Van Paugam, 36, is a DJ specializing in Japanese jazz, disco, funk and fusion records from the 70s and 80s known collectively as Pop City. In 2015, he launched a YouTube channel which helped renew popular interest in the genre, which allowed him to shift his musical activities to the offline world when the channel was shut down. For the past three years he has maintained residences in Chicago at The Whistler (Lost in Translation) and Murasaki Sake Lounge (City Pop night), and his passion has introduced him to audiences around the world.
As said to Micco Caporale
I’ve always liked weird music, just stuff that most people wouldn’t listen to. When I was young it was difficult to connect with people online or find communities that encouraged love for lesser known genres. I grew up with Napster and Limewire. Sometimes you were lucky and found great music at random, but most of the time you only knew what to look for by word of mouth. Someone would give you a CD or a tape or recommend something.
Being able to play new music for people and see their reaction has always been important to me. As a child, I made cassettes, recorded stuff I heard on the radio. I loved new wave and disco, so when electroclash started to take off it was a natural development for me. A lot of my friends were in the ballroom scene, so I was taken by the Miami Beach voguing houses and started mixing balls. The ballroom stage is such a welcoming community, and everything was very homey. This is how I started as a DJ, and I evolved from there.
I moved to Chicago on February 11, 2011. I was 26 and it was my first time seeing snow! I was at a crossroads in Miami, and my roommate at the time was a DJ from Chicago. She pulled back and said, “Hey, why don’t you come with me? I was going through some really tough times, and it was like. . . . How many times do you have the opportunity to move to an amazing musical city where all these genres have their origins? I just packed my things and left. I had a suitcase and maybe $ 100. I couldn’t even buy my own ticket – my roommate got it for me. And I left it all behind.
Live music by Mika Bridgebook and DJ set by Van Paugam. RSVP Required: Email [email protected] or call 312-266-2280. Fri 12/31, 10 p.m., Murasaki Sake Lounge, 211 E. Ontario, $ 25- $ 75, 21+
When I first came here, I was living in Wicker Park, and my former roommate had a little studio near Danny’s tavern. I’ve been there all the time and have seen how diverse Chicago’s music scene is. Being an underdog at the time, I didn’t have a lot of opportunities to become a DJ so it was a bit difficult. But you know, I think when people get to know you and see your love, respect and desire to be active in the community, when there is that will, I think the people of Chicago really respond to it. I only found love here.
Around the mid-2010s, I got really interested in those internet-based genres called vaporwave and future funk. They sampled a lot of Japanese music from the ’70s and’ 80s, often without crediting them, and I was dying to know who made those songs. Once I started to educate myself, I realized that they were all part of one genre that I had never heard of: City Pop.
I started looking online and found a lot of those old City Pop records to be relatively inexpensive. I would save up and get them shipped overseas. Very quickly I had about 100 records. I started ripping them to MP3, then I made playlists and uploaded them to YouTube. Not many people shared music like this yet. I think I was one of the first, and my channel only had maybe five or ten subscribers at the time. But once I released my first mix, I had a few thousand followers out of nowhere. The second? My subscriber count jumped to, like, 20,000. About a year later, I had over 100,000 subscribers.
Tumblr was still big back then, and there was a really big attraction to, like, sad, sad music. People were embarking on the emo renaissance, and future funk and vaporwave were making this nostalgic hit, especially with many vintage anime GIFs. So I pushed this with my mixes and uploaded them along with some old anime clips. The music already sounds nostalgic, so when you add all those sad anime references from the past, like roses falling in the water or a girl crying or something like that, people were like, “Wow, that has a lot. of feeling. “
When I started mixing in 2015, I was really struggling with depression. Music helped me overcome this. It has that kind of healing quality, even though at the time I didn’t know Japanese. I felt this subconscious need to put the music in specific sequences to let something out. But I only did about ten mixes before my channel closed, which was difficult at first but forced me to only do live events, which I have since done.
The sound really takes me back to my childhood, listening to 70s and 80s pop music on the radio. It triggers this false sense of nostalgia that I find heartwarming. These songs are not from my youth, it’s almost like reliving my past through the prism of a different culture and time. There is a really sweet and warm vibe, this very sincere aspect that you don’t find, say, in electroclash and indie dancing. These other genres do not seem to me to be hopeful in the same way.
Plus, I grew up in the anime. Thematically, Cowboy Bebop faced with many problems that as a child I never had to think about. Lots of tragic elements. Melancholy and adult things. I really admired sailor moon too much. A lot of the themes dealt with things like helping friends and just being a good person.
My interest in the anime didn’t grow with me, however. I don’t know if it was something with the industry, but as I got older a lot of anime felt less poignant, a lot more consumer-focused. Quick thrills instead of really meaningful introspective things – things that asked bigger questions and caused you to deepen your psyche and open up to unfamiliar situations, which forced you to evolve. When I first moved into City Pop, I found myself reconnecting to it.
Getting into City Pop also gave me the opportunity to develop a new kind of origin story for myself. I never really felt like I had my own culture. My mother is Cuban and my father is French, and I have never felt accepted by either culture. I always felt in between, but it created an opening in me to learn and embrace the cultures of others. Even though I’m not Japanese and don’t expect to be seen that way, I still feel like it’s my chosen culture. I feel a very strong affinity for many philosophies, aesthetics and language. I found a meaning that has become a huge part of my worldview.
For example, I got really interested in Shintoism. In Shintoism, they can balance two different concepts at the same time without sacrificing self. In the heyday of Shintoism, it coexisted with Buddhism, where people could balance the two as valid belief systems, and I think that’s a big part of why Japanese music can draw inspiration from other cultures. while remaining Japanese. It’s something I really like about Japanese philosophy: everything is valid in its own way. Everything has a specific spirit that deserves appreciation and respect. This mindset is so important to me and to who I am.
Stepping into City Pop inspired me to take Japanese lessons at the Japanese Culture Center. The owner, Stephen Toyoda, was a high school DJ. He helped me open doors, like introducing myself to the owner of Murasaki Sake Lounge. At first the owner of Murasaki was very skeptical, but I was like, “Hey, I have all this Japanese music, I would really like to play it here.” He gave me a try on a very busy Saturday night. I’ve been doing parties there regularly for three years. He also recommended me to a lot of people. In the mid-1980s, there were about 4,000 Japanese companies in Chicago, so there were companies and communities looking after those nostalgic Japanese employees. Many of them still exist and really want to be a part of Chicago culture in a relevant way.
And now there are Japanese DJs who understand what I’m doing. Japanese vinyl from the ’60s was very popular there, but not so much in the’ 70s and ’80s. There was a lot of cultural reluctance towards City Pop, as the Japanese economy collapsed in the’ 90s. is such an upbeat and decadent sound. I don’t think a lot of people in Japan wanted to remember when Japan had money. But since it is taken over in the West, the Japanese have reconsidered it.
The Japanese record companies and stores understood that people wanted City Pop records, so they re-released some of that stuff. But the price of many original records has skyrocketed, which is difficult for music lovers like me. I don’t want to play digital anymore. My nights are for vinyl. But it’s exciting to meet and work with other DJs who have records that I don’t have, so the audience can experience something new. There is such a range, and I like to collaborate in a way that I share that. There is so much more than what I have, and I love to broaden listeners’ horizons.