Why modern music owes a big debt to Japanese video games

Posted by Sam Byford on November 19, 2014

‘Diggin’ in the Carts’ exposes Japanese game composers’ pioneering work.

“Oh man,” says superstar hip-hop producer Just Blaze in episode four of Diggin’ in the Carts. “I don’t think Yuzo Koshiro was… he might have been Japanese descent, but I don’t think he grew up in Japan. I think he grew up in Detroit.”

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Among other radio-dominating hits, Just Blaze produced “Girls, Girls, Girls” by Jay-Z. Yuzo Koshiro, who is indeed Japanese, composed the music for the Streets of Rage games on the Sega Genesis.

“There was an authenticity in Streets of Rage 2,” continues Just Blaze, “that you didn’t hear, I don’t think, in a video game previously when it came to like, dance music. I felt like some of those themes were records I could’ve played at raves. And it would’ve been incredible. There’s one theme on Streets of Rage 2 that, I kid you not, it sounded like [Detroit techno legends] Juan Atkins or Derrick May could have co-produced it.”

The fact that Just Blaze is an obsessive fan of the guy behind the Streets of Rage soundtrack is just one of the incredible details hidden within Diggin’ in the Carts, an astonishing Red Bull Music Academy documentary series that delves into the history of Japanese video game music. Director Nick Dwyer talks to many of the major Japanese figures behind the music in the 80s and 90s, but also interviews an impressive list of international electronic and hip-hop artists — including Flying Lotus, Dizzee Rascal, Kode 9, Fatima al-Qadiri, Joker, Ikonika, and more — to find out the impact that video games had on their music and lives.

“I was ridiculously inspired by the music of video games,” Dwyer tells The Verge at Red Bull’s Tokyo headquarters. “Composers like Nobuo Uematsu and games like Final Fantasy — it was huge for me. My introduction to electronic music was the music of video games, straight-up.” Dwyer moved to Japan from his native New Zealand this April and started work on Diggin’ in the Carts right away. The whirlwind production wrapped last month, and a frantic 18-day period saw the crew interview artists in 15 cities. “It killed us but we somehow got there,” says Dwyer.

“MY INTRODUCTION TO ELECTRONIC MUSIC WAS THE MUSIC OF VIDEO GAMES, STRAIGHT-UP.”

The initial inspiration for the series came from a meeting with Hip Tanaka, as big of a name in video game music as there has ever existed. Tanaka helped design the audio hardware in the NES and Game Boy before going on to compose the soundtracks for Nintendo games including Metroid, Super Mario Land, and the once-ubiquitous Game Boy version of Tetris. What you may not know about him, though, is that he is a huge reggae-head. “He was like ‘Yeah I’m really into dub music, I want to recreate Sly and Robbie!’” remembers Dwyer. Diggin’ in the Carts is at its best when it makes you reevaluate game music on levels which you hadn’t previously considered; I’ll now never be able to play Balloon Fight without Tanaka’s shuffling, lo-fi bass lines reminding me of Jah Wobble.

This was music created on the vanguard of technological progress, when composers had to struggle with torturous techniques to program their tunes while also striving to extract as much sonic bliss possible from limited console hardware. “It’s paralleled with the explosion of jungle and early house music with producers pushing to the limit,” says Dwyer. “But these

guys were all engineers and really wanted to just get the best out of those chips.” While the first Sony PlayStation popularized CD-quality audio for video games nearly two decades ago, before then each new console was a new opportunity to advance the state of the art. Today’s chiptune musicians do amazing things with old hardware, but context is everything — there’s something eternally romantic about how video game composers were forced to work back then, plotting out hand-drawn waveforms not out of choice but because no other way existed. “I listen to chiptune music and I like elements of it and those sounds, but it’s not the same,” says Dwyer. “You don’t have those limitations.”

“PEOPLE WILL LISTEN TO IT FOR THE FIRST TIME AS MUSIC, NOT AS VIDEO GAME MUSIC.”

Unlike most documentaries on video games, Diggin’ in the Carts is light on pixel art and footage of the games themselves — an intentional choice designed to bring the music to the fore. “I think a lot of people when they hear video game music in the context of game graphics, they go ‘oh, it’s video game music, it’s kids’ music,’” says Dwyer. “What we tried to do is have as little graphics as possible. People will listen to it for the first time as music, not as video game music.”

So Diggin’ in the Carts sets the music against gorgeous vignettes shot around Japan. “So many times when we see documentaries about Japan it’s Shinjuku, it’s Shibuya crossing,” says Dwyer, who wanted to get away from over-filmed Tokyo landmarks. “I fell in love with this country from an early age and have been coming here regularly and it’s just so beautiful. And you very rarely see the countryside and all of that. So we met with composers and just said ‘Look we really want you to take us to where you’re from, or where you grew up.’” Tokyo’s iconic futurism is, of course, still pretty well-represented, with one highlight using mirrored night-time footage shot from the front of a monorail train to accompany Hiroshi Kawaguchi’s music from Space Harrier.

All too often, documentaries struggle to strike the balance between keeping things accessible for an unfamiliar audience and going in deep to satisfy those with prior interest. Diggin’ in the Carts is not at all like that — it’s a near-perfect, often touching love letter to an art form that has influenced countless lives without getting much in the way of credible recognition. If you have any interest at all in electronic music, video games, or Japan, there’ll be something for you here. And if you’re into all three? It just might be the best thing you’ll see all year.

“You have these guys, literally on the other side of the world, directly influencing an entire generation of American kids and music nerds,” ponders Just Blaze. “When somebody has influenced you to the point where they are a part of your being, of your essence, how do you put that into words? Thank you, thank you, thank you — if you’re watching this, thank you!”

“It’s a real honor for me to have people say that kind of thing,” says a visibly moved Yuzo Koshiro. “It almost makes me want to go back 25 years and give myself a pat on the back.”