Music

How An Unexpected, Historical Grammy Nomination Changed Japanese Producer starRo’s Life Forever

Shaleen Ladha.

On the morning of December 6, 2016, Shinya Mizoguchi — who makes electronic music as starRo — woke up, rolled over, and saw a Twitter notification on his phone. Julie Pilat, head of music curation at Beats1 Radio, had tagged him in a tweet that read: “Congrats to @starRo75 on your Grammy Nom!!”. Attached was an image listing the names of the artists nominated for Best Remixed Recording. There was just one problem; starRo was spelt incorrectly, so Mizoguchi assumed it was hoax. It was not a hoax. He had been nominated for his remix of The Silver Lake Chorus’ version of “Heavy Star Movin’” in a category that he admits he didn’t even know existed, until he was nominated for it.

Among the list of nominees, starRo’s misspelled name (it was missing the little ‘r’) didn’t particularly stand out. The list included Chicago producer and five-time Grammy-nominee Ryan Raddon, aka Kaskade, German producer Timo Maas, who also received a nomination for the award back in 2004, and RAC’s André Allen Anjos, who eventually won for his remix of Bob Moses’ “Tearing Me Up.” It was the second year in a row Anjos had been nominated.

But while starRo’s name was not the most recognizable, his nomination was hugely symbolic. It made him the first ever Japanese-born electronic producer to be nominated for a Grammy, which Mizoguchi says in Japan “is almost equivalent to being nominated for a Nobel Prize.” He qualified the statement by referring to the Recording Academy as “the biggest authority in music.”

Within days, his manager was fielding interview requests from Japan and other parts of Asia. Television channels wanted him to appear on their talk shows, Dr Dre’s people called, and brands wanted to align themselves with his radiant, future-R&B. starRo was quickly becoming a star. When the Grammy Awards eventually rolled around in February, one of the largest Japanese television networks sent a crew to Los Angeles to shadow him for a week. They accompanied him to events at Facebook and Apple Music, filmed him driving around Los Angeles and at his home in Long Beach, and shot footage at his mid-week Grammy party at Los Angeles’ Regent Theater.

On Grammy day, they rode in his limousine to the awards and shot footage of him walking across the red carpet. The footage was edited into an eight-minute documentary-style feature and screened on News Zero, one of Japan’s most popular late-night news shows. When he returned to Japan this summer, he says, “People would stop me on the street and say, ‘Hey, I saw you on TV!’” It is perhaps the most exposure the Best Remixed Recording award has ever received. It’s hard to imagine an American or European artist gaining as much attention for an equivalent Grammy nomination.

The Best Remixed Recording category was first introduced to the Grammys in 1998, during a relatively settled period for the Recording Academy. Throughout the 1980s categories were frequently purged and renamed, but in the late ’90s and early ’00s the few additions were primarily in the electronic and hip-hop genres. Awards for Best Dance Recording, Best Rap Song and Best Dance/Electronic Album were all introduced.

But unlike those awards, which are presented to the artist who fronts the project, the award for Best Remixed Recording directly rewards the producer behind the music. Mizoguchi says, “The remix category is one of very few categories where music producers get the direct spotlight. Usually when you get nominated for a Grammy as a producer you are behind the scenes. But the remix category genuinely focuses on the track itself, and that really means a lot to me, and other producers like me.”

For many artists, a Grammy nomination fulfills a major career objective. The Miami duo SMLE, who have been nominated for Best Remixed Recording in 2018, is perhaps a good example. Announcing the award nomination on their Instagram page, they called it “a lifelong goal”, and wrote “we never thought we’d snag the nomination this early in our journey.” For a duo like SMLE, with just 15k Instagram followers, it’s a pretty big achievement. starRo had a similar sized fanbase when he was nominated, but it was never something he predicted or aimed for.

In the awards’ twenty-year history, nominees have primarily been of American, British or European descent. Past winners include Skrillex, David Guetta, Justice and Frankie Knuckles. No female-identifying producer has ever been nominated for Best Remixed Recording. It’s clear then, just how significant starRo’s nomination was – especially at a time when the Grammys’ lack of diversity is under the microscope. Not only did he become the first Japanese-born electronic producer nominated for a Grammy, he was also the first, and only, Asian producer ever nominated in the Best Remixed Recording category.

Mizoguchi’s story began in Japan, but the success of his starRo persona is heavily rooted in Los Angeles. Speaking via phone, he’s candid about what his life was like a decade ago, before he relocated. “I got tired of life in Tokyo,” he said. “The work ethic is crazy. My life was all about work.” He moved to the US with the intention of escaping the nine-to-five grind – the expectation that you must choose a career and stick with it wasn’t for him. “In Japan you are supposed to pursue one career for the rest of your life,” he continued. “I thought by moving [to Los Angeles] I might be able to have some kind of breakthrough.”

Initially, that breakthrough seemed more like a pipedream. For several years he worked as a project manager at a tech company, and at one point he even drove for Uber. Music was more of a side project, even if it was just “two or three songs a year.” That changed five years ago, when he discovered Soundcloud. He credits the music sharing site for much of his early success, which is perhaps ironic now, given the platform once made him remove all of his remixes.

Seizing on an opportunity for producers like him to upload and share mixes, he says he became motivated to take music more seriously after seeing exponential growth in the number of people listening to his music. Two and half years ago he made the decision to quit his day job. “It wasn’t necessarily that my income from music was matching what I used to get from my day job,” he said. “But I love music, and I realized how grateful I’d be if I could make music for a living.”

He started collaborating with R&B singers and rappers to make his electronic songs sound more pop. As a result, each composition was distinctly unique, with the common denominator being his kinetic production style. Out of respect, he invited several of those artists to perform with him at the Regent Theater on the Wednesday night before the Grammys. They included R&B singers Kyle Dion and Jarell Perry, as well as New Orleans rapper Pell. The Silver Lake Chorus also helped starRo perform a live version of his Grammy-nominated remix.

starRo may well be one of the first, true SoundCloud producers to be nominated for a Grammy. But since his nomination, his career has advanced as much offline as it has online. In March he starred in a commercial for Beats by Dre, and his newfound fame in Asia (where his album reached No. 1 on the iTunes charts last winter) has seen him return every few months for shows in Seoul and Tokyo, where he now hosts an international club night called Sunny Side Up. Add to this list a music supervision role for an upcoming Netflix series, and a soon-to-be-released capsule collection in collaboration with Los Angeles fashion boutique The Well — it’s been a big year. And it’s doubtful it would have all happened without his Grammy nomination.

When asked if he had paid much attention to the Grammys before being nominated, Mizoguchi says, “The ceremony is always on TV, so sometimes I’d watch it, but it was definitely something I never thought about being involved in.” How about now? “Being there and seeing people like Beyoncé who you normally only see on TV, it made me feel like we are all the same person,” he said. “The perspective that anyone could be that person [nominated for a Grammy] was something I’d rarely thought about before.”

Behind the scenes, there’s more to the Grammys than you see on TV. In 2017 a total of 84 awards were presented, but only a dozen were handed out during the televised ceremony at Los Angeles’ Staples Center. The award for Best Remixed Recording was presented, along with approximately 70 others, during a daytime ceremony at The Microsoft Theatre – a 7,000-seat venue across the street from the Staples Center. To many music fans, these awards remain relatively anonymous. The daytime event, named the Grammy Awards Premiere Ceremony, began just after midday (PT). It’s a long day for those nominated in the less glamorous categories. Mizoguchi arrived at the Microsoft Theater around 11 AM and left The Staples Center close to midnight.

starRo’s story is inspirational, and its attachment to the Grammys – where the spotlight tends to fall on celebrity musicians nominated for awards like
Album Of The Year and Best New Artist – makes it extra special. He’s still not as famous as Beyoncé, at least not in the USA, but he’s OK with that. He says the nomination “put me in a spotlight that I wasn’t ready for.” But now, a year later, he feels a little more comfortable. When asked to describe his favorite memory from the past year, he pauses, and says, “I think my favorite part is right now. After a year, I’m getting a better sense of what that Grammy nomination meant to me. Because for the first few months after the Grammys I had no idea where I was going or what was about to happen. Now I have a better understanding of where I’m going, in a more realistic way. So yeah, I think my favorite moment is right now.”

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