The Nasty Bits: How Video Games, Electronic Music and Hip-Hop Intersect

Sounds that sound simple don’t necessarily make simple music.

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Jan 28 2014, 3:33pm

Photo by Sabato Visconti

Sounds that sound simple don't necessarily make simple music. It may not seem obvious at first, but music has gotten crunchier over the last decade. The compressed textures and white noise snares of early video games have reared their heads in everything from hip-hop (Dizzee Rascal's “Holiday”) to pop (Nelly Furtado's “Do It,” produced by Timbaland, who stole the beat from Finnish chiptune artist Janne Suni) to Crystal Castles (“Alice Practice”). If you haven’t noticed, it’s not your fault—the obvious movement away from cassettes and vinyl has increased the fidelity of the music we hear. But just as vinyl sales have more than quadrupled in the last five years, the fun, crunchy, often abrasive tones of chiptune and bitpop music have made a massive resurgence. Why? Artists now seem much more willing to use beats that sound like a mixture between the Sonic the Hedgehog start screen and the jarring melodic scream of a computer initiating a dial-up connection.

Nostalgia bears some of the blame, but the electronic avant garde has been experimenting with heavily compressed tones for a while, apparently in search of the soundtrack to a cocaine overdose. Now that electronic instruments are readily available to everyone, “videogame music” has made its way into the mainstream. 8-bit music is a unique blend of strange, sometimes harsh textures and satisfying harmonic simplicity; it's like knowing every word to a song you’ve never heard before.

Ragged Roots

The music used in the first Nintendo games is some of the coolest, weirdest shit around—it sound at once old and brand new, which is mostly due to the fact that though they are completely electronic compositions, they are modern performances of styles that are themselves very old. “Underwater BGM,” an instantly recognizable theme from Super Mario Bros. is a waltz that would sound like another famous waltz if it weren’t so simple and short. Or there's “Star Theme,” the demented music that plays when Mario gets a star and gets a bit too turnt; iIt may not sound like it at first, but it’s basically a Brazilian samba. Les Paul, one of the early pioneers of production studio wizardry and the namesake of Gibson guitar, recorded a version of “Brazil” in 1948 in which we can hear echoes of the textures and rhythms that “Star Theme” would later deliver to the joystick-wielding masses. It's completely fucking weird.

And then there's ragtime, which composers like Koji Kondo coopted for hundreds of well-known themes. “Ending,” from the original Legend of Zelda, could easily have been written by Scott Joplin. Here's a pianist using the virtuosic power he apparently stores in his neckbeard, who adds some flourishes that could make anyone cakewalk. Ignore the cargo shorts.

At the Avant Garde

Electronic music initially aspired to free itself from its 8-bit chains in pursuit of music with greater dynamic range (like 16-bit, which arrived with the fourth generation of videogame consoles). In the 1990s, consoles arrived that had enough storage space and horsepower to support streaming music. Before that, music in videogames was in effect played “live,” which means a sequence would be run through a computer chip in order to generate the desired sounds.

In the 1980s, chiptune was at its peak. The music people recognized from arcades was cool and new, not something for which listeners had a warm nostalgia. Laurie Spiegel released The Expanding Universe (1980), an album composed using Bell Labs’s GROOVE system. Her compositions are expansive tapestries that seem at once to move with definite direction and to meander down every tonal alley. We can hear in “Patchwork” the same algorithmic textures that Dan Deacon would later use to great effect.

In 1967, several decades before Spiegel hit the music scene, Morton Subotnick released Silver Apples of the Moon, an exceptionally weird album of music made with a modular synthesizer. The music is abstract and disturbing to say the least, but of course, some people love it. Subotnick’s compositions are expressive and dissonant in the way Béla Bartók’s night music is; the aim is not to produce music that resolves in a classically pleasing way. Instead, the composer is paying dues to a different master, one whose concern has less to do with constructed melodies than sensations of space and time.

To find the origin of the strange-sounding, but recognizably melodic 8-bit music of the past 40 years, look to the great pioneer of electronic composition, Raymond Scott, who enjoyed considerable success as leader of his Quintette and CBS radio music director. He began to experiment extensively with the recording equipment in his studio and finally devoted almost all of his time to inventing music-making devices and composing electronically. In 1964, Scott released Soothing Sounds for Baby, a beautifully bizarre album of music designed to obviously help infants fall asleep.

Scott became good friends with Bob Moog, inventor of the Moog modular synthesizer, and many of Scott’s compositions sound like music made with a Moog; with several exceptions, they do not have the same thin crunch that we hear in videogame music simply because Scott was not making sequenced music using a computer chip (except “Cindy Electronium”). But Scott’s commitment to making pleasant tunes that sound like novelty music belied his obsession with exploring and experimenting with new avenues in music and electronics.

Fast Forward to the Fresh Prince

In 1983, a hip-hop group called the Chilly Kids signed to Sugar Hill Records and released “At the Ice Arcade,” a very lame and weird track that sounds a bit like a bridge between Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers and Devo. The young, alternative communities that flourished in arcades were not so distinct, at least as far as music was concerned, from the audiences of early hip-hop.

Though “At the Ice Arcade” was not popular, 1982’s “I’m the Packman (Eat Everything I Can),” by, predictably, The Packman, was a smash hit. Produced by Bobby Robinson, the song features simplistic lyrics run through a vocoder, a beat that sounds like something from the Highlander soundtrack, and effects designed to mimic Pac-Man. Think about a room full of people dancing to this.

In 1988, two years after The Legend of Zelda was released, DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince released “Human Video Game.” The track, much like the Fresh Prince theme, has aged to the point that it sounds like a quirky novelty song. It tells a story: Will Smith is a videogame addict whose trials and tribulations only end when Ready Rock C beatboxes the first couple bars from Donkey Kong Arcade. Here's all you need to know: Ready Rock C is extremely talented, videogames had a hold on at least a portion of the public consciousness, and this type of music, even in 1988, had the potential to sell records.

Songs that sample themes from videogames rarely rise above the level of catchy novelty. Take Saigon’s “Get Busy” for instance; it doesn't benefit rom its use of the Super Mario Bros. theme (“This game ain’t easy, shit is a hurdle, / They say to win I gotta get rid of the turtles”). The theme to Super Mario Bros. is one of the most famous melodies in modern music—maybe that is why “Get Busy” feels a bit like listening to someone rapping over “The Star Spangled Banner.”

Here and Now

By the late 1990s, the deceptively simple timbres of Galaga and Space Invaders had come back with a vengeance. Crystal Castles clearly owe a deep debt to I-F’s 1997 hit, “Space Invaders Are Smoking Grass,” with its fuzzy, repetitive bassline, mumbled vocals, and bleeps in the alto range. In 2005, Beck released “Girl,” a song based around a basic 8-bit progression. The electronic music is not woven into the rest of the song, but simply placing the two apparently different musical styles next to each other in the same composition reminded other artists that chiptune and popular music were not, after all is said and done, very different.

Now, there's Tristan Perich, who has managed to create a fascinating piece that is a return to sequenced electronic music. His “1-Bit Symphony” is played directly into a pair of headphones by a computer chip inside a CD case. The music is created anew every time the device is turned on. The symphony itself explores classical structures like the canon and the fugue with 1-bit tones. It is either on or off, one or zero, there or not there, like binary code.

Basically every genre of music has been influenced by or converted into chiptune. Take rap, for instance. On the one hand, we’ve got artists making samples of songs straight out of videogames. Gucci Mane does this with “Get It Back,” which samples the Tetris theme song (actually, a Russian folk song called “Korobeiniki”). Jay-Z’s “Money, Cash, Hoes,” produced by Swizz Beatz, uses “Thief’s Theme” from Golden Axe, an arcade game released in 1989. And Wiz Khalifa’s “One Way” puts to use a song Kirby’s Adventure.

There is, however, a much more elegant and seamless union of popular music and chiptune. Anamanaguchi, a chiptune band that uses live instruments and hacked Gameboys, has managed to blend a distinctly pixelated aesthetic with the sort of warm, fun songwriting, that we find in the music of Weezer. Songs like “My Skateboard Will Go On” and “Densmore” are like radio transmissions from an anime planet where everyone rides Segways and wears candy-colored leg warmers and carries kittens in their backpacks. Their most recent album, Endless Fantasy, comprises 22 tracks that run the gamut from Erik Satie’s “Gymnopedie No. 1” to futuristic FM radio hits to explosive electronic punk. “Blackout City,” from Dawn Metropolis, perhaps the band’s most characteristic song, is pretty much a perfect chiptune recording. (It’s also the theme song to BIT.TRIP RUNNER, an immensely frustrating rhythm game that I was playing when my laptop’s motherboard had a heart attack.) It has sounds generated by modified Nintendo hardware, live instruments, a distinct sense of place (as if the song would play in the background when you enter Blackout City in some as yet unmade game), and, most of all, a fun, rollicking sentimentality that is completely and utterly infectious.

There is 8-bit dance music, 8-bit pop, 8-bit dub, 8-bit dancehall, 8-bit Baha Men, 8-bit punk, 8-bit classical, 8-bit jazz. All 8-bit everything.

The textures and sounds of computer chips can now be heard everywhere. Danny Brown’s “Kush Coma” features quivering arpeggios that sound like what it feels like to be on cocaine and lean at the same damn time. Antwon’s “Helicopter” uses a beat by Walsh, an artist whose songs sound like something out of Blade Runner. And we can’t forget Hot Sugar, who uses 8-bit textures constantly, e.g. in “Mama, I’m A Man,” featuring Antwon, Lakutis, and Big Baby Gandhi. And there's Dan Deacon’s “Get Older,” a gorgeously layered six minutes of electric whiplash.

The point of all of this being, of course, that simple sounds don’t necessarily make simple music. Whether you have a taste for the ear-piercing screech and crunch of music made with computer chips or not, hundreds of musicians have demonstrated the impressive potential in 8-bit music. New artists are constantly expanding the style in new directions and illuminating with the spastic flicker of a short-circuited motherboard the hidden complexities inherent in every genre. And whether you like it or not, it’s catching fire.

Woody Brown is a writer living in Buffalo, NY, whose words can be found in Artvoice and CASE Magazine. He's on Twitter - @woodsauce