Van Paugam, 36, is a DJ who specializes in the 70s and 80s Japanese jazz, disco, funk, and fusion records collectively known as City Pop. In 2015, he started a YouTube channel that helped renew popular interest in the genre, which in turn allowed him to move his musical activities into the offline world when the channel was shut down. For the past three years, he’s maintained Chicago residencies at the Whistler (Lost in Translation) and Murasaki Sake Lounge (City Pop night), and his passion has introduced him to audiences around the globe.

As told to Micco Caporale

I’ve always loved oddball music, just stuff that most people wouldn’t listen to. When I was young, it was hard to connect with people online or find communities that fostered love for lesser-known genres. I grew up with Napster and Limewire. Sometimes you’d get lucky and find good music randomly, but mostly you only knew what to look for from word of mouth. Someone would give you a CD or a tape or recommend something. 

Being able to play new music for people and see their reaction—that’s always been important to me. As a child, I’d make tapes, recording stuff I heard on the radio. I loved new wave and disco, so when electroclash started getting big in the aughts, it was a natural evolution for me. A lot of my friends were in the ballroom scene, so I was taken in by the voguing houses of Miami Beach and started DJing the balls. The ballroom scene is such a welcoming community, and it was all very house based. That’s how I started as a DJ, and I’ve evolved from there.

I moved to Chicago on February 11, 2011. I was 26, and it was my first time seeing snow! I was at a crossroads in Miami, and my roommate at the time was a DJ from Chicago. She was moving back and said, “Hey, why don’t you come with me?” I was going through really hard times, and it was like. . . . How many times do you get the opportunity to move to an incredible music city where all these genres have their origins? I just packed my stuff and left. I had one suitcase and maybe $100. Couldn’t even buy my own ticket—my roommate got it for me. And I just left everything behind.

Live music by Mika Bridgebook and a DJ set by Van Paugam. RSVP required: e-mail or call 312-266-2280. Fri 12/31, 10 PM, Murasaki Sake Lounge, 211 E. Ontario, $25-$75, 21+

When I first got here, I lived in Wicker Park, and my old roommate got a little studio by Danny’s Tavern. I went there all the time and experienced how diverse Chicago’s music scene really is. Being an outsider at the time, I didn’t get that many opportunities to DJ, so it was a little rough. But you know, I think when people get to know you and see your love and respect and desire to be active in the community—when there’s that willingness, I think people in Chicago really respond to it. I’ve found nothing but love here. 

Around the mid-2010s, I got really into these Internet-based genres called vaporwave and future funk. They were sampling a lot of 70s and 80s Japanese music, often not crediting them, and I was dying to know who’d made these songs. Once I started looking into it, I realized they were all part of this genre I’d never heard of: City Pop.

I started hunting around online and found a lot of these old City Pop records were relatively cheap. I would save up and get them shipped overseas. Really quickly I had about 100 or so records. I started ripping them to MP3s, and then I would make playlists and upload them to YouTube. Not a lot of people were sharing music like that yet. I think I was one of the first, and my channel only had maybe five or ten subscribers at the time. But once I released my first mix, I got a couple thousand followers out of nowhere. The second one? My subscriber count jumped to, like, 20,000. About a year later, I had over 100,000 subscribers.

Van Paugam chose four of his favorite mixes to accompany this interview.

Tumblr was still big then, and there was a really big pull for, like, sad, sad music. People were getting into emo revival, and future funk and vaporwave were doing this nostalgic kick, especially with a lot of vintage anime GIFs. So I pushed that with my mixes and uploaded them with old anime clips. The music already sounds nostalgic, so when you add on all these sad anime references from the past, like roses falling into water or a girl crying or something—people were like, “Wow, this has a lot of feeling.”

When I started doing the mixes in 2015, I was really struggling with depression. The music helped me work through that. It has this kind of healing quality, even though at the time I didn’t know Japanese. I felt this unconscious need to put the music in specific sequences to let something out. But I only made about ten mixes before my channel got shut down, which was hard at first but forced me into doing live events only, which I’ve done since.

The sound really brings me back to being a kid, hearing 70s and 80s pop music on the radio. It triggers this false sense of nostalgia that I find comforting. These songs aren’t from my youth—it’s almost like I’m reliving my past through the lens of a different culture and time. It has a really mellow, warm vibe—this very sincere aspect that you don’t find in, say, electroclash and indie dance. Those other genres don’t sound hopeful to me in the same way.

A summery Van Paugam City Pop mix

Plus I grew up on anime. Thematically, Cowboy Bebop dealt with a lot of issues that, as a child, I had never had to think about. A lot of tragic elements. Things that were melancholy and adult. I really admired Sailor Moon too. A lot of the themes dealt with things like helping friends and just being a good person. 

My interest in anime did not grow with me, though. I’m not sure if it was something with the industry, but as I got older, a lot of anime felt less poignant to me, a lot more consumer oriented. Quick thrills instead of really meaningful, introspective things—things that asked bigger questions and provoked you to look deeper into your psyche and open yourself up to unfamiliar situations, that forced you to evolve. When I moved into City Pop, I found myself reconnecting to that.

Getting into City Pop also gave me this opportunity to develop a new kind of origin story for myself. I’ve never really felt like I have my own culture. My mom is Cuban, and my father is French, and I never felt accepted by either culture. I’ve always felt in between, but that created an openness in me to learn about and embrace other people’s cultures. Even though I’m not Japanese and don’t expect to be seen that way, I still feel like this is my chosen culture. I feel a really strong affinity for a lot of the philosophies, aesthetics, and language. I’ve found meaning that’s become a huge part of my worldview.

Van Paugam dedicated this mix to Tokyo: “Thanks for the beautiful mornings, magical evenings, and neon lit nights.”

For example, I got really interested in Shintoism. In Shintoism, they can balance two different concepts at the same time without sacrificing the self. At the height of Shintoism, it coexisted with Buddhism, where people were able to balance both as valid belief systems, and I think that’s a lot of why Japanese music is able to be so inspired by other cultures while still remaining Japanese. This is something that I really like about a lot of Japanese philosophy: Everything is valid in its own way. Everything has a specific spirit that merits appreciation and respect. This mentality is so important to me and who I am.

Getting into City Pop inspired me to take Japanese language classes at the Japanese Culture Center. The owner there, Stephen Toyoda, was a DJ in high school. He helped open doors for me, like introducing me to the owner of Murasaki Sake Lounge. At first, Murasaki’s owner was very skeptical, but I was like, “Hey, I have all this Japanese music, I would really love to play it here.” He gave me a tryout on a really busy Saturday night. Been doing a regular night there for three years since. He recommended me to a lot of people too. In the mid-80s, there were around 4,000 Japanese companies in Chicago, so there were businesses and communities that catered to these homesick Japanese employees. A lot of them still exist and really want to be part of Chicago’s culture in a way that’s relevant.

This mix opens with tracks by Chocolate Lips, Toshiki Kadomatsu, and Momoko Kikuchi.

And now there are Japanese DJs picking up on what I’m doing. Sixties Japanese vinyl was a big thing over there, but not so much 70s and 80s. There was a lot of cultural hesitancy towards City Pop, because the Japanese economy crashed going into the 90s. It’s such an optimistic, decadent sound. I don’t think many people in Japan wanted to be reminded of when Japan had money. But since it’s picked up in the West, Japanese people are reconsidering it.

Japanese record labels and shops have caught on that people want City Pop records, so they’ve reissued some of this stuff. But a lot of the original records have skyrocketed in price, which is hard for music lovers like me. I don’t want to play digitally anymore. My nights are for vinyl. But it’s exciting to meet and work with other DJs who have records that I don’t, so the audience gets to experience something new. There’s such a range, and I love collaborating in ways where I get to share that. There’s so much more out there than what I have, and I love expanding listeners’ horizons.