K-Murdock & Mega Ran at PAX Prime

Mega Ran writes hip-hop music based on videogames and his experiences playing them. Between panels at last month's Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle, the rapper met with an independent game studio that is planning to feature his music in a highly anticipated upcoming game title.

Last year Mega Ran released a collaboration with Kyle Murdock, whose music has been influenced by pioneers of lyrical hip-hop like De La Soul, Japanese electronic artists such as Ryuichi Sakamoto, and game composers including Yuzo Koshiro of Streets of Rage. Paying tribute to the NES and Super Nintendo, their collaborative album is entitled Forever Famicom.

We had the chance to hear from the musicians on the potential creative overlap shared by the nerdcore and indie game scenes.

It might be worth starting off with a few words on how you became involved in the indie game scene. You had met composer Danny B. when Black Materia was on the Bandcamp charts alongside his Super Meat Boy soundtrack. How did that lead to your meeting in person in Arizona, where you both live?

Mega Ran: It was a weird sequence of events. I remember seeing the album there, checking it out and really liking what I heard. One of us tweeted, "Look at videogame music kicking butt on the charts," or something like that. Around the same time, a friend texted me and said he was bringing a buddy who lives in Arizone to one of my shows. He said, "He made the music for this game, I don't know if you've heard of it. It's called Super Meat Boy!" So that's how he made it out to this show in Phoenix.

Ever since then we've been very good friends. He told me back then, "I don't know if the game community is open to hip-hop in games, but I want you to break that barrier down."

He later urged you to attend the Independent Games Festival at GDC?

MR: Yes, and I was a little skeptical at first. I'm not a game developer, so what do I need to go to a game developer conference for? But, if you think about it, they all need music.

I wound up meeting a lot of great people and explored a new side of gaming. There's a sense of community at the indie level, and excitement about each other's games. I don't want this to turn into too much of a Danny B. love fest, but I've learned so much from him. I'm actively seeking indie game work at the moment, so fingers are crossed on that front.

In terms of your writing Forever Famicom, how do you view this in terms of exploring thematic ground that hip-hop has yet to cover? Is it natural at this stage to be absorbing videogame music influences and playing off those conventions?

forever-famicom-dlc2tn.jpgMR: A reviewer said that Forever Famicom utilized NES tunes as its backbone, just as A Tribe Called Quest had done with jazz. All this has been done to pay tribute to our influences, whether it's extending the life of jazz records or videogame tunes.

Is there a sense of conflict between the culture of hip-hop, which relies on sampling, and a corporate culture that places copyrights on songs as intellectual property?

Kyle Murdock: There's definitely conflict there when there's money to be made. A lot of hip-hop, whether you wish to mask it or not, is built on sampling. There have been so many trials since Biz Markie, one of the first big ones. When you bring in videogames, you're not even dealing with artists' rights anymore, so much as the property of developers and corporations.

If I'd thought about that too during the making of Forever Famicom, I never would have gotten started. It kills a lot of the originality when on the one hand the market is discouraging sampling, and on the other hand is cloning whoever is the top cat in hip-hop at the time.

In treating these samples, was it a conscious concern to preserve a sense of the sounds as they occur in-game as an homage to the material?

KM: There are very few songs where I chop up samples and rearrange them. A lot of them are loops that I felt I could build more melody on.

MR: The theme of the album was to revisit Famicom and Super Famicom tunes that we liked and add a new spin to them, retaining enough to pay respect.

The hip-hop student in us wants to repurpose the source music to make something new. To "flip it" to the point where no one can recognize it. In hip-hop, you were trying to avoid a lawsuit by chopping it so fine and putting so many effects on it that nobody knows you've just stolen it. With Forever Famicom, we put an NES on the cover, so here nobody's trying to hide what we're doing. It's strictly a tribute.

As much as I think that the album is hip-hop, it kind of isn't from a production standpoint. Those loops aren't chopped, repurposed and disguised.

Oftentimes chiptune artists use "repurposing" and "reformatting" as terms to describe the way old game consoles are hacked to be used as musical instruments. Do you see that as at all parallel to the artistic intention of hip-hop?

KM: Hip-hop has always been about taking an old sound and making it new to suit the new generation, all the way from repurposing record players as turntables.

forever-famicom-albumtn.jpgMR: Hearing A_Rival talk on our PAX panel, I learned a lot of things that I didn't really know about chip music. For one, sometimes the chiptune community takes it very personally when it's confused with making videogame music. There are people who make chip music that don't even like videogames. I would have assumed they were students of the videogame culture, like we are.

Hip Tanaka has said something similar, that there's a purposeful distinction between the NES music he wrote in the 1980's and the chip music he performs in clubs today as a DJ. Because his live chip music is freed of the contextual constraints of the game, even though its sound is built on similar hardware constraints, he wouldn't want to see the two confused with each other.

MR: Putting chiptunes together with hip-hop makes a lot of sense when it's done well. I said this in the panel today, but I make emotional music. I had a friend say that he didn't like Black Materia as much as Forever Famicom because it wasn't as personal. The concept was to retell the story of the most influential game of all time. That was me playing the game and taking notes like a reporter.

You've mentioned that you want to write the music for an RPG, introducing hip-hop to that kind of narrative driven soundtrack?

KM: That's my goal. I've described my own hip-hop group Panacea as A Tribe Called Quest meets Final Fantasy. We were interested in the originality of that style of hip-hop and the wonderment of that game series. One thing I never understood was why hip-hop was always pigeonholed into sports games. I'm a middle class African American who plays role-playing games and I know that I'm not the only one.

MR: Games are uncharted territory for hip-hop. There are people like us who play games all the time, who turn off the music and play hip-hop over the game. There are so many people who do that. We both have hip-hop expertise, gaming expertise, and putting that together I feel is an unstoppable combination.

I can't tell you how many emails I get that will preface the message with "I don't like rap, but I love your stuff." They say, "You're telling a story, you have conviction, and I can relate." It's kind of a compliment. At the same time, it's kind of like they're saying they don't like anything that created you. Like, "I hate your mom, and yet I love you." But if Forever Famicom can be that bridge and enlighten people about what hip-hop is, then I'm happy for that.

[For more music by the makers of Forever Famicom, visit their Bandcamp page. Images courtesy of Mega Ran and K-Murdock. Photo by Jeriaska. Additional images from PAX Prime 2011 can be found on our flickr photo set]