Fingerprints of Future Funk: Casiopea and Jazz Fusion
The pristine loops of future funk do a disservice to fusion band Casiopea and its penchant for jam session experimentation.
Is it safe to say future funk has reached a turning point? Two weeks have passed since copyright strikes shuttered the once thriving Artzie Music YouTube Channel, the preeminent home of the internet-based genre. In that time at least two channels have sprung up in Artzie’s place: a rebooted Artzie Music and the as-of-yet untouched Stoplight Radio.
Currently, the new Artzie channel is just seven songs deep. It has taken a turn from the colorful, copyrighted anime visuals of yesteryear, instead opting for a sound wave visualizer that bops along to the beat. Sonically, the latest Artzie uploads follow suit with typical future funk fodder. Mari-くん’s (Mari Kun) “Good 2 U” re-imagines Heavy D and the Boyz’s “Is it Good To You?” by swapping out the original, plodding R&B beat for a shimmering uptempo pop arrangement that makes Hev’s stage name contrast his high-paced lyrics.
“Good 2 U,” while indicative of the predominant style of future funk, isn’t the genre’s only format. Big name artists like Tanuki and Mikazuki BIGWAVE are increasingly straying away from song edits and samples in favor of more ambitious production.
Even as artists slow their roll on traditional sampling techniques, future funk’s source material continues to thrive. Months after Nippon Columbia brought “hidden gems” like Hiroshi Suzuki’s Romance to international streaming services, the Japanese label Alfa Records is following suit, sharing a handful of albums by the fusion band Casiopea to Spotify, YouTube and Apple Music.
Like Casiopea, Alfa is in its third iteration. Founded as Alfa Music Ltd. by Kunihiko Murai in 1969, Alfa was at the forefront of Japanese musical experimentation. Electronic music group Yellow Magic Orchestra made its self-titled debut on the label, and with the help of internationally successful cuts like “Firecracker,” would influence video game soundtracks during the home console boom of the 1980s and 1990s.
Alfa was also responsible for publishing a series of Sega video game music soundtracks, the first installment of which featured music from OutRun, a racing game that is nothing short of tangentially linked to both the future of gaming simulations and the retrofuturistic art behind future funk forefather vaporwave. Casiopea founder Issei Noro would come to play with the Sega Sound Team as a featured member in 1989, but it was his work with Casiopea that would have the longest influence.
Named for the constellation, Casiopea began as a four-piece ensemble that blossomed into a renowned jazz outfit. The band’s self-titled debut, In addition to featuring guest performances by saxophone virtuoso David Sanborn as well as brothers Randy and Michael Brecker, included “Midnight Rendezvous.”
Though it’s billed as fusion, Noro’s strolling melodies backed by Tetsuo Sakurai’s tumbling basslines play closer to the loop friendly beginnings of city pop in the 80s. Mint Jams, Casiopea’s seventh album and second live project would expand on “Midnight Rendezvous,” but the safety of the original version would find its way into Macross 82–99’s “At Night.”
Rushed towards double time, the Casiopea sample is intact on the Macross cut, spruced up with vocal chops, echo effects and a timely fade out halfway through the two minute mark. Though Casiopea has a penchant for designing tunes around standout solo performances — Noro rips off a tight guitar solo part way through “Midnight Rendezvous” — the ease with which the Macross sample plays completely ignores Noro’s fleet-fingeredness.
Even before “At Night,” which dropped in 2018, Macross was bringing Casiopea samples into the 21st century. First with “The Night in Tokyo” (2013) and followed by “Night in Tokyo Pt. II,” Macross double dipped using Casiopea’s “Take Me” from the 1994 album Super Flight. Despite the original featuring some spiced up piano phrases and another Noro guitar solo, the Macross sample avoids those notes completely.
Macross’ samples of Casiopea highlight the difficulty of working with jazz fusion source material. On the whole, fusion is derivative, drawing from a myriad of influences — funk, rock, jazz, soul, disco — to craft a signature sound that supersedes the confined palate of a monolithic music genre.
Casiopea embraces fusion’s flirtation with experimentation. The band can consistently put new spins on old hits while producing a cohesive project. “Asayake” one of the band’s signature songs, has seen a handful of arrangements, each just as befitting of Casiopea’s catalogue as the last.
But for a genre like future funk, which is often rooted around four-measure loops, the hallmarks of Casiopea’s music go unused. These songs invite less critical sampling, as their repetitive measures craft a steady framework that become a canvas for hotswappable effects, tempo changes and little else.
Jump to the world of hip-hop and Casiopea’s use in sampling is similarly half-baked. On the Alchemist-produced “Drowsy Day Remix” the Los Angeles beatsmith crafts a near one-to-one replica of Casiopea’s “Magic Ray,” save Minoru Mukaiya’s deft keyboard and synth riffs. For a band that prides itself on merging sublime Noro compositions with off-the-cuff solo performances (see the live album Mint Jams for a range of solos on Casiopea tracks old and new), samples suck the soul out of Casiopea.
Thankfully, future funk appears to be pushing back against the notion that any Japanese pop track can be upgraded into a future funk remix with a few minutes in Ableton. Nostalgia still reigns supreme, but desecrating a few measures of jazz fusion seems to be on its way out the door.