Beats Per Minute

A look at the Japanese underground music scene in Brooklyn

June 19, 2013

Yoshio Kobayashi, one of the original founders of the space. Photograph by Jae Hwang.

It’s 10 p.m. on the western edge of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, NY. This is a distinctly lonelier place than the developed, hipster- saturated main drag just five blocks east. Here, in relative isolation, lies Studio BPM, an underground studio and music venue, and a hub of the Japanese expat art scene in Brooklyn.

Studio BPM (“beats per minute”) is a cloistered, secretive place. It has almost no online presence and the physical location is even more camouflaged. The only signage on the small brick building is a faded blue sign that reads: “King Collision: Body and Fender Repair.” A graffiti-tagged door, propped open with a cinderblock, indicates that BPM is open. Inside, BPM resembles repurposed catacombs — a maze of white painted brick, exposed wire and wooden constructions. The main room features a stage, sound equipment and an array of disco balls that hang from the ceiling at various heights. Artists, musicians, Americans and Japanese expats trickle in steadily, mingling in the cramped hallways.

A band called Bright Moments takes the stage. The drummer, a lean 40-something man named Yoshio

Kobayashi, is one of BPM’s founding members. Kobayashi and a group of Japanese artists moved into the belly of the defunct King Collision auto shop in 2001. They erected walls, built a stage and rewired the building, transforming it into a studio space. For over a decade now, people have been making music here.

Studio BPM became an important venue in the afrobeat revival of the last decade. Today, afrobeat, dubwise (a bass-heavy reggae subgenre) and jam bands are the venue’s staples, but BPM hosts other bands, artists, and DJs as well. The music here is rhythmic and earnest in attitude — a peculiarity in Brooklyn, where “cool” is often synonymous with “sardonic.”

But one can’t enter BPM on just any night. There are only a few shows a month, and finding out the schedule is difficult. BPM doesn’t have a website, so concertgoers rely on word of mouth or Facebook messages.

Most of the time, BPM serves as a private workspace for a crew of musicians and sound engineers, all from Japan. Kobayashi came over as a teenager, right out of high school. “I wanted to get out of Japan,” says Kobayashi, who had studied drums in his adolescence. “Most of my generation goes to college after high school. And a lot of people have a family after college. … I wasn’t really into that. I thought instead of using money for college, maybe I can just learn something from the street.”

At the start, Kobayashi struggled as a foreigner in New York City. He worked as a waiter, and at nights he sought out jam sessions at jazz clubs in Manhattan, hoping to meet musicians and hone his chops. But it was a bleak time for him.

“I had more choices in Japan to make money, and before I came here, I felt I could do anything,” he says. “But there is a reality, and I faced it. … I was alone and couldn’t speak English well.” His experience is similar to many Japanese artists in Brooklyn. Many arrived here alone, knowing almost no English and with no real prospects for employment.

This is a preview of Issue 27: The Sex Issue, available now. Subscribe to Hyphen or pick up a copy at a newsstand near you.

Magazine Section: