A retrofuturistic collision of synth and chip

This interview was originally published on Neon Vice by Lucy Black (May 2, 2015).

I'm joined here today by YTCracker, Amplitude Problem and Dicepticon. We had intended on doing an interview a couple months ago but had some conflicts with scheduling. Amplitude Problem contacted me regarding the music project, 'Introducing Neals' and thought an interview might be something our readers would enjoy as a change of pace. For those of you who missed out on this album's release, 'Introducing Neals' is an album headed by nerdcore rapper, YTCracker with music production by Amplitude Problem (who many of you may know from 'The Next Peak' and 'Blue Bots Dots'), Dicepticon, Tanner4105, Mitch Murder, and Freshley Crusher. The album features a lot of fun, retro electronic music with YTCracker's intelligent rapping filling in the story. The whole story centers around a dystopian not-so-distant future that sounds much like our own.

Hi guys! How are you doing? Thank you for joining me for this group interview!

[ytc] Salutations.

[dice] what it is

[amp] Greetings, thanks for having us!

To start things off, could you each tell me a little about your musical background? How long have you been making music and what got you interested in it in the first place?

[ytc] I started making music on DOS-based trackers in the mid-90s and playing the guitar.  Love to DJ, love to bang keys, love to make music with and about computers.  I accidentally gained a following by rapping about the inner workings of the computer underworld, and that has been my schtick for a while.

[dice] I started mid 90s with hardware synths and turntables. Made tunes as a hobby, had no idea what I was doing, still kind of don't. Listening to alot of DJ shadow got me interested in scratching and turntables, the prodigy and mtv's amp turned me on to electronic type stuff.

[amp] I've been beating up pianos since I was a toddler and got my first keyboard, a wood grain Casio MT-30, in the very early 80s. By the late 80s, I was writing music in soundtrackers for world-famous (and very humble) Atari ST demo crew SYNC. Around the same time, I bought my first 'real' keyboard, a Roland U-20 and started using Cubase for sequencing on the ST. My friend and mentor, Anders Ekström (Damokles), was a massive influence and we spent a lot of time in his studio at OK Records. I attended Musicians Institute in Hollywood in the early 90s (where my son, Max, will go later this year) and the rest is history, I guess.

How did you all come to meet? Were you all friends before you worked on 'Introducing Neals'?

[ytc] Dice and I were friends and have a lot of juice from previous projects, but Amp was totally a serendipitous encounter.  He tells the story better than I could.

[dice] I've known ytc for a while now, I met him through working with MC Lars, and hearing his music, which I hated at the time via promos on G4TV. Amp I've just met recently at a show through ytc.

[amp] I've been a huge YTCracker fan since I first heard his music a decade ago. My son has been listening to him for almost as long. One day in 2013, Bryce posted 'friend me on Steam' on Facebook, so I did, thinking, 'yeah, I'm sure he plays with fans'. Then, one night in early 2014, I saw a Steam message from YTCracker on my screen when I started a game called Rust (praised be the rustgod). He and his buddy Jason Ames (who is now a great friend of mine) and some other gangstas ended up joining me in Rust and we played until 5 in the morning. One thing led to another and when it was apparent that Bryce was starting on a synthwave/hip-hop mashup album, I just started spamming him with tracks (praised be the spamgod). Turned out he saw a good fit and we went from there. I met Dicepticon through Bryce and consider them both great friends after being in the trenches in San Secuestro with them for so long.

I heard that you did everything for this project remotely via the internet. What was it like working in this way compared to working in a studio? Did you find that it created any kinds of opportunities and/or obstacles?

[ytc] I would say 95% of the work I do these days is exactly like that.  I think in the seven or so years that Dice and I have worked together, even when we've been in the same geographical location, we tend to do our parts individually and ferry it back and forth.  Amp fell into the same rhythm super quickly.  In the studio, things definitely can get done a lot quicker when people are together, but it really all depends on workflow and what makes sense.

[dice] I've always worked with ytc this way, I just make the tunes and send him what I've made and he does the rap thing over it or says do this on that thing. We work well over the nets.

[amp] There are definitely times I think back and wonder how the hell we did all of this without a single studio session together. We barely even used voice communication, actually, it was pretty much all IM. But everyone stayed really available so we got stuff turned around quickly and questions answered pretty much immediately. For me, it definitely got easier over time as I learned what Bryce had in his head regarding this whole universe he created. In summary, I guess I'd say that for a distributed project like this to be successful, instant communication is a necessity, but technology and bandwidth are so good now that overall it's not a problem. I did a couple local studio sessions with my bro String Operation who dropped those awesome electric guitars for us on a couple tracks.

How would all of you go about creating a track? Could you give us a walkthrough of the process? Did YTCracker start off by writing the lyrics or did he have you guys compose the music first?

[ytc] I had a vague idea of where I wanted the ultimate story to go and bits and pieces of how to get there, but I heavily let the music that Dice and Amp (among others) created inform exactly what part of the plot needed to be told and how.  When I am self-producing, I usually always start with some kind of an idea for a beat in my head and sketch it out, writing lyrics to go along with the beat.  When I am using something someone else made, I might have little stylistic changes or requests, but generally, I just write to the beat I get.

[dice] We kind of discussed and had an overall idea of what we wanted the sound for the album to be. I just make the tunes and send them to ytc and he does the rap thing over them.

[amp] This process was one truly awesome aspect of this project. Bryce had a vision for Neals and the other actors in the San Secuestro world and he had a direction for the musical style, which overall was '80s instrumentation with modern production methods'. Within those boundaries, I was free to create what I wanted, so that's what I did, trying to hit as much variety as possible. As I sent him each track, some would speak to him more than others, and I dare say some even indirectly contributed to parts of the storyline because of what Bryce saw in the music and the lyrics he then wrote. Once he recorded the vox, he sent it back to me for final mixing. It was simply an amazing thing to witness, to know that an extremely talented vocalist with 20 albums under his belt was inspired to write certain things because of the music I composed. One exception to this process was the title track. He already had the lyrics written for it and had specific requests for the music. So for that one, things were reversed and I tried to complement his vocals with details like matching up hi-hats to his syllables, for example, which I think added to the aggression of that track.

Some of our readers may not be familiar with your genre of music. Could you describe to us what nerdcore hip-hop is like?

[ytc] Basically nerdcore is a pretty broad strokes label that encompasses any hip-hop perceived as 'nerdy' in nature.  Technology, Star Wars, World of Warcraft, etc.

YTC, could you tell us how you go about creating lyrics? What do you do when you face writer's block?

[ytc] I sort of mumble a cadence into the microphone and then fill it with the right words - it is a really weird looking and sounding process.  I like to play off the backing beat a lot.  Writer's block just amplifies my depressive tendencies.

I'm also curious about what kinds of vocal warm-ups you do to get yourself prepared for rapping? Are there any tips that you can give to aspiring rappers?

[ytc] Train at high altitude, you'll never run out of breath.

How long have you envisioned this project? What were your goals in creating 'Introducing Neals'? How has the reaction to this album been so far? Is it what you were hoping for or has it exceeded your expectations?

[ytc] The album/movie concept came to me in mostly-finished form February of 2014, but along the way I tweaked a few things.

Alongside this album release you started an Indiegogo campaign for a movie based on it. Could you tell me a little more about the movie and the campaign? Do you think you will try another campaign or continue to pursue the movie in another way?

[ytc] The campaign wound up being a relative failure.  It was incredibly ambitious, but I didn't get the press on it at launch that I needed to get people interested.  I still plan on funding it privately once I get some time together.  When I started the project, I had the visuals in mind, and so the project as a whole seems incomplete until I get the movie done.

What are your plans for 2015? Do you plan on doing any collaborations like this in the future?

[ytc] I plan on doing some shows and maybe doing some one-off singles, but no real plans for another full album anytime soon.  Inspiration strikes at the oddest times, so you never know when you're going to capture lightning in a bottle.

[dice] I'm working on a short 3 track ep, something a little harder and different than what I usually create, it may turn into something else down the line.. more tunes w ytc and just more tunes in general.

[amp] I dropped my first solo LP, Blue Bots Dots, on February 10, which I'm still super excited about. I guess I'd describe it as 'chip-y synthwave'. I'm also contributing to a few exciting synthwave compilations coming out on Retro Promenade. In addition, Elijah Lucian (the singer on 'Fortune or Freedom' and one of the voice actors on Introducing Neals) and I have started some sort of synthpop-y EP which will have vocals on all the tracks, hopefully also including singing by his very talented fiancee Kaela Caron (also featured on Fortune or Freedom). And I'm sure there will be more video game soundtracks, which I love doing. All of this said, if Bryce needs anything from me between now and my death, he'll have it and it'll take priority. I'm forever in his debt for letting me be part of Introducing Neals.

Ytc, I noticed that you are based in Colorado. Would you mind sharing your favorite dispensary in CO with us? Do you think that cannabis helps you with your creativity in writing lyrics?

[ytc] To be honest, most of my friends have competent homegrow operations, so I usually just mooch off of them.  I actually do not smoke weed as often as I used to - I tend to cycle various substances depending on my mood.  Drugs in general are a huge part of my creative process.

Thank you so much all of you for your time! I really appreciate it! Is there anything you would like to add before we go? Any shout-outs or anything?

[ytc] Just listen to the album and share it with your friends, please.

[dice] gg, shout-out to skip turner, soloflash, wawa coffee & dottie.

[amp] Thanks for taking the time to interview us; it's been great! Big shout-out to San Dingo (my son Max) who just dropped his debut EP 'Neon Highway', very much inspired by the San Secuestro universe. Peace.