Hacking Into the Past

    Jane Rho/Guardian

    For some of us, the bips and beeps of the Game Boy are the soundtrack to childhood. The little ditty it played as you mastered
    Poke?mon got stuck in your head for days. And nothing could encapsulate the frustration of stacking ill-shaped boxes more than the Tetris theme. Kids once had only vinyl records and rock ‘n’ roll — we got Nintendo and infectious bleeps.

    Now artists around the world are tapping into that influence, composing new melodies from forgotten gaming technologies. These artists create chiptunes — aka 8-bit, bitpop and chip music — by hacking and tweaking vintage video game systems, such as the Nintendo Game Boy and Nintendo Entertainment System, so that they work like a sequencer with four different channels.

    For Sixth College junior Patrick Trinh, the genre has been a revelation. He started teaching himself chiptunes last spring and now — under stage name Space Town Savior — has already landed himself an opening gig for mash-up DJs the Hood Internet at the Loft next Tuesday, among other shows with bitpop artists around Southern California.

    “I’m still in shock at how fast it has happened,” Trinh said. “Three months ago I was like, ‘If I play a show in a year, dude, I can consider myself successful.’ And now I’m playing with Trash80 and shooting the shit with these people that I’ve been listening to for more than a year.”

    Despite this success, Trinh almost gave up completely soon after he first started.

    “I did it for a while and then realized I sucked and tried to do something else,” he said. “I basically wanted to be Nosaj Thing … and then I realized I wasn’t good at that. So I sat down and thought, ‘I wanna do music, but I don’t know how to.’ And then I eventually decided that I could go back to chiptunes.”

    Trinh was hooked by the aesthetic.

    “It’s almost like a McLuhan thing — ‘the medium is the message.’ There’s something about the fact that you can only have four channels, and one of the channels can only make noise, that makes it so your music has to be melodic,” he said. “Otherwise you could just do something better with other things. You don’t have to use old video game hardware.”

    Trinh said he also appreciates the flexibility of the medium.

    “There’s no set thing for what chiptunes is,” he said. “It’s not all dance music, it’s not all super hardcore music — it’s like chiptunes is more of just a description of a medium that we use to make all kinds of music.”

    The chiptunes scene is international, and artists use the technology in drastically different ways.

    LA’s Trash80 makes ambient sounds using his Game Boy, while groups like New York City-based Anamanaguchi — who composed the music for the “Scott Pilgirm vs. The World: The Game” soundtrack — use an NES (in addition to traditional rock instruments) to produce loud, fast punk.

    But the scene isn’t always so lively; after all, the music mainly appeals to a small niche. Sixth College freshman Joshua Edra attempted to start an 8-bit collective at UCSD last fall — which led to Trinh’s first performances on Library Walk — but Trinh said the effort fell apart just after the initial e-mails were sent.

    Trinh said the genre has taken off more in L.A., though chiptune artists mostly meet through the expected venue — the Internet.

    The geographically disjointed subculture can connect on websites like 8bitcollective (http://8bc.org/), where anyone can easily upload to a file-sharing chiptune community.

    Artists are encouraged to register their music under Creative Commons in order to create a free, open-source environment, and the site advocates an open, DIY ethic.

    “More people should do it because it’s actually not that hard to get into,” Trinh said. “Even if you don’t have enough money to buy a Game Boy, you can totally just download an emulator, which emulates a Game Boy on your computer.”

    It isn’t just for nerds, either. Many 8-bit artists are too young to have experienced old school Nintendo products.
    “Before it was like everyone who was into chiptunes was like, ‘Oh yeah, I grew up with the Nintendo,’” he said. “But as the scene grows, and more people get into it, the younger generation hasn’t even touched a Game Boy before getting into this music.”

    Patrick Trinh — aka Space Town Savior — will be opening for the Hood Internet at the Loft show on Tuesday, Feb. 22 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $6 for students.

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