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 march頡ux 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.