Why Manchester is the new creative epicentre of neo-soul and hip-hop
"When you have a great soundtrack, music can be the soul of a game." Professor Siu-Lan Tan concludes in her 2014 article, Video Games: Do You Play Better With the Sound On or Off? "Lush cinematic scores take us through the emotional highs and lows of the journey of a game," she writes. "Rhythmic tracks serve as an engine to drive the action, the propulsion of the music making the virtual environment appear deeper and the visual array seem to whizz by faster."
Music in videogames is quite rightly an asset. It does help to paint a picture of the world in which you find yourself, it does help to immerse, and in some cases it transcends the game itself. The Tetris theme. The Mario Bros theme. A strong theme, or a strong musical palette, does wonders for a game, not just mid-game, but for its heritage and for the way it is remembered.
It only follows naturally, then, that those who grew up with videogames also happen to have access to relatively easy ways of making music, or access to DAW software which is easy to learn. Those who grew up with the Nintnedo 64 or Playstation, or the GameCube, have come of age in the realm of internet music, its ease of creation and its convenience in being found and consumed. Originally a haven for geeks and gamers, the internet has since been colonised by the real world, however the spirit of this likeminded grouping lives on in the creation of music inspired by videogames, especially in solid communities formed by a mutual interest in this international, uniting pastime.
One such is DESKPOP. Created by producer FLOOR BABA in 2015, this online label is now headed up by fellow musicmaker Braz_OS, and has been since the end of 2016. "It spawned with many other new internet-labels popping up at the time," the director tells Dummy, "which were mainly used just to categorize sub-genres of electronic music in the quickly growing Soundcloud community."
It's this style, this combination, that ignites the internal engines of DESKPOP and gets it moving across the digital landscape. A community which, being entrenched in the online world, often had crossover interests – electronic music, videogame and experimentalism. "To decide what is right," Braz_OS says about their submissions process, "I start with our main requirements: fun, and experimental. These two things drive the label."
A recent release, the AIR_EARTH EP from label stalwart Drainpuppet, ticks both boxes. Deep cut 'UGLY', with its guttural alien synths and whimsical percussion, feels like the distant far-flung future crossed with the Ocarina Of Time shop theme; 'PHOTON' burns brightly and bumps with bubbling beats, and closing track 'WORLDSHATTERER' feels much like the music that would play after a final boss battle, full of spent force and relief, releasing a symphony of hard percussion and electronic emotivity.
The sounds of videogames are never too far away from a DESKPOP release, but it doesn't feel like nostalgia. It doesn't feel like a yearning for a simpler time. It is a yearning for the games themselves, as Braz_OS illustrates: "One of my favorite games is Super Mario Sunshine, and I even wrote a song about wishing for the sequel. Other than that, the BIT. TRIP series really got me into the chiptune scene, since I didn’t really grow up playing NES."
It is more about what games do rather than what they are, what their potential is, and what they have the power to do. It's the original zeal of the sounds that go along with videogames that give their soundtracks such undiluted appreciation. FLOOR BABA, for instance, is "heavily inspired" by Earthbound and The Legend of Zelda, going as far as finding the data packs from the games and using the instrument samples for his own tracks, like using a certain guitar effect to mirror a previous sound that has dazzled.
"For me, I’m inspired by some of the more cheesy gaming songs, like “Ashley’s Theme” from Wario Ware Touched, and stuff like the new Super Mario Odyssey theme song," Braz_OS reveals. "The idea of music being able to tell a story, with or without lyrics, is enticing to the both of us.”
"I start with our main requirements: fun and experimental. These two things drive the label."
For DESKPOP, it is not simply about evoking nostalgia – it is about actively getting people interested. "Our fan base is made up of people who love to imagine," Braz_OS (below) says. "Giving them a story to think about while listening to an album is a way to encourage more engagement in a really fun way!"
Bird World, by sometime DESKPOP-associate Leon, is a fun dynamic collection of tracks that really showcases the music maker and pixel artist's compositional skills, and ability to conjure atmospheres. On top of this, Bird World is, says its creator, a soundtrack for a game that doesn't exist, that may not ever exist, complete with artwork and level titles. There is intrigue not only in the sonic side of this release, but in its concept, and the desire to experience the game which has been sketched out with this music.
One of the more recent DESKPOP releases was a collective compilation, ~fleeting moments~, released in July digitally and on USB, a medium of music release that never really took off. "Each of the musicians were asked to compose a brand-new song less than two minutes in length,” Braz_OS explains. “Each of the 20 musicians involved put out some of their best content on this. This one is the best as an example of what we strive to be as a label."
A strong concept – that of brevity and incisiveness – released on a storage medium not conventionally favoured for music, certainly gives a feel of what DESKPOP are about. It's about envisaging an idea, which in this case is a constraint, and subsequently inspiring others to create music because of this idea.
Ultimately, you feel a connection with the curator of what is on the USB drive – from one desktop, one like mind, one fellow gamer to another. As a result, DESKPOP continues to grow, unfolding like an open world adventure.