From 'Wip3out' to The Black Madonna premiering a track in 'GTA V,' this is the story of how software and hardware linked electronic music to gaming.
I’ll tell you what I love: heavy bass lines. Heavy bass lines that make the speakers shout so loud the dance floor shakes and everybody in the room wobbles from side to side. Heavy bass lines that go "dooomph, dooomph, dooomph" and are so loud they feel like an extension of your own heart beat – only twice as fast.
That feeling is one I experienced when recently watching Japanese producers Yuzo Koshiro and Motohiro Kawashima. I’ve got a huge smile on my face as I recall the night: their arsenal of techno, house and dance music sending arms and fists flying into the air as people jump off their feet; the room becoming one with the music. I feel like I’ve been transported back to my university years, standing in the middle of the sweet and sticky dance floor at Manchester's iconic club Sankeys.
But there is one small difference. The DJs aren’t technically DJs. They’re actually video game composers and the eclectic mix of dance music they’re playing is from a video game series called Streets of Rage, first released on the Sega Megadrive in 1991. Now they’re playing it live at musical festivals such as Sonar and night clubs like Fabric or in my case, Gaite Lyrique in Paris (watch a live video below).
The more I learn about video game music, the more I discover the music industry and video game industry are really two sides of the same coin. They bounce off each like Sonic the Hedgehog stuck between spring pads in the Casino Night Zone (let’s not forget Michael Jackson wrote the majority of the music in Sonic 3), and the relationship goes way back. Zombie Nation's "Kernkraft 400" actually lifted its iconic synth line from a game called Lazy Jones released in 1984. A Wolverine game released for the SNES in 1994 was spewing out grime beats before grime was even a thing – and don’t forget the collaboration between game developer The Bitmap Brothers and Tim Simenon (Bomb the Bass) to rework the 1988 dance hit "Megablast" into a title theme for Xenon 2: Megablast on the Amiga and Atari ST.
Really, this all started in the 80s and 90s – a hugely transformative period for both dance and video game music, when technology advancements provided new hardware and software for composers, musicians and producers to experiment with. The SID chip inside the Commodore 64 computer was groundbreaking and allowed composers like Rob Hubbard to revolutionise their music, while the Commodore Amiga provided the tools to help an entire generation of music producers shape the future of rave and jungle music. Up until then, producing electronic music required money and equipment – the Commodore Amiga was the closest thing to a cost effective, all-in-one studio solution.
“History would not be the same if it wasn’t for the Commodore Amiga,” says Brian Johnson, better known by his alias Bizzy B. Many call him the godfather of breakbeat hardcore and drum ‘n’ bass, responsible for overseeing hardcore’s transition into jungle. Bizzy B used the Commodore Amiga to compose a lot of his music and his record label, Brain Records, looked for artists doing the same thing.
“It allowed me to have a doorway into the music business. I wouldn’t have been able to afford the money for a recording studio; I wouldn’t have been able to practice music production and take my music to the next level if it wasn’t for the Commodore Amiga. I’m sure there are a lot of other people who were in the same situation as me that actually used the Amiga to step up their game in the music industry.” The popularity of OctaMED – sound tracker software you could use to make music on the Commodore Amiga – meant that a system primarily used to play video games was now popping up in nightclubs all over the world. “The Amiga gave our music its edge," Bizzy B continues. "The way we were able to manipulate beats and samples and chop stuff. You could not do that stuff if you didn’t have a Commodore Amiga.”
Urban Shakedown’s "Some Justice" peaked in summer 1992 at number 23 in the UK charts and was written using two Amigas. Elsewhere, drum ‘n’ bass producer Aphrodite used the Amiga to create a variety of other tunes. Notable users also include DJ Zinc, Omni Trio and Deltatronic. And if DJs and producers weren’t actively releasing music using Amigas, their experience of OctaMED was paving the way for their future success. Venetian Snares started his career using OctaMED on the Amiga. Martin Iveson is best known as the deep house DJ, AtJazz, but started his music career working as an in-house musician for the video game studio, Core Design.
Dance music continued to go from strength to strength with an explosion of new genres fuelling the rise of club culture all over the world. Innovation had never tasted so sweet. If you grew up playing video games like Zed Blade and Battle Garegga or Streets of Rage and Wip3out in the 90s you’d already had your first nightclub experience; you just weren’t old enough to realise it.
“There was a certain pocket of Japanese video game composers that were being heavily influenced by club music,” Nick Dwyer tells me. Nick has spent a large chunk of his life researching video game music and hosts his own radio show and documentary series, Diggin’ in the Carts, exploring the history of video game music. “There was a legendary club in Tokyo called Yellow that opened its doors in 1990, and they were getting some of the most incredible DJs from Detroit and Chicago over. Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson… those kinda guys played regularly and composers like Yuzo and Motohiro would go, hence the influences you can hear on the Streets of Rage soundtracks.”
This makes the music in Streets of Rage a natural fit for the dance floor. Die Antwoord certainly seem to agree. Their track “Happy Go Sucky Fucky” is built entirely around samples from the “Expander” music in SOR 2. Other tracks from the series such as “Dreamer”, “Spin On The Bridge” and “Max Man” make the transition just as comfortably from video game console to dance floor, with their heavy bass lines and pulsing melodies hitting listeners like a pipe-swing to the face.
The mid-90s marked another major shift in technology as the hardware evolved from 16-bit home computers and video game consoles to more impressive hardware such as the PlayStation One, Nintendo 64 and more advanced arcade machines. Dance music’s influence on the video game industry spread like a virus, whether it was experienced through sub-woofers in arcade machines like the Sega Touring Car Champion game, or on the futuristic roads of sci-fi racers such as Extreme-G and Wip3out.
“I had quite a shock when we hit the mid-90s and CD audio became a thing,” Wip3out’s composer Tim Wright says. Tim wasn’t into dance music when he first started working on the game. But after joining his team mates at Psygnosis, the now-defunct Liverpool-based game developer and publisher, on visits to local nightclubs, his first experience of 90s club culture helped shape the musical direction of the game.
“Up until I would say 1995-ish, I was a pure 80s man,” Tim says. “This was a whole new experience. I didn’t drop any Es or anything. It was literally just the experience of being there and taking in these 12-minute long tracks that evolved with filters. When you’ve got a build-up and a drop, even without drugs it was like: 'fuck, I get it now!'" As well as his own music recorded under his alias CoLD SToRAGE, Wip3out also features licensed music from The Chemical Brothers, Leftfield and Orbital.
“We sent out lots of requests to various bands and record labels saying, 'we’re creating this game, it’s gonna be really different; really new; it’s gonna be appealing to the club culture; it’ll be something that people play either before they go to a club or come back and chill out to it and we think this will be a good thing for you to get into.'”
Only a handful of the bands and record labels they wrote to got back, but Wip3out was a huge success and helped fuel a rise of licensed music from bands and artists appearing in video games. For the music industry, video games would become a fantastic new way for them to market and sell music. “After the success of the first game it was like a knife through butter getting licensed tracks after that. Everyone wanted to be on it,” Tim says.
Wip3out’s success presented a fantastic marketing opportunity for Sony too, who were keen to angle the PlayStation towards a different target audience in comparison their main competitor, Nintendo. PlayStation consoles and copies of Wip3out were soon popping up in nightclubs throughout the UK and the game became intrinsic with 90s club culture. Spliff in one hand and PlayStation pad in the other, Wip3out was the perfect form of post-club entertainment – still enjoyed to this day.
After the success of the Wip3out series, Tim left Psygnosis to create a series of music production video games that influenced another new generation of music makers. Just as the Commodore Amiga had helped Bizzy B kickstart his career, games such as Music: Music Creation for the PlayStation and Music 2000 were helping to birth the UK grime scene providing the tools for musicians like Benga, Skream and Skepta to hone their sound.
Today, the relationship between club culture and video games is stronger than it’s ever been before. As well as the countless dance tracks that appear in licensed tracks in franchises such as FIFA and Grand Theft Auto, video games are now being used to debut music: GTA V’s DLC was used as a platform to release new tracks from Solomun, Tale of Us, Dixon and The Black Madonna as players immersed themselves in the game’s own nightclubs. There's even a new piece of software for creating tunes – Tracklab, on Playstation's new VR system, that allows users to create everything from trap to drum and bass, and is a spiritual successor of sorts to Music 2000.
Throughout the years, early home computers and video game consoles have played an integral part in helping musicians to get their feet off the ground and create incredible music. Likewise, the rise of 90s club culture was directly influencing video game composers, with the relationship coming full circle as their games influenced the future generation of new music makers. Without this symbiotic relationship, contemporary music and video games would simply not be the same.
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