As the leading international proponent of a manifesto known as “groovitational field theory,” Toshi Kubota is on a mission to prove that funky soul from the Far East can be just as genuine in feel and emotion as the American original — and just as forward-thinking in its embrace of new sounds, new directions and new fans. Nothing But Your Love is Toshi’s second English language album (the follow-up to his 1995 release for Columbia, Sunshine Moonlight, which sold over half a million copies worldwide) and his first for Epic Records. Featuring contributions from Tony Toni Ton’s Raphael Saadiq, Philadelphia’s Grammy-winning hip-hop crew The Roots, the slick production teams of Soulshock & Karlin (Seal, Whitney Houston, Madonna) and the Track Masters (Mary J. Blige, Mariah Carey), the Refugee Camp’s Pras, and new-wave R&B and hip-house divas Angie Stone and Joi Cardwell, it’s clear that this Japanese-born singer has transcended language and culture to bring a uniquely soulful voice and vision to these shores.
“I just felt drawn to singers instinctively,” recalls Toshi of his childhood in Shizuoka, Japan. “There was Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway, Marvin Gaye and their style of old soul, but I also liked the Beatles and the Carpenters and many others. That kind of music taught me how to enjoy listening,” continuing, “It’s more comfortable for me now to sing in English, sometimes even more so than Japanese — especially when just one phrase in English can say so much to so many different people.”
As the story goes, Toshi’s fascination with music as a “universal language” would later draw him to Tokyo, where he began cultivating an onstage presence that emulated the high-energy performance moves of his soul heroes. His first album Shake It Paradise, released in 1985, touched off a career that by any standard in America would be described as meteoric; to date Toshi has released nine albums and two greatest hits packages and has sold over 11 million albums worldwide. His 1996 single “La La La Love Song” spent ten weeks atop the Japanese charts, selling over two million copies alone. And if his credibililty was ever in question over the ensuing years, his live and studio work with the likes of Bootsy Collins, Maceo Parker, Soul II Soul’s Caron Wheeler and the Funk Overlord himself, George Clinton, effectively quelled any detractors.
In 1994, Toshi relocated to New York to get closer to the musical atmosphere he craved — an atmosphere he’d been encouraged by American musicians to explore back when he recorded his third album in LA in the late ’80s. (“I felt that if I was going to reach people here with my music, I had to live with them and be around them,” he said in a 1995 interview with the NY Daily News.) Since then he’s generated working relationships and friendships with numerous musicians, songwriters, producers and engineers — a veritable battalion of whom appear on Nothing But Your Love. “It was great on this album to be able to exchange ideas with different musicians,” Toshi says. “I’m interested in those unique combinations that can create something new.”
The opening title track emerges from a sleepy synth ether into a kick-heavy, near go-go beat, and when Toshi intones the lyric, “I’m not your mothership/not your blues train…nothing but your love,” the confident swagger of a seasoned funkster materializes instantly. It’s followed by “Masquerade,” one of two tracks produced by the Roots, who Toshi first hooked up with in Harlem a few years back for a demo session. The song features drummer Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson’s signature rimshot work — a sound that has virtually made careers for artists like Erykah Badu and D’Angelo.
“That song almost didn’t make it on the album,” Toshi admits. “I had about twenty songs when I started, and I wanted to use ‘Masquerade’ but there were some people at the label who weren’t sure. I played two or three songs for the Roots, especially Ahmir, and they really loved ‘Masquerade’ and wanted to produce it. So basically the Roots helped me get this on the album.” And Philly funk heads — both old and new school — will appreciate it.
In fact, all of the tracks on Nothing But Your Love reflect Toshi Kubota’s sincere interest in melding a classic soul vibe with futuristic funk, the rare groove with the ultramodern urban radio hook. There’s “Body Bounce,” a live-sounding party jam with a nod to the Zapp anthem “More Bounce to the Ounce” and produced by yet another Philly fixture, Joe “The Butcher” Nicolo of Schooly D and Cypress Hill fame; “Pu Pu,” a stripped-down and jazzy warning to those of uncool attitude, produced with the unmistakable Oaktown flavor of Raphael Saadiq; “Never Turn Back,” showcasing the smooth rhymes of Pras and the production wiles of Soulshock & Karlin (and check Toshi’s lead vocal, reminiscent of the soaring falsetto of the Stylistics’ Russell Thompkins, Jr.); and “It’s Over,” a street-edged lament of broken romance that boasts the hip-hop-inflected “vinyl junkie” touch of Samuel “Tone” Barnes and Jean-Claude “Poke” Olivier, a/k/a the Track Masters.
The ballad “Someday,” co-written by Toshi with rising soul star Angie Stone, is perhaps the album’s perfect coming together of lyric and melody, capturing the feel of early ’70s Motown with an almost spiritual message of universality. “When I wrote that song,” he recalls, “the melody and the chord progression came first, which for me is kind of rare. Before I figured out the rhythm, I already heard that Stevie Wonder kind of mini-moog synthesizer playing over the top of it; that’s really the main instrument for me. It turned out to be a beautiful song, especially with Angie writing lyrics and singing background vocals. I think she felt immediately what I was trying to do and gave it the warm vibe that was needed.”
This positive “groovatational pull” of Toshi Kubota’s music has everything to do with a force he refers to as the “Cosmic Groove,” an idea that brings to mind the democratic tenets of P-Funk and the Mothership Connection, among others. “I have definitely been influenced by Parliament-Funkadelic, and I always liked the concept behind ‘One Nation Under a Groove’. In my own imagination, I see it as the massive groove created when the different rhythms of people, culture, and language are combined. ‘Let’s be as one’ is my basic idea. If I can [unite people] using music — if I can tear down the wall of prejudice that exists between people and cultures – that would be a beautiful thing for me.”