In advance of a major Hyperdub compilation Diggin' In The Carts: A Collection Of Pioneering Japanese Video Game Music, Sara Drake talks to co-compiler Nick Dwyer about a project that sets to give credit where credit's due
Since 2014, Tokyo based Nick Dwyer has been shedding light on the often under recognized influence of early Japanese video game music on electronic musicians. Diggin’ In The Carts, initially an online documentary series put together with Red Bull Music Academy, has become a wide-ranging strand of radio programmes and events serving Dwyer’s efforts to present game music composers as legitimate artists. His newest project, a compilation of Japanese video game music in collaboration with Steve Goodman aka Kode9, is both a labour of love and a celebration of rare computer music.
For many young people in the 80s in the West outside Japan, computer games were an initial entry point into electronic music. When did you first make that connection for yourself?
Absolutely agree with you. One of the main reasons for doing the Diggin’ In The Carts video series was to show how great the influence of early Japanese video game music was on electronic music. For me, I was listening to game music from an early age. My mum brought home a Commodore 64 when I was about seven. I used to play a game on it called The Last Ninja that had a soundtrack that changed my life, composed by UK composer Ben Daglish. I would borrow my brother’s tape deck, record the music then listen back to my cassettes before I went to bed. The music was unlike anything I’d ever heard in my life – a bass-heavy futuristic SID [Commodore 64 sound chip] fuelled darkness. That soundtrack marked the beginning of my passion for electronic music.
Is it important for you that Hyperdub is putting out this compilation?
Absolutely. Hyperdub is tapped into Japanese video game music as a sound palette and a lot of their artists are heavily influenced by game music. The great thing about working with Hyperdub is that from the start Steve Goodman, Kode9, understood what this project was about. It’s not about nostalgia. To a certain degree nostalgia plays a part because there is nostalgia for the chip sounds of that era, but we always said the compilation wasn’t going to be a greatest hits. We see the music on the compilation as a continuation of the sonic experimentation of Japanese artists such as Yellow Magic Orchestra in the late 1970s and early 80s who used sound chips as instruments. Yes, these tracks were created to serve a purpose within a video game but what these composers did, within very strict limitations due to the constraints of the technology, was pioneer a unique form of Japanese electronic music. We wanted the compilation to be a celebration of that. Ultimately I think that having Hyperdub, one of the most forward-thinking labels in contemporary electronic music, release the compilation gives these composers the credit they deserve as pioneering electronic musicians and not as ‘video game music composers’.
While researching for DITC, you set out to listen to every piece of computer game music coming out of Japan during a certain era. What was your process for selecting tracks for this compilation?
For the video series I had done solid research, especially on the console world of 8-bit and 16-bit music, but my knowledge of arcades was limited and I knew that there was a whole other world of Japanese PC music. I realised that the only way to do this project was to sit down and go through the entire history. Every system, every game and every track. I would start with a list of every title on a particular system then work my way through. Luckily, video game music fans are pretty dedicated and most titles you can find on YouTube. For the ones that aren’t, gameplay footage at the very least will exist (searching in Japanese also helped). When I found something halfway decent I would mark it then send a list to my friend Hally, who is the foremost authority on Japanese chip music in the world and one of our ‘experts’ in the DITC series. He would then source the soundtrack for me and I’d do another pass on it. Hally helped me a lot when it came to researching systems like the MSX, PC-8801 and Sharp X68000 as finding lists online wasn’t easy. In regards to what the experience was like of getting through everything, I have to be honest with you, at times it was painful. There is a lot of mind-numbingly awful video game music out there and sometimes I spent days going through hundreds of tracks that were bad. Mahjong and Pachinko games especially. But just when I thought I couldn’t stand listening to another Mahjong game soundtrack, I’d stumble upon the minimalist masterpiece like Soshi Hosoi’s “The Mahjong Touhaiden”, and we are super happy to have one of his tracks on the compilation.
How difficult was it for your to gain permission to use copyrighted tracks from various game companies?
Incredibly. It can be a very complicated process just trying to license from one Japanese games company, let alone more than 20. Throw into the mix smaller companies that got swallowed up by larger companies numerous times over the past 25 years and you’re not making it any easier on yourself. It took a year of meetings, proposals, checks, internal approvals, more meetings, more checks, more internal approvals, hundreds and hundreds of emails and many tense moments when the whole project nearly fell apart. I really have to shout out my partner on the Japan side in this, James Matsuki, who handled all of the legal work. James has a company called Spine Sounds and he worked on the Diggin’ In The Carts video series which was an intense workload, but this was even tougher. In the end it took more than a year but I really have to thank all of the companies for believing in the project and agreeing to be a part of it.
Can you talk a bit about the ‘bubble economy’ and the electronics boom of the late 80s happening in Japan at the time this music was made?
The true ‘bubble era’ was from 1986–91. It was an economic bubble caused from wildly inflated real estate and stock prices. Banks were loaning like crazy and everyone would reinvest in property then borrow more and more. But when people are reminiscing about the heady days of the bubble, many are referring to the 1980s on a whole – a time when an already financially secure Japanese middle class was enjoying themselves like never before. Everyone had money and business was booming. Record companies had money to spend on the best studios and session musicians. Movie studios had big budgets and could afford experimentation. More importantly families had money and would buy Japanese products, especially consumer electronic technology that Japan was pioneering and exporting to the world: TVs, radios, Walkmans, you name it. Nintendo’s Famicom was caught up in this boom to the extent that there was a Famicom in forty percent of Japanese households. Game companies could expect to sell hit titles in the millions. It was a great time to be involved in the game industry. I think in general when everyone is doing great financially the pressure is off and there is no need to pander to the mainstream in order to sell. As a result there was a lot more creative freedom and designers and composers were more concerned with pushing boundaries.
Can you tell me about the variety of sound chips featured on this compilation?
Oh wow, there’s so many. A lot of Yamaha FM chips, of course with the most iconic being the YM2612 which was the sound chip used in the Mega Drive/Genesis. A lot of arcade system boards and the Japanese PCs used Yamaha chips also, my favourite of which, in terms of sound, would be the YM2608 aka the OPNA which was notably used in NEC’s PC-8801 and PC-9801. When speaking about 8-bit sound chips though, I have to make mention of Konami’s VRC6 chip, which was a custom sound chip found only in a handful of Japanese only Famicom games and gave three extra sound channels including a sawtooth and for 8-bit sound it just cuts right through. The tracks from Esper Dream II and Moryo Senki Madara on the compilation both have the VRC6 and you can hear the difference. I think though that one of my favourite discoveries through doing this project has been getting my head around all of the different arcade system boards. Each Japanese games company would have their own custom arcade system board each with its own set of unique specifications including sound chips, giving them all their own unique sound palette and capabilities. It’s funny going back now and figuring out that a lot of my favourite arcade music when I was growing up was all composed on Capcom’s CP-System board which packed a YM2151 and 4 channels of PCM for sampling.
Do you have a personal favourite?
Yeah, definitely the arcade system boards that Data East used in the early 1990s. They also had an incredible sound team and their arcade soundtracks from that era just have such an incredible sound palette. There’s a handful of games produced on that board that have their soundtracks composed by Hiroaki Yoshida that are all so, so good. We have one of his tracks on the compilation from a game called Dragon Gun and it’s one of my favourites on the compilation. I’m pretty sure the board packed a YM2151 also, but definitely had some more advanced PCM chip as all of the drums just bang like nothing you’ve heard on an arcade game soundtrack of that era.
While interviewing Karen Collins about her game music documentary Beep in 2016, she mentioned that during her research she was surprised to find that women were hired in sound departments at Japanese game companies in part because companies were able to pay them less than their male counterparts. This inadvertently led to women’s inclusion in early computer music in Japan. Can you talk about women’s participation in the industry?
I was definitely aware of the gender wage gap that existed within Japanese corporate culture that persisted through the years (although getting slightly better now), but I’m not sure if that was the case with Japanese games companies. I’ve interviewed a handful of incredible female composers who played a large part in shaping video game music early on. Junko Ozawa who was one of the earliest members of the Namco sound team, Michiru Yamane who started working at Konami in the late 1980s and Yoko Shimomura and Manami Matsumae who were part of the sound team at Capcom. I found a photo of the Capcom sound team from 1987 online that was particularly inspiring. It was amazing to think that late 1980s/early 90s Capcom arcade hits like Ghost ’N’ Goblins, Commando, Bionic Commando, Forgotten Worlds, Final Fight, Street Fighter II, UN Squadron – all fairly masculine games with action orientated music – had soundtracks designed by a team of women.
The composers I spoke to loved that era and working for their company, especially at Capcom and Namco. Companies seemed very liberal. I would be surprised to learn that they were being employed because companies could pay them less. From my research, one of the main reasons companies hired a lot of women was because during the mid- to late 1980s video games companies realised that sound was of crucial importance to a game so they only wanted to hire the best. They would actively recruit and have stalls at ‘careers days’ to get graduates to come work for them. In the Kansai region where Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe are all located and where companies like Konami and Capcom were based, there are handful of amazing music schools including the Osaka College of Music and a lot of their female graduates saw working for a game company as the best of both worlds – being able to compose music for a job while having the security of working for a large Japanese company. A lot of the leading women composers of late 1980s/early 90s video game music graduated from the Osaka College of Music. I honestly believe in those cases that it was based on talent rather than the fact that companies could pay them less. But I could be very wrong! It’s not the sort of thing we ever got around to discussing as the documentary wasn’t any kind of expose into the murky underworld of Japan Inc. but a very positive celebration of their music and their legacy.
Diggin' In The Carts: A Collection Of Pioneering Japanese Video Game Music is released on 17 November via Hyperdub. A launch party featuring Yuzo Koshiro x Motohiro Kawashima, Kode9 x Kōji Morimoto, Logan Sama, Ikonika and others, will take place on 30 November at fabric London.