8-Bit Rockers?

bitbitch bitbitch at magnesium.net
Thu Oct 23 14:44:20 PDT 2003

Grabbed from Wired.  Yes, they occasionally have good bits still :) 

*8-Bit Punk
*Malcolm McLaren, the subculture hacker who created the Sex Pistols, 
discovers the new underground sound. It's called chip music. Can you 
play lead Game Boy?*

We live in a karaoke culture. The Japanese word means "empty orchestra" 
- a lifeless musical form unencumbered by creativity and free of 
responsibility. Simple, clean fun for the millennial nuclear family. You 
can't fail in a karaoke world. It's life by proxy, liberated by hindsight.

Authenticity, on the other hand, believes in the messy process of 
creativity. It's unpopular and out of fashion. It worships failure, 
regarding it as a romantic and noble pursuit - better to be a flamboyant 
failure than any kind of benign success.

Karaoke and authenticity can sit well together, but it takes artistry to 
make that happen. When it does, the results can be explosive. Like when 
punk rock reclaimed rock and roll, blowing the doors off the recording 
industry in the process. Or when hip hop transformed turntables and 
records into the instruments of a revolution. Now it's happening again. 
In dance clubs across Europe and America, young people are seizing the 
automated stuff of their world - handheld game machines, obsolete 
computers, anything with a sound chip - and forging a new kind of folk 
music for the digital age.

Until recently, I was feeling stifled by the tyranny of the new. New 
corporate lifestyles for doing everything well. Too well. iPod this. 
PowerBook that. Listening to albums, like Madonna's latest, that were 
made using Pro Tools - software that reduces virtually every mixdown 
effect to a mouse click - left me with a depressing sense of sameness, 
like everything on TV. I had decided to make an album about the "look" 
of music: the visual gestalt of youth culture. For me, music has always 
been a bridge between art and fashion, the two realms I care about most. 
It's one of the most natural expressions of the youthful need for 
confrontation and rebellion. Now it was lost in the hearts and minds of 
a karaoke world. I couldn't find my place in it.

Then I discovered chip music.

It all began on a freezing winter evening in snow-capped Zurich, 
Switzerland. Some friends of mine had a vague relationship with a 
small-label dude who caught my attention at a party rattling on about 
lo-fi. He soon had me playing phone tag with a clique of "reversible 
engineers" working illegally in Stockholm. I didn't know what that 
meant, but I was eager to find out.

The quest led me to the outskirts of Paris: Ivry sur Seine, to be exact, 
dead south of Chinatown. In that desolate industrial district, I had a 
10 pm appointment with two guys named Thierry and Jacques.

The address turned out to be a forbidding, semi-abandoned factory. I 
couldn't open the gate, so I waited nervously in the darkness. After a 
while, a suspicious, balding youth came out of the building - Jacques. 
He seemed to have trouble finding the keys to undo the heavy chains that 
secured the premises. Finally, the doors swung open. After a terse 
greeting, he led me up a concrete stairway and through dark, 
labyrinthine corridors of peeling plaster.

"What's that smell?" I asked, my nostrils assaulted by what seemed like 
a hot pot of hairy horse and curry powder. "It's the Cameroon embassy," 
he answered, smirking. Jacques, a shy young man whose teeth were nearly 
black because of his fear of dentists, explained that wood carvers, 
graphic artists, photographers, and hip hop kids from North Africa 
worked here. Only half the factory had electricity or heat.

Two flights up, Thierry welcomed us into a dim, tiny room at the far end 
of the building. To my surprise, I found myself in an Ali Baba's cave of 
outdated studio equipment. The chamber was stuffed floor to ceiling with 
hardware from the dawn of the 1980s: dinosaurian Amigas and Ataris once 
prized for their sound chips and arcane applications, giant echo plates, 
and knob-studded analog synthesizers. In the center was a pair of dusty 
turntables, one with a 45-rpm single on its platter. Thierry put the 
needle to the groove. I reeled as the record player emitted a din like 
screaming dog whistles. It sounded like a video arcade gone mad.

The low light revealed the Frenchman's T-shirt. Emblazoned across his 
chest were the words /FUCK PRO TOOLS/. The phrase described perfectly 
what I'd been feeling for months. Like any fashion victim who comes 
across a new and stylish idea, I was smitten. Fashion is most easily 
used as a disguise - it allows you to be something you're not. It's much 
more difficult to use it to express who you are. I understood 
immediately that this was no facile fashion statement.

"Who made this record?" I asked. In stark contrast to the silent 
Jacques, Thierry - once he started talking - could hardly stop. "Mark 
DeNardo from Chicago," he said. This twentysomething Puerto Rican 
artist, he told me, is the Velvet Underground of the 21st century, the 
next step in the evolution of rock and roll. "This is chip music," 
Thierry continued, "made on an old Game Boy. I don't like hi-fi. I can't 
afford hi-fi. To make this music costs only 15 euros. You can pick up an 
old Game Boy from the /marché aux puces/," the Paris flea market. He 
presented an outdated Game Boy and, maneuvering his thumbs on the keys, 
showed me how to create musical sequences.

Thierry spun another record. "This is Puss," he explained. "He's from 
Stockholm. He sings with a girl: 'I'm the master, you are the slave.' 
They're the new ABBA!" The album cover featured a simple photo of a Game 
Boy, nothing more. I loved it.

The next record was an EP - an extended-play 7-inch - by a Stockholm 
artist called Role Model. The last time I had come across this format 
was in the 1960s, when I bought my first Rolling Stones record. Role 
Model sounded like a videogame fashion show, as though Twiggy were 
somehow stuck inside Space Invaders. It was intelligent dance music made 
using analog approaches, distinctly human and more individual than 
simply switching on a drum machine. The more I listened, the more 
contagious it became. The names of emerging artists rolled off Thierry's 
tongue: Adlib Sinner Forks, Bit Shifter, Nullsleep, Glomag, The 
Hardliner, Lo-Bat, 8-bit Construction Set - an entire lost tribe of Game 
Boy musicians

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