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Since I was only a consultant at that time, I handed the project off to Zen’s development team, which started work on the game in 2009, and I moved on to other things. In the meantime, they’d selected their own set of music to play around with (though none of it was licensed yet) as they built the game: Katy Perry, Kasabian, Rhianna…it was not quite what I had envisioned. Hip-hop apparently isn’t a big thing in Europe. They had a few tracks that worked well, though, from The Prodigy, Celldweller, Pendulum…we tried to keep as many of those as we could.
When I returned to working on the game, I decided that we needed to replace the mellow/pop tracks with more aggressive ones. We’d have to compromise on the amount of hip-hop, since we had to appeal to both North American and European/Australian markets. And we’d have to do it all within a budget that wasn’t very large, since we were going to be making an experimental game in a relatively small genre and selling it for $10.
We talked to pretty much every major music publisher out there: EMI, BMG, Warner, Sony, etc. We came up with dozens of songs we wanted. The weeks turned to months as we waited for approval from the publishers and artists, as both had to sign off in order for the song to be cleared. And on some tracks, artist approval required many different people to sign off, since any sampling or other contributions added to that list.
Unfortunately, as a small independent studio without any big music game franchises, we had an uphill climb in getting artist approvals (the publishers tended to be OK with anything as long as we paid them enough; artists were pickier about how their music was used). The list of artists who declined to let us use their music grew discouragingly long: Beastie Boys (“Sabotage” was the #1 song I wanted), Metallica, Eminem, The Prodigy, Fatboy Slim, and many others.
The rights to other songs, such as Xzibit’s “Hurt Locker” and Ludacris’ “Get Back” were just too complicated to untangle, with rights being owned by different people in different regions.
And finally, finding songs that could fit into a “T” ESRB rating presented some challenges, especially when it comes to the kind of hardcore hip-hop that fits well with punching and kicking. For example, we had to drop D12’s “Fight Music” because even the “clean” version was incredibly offensive, thanks to Bizarre’s shocking verse.
Not every track from a major artist was difficult to license, though. We were surprised that we were able to license the original master of Papa Roach‘s “Last Resort,” since previous music games had to “resort” to live versions and covers.
Blue Stahli was one of my favorite discoveries of the never-ending search for great music. While looking for artists with an loud, aggressive tone who weren’t yet famous enough to be priced out of our budget, I stumbled across Bret Autrey’s work, which for the most part can be described as violence in musical form (check out his bio, here). As I listened to “Scrape,” my initial query of “Who is Blue Stalhi?” quickly turned to “Why is my face melting?” Sold.
That discovery led to more, as I browsed FIXT’s artists and found two others from the same Detroit scene that Celldweller and Blue Stahli were a part of: Pre-Fight Hype and Southpaw Swagger. And FIXT/Position were very easy to work with – we had a deal signed for all four artists very quickly.
As we neared the deadline to lock down the tracklist, a couple tracks we’d expected approval for fell through, and we had to replace them quickly and with relatively little budget. I had to find someone with the right kind of music, at the right price, within the space of less than a month. I looked everywhere, though masses of production music libraries, where I heard enough bad music to last me several lifetimes, to soundcloud, to “similar artists” on various online music services.
Finally, on last.fm, an artist named Voicians popped up. I gave his track “Blaze” a listen. Perfect. Well, almost. It was a little too short for what we needed. I got a hold of Dan Voicians and asked him if he was interested in contributing some music to our game. He was, and although he didn’t currently have any music that was a perfect fit, he was in the process of creating new songs for his upcoming album and could probably have a couple of them ready in time. He sent me some demos, and we selected a couple that we thought would fit and could be finished in time: “Fighters” and “The Construct.”
Despite my boss’ reservations about signing unfinished music from a relatively unknown artist with so little time left, it turned out great. Dan finished off “Fighters” in a matter of days and had a mix of “The Construct” ready soon after. The first mix was missing something, though; it didn’t have a melody or riff that players could really latch onto and that made different parts of the song distinctive enough for this kind of game. (This version is the “Zen Mix” available on the deluxe version of the Matter of Time, Part 1 EP.) I explained this in musically illiterate terms to Dan, who quickly understood exactly what I meant anyway and spent a few more days adding a synth lead and other elements that were just what the track needed. Problem solved!
The most unusual track in the game is “War Dance,” a Mandarian-language hip-hop song by Shen Yi, an independent artist from Taiwan. You can thank Netflix for this one. It’s not as great of a service to the world as, say, helping everyone discover Archer, but Netflix does work in mysterious ways. In this case, a movie called Kung Fu Dunk caught my eye. I had enjoyed Shaolin Soccer and figured that this must be the basketball version, which turned out to be more or less the case.
The movie itself wasn’t great, but one of the songs on the soundtrack stood out. I googled “Kung Fu Dunk soundtrack” to find out the song info, but it turns out that there wasn’t an official soundtrack, and the English-language results were quite limited. After about half an hour of google-fu failed to provide a satisfactory result, I turned to Shazam, holding my phone up to the TV speakers and hoping that by some miracle it would recognize the song. It did, but the song and artist name were both in Chinese characters! And it didn’t appear to be from any actual album. I emailed myself the result from within the app, then copied and pasted the Chinese text into Google. Various results popped up, but of course none were in English. After a little digging and a lot of Google Translate, I found what appeared to be the personal page of the artist, complete with hotmail address. I sent an email and didn’t hear back until about a month later; the owner of an indie label representing Shen Yi contacted me, and he spoke English! Success!
The final hurdle was convincing my boss that a song in Mandarin Chinese from a guy that no one in North America or Europe has heard of was what the game really needed. If nothing else, it will at least be memorable!
And there you have it – an inside look at some of the craziness involved in putting together the KickBeat soundtrack. You can hear it for yourself on Sept. 3 (North America) or Sept. 11 (Europe). If you like it, I recommend checking out the indie artists we’ve worked with on Facebook, YouTube etc. and letting them know you heard them on KickBeat!