In an Italian restaurant on a side street in Yokohama, a woman in her early 50s helps her husband balance the books and keep customers happy. She is a stylish woman, though she will modestly claim that she’s nothing special, just a housewife. What you might not know about this woman at first glance, is that she is in fact Chieri Ito, a pop idol from the 1980s.
This is a name that likely eludes all but the most studious of ’80s Japanese pop aficionados, as Ito had a relatively short-lived career. Ito achieved only modest success with a few hits and acting roles. But to listeners of the internet micro genre future funk, Ito is a legend. Her song “Merry Christmas” is sampled in the Future Funk hit “SUPER RISER!“, by Nanidato (ナニダト). A fanmade video featuring the song boasts over 10 million views and for good reason, as the track is a certified banger. By pumping up the beats per minute and throwing some extra drum kits and synths into Ito’s original, the result is a song that gets you up and groovin’.
Future funk lives almost exclusively in the world of remix. Pulling a mediocre, though pleasant, Christmas-themed track—from an album that only charted as high as #46 on Japan’s Oricon chart—and infusing it with elements of funk, disco, and French house, yields a new media object for a new generation of consumers to enjoy. Media scholar Lev Manovich, who wrote the seminal The Language of New Media, says that cultural communication in the digital era is one of remixing. Think about meme construction, or the way quote retweets work: an image or piece of information comes in, someone adds to it with either a joke or their own pithy take, and releases that new remixed item into the world. It takes on new life, as a post starving for upvotes on Reddit or a quote retweet sent out to followers in search of likes. We are constantly churning ideas, information, and media through countless cut/ paste/ edit cycles. So much so that remix, ultimately, defines the digital experience.
If you were looking for something that epitomizes this remix-heavy online world, future funk is front and center as the genre of the internet in both construction and presentation; a highly stylized, postmodern artform. It brings together remix culture, nostalgia, and fandom aesthetics in one genre that is both niche and accessible to all. Unlike its dour sibling micro-genre, vaporwave, future funk is a celebration of the aesthetic excesses of consumption culture. As we dig into the genre, we begin to see how online algorithmic culture begins to define future funk as well, and how the genre evolves over the years.
In tracing the origins of future funk proper, the backbone of the genre—French House-styled sampling of funk and disco songs from the ’70s and ’80s—is prevalent in a number of established artists’ work from Daft Punk to Louis La Roche, but what you notice in a track like La Roche’s “Peach” is that there is still a strong presence of house, which is softened greatly in future funk.
The album most often described as the first album of future funk is Saint Pepsi’s Hit Vibes from 2013. This is where the aesthetics of the genre start to solidify, not only in its music elements and composition but in the way the genre becomes disseminated online. Prior to this, the group of artists known as Keats Collective would play around with proto-future funk tunes, though a good chunk of their work falls into vaporwave. Something like Maitro’s “The Extra Mile” has the core elements that would become the future funk vibe.
But it was Saint Pepsi’s work that would explode online, as we saw in the spring of 2013 when a number of YouTube channels began pairing Saint Pepsi’s tracks with a range of video clips. Old Wheel of Fortune footage, ’80s Pepsi commercials including Robert Palmer’s “Simply Irresistible” and Michael Jackson and Alfonso Ribeiro’s “Billie Jean“, to the 1987 anime Bubblegum Crisis all drew in listeners. It is the latter that is most important to keep in mind, but early on, future gunk videos would latch onto a smattering of mostly commercial aesthetics from the ’80s to loop over these early tracks.
While remix culture can be inspired, and wrest power from producers to provide consumers with the opportunity to turn the tables and become producers themselves, Fredric Jameson has a slightly more fatalistic take on remixing. He writes about aesthetics in his career-defining work, “Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism”:
The producers of culture have nowhere to turn but to the past, the imitation of dead styles… this omnipresence of pastiche is at the least compatible with addiction-with a whole historically original consumers’ appetite for a world transformed into sheer images of itself and for pseudoevents and spectacles.– Fredric Jameson
Jameson views postmodern culture—our culture—as one in which nothing truly new or unique is created, there can only be a return to past style, which allows for imitation to take hold. Jameson invokes Plato’s idea of the ‘simulacrum’, the identical copy for which no original has ever existed. He writes:
The simulacrum comes to life in a society where exchange value has been generalized to the point at which the very memory of use value is effaced, a society of which Guy Debord has observed, in an extraordinary phrase, that in it ‘the image has become the final form of commodity reification.’– Fredric Jameson
When applied to media, a simulacrum extracts the aesthetic, affective qualities of an object—the general vibe or feeling, so to speak, one gets when listening to/viewing a media object—stripping away its historical context, and emulating that object as an ahistorical piece of media. We become trapped in a web of symbols that we attempt to read as something we know, yet these are all simulacra. Sociologoist Jean Baudrillard, writing on simulacra, says:
When the real is no longer what it used to be, nostalgia assumes its full meaning. There is a proliferation of myths of origin and signs of reality; of second-hand truth, objectivity and authenticity.– Jean Baudrillard
The idea here is that if we duplicate past forms in this manner, as a simulation of a reality lost to time, soon enough we begin to see the simulacrum as the original and begin to feel nostalgia for an entirely fabricated past. This is why the visual element helps drive future funk. The imagery used, pulled from its original context, intensifies this feeling of a simulated past. This affective feeling leads viewers on YouTube to comment “it makes me nostalgic for things that never happened”, or, “I want to live in this fucking video”. Unlike vaporwave, which uses the ’80s and ’90s iconography as part of its critique of capitalism, future funk revels in the affective imagery of nostalgia. In this respect, the genre lives up to the ‘future’ moniker, in that it is removed from any historical sense of time and only exists in a digital future that can be forever extended, so as to always remain out of reach.
What we see fairly early on in the future funk scene is a shift away from the live-action and commercial imagery of the ’80s that dominate vaporwave videos, and instead see an increased prevalence of anime GIFs. Sailor Moon, Kimagure Orange Road, Urusei Yatsura, Macross, and a host of others flood YouTube future funk playlists. This imagery becomes the dominant form for future funk videos starting in around 2015 and 2016 on channels like Artzie Music. This also corresponds with a shift towards sampling more Japanese music, first with hugely popular city pop tracks by the likes of Tatsuro Yamashita and Mariya Takeuchi, before incorporating obscure anime themes and more contemporary hits.
Artists like Night Tempo, Future Girlfriend 音楽, and Mikazuki BIGWAVE show up on the scene and begin this shift of the future funk landscape to include more sampling of Japan’s best funky pop hits. It becomes fairly common for the vocals to get pitched up, almost lending the audio an anime-like quality, which could be seen as leaning further into Japanese culture and aesthetic notions of Kawaii (or cuteness). Though pitching up vocals is not exclusive to Japanese samples, as Future Girlfriend uses pitch to great effect, sampling George Benson’s “Please Don’t Walk Away” from his 1985 album 20/20, in a song called “Benson cut 今夜 ”.
As a standardized formula takes shape, what begins to happen in the future funk scene is an explosion of creativity from artists across the internet and around the world. This is another reason why future funk is the genre of the internet, it shares a lot in common with participatory cultures that flourish in online spaces. For starters, and something that is key to participatory culture, the bar to entry is set low for future gunk. The equipment required to produce future funk tracks is, at a minimum, a computer that can run music editing software. This means that almost anyone can make future funk. Allowing creators in without heavy investment is something that future funk production shares with other online activities like fanfiction. Writers create their own stories based on already existing media properties, and all the writer needs for their work to get out there is a computer and an internet connection.
This is why there are future funk artists from Germany, Italy, and the UK, but also Taiwan, Japan, Paraguay, Mexico, and even the island of Réunion off the coast of Madagascar. Digging through crates (either digital or physical) in search of a funky tune that slaps, putting a bit of spin on it, and uploading to Soundcloud is possible from anywhere on the planet. Forming any kind of community in this way would have been nigh impossible in the pre-internet world. Indeed, DJs in underground clubs in Paris or New York trading vinyl, mixing tracks, and performing to small crowds would be the only ones in the know.
The internet has made collaboration and community building across continents possible. The accessibility of participatory cultures in online spaces is the reason why a micro genre like future funk can exist at all. It is able to grow to the point that Real Love Music, a Mexican YouTube channel, can feature future funk tracks by Android Apartment, an Italian artist based in London, and he can have his work released on Neoncity Records, a label based in Hong Kong, where that album can be enjoyed by me, typing away at my desk here in Canada.
There is a tradeoff to this ease of accessibility, and as we sit nearly a decade on from when future funk emerged, some would claim that the genre is dead, or at the least, so derivative that it no longer warrants discussion. But this is what happens when a genre becomes codified into its own symbols and the work can be produced with limited barriers to entry. There is a glut of content that seems… the same. Sample an ’80s song, either run the title through Google Translate into Japanese (or the reverse if the sample is a Japanese song), pair it with an anime girl dancing, and you’ve got some guaranteed views on future funk YouTube channels. The genre has followed the same trajectory as that of content creation on social media where algorithmic culture dominates visibility; leaving a number of artists out of the preferred content loop.
Whether it is YouTube or Spotify, the way in which we interact with music drives algorithms that mine our data to tailor content based on explicit and implicit choices we make as we browse. Future funk figured this out, which is why all the videos have cute anime girl thumbnails, and why so many tracks sound sterile in comparison to those early future funk joints by Saint Pepsi or Supersex420. These channels want views, and playlists are created to drive repeat listens. Author Grafton Tanner writes in his book, The Hours Have Lost Their Clock: The Politics of Nostalgia, “users keep encountering similar content because the algorithms keep recommending it to us… the algorithm is designed to recommend content that affirms what it construes as your taste.” In doing so, algorithms make it seem as though future funk is all composed the same, and thus people decry that future funk is dead.
However, if you can get away from the algorithms just a bit, you can find examples of future funk that are building upon the groundwork laid out by the earliest artists in the genre. When you factor in the bias and racism that algorithms are often encoded with, it shouldn’t surprise folks to learn that some of the best future funk is coming out of Latin America right now. Argentinian artist Shiruetto flawlessly samples Prince and The Revolution’s hit, “Raspberry Beret”, yet the track has only almost no presence on YouTube and doesn’t rank among his most popular on Spotify, putting its listens well below 38,000.
Fellow Argentinian Zai Kowen teams up with the Dallas-based critical_grim on the track “Ride Car“, which samples the Temptations’ “Set Your Love Right”, and harkens back to the early days when future funk was just starting to emerge out of Vaporwave. It has 1,000 views on YouTube and less than 2,500 listens on Spotify. There’s also Skule Toyama, a Mexican future funk producer, who took a hugely popular sample used by Saint Pepsi, Mezzoforte’s “Fiona”, and created an entirely new way to enjoy it on the song “Take a Break“, featuring Bastian Bell.
Scholar Lawrence Lessig in his book, Remix, remarks that to successfully remix something, extraordinary knowledge of the culture is needed. In all of the cases above, these artists have chosen excellent samples, paid attention to the conventions of the future funk genre, including its history, and crafted winning tracks that drive the genre forward. It is remix par excellence.
Future funk is the genre of the internet. In its sampling of ’70s and ’80s tracks, it extracts them from their historical context and reworks them into new media objects unburdened by notions of time. The ‘future’ in future funk is projecting the genre into a time yet to come, while also comfortably living in an imagined nostalgic past. This play with time can also make the genre—and the artists creating tracks—feel ephemeral. It is not uncommon for an artist to drop a hit, and disappear into the digital ether, like Nanidato and “SUPER RISER” which kicked off this conversation. Nanidato only released a handful of songs in 2014-’15, and hasn’t been an online presence outside of a random tweet at the end of 2018, yet “SUPER RISER” exists still as a timeless artifact of future funk culture.
In the real world, Chieri Ito spends her days running a restaurant in Yokohama, her pop career long since over. But in the future past world of future funk, she is forever the voice heard in “SUPER RISER”, part of an aesthetic pastiche that is timeless. Part of a time that never was, and will never come.
Baudrillard, Jean. “Simulacra and Simulation”. Translated by Sheila Glaser. The Body in Theory: Histories of Cultural Materialism. University of Michigan Press. 1994.
Jameson, Fredric. “Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism”. Post-Contemporary Interventions. Duke University Press. 1990.
Lessig, Lawrence. Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy. Penguin Press. 2008.
Manovich, Lev. 2005. “Remixability and Modularity“. Manovich.net. Accessed 27 June 2022.
Tanner, Grafton. The Hours Have Lost Their Clock: The Politics of Nostalgia. Repeater Books. 2021.