America-mura (village) of Shinsaibashi in Osaka has one of the highest densities of record shops in the world. Among them stands out “rare groove,” a shop that opened in 2007. It is not the rare groove genre the shop’s name depicts, but the rare grooves it has unearthed and showcased; resulting in a following from national and international visitors and DJs.
■ A record shop opens in an empty building
The owner of rare groove is Norio Sato (b.1974) from Tottori prefecture. He was the second son in a family that ran a food business.
“I was aiming to do music-related work after college, but when I graduated I got a normal job; only to quit in six months. Around that time when I was walking in Umeda, I saw a help-wanted sign at a used record shop called Machirecoya (the town record shop). I worked there for three and a half years. I was more like a clerk there and didn’t get to learn much of the business side, but I still gained good experience. I had a few jobs after that and I started this shop in 2007.
The shop opened after the end of the free soul boom in Japan and record stores were moving online. The new shop experienced the “dead of winter.” Norio-san talked about those days with a bittersweet expression.
“Even America-mura was totally dead those days. There are a lot of record shops in this same building now, but when I started my shop, I was the only one on this floor. There were so many empty storefronts, and that allowed me to rent pretty cheap. But my music buddies called me an idiot: what nerves to open a record shop in this day and age! I did it, and it was really hard as expected.” [Laughter.]
When the shop first opened, there wasn’t much buying of new records, but rather Norio-san’s personal collection was sold as store items. He could only manage to sell some popular titles. Norio-san mocks his shop back then as a “shabby version of Machirecoya.” His dream was met with hardship right from the start, and after a serious contemplation on how to keep his shop, he decided to go on a buying trip abroad. This was a turning point and his sales started slowly increasing as a result. So how then, did he manage to stand out in Shinsaibashi, where a ton of very attractive record shops are crammed together? The answer is found in Norio-san’s own musical background.
■ Making dance music out of non-dance music
Norio-san’s musical influence is rock that he listening to as a teenager. From there he branched out to other genres and also found interest in dance music, but he never went clubbing. This fact seems to set him apart from many record shop owners who come from the club scenes.
“I always liked rock, especially the funkier ones, electric and the more emotional ones. I liked ‘60s rock like Hendrix, The Who, and Led Zeppelin. After that I listened to progressive rock, new wave and disco. The keyboard player Claudio Simonetti from the famous progressive band, Goblin, was also in a disco band called Kasso. Just like that, I learned to enjoy all kinds of genres.”
Around 2007 when rare groove opened its doors, there was a resurgence of “cosmic” (a type of disco music from Italy popular in the late ‘70s ~ early ‘80s). The style of Daniele Baldelli and DJ Harvey, mixing house and disco with rock, was also gaining popularity in Japan. Big-time international DJs who were visiting Japan through this trend started coming to rare groove.
“Idjut Boys and Prins Thomas visited, and they took a liking to my selection. From there, I realized that I didn’t have to be caught up in a genre, and DJing could be done with just the person’s preferred music. I was able to approach my favorite music for what it was. It has taken me until now to get visitors to identify with my selection, but back then people probably thought to themselves, ‘There’s a lot of weird stuff here…’” [Laughs.]
■ In search of rare grooves
There are more used record shops that specialize in US-bought African American music in America-mura. rare groove also carries jazz, soul, disco and such, but the big difference from the other stores is found in the substantial amount of Dutch- and German-bought progressive and new age music. This is where rare groove’s discriminating eye truly shines. One could choose to take the safer route and create a catalog that follows a clear standard, but that alone is not compelling enough. It is not the genre called “rare groove” that this store stocks, rather, the store "rare groove” has succeeded in showcasing countless “rare grooves.” Here is what Norio-san says about the origin of the store name.
“I named this place without knowing the movement called rare groove… It is embarrassing. The people who thought I carried the rare groove genre probably felt uncomfortable when they saw what I had. More recently, though, I feel like people are starting to get it.”
The rare groove movement originated in England in the late ‘80s and it was more of an ambitious attempt by DJs to dig up and reclaim sounds from the past - regardless of genre. But today, it has adopted a more genre-differentiated feeling. Norio-san attempts to dismember this “genre.” As found on his homepage, “Making Dance Music Out of Non-Dance Music” is rare groove’s catchphrase. Unknowingly, Norio-san manifested this very unique concept of "rare groove" all by himself and separate from the movement.
Norio-san emphasizes that it is the duty of a record shop owner to display the “true worth” of records through proper signage. Just lining them up nicely is not enough. Even record connoisseurs can miss out on genres that they are not familiar with. Thus, Norio-san puts effort into writing his comments on each record.
“Even if you don't know the record, if I wrote Played by DJ Harvey on it, you may find it a little more interesting. I am sure there are people that don’t appreciate this method of introduction, but it is also my way of paying respect to those outstanding DJs.”
His customers often provide him with information as well. “Larry Levan was playing this record and David Mancuso was playing this one.” Norio-san buys records by feel, but he credits his patrons for making those records stand out even more. And that is exactly what’s interesting about his shop.
■ 70% of customers come from abroad
As mentioned before, the unique selection at rare groove is on the radar of both Japanese and international DJs. In recent years Osaka is experiencing a historic influx of international visitors and this brings in a new variety of customers to the store.
“Compared to 10 years ago, there are a whole lot more foreign customers. About 70% of them are now coming from abroad. Since five years ago, the European and Australian customers have increased significantly. In the last two years, customers have begun coming from other Asian countries as well.”
To adapt to the new clientele, some reorganizing has been done at rare groove. This was to accommodate a more substantial “Japanese section.” When Japanese collectors go abroad to dig for records, they also look for local flavors. The foreigners coming to Japan also display a similar tendency.
“A lot of them (foreign customers) are on the lookout for Tatsuro Yamashita and Minako Yoshida records, just like we are. Also when they are digging while their girlfriends wait outside, they get this slightly guilty look on their faces, and that’s totally like us, too.” [Laughter.] They don’t have time to go around scouring every corner of the bigger stores, so I stock up on very select Japanese jazz and city pop that they’re looking for. I also get more questions about where else to find good records, so some of us got together and created an Osaka record store map to hand out.”
The countless stickers covering the front of his register, collected from record stores and music labels from buying trips aboard, has sparked many good conversations with customers. He also makes a point to send off foreign customers in their own languages. With dedication to hospitality and an intriguing selection, rare groove has become part of the record pilgrimage route for vinyl lovers visiting Japan.
■ Record stores as networking hubs
Other than his domestic quests, Norio-san has been traveling two times or so a year internationally. He also shops online through Discogs and eBay, but he swears by the act of buying in person.
“When I actually go abroad, I get to study first-hand each independent record store and get a feel for their atmosphere and such. I also like seeing a lot of younger people casually shopping there. I often make friends in those places, too. Then they start coming to my shop, so my network expands through their word-of-mouth as well.”
Norio-san swears that in order to survive, studying the foreign market is essential. Due to the recent vinyl boom, both Europe and the US have seen a sudden jump in record prices. As a result, some records Norio-san had purchased at a higher price are not selling well.
“At the end of the day, what I enjoy is record digging. The act alone is truly analog. There are unexpected discoveries, and I also like to take home what I’ve learned from each store’s atmosphere. By running a business like this, my wife never scolds me for my shopping sprees. In fact, I get praised for finding something good. As long as I keep up the sales, that is!” [Laughs.]
His passion doesn’t stop at buying: Norio-san teams up with neighboring record shop owner Az-san of Revelation Time to put on impromptu DJ streaming events, and a recurring club event called “Metro” hosted by a DJ named Daisuke Kakimoto. The events call upon his growing network, and are ways for them to keep introducing music that they find intriguing. Whether you are from Japan or from another county, whether you are a big-timer or just getting your start, Norio-san’s attitude of maintaining an easy-going connection with everyone is the real secret as to why rare groove will always be a desirable place to visit.
■ A rare find from rare groove
(LeeStructure BLDG #202)
1-9-28 Nishi-Shinsaibashi, Chuo-ku
Osaka, Japan 542-0086
(2 minute walk from Osaka Metro Midosuji Line.)
Open 10am-7pm everyday EXCEPT Wednesdays.
Calls within Japan: 06-6657-4454
International Calls: international dial out number+81-6-6657-4454
Tatsuya Shirahase is a published sociologist and fieldworker that focuses on urban issues and regional culture. He was the head of a music research club in college, and his famous words are “Digging for records over three meals.” He enjoys jazz, soul, Latin, reggae, hip-hop, house and ambient music. While he is committed to his field research, he also throws vinyl parties in Osaka and Nara.