On Like Donkey Kong: Super Nintendo
Famed video game composer David Wise reacts to being sampled by Drake and Childish Gambino
It might be hard to believe, but just over twenty years ago, on November 21st 1994, Donkey Kong Country was released for the Super Nintendo. Since then, in between struggling to get to the end of that damn snow barrel level and trying to find every last banana on the island, millions of kids have been mesmerized by the tunes of David Wise, who was then the in-house composer for legendary game publisher Rare.
If you need a refresher, check out the water level music from Donkey Kong Country:
Incidentally, some of those kids ended up growing to be beatmakers, and today, David Wise’s work is some of the most often-plundered of the Super Nintendo era.
I talked to David via his personal studio in the U.K. about the Battletoads pause theme, zoos, what he thinks about being the source of dozens of unauthorized hip-hop remixes, and what his mother thinks of him.
Dexter: I think a lot of people have heard this one, but how did you first get your start in the game music industry?
David Wise: I was working in a music shop, when Tim and Chris Stamper, who owned Rare at the time, came in to look at some synthesizers. I played them some demo music on the equipment, and they asked me who had made the song. I told them that I’d made it, and they offered me a job on the spot.
I want to talk about the Donkey Kong Country soundtrack, but first, can you tell me about your first project at Rare?
Actually, when I first went to work at Rare, they’d just bought this building in Twycross, in the heart of the U.K. And the place wasn’t ready at all, so at first, I wasn’t doing music. I was helping with construction, and painting rooms and things like that.
No way. So you weren’t even writing music at first?
Right. And that went on for about six weeks. I didn’t start doing anything musically for weeks. I was basically building the offices.
I’ve always wondered about the Battletoads pause music. I used to pause the game and just listen to that beat. It’s also sort of a meme online. Why did you decide to put that in there?
I actually don’t remember that track.
It’s this one:
Hm, I don’t think I did that.
Wait, you didn’t do Battletoads?
I did do the Battletoads soundtrack, but that isn’t something I would write. It’s not very musical, is it? Someone else probably added that at the end when I wasn’t there. I would guess that Mark Betteridge, who was the main programmer there, did it. It was probably at the last minute, and they realized they needed some pause music and it had to get sent off that evening, so they just threw something together. That sort of thing happened a lot.
What do you mean? Were you having to throw stuff together at the end a lot?
Sometimes. There was one tune that I wrote for a game called Snake Rattle N’ Roll, on the Nintendo. I guess they were on a strict deadline, but I didn’t realize how close it was. I’d been out drinking on a Saturday night until 4 in the morning, and they called me up, and said “can you come over and finish up this product,” and I said “no, I’m in too much of a bad way.” But they kept telling me, “we’ve got to get this product out.” So I said “okay, fine, but you have to come and pick me up, because I can’t drive.” And so they came and got me.
So you had to write the song? Did you sober up on the way to the office?
Absolutely not. I wrote this tune very much under the influence of alcohol. On top of that, writing music on the Nintendo is a bit of a process anyway, because this isn’t musical notation. Everything is done in hexadecimal code. Letters and numbers, basically writing everything out in a primitive text editor.
And I’m rushing, and completely inebriated. And I played it back once I was done, and I thought oh, this is just awful. But they listened to it, and they loved it. And it made it into the final game. Two days later they’d wrapped the game up and shipped it off.
It’s funny. I guess it’s up to other people to judge your music. You never know how people will react.
Was there anything that you were listening to that was an influence at the time?
I listened to a lot of Trevor Horn. He’s the guy that used to produce for Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Seal. A lot of the stuff he was doing was really inspirational for me. He was really setting the bar for technicality in pop tunes at the time.
Also, I used to play with some rock bands. I played in cover bands, doing rock and pop. I still do that now. But I listen to jazz, classical, anything that sounds good. Like most music, 99% of it, uh… let’s just say that it could be better. But there’s that one percent that’s just phenomenal, right? Genre doesn’t really matter, I think it’s about the quality of the music.
Was there anyone whose game music you listened to back then for inspiration, or that you considered competition?
At the time I really didn’t listen to game music at all. We were quite isolated in Twycross, and I wasn’t really aware of what other games were doing at the time. The only games I saw were some of the ones that came into the office. But the first person I really took notice of that did something technically that I thought was really good was a guy named Tim Follin. Tim and Geoff Follin, they worked together, and they did a game called Plok!. When I heard that, that made me say, “ah, this is the bar here, I need to step it up.” I was very impressed by them. That kind of competition is good, because it makes you raise your game and try to do better than that.
How did your family respond when you started working at Rare?
With raised eyebrows, especially at first. Making video game music isn’t exactly a conventional career. They would ask, you know, “when are you going to get a proper job?” There was a lot of that.
I can imagine.
I think my mum noticed it was for real when I started getting flown over to Sweden or Los Angeles because people are putting on concerts and they’ve included my music on the program, and I was being paid. So that was quite cool.
But that was much later, right?
Oh yeah, it was.
So you were doing all of this great work throughout the 80s and 90s and your mother was still asking you when you were going to get a real job?
Absolutely. But, you know, I suppose when you start getting your own house, and your own car, and it’s paying for a few things… they see that it’s not so bad. Money talks, for better or for worse.
I’ve heard that you used to record your own samples.
Right. When we were working on Donkey Kong Country, we took a trip out to the Twycross Zoo, thinking that we could record some samples for of the monkeys. But they weren’t making much noise, until it was feeding time, and everyone was just going completely berzerk, and we couldn’t isolate the monkeys at all. It was a fun day, but a complete waste of time. We ended up having to get someone in the office make monkey sounds into the microphone.
But the other stuff, like the water drops or rustling noises, you did those yourself?
Yeah, if we needed water drops or balloon popping noises, we’d record those with a mic in the office. Other sounds we recorded from synthesizers. But even if we recorded them, they had to be tiny. The bigger the frequency range is on a sound, the more data it takes. So we would record something, and then we would spend hours filtering as much as we could out, and cutting it down as much as possible, just to get the very essence of the sound, to make it as small of a footprint as possible.
That sounds like it would take forever.
It did. For example if I wanted a frequency sweep, what I would do was get this Juno keyboard that I had, and sample it at a particular resonance at different frequencies. Then I would chop everything into single cycle waves. Then, I would write code to make it cycle properly, basically rebuilding the synthesizer through code on the Super Nintendo. We had to go down to a lot of detail.
Since there were no lyrics, and you had such limited hardware, was it difficult to make the music feel—I’m not sure if this is the right word for it, but personal?
Oh, it was often very personal for me. I think everyone in their life goes through something, emotionally. Whether you’ve lost somebody, or something like that. I’ve found that being able to throw yourself into your work helps to be able to get through those tough periods. The technical side of it really gave me something else to focus on.
That makes sense. So things that you dealing with in your life, this gave you an escape?
In a way, yes. Also, when you are going through bad… well, not bad periods, but difficult periods in life, I think it’s really good to be creative. You create something that really draws from the heart, it takes everything you’ve got. And you push something out, and it really gives you a lift. So being creative, really going deep and making something fresh, and that you can be proud of, I think it’s definitely the way forward, on many levels.
Do you remember when you first found out that people were paying attention to your music as something outside of just a game experience?
It was years later. Like I said, we were in Twycross, and really cut off from the rest of the world. In the early days we didn’t have access to the internet, or really use email. Someone sent me a message about a site called OverClocked ReMix, which is basically a big community of people that remix videogame music. I realized that my music had gotten a second life, which is great.
Were you upset that people were tampering with your music?
At first it was strange, because I’d never seen anything like it. But really it was a compliment, because people were taking my music and doing something else with it. Also, it’s gotten a lot of interest in my work, which has kept my career going. But as a listener, I really like listening to what other musicians do, taking my old songs and taking them in new directions.
So you’ve listened to things that people have made out of your music?
Oh, of course. A lot of them are very talented. It’s really flattering, but more than that, it’s exciting because I’m a fan of music.
Okay, so on that note, I want to play you a few songs that have sampled your music. You can stop the song whenever you like, and just tell me your thoughts.
Childish Gambino “Eat Your Vegetables”
“Eat Your Vegetables” eh? [laughs] That’s quite a funny title. I like this. They’re using just elements of my song, snippets in the background, really. It’s nice, it’s cool. There’s been quite a few people who use that song, or bits of it in their songs, haven’t there? It’s always nice to hear.
Are you more impressed with if they’ve taken tiny parts and built something out of it, or just lifted a whole segment of a song? They let the whole thing play out at the end.
I think both are great, as long as they’ve done something creative with it. It’s quite impressive, really.
Okay, next one. This is by a guy named Little Pain.
Little Pain “Broke Boyz Freestyle”
Oh, there’s a video for this one.
Yeah, it’s pretty cool.
Wow. The last one was like this too, but those are some nice, family friendly lyrics there. Uh, I won’t be showing my family this one. [laughs]
Are you a hip-hop fan?
I like some of it, sure. I’m not particular about any one genre, but if it’s cool, I’ll listen to it, absolutely.
What are you listening to right now? Anything, I mean, not necessarily hip-hop.
Last night I was listening to Black Eyed Peas.
Really? what song?
“I Got A Feeling.” It’s one of the songs I play in my covers band. Also a song called Jubel by Klingande, which has Snake Davis on sax. I play sax, I’ve got a few of them at home. When I go out and play in the evenings, I play that, but I also play guitar and drums. A bit of everything, really.
Cool. Okay, here’s another one.
Sol “Falling Stars”
Yeah, that’s quite cool, that one. I’ve actually heard it before. People send me links, you know, “have you heard this?” and it’s quite cool. But when you hear the lyrics a bit later on, you realize you can’t really share that with many people. You know, with the bad language and all of that. It’s really amazing, though, that they’ve changed something that’s twenty years old, and done something totally new with it.
One last one. This one is kind of hard to tell, so…
Drake “6 God”
[after about three seconds] Ah, Drake.
You know Drake?
Yeah. I know this song. It came up on a playlist I was listening to. Totally accidentally. I was driving, with the music turned up really loud, you know, bouncing down the road, lots of bass. And this came up on the stereo, and I recognized my song immediately.
What did you think?
Just as in the way, 20 years ago, when I was writing my music, I was taking hints and inspiration from other artists, it’s part of a cycle. So it’s nice to keep the flow going, I think. I’m happy to be a part of it. It puts a big smile on your face, you know? No worries.
I mean, Drake is one of the biggest rappers out right now. He makes an awful lot of money.
Yes, I know. Quite talented.
So if you were to say something to Drake, or the producer of this song, you’d say…
I’d say “thanks.” I’d say “Good job.” Absolutely. It’s great.
So, what are you doing now?
I can’t tell you without shooting you, and that would be a shame. I’d like you to be able to finish your degree.
I’m working really hard, doing a project. That’s about all I can tell you.
When will we see this?
It’s a little while off. But it’s got legs, and it looks quite cool.
So this is a game, then?
Yes, it’s a game.
So, one last question. Who are you listening to now, that you think more people should know about?
A guy named Jordan Aguirre, who goes by the name bLiNd. I’ve just bought his album, and I’ve gone back and started listening to it. He’s one of the people on OverClocked ReMix, the video game music site I told you about.
So you’ve sort of come full circle, and are listening to remixes of game music yourself now?
Oh absolutely. Like I said, I listen to will.i.am. I get inspiration from everywhere. It’s all part of the mix, isn’t it?
Talk to me: @dexdigi
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