DJ Hiroko Yamamura Uses Passion As Her Guide
Written by Vocalo Radio on August 31, 2023
Chicago DJ and producer Hiroko Yamamura feels she’s proof that if she can find success pursuing her passions, so can anyone.
As an internationally-lauded techno and house DJ/producer, Hiroko Yamamura is fiercely humble. She just likes what she likes, and hopes others feel the same. Yamamua expresses an upbeat uncertainty about her sound identity at times, but at the core of all her mixes is always human connection.
“Right now it’s just kind of confusion, but I think that’s kind of the fun of it too, right?” she expressed. “You walk into an event without any parameters set for yourself, and just adjust. When you have genuine connections with people, when you are really enjoying doing stuff together versus having a forced business relationship, those things tend to also last longer.”
Yamamura grew up in the Chicago suburbs and recalls taking the Amtrak into the city as a teenager, immersing herself in skateboarding culture until moving for good to attend Columbia College. She cut her teeth in the DJ scene just by observing and learning from other DJs at clubs around the city, and at record stores like Gramaphone and Hip House. And though she feels Chicago is home to some of the strongest innovation in dance music, she notes the city’s music scene is filled with normal, grounded people.
“We kind of make do with what we have,” she reflected. “You see more innovation because of that … People are just kind of more down to earth in Chicago than in other cities. I think we’re just a little bit more real here.”
Now, Yamamura hopes to pass on her in-depth knowledge of music and technology with future DJs. She strives to help others gain confidence behind the computer to express themselves, without feeling attached to an outcome.
For this segment of “This Is What Chicago Sounds Like,” Hiroko Yamamura discusses her DJ and production origin story, the kind of music she makes and the innovation of Chicago. Yamamura will also be performing on Saturday at ARC Music Festival in Union Park, one of the handful of Chicago DJs on the lineup. Find more information about ARC on the official festival website.
“I would totally understand… if it all goes away the next day. I think that is part of the acceptance of the game. It doesn’t change what I’m going to do.”– Hiroko Yamamura
Introduce yourself, and describe your work in a few words.
This is Hiroko Yamamura, a DJ/producer … I’d like to be kind of proof; like, I’m the most normal, nerdy, geeky, kind of un-social person there is out there. If I have even a small chance at having a career, or even the opportunity, even as a hobby, in music, if someone like me is able to do something, really, anybody can. I’m just kind of a person that enjoys stuff, and I’m just as much a consumer as everybody else. Let your hobbies and your passions kind of guide you a little bit. Lean into them.
Where are you from?
I was actually born in Charleston, South Carolina. My parents are Japanese, so I’m first generation. Moved to Chicago during, I guess, kindergarten, and then — actually sorry, I’m lying. I’m from the suburbs. And I guess I mess that up all the time! So claiming Chicago and being from the suburbs are two different things, but when you’re talking to people from outside, saying Chicago sounds a lot cooler than saying you’re from the suburbs. I grew up in a suburb where we had access to the Amtrak to come to Chicago. So we were quite lucky. I really grew up in kind of skateboard culture, which helped me kind of be introduced to music early on. Suburbs are suburbs, so you’re always kind of fascinated by the cool stuff going on in the city, and you romanticize it a bit. I came to the city for college, and when I turned 17, my parents were like, “Good luck. Nice knowing you.” And I went to Columbia College.
How’d you get into making music?
I think I went through the kind of typical Asian American experience, where parents forced us to play violin at an early age. About 14 or 15, I started playing guitar. My guitar teacher was this guy William Tucker, he unfortunately is not with us anymore. But he was a guitarist for a band Ministry, a band called Pig Face, really a fixture of the Chicago music scene. At the time, I knew nothing about that kind of stuff, so he really shaped my music taste. I never became a really good guitar player, but it’s something I really enjoy. From there, I became interested in dance music, kind of on the cusp of the grunge scene when Nirvana and Pearl Jam, and all these kind of… I would say the commercialization of what was called “alternative music” happened. The tinkering aspect and DIY aspect of working on music yourself without having to coordinate with five other people and just experimenting. I would play a lot of like Guitar Hero, and like rhythm video games, which I think kind of helped me do production later in life, strangely.
I think part of being a DJ is taking all of your music influence, everything you’ve listened to, from when you’re a child, and then that kind of shapes your lens of what you like. And then you share that with people. And hopefully, it resonates with some people. I don’t necessarily play a genre of music, and a lot of what I would do was go see DJs and go ask them what that song was, especially if I really liked it. But initially, I didn’t quite understand what was happening, I thought the person was making the sounds as they were going. And then, through the act of watching and learning, a lot of the Chicago DJs explained stuff and showed music. And I think that’s a really great thing about Chicago, is people are really kind of down to earth here. It’s not about making DJs your heroes, it’s very kind of grassroots level people that just like to play music.
What kind of DJ are you?
People talk about house here. I think it’s a very specific thing to a lot of people, and there’s a lot of definition. But I was not around at that time, I’m a few generations off from that. So what I consider house or techno is maybe not even relative to what other people would call it. It’s just, when I went to the record store at the time someone said, “This is house… this is techno.” So kind of vivid. For me, if it sounds good, if it works, if people like it, if I like it, then it goes in the DJ set. It’s something I still struggle with all the time, like, “What do I play? What is my identity as a DJ?”
Yeah, right now it’s just kind of confusion, but I think that’s kind of the fun of it too, right? So you walk into an event without any parameters set for yourself, and just adjust. When you have genuine connections with people, when you are really enjoying doing stuff together versus having a forced business relationship, those things tend to also last longer. I would totally understand… if it all goes away the next day. I think that is part of the acceptance of the game. It doesn’t change what I’m going to do, I’m going to still be playing music and making music just because that’s also what I enjoy doing.
Do you also teach?
For me, demystifying and sharing music education and technology education, I think, for me, it was a big hurdle initially. And so I feel like if I can share some of that information with people and help them make stuff, whether it’s good or not is not my problem. But I think the tools have gotten so much better now. And you’ll see people who just generally want to try something, right? And initially, it looks kind of scary when there’s all this stuff, and you don’t know what button to press and you feel like you’re going to break things, and you feel silly even having an aspiration to do something that maybe your friends don’t support, I think it’s important to just try it. Since I’ve spent so much time sitting behind these computers and figuring out what I do and how I do it, I’d like to share that with people. For me, I’ve seen a lot of those people succeed, they’ve found happiness in it. Even if you have this song that everybody hates, but you had fun making it, that’s a pretty cool day. And it’s a cool feeling.
What keeps you in Chicago?
Some of the best bands are from Chicago, and some of the best DJs and producers from the punk rock scene to the pop scene, some of my favorite labels are from here. We’re very lucky to be in the middle, in some ways, because we never get stuff as quick as LA or New York does. But because we get this weird kind of trickle effect from the coasts, and we don’t have as much money as people do there, we kind of make do with what we have. You see more innovation because of that.
You see, people, really a lot of the groundbreaking, initial house and techno tracks from Chicago were made by people who didn’t quite understand how to use the gear. So they’re really unexpected new sounds that came out of the lack of mastery of maybe a piece of equipment and it being used in the wrong way. Them sucking is what actually made electronic music have its own identity. And Chicago really was a center-point with that, as well as Detroit.
I feel super lucky to have such a diverse group of people here. It’s economically diverse, racially diverse, I think you just meet all sorts of folks. And people are just kind of more down to earth in Chicago than in other cities. I think we’re just a little bit more real here. You notice when people move here initially, you’ll see that change or they just kind of toughen up and speak their mind a little bit. I feel like if you’re not from Chicago and you come here, you’ll be surprised at how loose-lipped we are with things and maybe sometimes it comes off aggressive. But yeah, I like that about this city. And I think it also comes through in the music.
Since 2016, we have been profiling people who give their all to Chicago and enrich us socially and culturally by virtue of their artistry, social justice work and community-building. Take a listen. Read their words. Become inspired.
Interview and audio production by Ari Mejia
Written introduction and transcription by Morgan Ciocca
Photos by Ari Mejia, edited by Morgan Ciocca
More from Vocalo: