Play Me That Song: The Development of 8-Bit
A band pauses onstage at Death by Audio, a small Brooklyn concert hall/effects pedal company, and lets the pixelated visuals projected on the wall behind them flicker silently. Without any fanfare, the lanky lead guitarist blasts the first notes of their next song, “Helix Nebula,” into existence— backed up by wild, flowing, seemingly outdated synths. The second guitarist joins in soon after, and a Zach Galifianakis-esque drummer ferociously pounds out an uptempo beat. However, the musician keeping close watch on the drummer is the most crucial part of the four-piece known as Anamanaguchi: a perpetually bopping man with a shaved head and a Gameboy clasped tightly between his hands.
Anamanaguchi’s “Helix Nebula” is one of the crown jewels of 8-bit, (also known as chiptune,) a genre classified not by song structure or thematic ties, but instead by the use of computer and video game console sound chips as instruments. My first introduction to that very song and, in fact, the entire genre of 8-bit music in which it dwells, came on a routine 2006 visit to the much-maligned 4chan.org. Instead of being greeted by the stream of wit and horror, (mostly horror,) that I had come to expect, a splash page looping “Helix Nebula” accompanied a cartoon informing visitors that the site would be back up soon. I found myself returning to the effectively empty message throughout the day; not with hope that 4chan would have returned (please, give me a little more credit than that) but instead to be carried away by the bleeps and bloops of my childhood, unmarred by vocals and restructured into delicious pop candy described by the band themselves as more inspired by “Weezer and the Beach Boys” than the simplistic tunes typically found on an NES. Determined to discover more, I did what any committed researcher does: I turned to a search engine.
Never one to steer me astray, Google directed me to Anamanaguchi’s singular release, a 7-song EP titled Power Supply, hosted and available for free on the premier “label” of 8-bit artists: 8bitpeoples. As if that weren’t enough, collected in this Creative Commons-licensed discography were 49 other releases to occupy my free time with, and today 8bitpeoples.com boasts 112 separate pieces by almost as many artists, with painstakingly crafted pixel artwork for each release. Spanning rock, electro, dub, hip-hop, happy hardcore, and everything in between, no style is left untouched by the creative forces at work. Surely, I had found the Fountain of Youth.
The first recorded chiptune music is attributed to the Ferranti Mark I computer in 1951, but the first original music recorded via sound chips was made for video games in 1985. Accompanying this rise of simplistic composition in games came hobbyists across the globe, who attempted to rip the music from the games so that it could be shared between people— similar to Napster, but before that whole Internet thing. By 1986, programs used to create chiptune music were made freely available to those who wanted to create their own— establishing a precedent of freely accessible music (as well as tools to make that music) which persists to this day.
In 2000, the 8-bit world experienced a revolution with the creation of LittleSoundDJ, a fan-developed Game Boy cartridge that served as a tool for music creation. In addition, LittleSoundDJ was designed specifically for live performance as opposed to recording, putting into motion a shift toward performances of 8-bit music. In 2005, the scene was pushed further into the spotlight when alt-rocker Beck released an EP titled Hell Yes (commonly referred to as Gameboy Variations) which consists of 8-bit remixes of four tracks from his album Guero.
The concept of community has been woven into the fibers of 8-bit, and as such, the two are inextricable. 8bitpeoples may offer the finest example of this: since the collective’s creation in 1999, its mission has been to “provide quality music for free and most importantly to have fun. [sic]” Not just interested in recorded music, the group also maintains a shockingly up-to-date listing of international 8-bit performances: New York, Tokyo, Sydney, Berlin, and Barcelona all host shows on any given night. As simple as their mission sounds, this decade-old artist springboard has sustained itself on sales of physical copies of albums that they release digitally for free, as well as donations and related merchandise. In a time where even a behemoth of service like Wikipedia has to run months-worth of banners pleading for money, 8bitpeoples quietly survives on the love of the fans and the artists involved.
However, this institution-fan relationship is far from the limits of the 8-bit community’s reach. Separate from the record label parallel of 8bitpeoples, fan-site 8bitcollective (8bc.org) operates an active forum, which includes sections for 8-bit fans to plan gatherings, meet up for concerts, and even negotiate lodging arrangements. Another popular topic outlines an initiative requesting members to leave a comment on every song they listen to, in the name of bolstering the total quality of 8-bit music being produced. All the songs hosted on 8bitcollective, while not screened for quality, are uploaded by their creators, offering a Youtube-esque arena for criticism and distribution.
I can tell you that listening to the best 8-bit music draws up a feeling inside vaguely similar to nostalgia, but is probably more related to the Pavlovian dopamine release that comes with defeating the final boss on your fifteenth try. Others are drawn to the sound because of its relation to folk music. Beck himself finds some modern electronic music “overdone” and “slick,” but chiptunes are electronica at its “most crude and primal.” Anamanaguchi is a rare example of 8-bit bolstered by other instruments, as the vast majority of artists work exclusively with the chips and software to produce the range of sounds they aim for. Not all 8-bit music could necessarily just be dropped into a video game, either: comparatively popular 8-bit artist Bit Shifter (a.k.a. Josh Davis) was quoted in 2005 relating that “there are artists making sad, poignant music.” One 8bitpeoples release, Saudade for Beginners by minusbaby, is described as aiming “to express life after the experience of saudade, a term often discussed pedantically by the academe.” If you don’t know what saudade is, don’t worry: it has been listed as the 7th most difficult word to translate. One attempt relates it as “vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist … a turning towards the past or towards the future.” Seems like minusbaby and his peers couldn’t have found a better medium than 8-bit for conveying the inexpressible.
In fact, we may be in the middle of the 8-bit renaissance. As those raised on these early sound chip-using video games and computers are entering their 20s, and music technology becomes further available, these fans from all walks of life are able to take part in the creative process, both within the 8-bit world and collaborating with other artists. While crowds at 8-bit shows are dominated by lanky White guys, there are several high-profile releases by female artists on 8bitpeoples, and with collaboration possible across the Internet, appearance holds no weight toward cred anyways. (No pun intended.) Without style restricting the structure of 8-bit compositions, fans of any genre are welcome to try their hand at their own take on the 8-bit sound. Even LittleSoundDJ can be bought for the paltry sum of two dollars, and is described, first and foremost, as “simple,” but still complex enough that “a complete Bach piece [can be transcribed] … in less than one hour.”
However, there may not even be a wait for the surge of 8-bit: its influence can be heard all over the pop music of today: Carl Wilson describes “Asian video game music” as one of the “most pervasive influences on young pop musicians now,” and Ke$ha’s “TiK ToK” would seem to agree. Even the Pitchfork-loved Crystal Castles’ first releases are saturated with 8-bit sound, leading vocalist Alice Glass to proclaim that, no, they did not take their name from a 1983 arcade game. However, the community itself is developing a backlash against this sudden popularity: 8bitcollective’s forums currently host a hotly contested debate about the merits of using modern production tools, such as FL Studio and Reason, as opposed to the sound chips and consoles the style originated with. The term “fakebit” has been coined to describe the new sound with derision.
Not everyone attempts to keep the scene from its progression into the limelight— just this year Anamanaguchi, the seemingly anointed flagbearers of chiptunes, were hired to score a recently released and critically lauded video game based on “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World,” a similarly praised video game-themed film (which, in turn, was based on a comic book, but that’s another story.) On November 17th, the band performed a free concert in Union Square as a “rally” for the recently banned Four Loko. In spite of the ban, it looks like Anamanaguchi wants to make sure that we always have a sugary, drunken, vibrantly colorful rush of energy when we need it.