In more recent years, a small music genre called ‘Chip Tunes’ has been exploding out of the internet with its erratic, electronic sound. Utilizing the 8-bit Gameboy and NES musical style, old school gaming nerds have begun to take notice. Remixing the likes of ‘Mega Man’, Saskrotch is one such artist that is pushing at the forefront of the Chip Tunes scene. Taking some time out from his work, this local artist and old school gaming fan takes some time to talk about his sound, inspirations, overall impressions of the scene, and gaming.
Name: Nigel Shields
Alias: Main alias is Saskrotch, side projects include Winter Camp, Satsui No Hadou, Amen Wayans, and shame_boy
Hometown/Neighborhood: Forest Park
YouTube Channel: Saskrotch
When did you start playing music?
When I was 11 I started playing bass guitar for 2 reasons: I wanted to learn how to make that scratching sound in “Kitty” by The Presidents of the United States of America [sic] (side note to younger readers: the 90s were pretty weird) , and because my dad already played bass.
I started playing other instruments (guitar, drums, keyboard) over the next couple years. When I was 15 or 16, my dad got us a Tascam digital 4 track, which was when I started really writing my own music, with mostly a Yahama keyboard I’d had since fourth grade (which I don’t remember the model number of), an Alesis HR-16 drum machine, and an effects pedal.
Favorite Local Venue to Play:
A friend’s apartment that was called Taco Castleskull. It was above a Curves gym in Irving Park, and was pretty much always a great time. I played there a bunch, with some local friends of mine (Kkrusty and Sir.vixx for example), along with a bunch of great out of towners (Dispyz/Stagediver played a few times, Anamanaguchi and Starscream came through once).
Current most used instruments:
My brain? I’m not trying to be one of those guys who basically yells I’M AN ARTIST through passive aggressive subtext, but I don’t really play instruments any more. I don’t really count the Game Boy as an instrument. It’s mostly that and a laptop, so I consider myself a composer, if only because I don’t actually play the music.
To someone that’s never heard of chip tunes or, for that matter, your music- How would you sell them on it?
The simplest explanation for chiptune is writing music by using or emulating sound chips from old game consoles and computers. To expand on that a bit, earlier sound chips had little or no sample playback abilities, and would create sound based on data as it was fed to them. They’ve basically been phased out, now that digital audio is cheap and easy to implement.
Most of the music I write is filed under sub-genre called chipbreak, which is basically chiptune means breakcore. Most chipbreak is awful, and I apologize profusely for it. Sabrepulse told me I invented it so I feel partly responsible for the lack of quality involved in most chipbreak music. Although I will say there were people doing similar minded stuff way before me, but just outside of the chip genre (Bogdan Raczynski and Epsilon come to mind). Most of it is fairly repetitive, and can be boiled down to an amen break and a couple 8-bit melodies. I try to go way beyond that, to point where what I do should maybe even be in a smaller sub genre called Progressive Chipbreak which, on paper, should appeal to NO ONE.
What, or who, opened your eyes to chip tunes?
One of the first chiptune artists I’d ever heard of was a guy calling himself WidgetPhreak, who I’m guessing doesn’t write anymore, cause his website has all the same songs it did when I used to listen to his stuff constantly. And what’s funny is as I’m listening again, I didn’t realize how big of an inspiration he really was until just now. Lots of amen breaks converted to play through the GB’s wave channel.
The other chip track I really remember blowing my mind was Bit Shifter’s Time Machine, Go! which was never released, and I think is one of those tracks that was lost through cart corruption, and seems to almost be lost to the internet as this point.
What games most influence your style?
Definitely the Mega Man series. I spent a lot of time dissecting and covering Mega Man songs, meaning recording each channel separately and figuring out how each note was written, so I could learn the style, which I’d say I’ve almost got down. A lot of the stuff I’m working on right now has homages to/rip-offs of that style of composing.
With its current rise in popularity, where do you see (hope to see) chip tunes heading in the next few years?
I’m basically a curmudgeon, so I don’t have a lot of hope for the future of chip music. It would be awesome if real/pure chip music could gain widespread popularity, but most likely it’ll lead to more mediocre pop-music with small elements of chiptune (which is happening already), and most likely even more search results than ever before on youtube for “chiptune cover”. It could be the next “dubstep remix”!
Why do you think chip tunes has taken such a rise in popularity?
I think a big part of it is just that this decade and the end of the last decade are going to be defined as “the era where people pretended it was the 80s but with more LEDs”. People are looking backwards for inspiration right now. Examples: shutter shades, ironic mustaches, the movie Drive, most Nicki Minaj videos, triangles, retro-gaming, and so on. I think that because of the level the internet has gotten to, everything is immediately expendable, so we run out of new things to get into really quickly, and end up looking back for inspiration. This also helps people learn about the more underground music genres without having any real knowledge about them (Mini quiz: have you heard of witch house and how many witch house songs have you actually heard?). And the chip scene has sort of been dragged, kicking and screaming, into the lower levels of national consciousness because of it.
If you weren’t a musician, what other creative avenue would you be venturing on?
Probably comedy. It’s pretty close to being a musician, in that it’s mostly self-loathing fueled by the desire to prove your self-worth to strangers and people who doubted you in high school.
Who are some chip tune artists you admire?
This is kind of an awkward question to answer, because the scene is so small, and centralized on the internet, that I’m basically friends with everyone I admire in the genre. But definitely artists like Chibi-tech and Hally, who seem to be constantly pushing the boundaries of what the 2A03 chip is capable of. Hizmi is another really great Japanese artist who writes for the Sharp X68000 home computer, which has a similar sound to the Sega Genesis.
Aside from NES/Commodore 64/Apple II, what’s a later game console era you’d like to chip tune music from:
I’ve done a bit of writing for the Sega Genesis, which I think is one of the last true soundchip-based gaming systems. The SNES is all sample based, so to me there isn’t much of a reason to write specifically for the system, but I’ve been working with soundfonts created with the samples ripped out of SNES games, which I first started experimenting with on the soundtrack for A Nation of Wind.
The Turbo-Grafx 16 has a really interesting sound to it too. I started learning MML to code music for it using the XPMCK compiler, but then Deflemask added it to the list of systems it can track for, and I got strangely discouraged with all of it.
I’ve also been spending a lot of time ripping instrument samples out of GBA and DS games lately (like literally between answering questions), which is a horrible task to undertake, but hopefully it’ll add a new dimension to my writing.
Quick! I’ve never heard your music and need to fall in love with it! What’s the song you play?
Probably Shutting Down from my 8bitpeoples EP “I’ll Have You Naked by the End of this ROM”. There’s a good chance you won’t fall in love with it, BUT, I’d say it’s got a little bit of everything that encompasses my style (bittersweet 8-bit melodies, Three 6 Mafia samples, chopped up breaks, dramatic strings), that if there’s absolutely nothing you like about this track, my music is definitely not for you.
What are some projects or ideas you have up your sleeve?
I have this horrible habit of constantly starting new projects and then abandoning them, so I don’t want to give too much away, just because I don’t want people knowing that I gave up on them. But a couple things I’m too far along with to quit on them are: Found / First Strike, a sort of maxi-single of Game Boy tracks I put on compilations with a couple remixes. I’m also working on a pretty intense chipbreak 12″ for Radiograffiti which is probably going to be called Fast Times at River City High. I’m also working on ripping instruments out of GBA and DS games to make soundfonts with. The problem with this the programs have no idea what each sample is, so you end up with around a thousand wave files, mostly sound effects, and everything is named with a hex value. So these will probably take some time, but I’m excited to contribute some production tools to the scene.
In December and January, what venues can fans find you at?
Right now, none. I don’t get asked to play shows very often (Chicago doesn’t have a super friendly/accepting music scene), and I’ve never gotten the hang of trying to set up shows. But if you follow me on twitter or facebook, I will desperately try to get you to go basically anything that comes up in the future.
All time favorite game:
NO. NO NO NO. There isn’t one for me, cause I play a lot of games, and I get bored quickly so I switch them up a lot. So this isn’t fair at all. So here’s a list of ones I come back to the most: Mega Man / Mega Man Zero series, the Mother / Earthbound series, Street Fighter III 3rd Strike (DREAMCAST FOR LIFE SUCKAS), Ocarina of Time (I have to specifically not play this one anymore, or I won’t get anything done until I’ve finished it), Chrono Trigger, too many to list honestly.
Best worst game:
I’m totally open and psyched about any ridiculous game I play. Have you ever played Sega Marine Fishing? That game is genuinely AWESOME.
Funniest (not funny) gaming moment:
On a personal level, it was probably the first time I ever played Perfect Dark, because I was really high, and my character got punched IMMEDIATELY. I hadn’t played before, so I didn’t realize that this would make my player’s vision all blurry, and because I was so high I didn’t look at any of the other sections of the screen, and just assumed I was losing my mind, and started yelling. Not even words, just like “aaaaaaaAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!”
There was also another time where I was incredibly sleep deprived, and someone handed me a controller for a FPS game on Dreamcast. The cross hair got aimed at a wall in such a way, that my brain had decided I was watching a documentary about a crow. I stayed there, aimed at the wall, not moving, until someone shot me and made the controller vibrate. Then I put down the controller and went to sleep.
In regards to current titles, if still playing, what is your current obsession?
Actually the newest system I own is the PSP 1000, which I’ve only had for a couple months, and the only system I’ve got that takes discs is my Dreamcast. So the only current title I’ve been playing is Retro City Rampage, which is awesome. I bought the PC version the day it came out, and put in 40 hours or so over the next couple days. The soundtrack is amazing too, I bought the limited blue audiophile 12″ version of it. The music’s done by Virt, Norrin Radd and Freaky DNA, and it doesn’t even sound like multiple people worked on it, it’s a really tight, single vision that they all shared.
You can also check out ‘Saskrotch’s’ ROM blog ‘Late Nights Without Friends’ covering mostly obscure games and soundtracks.