Yohei Saka, a talented electronic music DJ originating from Toronto, has established a prominent presence within the dynamic and constantly evolving dance music scene. Renowned for his diverse skills behind the decks and a unique musical perspective, Yohei has successfully carved out his own distinctive niche.
I was wondering about the style of your mix. It’s very groovy. It starts with that very long track, the synth bubbling sound, then moulds into the r&b vibe. Is this indicative of your style or is this something you’ve chosen specifically for the East Room Work Redux?
I put some thought into what I wanted to play, and as of late, I’ve been leaning towards more soulful, jazzy, and funky vocal house stuff. I feel like when I play elsewhere, or depending on the night, it will definitely change. But for this mix, I wanted to play something uplifting, easy to listen to, and something you don’t have to think too hard about.
There were definitely some moments that were very anthemic and soulful.
I definitely love a good anthem. I found that when I DJ sometimes or go out a lot of DJs play for themselves, and I’m trying to navigate a space between that; playing stuff that I like and catering to the crowd – within some parameters. WIth the East Room mix, I just went with the flow. I didn’t curate the sequencing, it was just very natural.
You did make it really smooth and contagious to listen to. I know some DJs aren’t so oriented towards making it sound seamless.
Right, like blending.
Is that your thing?
I try my best. At least with dance music, I’m a fan of the skill of DJing and making it sound clean, or as jarring as possible in the best way. Obviously it depends on what I play, but if I’m going to be playing house, techno, or broken beat stuff I hope I’m making it as smooth as possible.
You’ve mentioned that the genres you operate in are mostly house and techno, has it always been like that, or is that what you’ve been feeling lately?
It’s kind of gone full circle. I probably started getting into DJing when I was 18. Back then I definitely got infatuated with house music, although I didn’t really know the difference between house and techno. I would see acts at the time, like Nautiluss or Gingy, and that opened up a stream of underground house music. Then I started working at this record store called Cosmos, and Aki was a deep house and disco rare-groove DJ in the late 80s and 90s, and so I definitely got a lot of taste and inspiration from him, at least in terms of house music. I don’t play as much jazz, rare grooves, or Brazilian as he does, which he’s a master of, but in terms of house and older techno, I was inspired a lot by him. But I also have friends who are into contemporary stuff, like bass music, broken beat, UK stuff, grime, or Latin American dance music. I love it all. If I were to play alongside people that play that, I’d throw in a bit of what I like, but also have a few songs from those genres. Recently though, because I've been following my production, it’s been lots of house stuff. I just want to make it fun, accessible, and inviting. Nothing too scary – or we can go scary!
[Laughs] Can you tell me a bit more about when you worked at Cosmos records?
Right before I joined Cosmos, I was already into dance music and house music. My friend Ian, who runs the shop Jaspa and works at Invisible City, told me that there was this record store owned by Japanese guys – I’m also Japanese – and that they have great house and dance music. At the time, I was a little too intimidated to chat with them, but I worked down the street from Cosmos at a stir-fry place, so everytime I would get tipped out I would go by a couple records and chat with Hisa. I was very new. I maybe played one show before, and was making tracks on my computer. Nothing serious. Over time I became a regular, and then Hisa extended some work to me at a pop-up at a record convention. I just wanted to help out, and in my head it was just such a dream to work at Cosmos, so I helped out, and then they asked if I could come in on weekends, and so I started working part-time about three or four days a week. I was probably twenty or twenty-one and that was the best thing that could have happened to me. Just hang out, listen to music all day. Since they were heavily into playing records while DJing, I picked up turntables myself and started DJing with records.
It sounds like, even before that, you were making your own music. So, rewinding further, what was your musical life like in your teenage years and early adult life?
I pretty much took a big break from music between my childhood and teenage years. I grew up in Japan and everyone took piano lessons. I didn’t really care for it much until I was in highschool and I had a friend who was making hip-hop beats. They were probably using Fruity Loops. He had a very basic sense of what to do, so I would hang out with him to get a sense of it, then downloaded the program myself to make whatever it was I was making. I was fortunate to have a base understanding of music theory from growing up. I knew where middle-C was, had a basic sense of rhythm, and it really hasn’t stopped since.
Did you see this as the direction you were going, or did one thing lead to the next?
Essentially I was in art school at OCAD and music took over a lot of the spare time I had. I pretty much took a pause from school, and went fully into music, playing shows and throwing parties with my friends. Throughout all that time I was always making things on my computer or with drum machines.
At those parties would you be DJing, or sharing the music you were making?
I was very shy about sharing my own music. Recently I’ve been getting better at that, but then it was mostly just to have fun.
Do you have any specific memories from that time of parties that were crazy, amazing, or total failures?
There was a little space in a studio I was renting, about four or five years ago, in the west end where I would throw parties. With the help of friends we would try to throw two parties a month. They would go from about 10pm to 5am. At the time I thought it was a great idea, but logistically it was a bit more difficult, so it only lasted six months. For the people who went, they’ll know about it.
If you know you know.
If you know you know. Looping back: Graham, Nautiluss – who is now a friend of mine– was one of the DJs at the studio. So, it came full circle.
Is the Toronto house DJ community close-knit?
For sure. It’s gaining recognition and it’s getting bigger, but for the type of smaller events I like going to, it’s pretty close. I used to look up to the DJs I now call my peers. It’s really cool.
When you’re DJing do you include your own music?
Ya! I was at a smaller venue called Juice, a wine bar, and it was nice to play a bunch of songs and hear how they would sound on the dance floor. Or to just play them really loud. A lot of the time I hear them in my headphones, or on smaller speakers, so hearing it in a loud space had a different effect.
Did you flag things that you needed to work on, or stuff to improve?
It definitely gives you insight into what needs to happen to your track or what you need to do differently. Fortunately I have a lot of help from friends who do that kind of stuff.
One thing I noticed listening to your mix was the techno style vocalists, and it always makes me think that dancing and music are forms of liberation. Does that ring true to you?
I love music, and it makes you feel all different emotions, letting you connect and reflect what you’re going through. With dance music, I feel like if you’re at a party with your friends, you’re enjoying yourself dancing, there isn’t much else that’s going on in your mind. You might think ‘oh, there’s my ex!’
But aside from that, I think it’s a great place to zone out. A lot of people have things that are kind of meditative, like cycling, running, playing sports and I think dancing and music ties into that same thing. And speaking of lyrics, it’s not as common in contemporary dance music. Even with myself, a lot of the songs I make don’t have vocals on it. But when there’s a song that has some fun lyrics or clicks with you, that’s cool. I played a bunch of house records in the past with lyrics about how their partner is trash and they’re over them. It’s pretty much talking shit on record, but the song is very cheerful and the melody is uplifting. It’s funny. I wonder how many people in the crowd were paying attention to the lyrics.
When you’re making music and DJing, do you feel tapped into yourself more, like you’re expressing yourself authentically?
I feel that more and more each day. It’s not that it’s imposter syndrome, but I feel, as a creative, people judge their own work really harshly and critically. Even if I make a good song and people say how unique it sounds, and how much they enjoy them, I find it hard to believe it. I’m trying to get better at believing in myself, as corny as that sounds. Nowadays I’m also trying not to hold onto things as much as I used to. I make the song, export it, and let it go. Some of my favourite producers seem to work that way and so I try to follow that. It is great taking your time with something, piecing it together and coming up with something very conceptual, but with the type of music I’m creating recently it feels very natural to make it and put it out.
Work Redux is a collection of mixes made to be listened to while working. We work closely with local and international DJs to assemble thoughtful music that will carry members throughout their day and introduce them to new sounds. East Room is a shared workspace company providing design-forward office solutions, authentic programming and a diverse community to established companies and enterprising freelancers. We explore art, design, music, and entrepreneurship, visit our news & stories page to read more.