand people back in London and I would think why just a flyer — I should know more about it. I would go to these parties, and the foreign guest would ask me, “What happened tonight? There’s twelve people here…”
So we thought, how could we make this work? We decided to make the mail magazine, we needed a website, and that’s been going over two years now. Basically, the website has grown from not just talking about parties, but also including other elements of the scene and what people in it are also interested in. The idea is, people who are going to clubs share similar things. Some parties have more of a fashion side — we’ll do like “fashion snaps” and things. Then there’s our internet guy, who’s deep, deep, deep into computers and tech — their events are really hi-tech, like they’re simultaneously having a party in Tokyo and Fukuoka with both being screened at both locations over the web. Every party has some sort of sense to it, so what we’re trying to do is help people who maybe don’t really know so much about clubs. Sometimes we’ll do pre-parties, perhaps meeting at somebody’s house, have some food — maybe about ten people, so you get to know each other in a sort of nice environment, and then all go to the club together. It’s all centered around trying to help the scene in Fukuoka.
We also occasionally do our own Experimence parties. We’ve done three now, Sunday afternoons, we have a barbeque going by the river. What’s really nice is that since Junko’s been in the scene a long time, a lot of her friends are club friends from a long time ago who are now married, they’ve got kids and because it’s an afternoon party not at a club they can bring the whole family. My first dancers are always the kids!
I think that plays a very important role in showing that this dance music thing is not some sinful nighttime activity that goes on behind closed doors. I just feel that’s so narrow-minded. In fact I can’t think of anything Japanese society needs more than for people to go to a club, forget the fact that they’ve just worked a 40-hour week, meet similar people, relax, dance and have fun, maybe even meet their future partner and, of course, listen to good quality dance music.
Catch Das Funkt at the “Film Festival Party by Fukuoka Now”. Details here!
Originally published in Fukuoka Now Magazine (fn165, Sep. 2012)