Behind the scenes of the new compilation exploring classic Japanese videogame music
How a new compilation explores classic Japanese game music
As E312’ s interview with DJ/producer Ikonika showed, early videogame music is a recurring influence on contemporary electronic musicians. Further proof of that comes from a new compilation, Diggin’ In The Carts: A Collection Of Pioneering Japanese Electronic Music, that releases on Hyperdub on November 17. Building on the documentary series of the same name that Nick Dwyer wrote and co-directed for Red Bull Music Academy in 2014, this 34-track compilation shows how the importance of this vital time for games and their soundtracks grows more and more as time passes. Here, Dwyer and Hyperdub boss Steve ‘Kode9’ Goodman reflect on the assembly of a very different kind of dance compilation.
How important is videogame music to Hyperdub in general? Steve Goodman: It became important to us around 2005, when I felt the musical environment we existed in had become a bit monochrome, and the influence of game music started to seep into the label through the Japanese artist Quarta 330, who had done an 8bit remix of one of my tracks, 9 Samurai. I was also sampling games in my tracks around that time to bring in more tone colour. We then signed a bunch of great producers who also had, in different ways, a videogame-influenced sound, such as Ikonika, Zomby, Darkstar and Joker. I think the ghost of early game music is present in a lot of early grime, and that runs through into producers we have released. There are literal convergences here and there, but generally we have a love for bright, in-your-face, droney and slightly off-tune synths.
What is it about videogame music from this era that excites you to the extent that you wanted to make a compilation dedicated to it? Nick Dwyer: Although those sounds, tones and melodies soundtracked so many of our childhoods, we weren’t conscious that someone had laboured away for days, sometimes weeks, on that loop. When researching the era for the documentary series, I realised just how much incredible music was there once you started digging deep. Much in the same way that some of the most incredible electronic music was made within strict limitations, these Japanese composers got right inside those sound chips and created a magical array of sounds and melodies that still sound dazzling today.
What I love is how every system has its own sound chip with its own personality, be it the cheap square-wave sound of the NES, the iconic FM Synth of the Mega Drive or that epic stringsand-pads sound that the SNES did so well. Then there are all the arcade system boards, each of which has its own unique and incredible sound palette. SG: I hadn’t even heard of most of the games the huge pile of music Nick sent me came from. All we were interested in was what stood up musically on its own two feet.
“When researching the era for the documentary series I realised just how much incredible music was there”
The track selection has a very underground feel; there are no obvious selections. How important was it to find
the lesser-known tracks as you were putting the album together?
ND: This is a Hyperdub take on incredible videogame music. When I sat down to start properly researching the compilation I kept hearing these phantom voices of hardened Internet videogamemusic fans in my head saying, “I can’t believe he didn’t put this track on the comp”. The only way to do it was to do it properly, so I worked my way through the entire history of Japanese videogame music of that era. I went from about 200,000 tracks to a long list of 300 and then presented that to Steve. We listened through everything and picked the best music based on its musical merits, regardless of its legacy or title.
What were the challenges in licensing the music you wanted, given that many of it was made by companies that no longer exist? ND: Oh man, a lot of meetings and a lot of very, very tense moments. Anyone that has ever tried to license any kind of Japanese IP knows the challenges you can face just trying to license from one company, let alone 24 of them. We did have some contacts already, and having the documentary helped get our foot in some doors. But that was just the bigger companies. Then we had to navigate the complex maze of trying to work out which companies now owned the rights for smaller companies that went out of business in the late ‘80s and had been sold several times. We were lucky in that all the companies we have been dealing with have been great; we pretty much got our dream line-up of tracks. There was just one company who didn’t want to be involved, but I’m not going to give up. Hopefully we can work with them sometime in the future.
Steve Goodman founded Hyperdub, and DJs and produces under the alias Kode9
Nick Dwyer wrote and directed the Red Bull documentary that led to this compilation