Skip to main content
Credit: Four13Photo

On Cue: Hiroko Yamamura, Chicago’s underground champion

Whether you’ve encountered her genre-blurring DJ sets, top class productions, or the hilarious deadpan memes of her Instagram page, there’s a good chance Hiroko Yamamura has brightened up your day at some point. Alongside her On Cue mix, the humble Midwest legend speaks to Zara Wladawsky about her come up in Chicago, the benefits of being an introvert, and how anybody can be a DJ

Hiroko Yamamura is often referred to as a cult figure and leader of the underground in Chicago, among many other deserved accolades. However, the longtime DJ, musician and producer, in true ever-grounded Midwest style, is quick to deflate expectations and nod to her own heroes; humble almost to a fault in her incredibly thoughtful and professorial-like explanations.

“I always like to clarify, when people always say legend or put some nice thing in front of [my name],” she says. “I'm very much a third-or fourth-wave consumer of Chicago’s electronic music, who has had the honour of being able to be part of the scene as a dancer, while also being able to participate in production. What I do get to offer though, is because I consumed all that [seminal Chicago house] music, and at the same time was listening to shoegaze and J-pop, while also being really into industrial and goth rock, that's created my own lens and perspective in adding all of that stuff together. So, it's important for me to differentiate that I'm a DJ that has taken things that other people have made and iterated on them, but I'm not one of the founders.”  

Hiroko grew up in a suburb of Chicago in a first-generation Japanese-American family, and played violin and then guitar as a kid. Her shift to clubbing began in the ‘90s, in part thanks to  spaces and promoters that would do juice bar nights without alcohol to cater to all ages — including the infamous melting pot of Medusa’s. “One room would be playing the Nine Inch Nails video, and then the next room would have the hottest house DJ, and then suddenly that DJ drops a Ministry track and the whole room turns into a mosh-pit, which was pretty cool,” Hiroko reminisces. 

Decades later, this approach to presenting tracks remains at the forefront of how she crafts her own sets. “I didn't really know the difference between the genres,” she muses. “As silly as that might sound, it was all just ‘electronic music’ to me: jungle, hardcore, German techno, bass, etc... If the BPM matched up, the tracks went together. My own kind of misinformation still carries into my DJ sets, where the genre is somewhat meaningless to me.” 

Anyone who’s caught her DJ has already witnessed all of this; she traverses varying sounds and conjures big feelings, all while telling the story of her Windy City musical upbringing through house, acid, techno and beyond. 

“When I'm DJing, I feel like I have a responsibility,” she explains. “It’s almost like this Asian parent thing, where they're telling you, ‘God, you're wasting your life doing all this silly stuff, and why are you buying all these Cocteau Twins record box sets and wasting your allowance on this?’ To me, sharing that music via DJing and representing the history of it, is all part of ensuring that the crowd is going to have a good time and get their money’s worth.”

Hiroko Yamamura DJing
Credit: Four13Photo

The evolution from raver to DJ/producer happened organically in the early ’00s for Hiroko, alongside a few bands and musical projects. “I was super lucky to meet people like John Curley, Mike Dearborn, DJ Hyperactive, Delta 9, and other innovators of Chicago who were, because the scene was small, people who were very welcoming,” she remembers. “I could go and ask these DJs what records they had just played because we had no other way to find out what that music was back then. I think I was also kind of that annoying kid too that was asking too many questions and being like, ‘What does this and that thing do?’” 

She continues: “All of that changed quickly because I learned a lot of the machinery, mechanics, and how things worked. Because of this, I was invited into some really great sessions and helped out on some really legendary anthem tracks. I don't know how intentional that was for me to sneak in to learn this stuff, but being tech support got me into doors quite early. There was also me being not the most social person, going to a rave or a party or club without some kind of focused purpose... It was very much about listening to the music and being exposed to it.”

Oddball nerdiness and reverence for her myriad interests are constant threads in Hiroko’s life. “In a nutshell, I am a music fanatic who is obsessive about collecting music, but I also watch a lot of anime and play a lot of video games,” she confesses. “I'm a bit of an introvert and read a lot of comic books, but what's fun about that is I meet a lot of people at events who are into those same things. There is still a subculture, and an ethos of the outsiders getting together and fighting for a place to fit in. I think it's important to maintain that because it is shrinking.” 

Fast forward to the late ’10s, where after some starts and stops, good friends like Seth Troxler pushed Hiroko into DJing more seriously, and her star rose until Covid temporarily froze everything. “During the pandemic, I recognised that this is what life is like without music and it's something that had never crossed my mind before,” she says bittersweetly. “And so for that to go away, there’s been a different sincerity with how I approach things, as well as a promise to myself.” Her career hasn’t skipped a beat since, and she has been touring most weeks both Stateside and abroad. 

Alongside Hiroko’s excellent DJing, her productions have also quickly cemented her as a key Midwest talent. Her trademark moody and jacking sound combine intricate headiness with propulsive grooves and melodies. One key release is her collaborative ‘Midwest Panic’ EP with Justin Cudmore on HE.SHE.THEY. that was released during lockdown. The two artists reflected on their shared queer-scene experiences in Chicago through the lens of summer 2021 post-Covid reopening, imbuing each track with a fervour that makes them utterly infectious. Her oeuvre also spans top Midwest labels, including Planet E, and Trax Records; although regular touring has slightly slowed down her output, she hints at upcoming collabs in the pipeline.

As we start to wrap our interview, we wish her luck on her jaunt across the pond to play Berghain during the ensuing Easter weekend (“I hope it’ll be ok, I’ll be so tired,” she demures), and touch on her third year playing Chicago’s relatively new and excellent ARC Festival, which returns to the city’s Union Park this August (“I’m so lucky, they reached out to me early on, and have invited me back for a few years. It was a risk to attempt a non-EDM festival here, and I told them that, and they happily completely proved me wrong.”) 

We move onto Hiroko’s Instagram presence, where she is a top-tier Meme Queen. “I've been on the internet since day one, right? So I am shit poster 0.01 beta,” she laughs. “So, my relationship to the internet is different than with the younger generations, and it’s also a personal choice that I just don't feel comfortable talking about myself that much. I'm a guarded person, although it’s something I've worked on to try to be a little less of.”

Our conversation ends with Hiroko’s excitement to be playing Fuji Rock Festival this summer. “It’s been a holy grail event for me, since I used to watch videos of Oasis playing there back in the day,” she gushes. “I can’t describe how amazing the Japanese crowds have been, and in a market that I never thought I'd have an opportunity to enter with being Japanese-American, and also not a 21-year-old supermodel. So yeah, if this gaming nerd is able to pull off this Final Fantasy fandom, really anybody can do this. If you want to become a DJ and you're passionate about it, then you have a story and music to share. Please look at me and be like, how ridiculous is it that I get to be a DJ? Anybody can be a DJ.” 

Though she’ll undoubtedly try to downplay this compliment, Hiroko Yamamura is very much a legend in her own right. Listen to her On Cue mix below. 


Junior Sanchez ‘La Cueva’ 
Justin Cudmore ‘Love Control’ 
Angel Alanis & Hiroko Yamamura ‘Jacare’
Cole Knight ‘A Little Fun’
Olivier Giacomotto, John Acquitiva ‘Gail In The O (John Acquaviva & Damon Jee Remix)’
Roland Leesker ‘Respect (Robert Hood Remix)’ 
Lumi ‘Higher’
Anfisa Letyago ‘Feelin' (Extended Version)’
Mary Droppinz ‘Pink Lambo (Original Mix)’ 
Sian Vs Sacha Robotti ‘In The Dark’ 
Alloy Mental ‘I Am (Marc Houle Instrumental)’ 
Indira Paganotto ‘Cyber Slaves’ 
Rødhåd, Lady Starlight ‘200704’ 
Rob Threezy ‘Chicago On Acid’ 
Dave Clarke ‘Protective Custody (Mark Broom Remix)’ 
Asher Perkins ‘The Chaos Proceeds’ 
Drumcell, Luis Flores ‘Stuck In My Mind (Truncate Remix)’ 
Silent Servant ‘M-90’