The birth of an independent Japanese record label featuring underground idol acts and experimental hip-hop artists.
The Japanese ‘Chika Idol’ (underground idol) scene rarely gets respect. Outside of the handful of acts who break the mainstream (BABYMETAL and BiSH both spring to mind), there’s very little in the way of critical attention. There’s even a tendency to view it as being a weird hobby for creepy uncles who like to spend their evenings crammed into tiny rooms waving glowsticks at young girls dressed like cosplayers. If Idol does get coverage, it’s quite often to question the scene rather than focus on the music – and this is a shame because, over the past five years or so, the culture has seen some positive shifts and the music has become ever more interesting and creative.
The world of Chika Idol, unregulated by things like major label gatekeepers, is lawless. There are no boundaries in terms of what bands have to sound like. You can have shoegaze, black metal, death metal, chiptune, indie, hyperpop, synthwave, punk, rap and techno and sometimes that’s all from the same band (for example, Shingeki or 8bitBRAIN). But there is a coherence to it. There’s a community, where bands, producers, promoters and fans all collaborate to create a ‘scene’. There are record labels that specialise in particular styles of idol music and assemble stables of bands that remind old-timers like me of the glory days of labels like 4AD… Where you could pick something up on spec and know roughly what it’d sound like and that it would be reliably great (and we had to walk uphill both ways to the record store, etc, etc, I know).
One of the more interesting idol labels to emerge is Doping! Records, a DIY project devoted to ‘hip-hop idols’. Not only are they dropping consistently brilliant EPs every few months from their acts (the line-ups of which intertwine) but if you follow label boss Muro-san’s Twitter, you get a rare, often painfully honest insight into what it’s like to start a record label from scratch. While the idol scene is arguably a specific one, the trials and triumphs of independent record-making ring true across genre and globe.
It’s not uncommon for idols to drop the odd rap verse into a song, but hip-hop idol itself is still quite uncommon and that’s perhaps with good reason, given that it could easily go horribly wrong. The gold standard of hip-hop idol was probably the 3-piece act Rhymeberry (2011 – 2019) and so it’s fortunate that Rhymeberry alumnus MC Yuika chose Doping! Records as a means of launching both her solo career (under the name SONOTA) and her new 2-piece act Old Newspaper.
A video for an early version of the Old Newspaper song Hajimemashite Tokyo surfaced in February 2020 and in the 12 months since that, Doping! Records have gone from strength to strength. In addition to SONOTA and Old Newspaper, there’s also Rhythm! Dopu-Chan, a flagship 3-piece whose member intend. has also released a solo EP – NEKURA LOOP POP TUNE – that dials up the hyperpop influence. Lead track, I Can’t Help Thinking, goes off like a laser-guided dancefloor torpedo.
The Dopu-Chan EP, Glare, is a minor masterpiece. Five songs of existentially themed electro hip-hop that takes in club-ready EDM bangers (Stargaze), outright pop (Another Day, with its sunny Wilson Phillips style video) and edgy emo-rap (Glare). There’s a tremendous atmosphere to the EP. Lyrically and musically, it feels like a fully formed vision of lonely, soul-searching nights in neon-drenched cities and is eminently listenable.
The SONOTA EP, Indoor – delayed for a few months because Yuika insisted on refining the lyrics from the early versions of songs online – was more than worth the wait. It’s five songs of laid-back, jazzy grooves, drenched in slick, fast autotuned rapping. I think there’s an expectation that idol rap would be somehow less impressive than ‘real’ rap but there’s no denying SONOTA’s control of a flow, and it’s rarely sounded more appealing than on stunning single Night Walk. There’s a cool retro-future style that places it somewhere between the 1980s and the 2080s. But somewhere very cool indeed.
What’s interesting about Doping! Records is that although Muro writes and produces the music and videos himself, the all-female roster contribute lyrics and each act’s vision is unique and personal (something that traditional idol doesn’t always achieve). From reading the constant stream of updates on Muro’s Twitter account, it’s clear he very much welcomes the input from his artists and the label’s collective output is all the stronger for this. The music has a distinct identity – it borrows influences from the west (Trap) and east (Vocaloid) alike but the result is a new urban female-centric Japanese sound that’s inviting and fun while being sonically and thematically deep.
Muro’s insights into how each record is made are fascinating and he doesn’t shy away from talking about when things don’t go according to plan, when he scraps ideas or when he refines things he’s not happy with. He asks fans for their thoughts on business and creative decisions which further intensifies the democratic feel of the label’s development. Considering there’s very little money or real investment in Doping!, it’s an inspiring story to see what can be done with nothing. The music’s all self-recorded, the videos all self-shot and edited and the promotion, online and off, is generated by Muro and the artists.
12 months of plugging away have paid off. Not only do Doping! Records have a cult following in the idol world but they’re starting to gain recognition outside of it. Their limited-edition physical releases (which often come with unique promotional items) sell out straight away. The two Old Newspaper songs – Hajimemashite Tokyo and Bubble – showcase the most accessible side of the label, mixing hip-hop and J-pop, and are surfacing on major non-idol Spotify and Apple Music playlists in Japan. The intend./SONOTA collab It’s The Money (which Muro admits he “wasn’t confident about”) instantly shot up the independent streaming charts on Apple Music. It’s this kind of publicity that, sadly, in today’s world is key to launching indie artists, and seeing Doping! Records finally achieve it is rewarding for those who’ve been there from the start.
While live showcases have been difficult due to the pandemic, there have been a few (with limited audiences) and it’s clear even from short clips online that the Doping! stable is full of ready-formed, confident performers. Considering what a difficult year it’s been, it’s so cheering to see a viable, artistically exciting label form from nothing like this and make a go of it. Being able to track this through Muro’s Twitter and hear each release as it drops is a much-needed reminder that life, and art, goes on despite adversity. So many artists feel like they’re toiling in a void at the moment but the Doping! Records story shows that things aren’t completely bleak. Between their independent spirit and the inventive, high-energy hip-hop pop they’re peddling, they might just be the feelgood injection that your 2021 needs.
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