Articulate Q&A: Mega Ran

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Mega Ran is the nom de guerre of Raheem Jarbo, a prolific rapper and producer whose music blends hip-hop with video games. 

Following the release of his self-titled 2007 album, Mega Ran was embraced by the nerdcore and chiptune communities — the former, an off-shoot of hip-hop that focuses on traditionally “nerdy” topics; the latter, a musical style that emulates the computerized soundtracks of retro video games. But he's also made waves in the broader hip-hop scene, sharing the stage with some of the genre's most respected artists, including Common and Open Mike Eagle.

Fresh off a performance at the annual E3 convention in Los Angeles, Ran opened up about his unconventional artistic path, the importance of perseverance, and how a brutal East Coast winter helped change his life for the better.

 

To the casual music fan, video games and hip-hop might seem like strange bedfellows. What gave you the idea to put them together?

It was an odd, lightning bolt-type moment for me — I literally woke up after a day of playing video games, imagining hip-hop tracks and hard drums backing these chiptune bleeps and bloops, and then I got to work trying to make it happen. 

Hip-Hop and video games do have some similarities in creative approach and cultural impact; their timelines almost intersect completely, and have both literally saved my life. 

There’s a major nostalgic trend in gaming right now, with the recent success of the Nintendo Classic really hammering that point home. A lot of your songs reference old school video games, and even sample music from them. With so many exciting things happening in modern gaming, why do you think people keep going back to these old titles?

I read a quote that said, “Everything can be killed, except nostalgia.”  [Editor’s note: The quote is usually attributed to Argentine author, Julio Cortázar.] There’s just something special about the old school. 8-bit and 16-bit graphics, sounds, colors and simplistic gameplay, no matter how amazingly modern games push forward, it's always more fun to look back. Simple will win every time.

With four releases dedicated to the music of the Mega Man franchise — not to mention your stage name — you obviously have a particularly strong attachment to that universe. Just what was it about Mega Man that struck such a chord?

The music pulled me in, big time. I used to set my cassette recorder by the TV and pause the Mega Man games just to record the music onto tape, and walk to school jamming to it on my Walkman. I loved how intricate and catchy the tracks were on Mega Man 2, especially. Then, later, I visited the rest of the series, and the music was just as impressive. I loved what they were able to do with these compositions on such a limited palate of sounds. It was really inspiring. 

Of course, you’ve made plenty of songs that have nothing to do with video games. But you remain fully immersed in that subculture. Do you ever feel cut off from the wider world of hip-hop, since you’re so associated with gaming?

Probably... But I never really think about it, honestly. I guess I am kind of watching the rest of the hip-hop world from the other side of the fence, but that's okay. As we push on, the amount of respect we've gained is immeasurable. Our last full-length record charted on Billboard, was in the running for Grammy consideration, right next to plenty of releases from the wider world of hip-hop. We've been on some awesome festival stages and great tours, and I love the life I've been able to make for myself. As much as I'd like to be making songs with, say, Wu-Tang Clan, I'm very happy doing what I do and carving my own path in this world.

You also host a pro wrestling podcast, Mat Mania, and even released a collection of wrestling themed tracks last year. What, if anything, do you feel wrestling and hip-hop have in common? 

I didn't think a lot at first, but when I met a few of the guys and we chatted, I saw so many similarities, positive and negative. In both music and wrestling, the goal is constant elevation... just getting a little farther than the previous year. Indie [wrestlers] have been able to make such huge waves.

If you pay your dues, perform at a high level, and innovate, you can find a pocket of supporters that can not only support you, but help you to elevate. We're all trying to win the championship, whatever that looks like. And there's always an evil corporate force attempting to knock you backwards — sometimes with a steel chair.

Let’s back up a little bit. You’re the child of a southern mother and African-born father. How were you shaped by each of these cultures?

Well I feel that's what makes me respectful, for sure. I spent a lot of time in the south, and in my travels around the world, I've seen so many different cultures. And I was taught at an early age to respect those who are different, and to take the time and learn from them. My love for music definitely comes from this, as well.

What art was around at home growing up?

When I think about art in my home, I instantly flash back to Norman Rockwell's painting The Problem We All Live With, a cutout of which occupied a prominent space in my mother's living room for many years. It took me a long time to research it, but when I did, I was astounded. 

The 1964 painting depicts a Black girl going to a newly desegregated school and facing threats. My mother was among the first in her town to attend a desegregated high school, and she encountered many of the same things, so this painting was a constant reminder of, well…the problem we all live with. So from an early age, I knew who I was and what was what.

Currently, you seem to be devoted to your art full-time. But for years, you taught middle school. What drew you to teaching?

Honestly, after a series of heated debates in my Sociology class at Penn State, my professor suggested to me that I'd make a great teacher, and that's what planted the seed. Prior to that, I was a journalism major, ready to change the world with my writing. I switched gears, and I'm glad I did. I learned so much in Philadelphia public schools, about myself and others. And many of those tools have made me a better performer. Middle school is never a dull moment. The most fun I never, ever want to have again.

After growing up in Philadelphia, which has had a vibrant hip-hop scene for decades, what made you decide to move to Phoenix? Were the Philly winters that bad?

Yes, they were. In the Winter of 2006, I can clearly remember a blizzard that crippled the city. Not a big deal…but this one occurred in mid-April. I, as essential staff working at an alternative school, had to make the 45-minute drive to work as scheduled, and the heater on my 1990 Chevy Blazer went out. I drove in my gloves and scarf to work, and it was on that day that I decided I had to try something else. I wasn't happy. 

Honestly, looking back, the snow piling up and the car breaking down were just metaphors for the rest of my life. Work was not challenging for me, I grew tired of the same routine, and my creativity and spirits were broken down. It was time for a change. 

How much of the “you” sitting here today would your 20-year old self recognize?

None at all. I guess the video game playing side of me is similar. I feel like I used to be a 6-sided die, but now I'm a 20-sided Role-Playing Game die

Was there ever a time where you felt like giving up?

Yes, I have. Most memorably was when I first moved to Phoenix. I didn't know anyone, and I literally had to start over. So that was the moment that I reached back into my childhood and began playing video games again. That gave me the motivation to create what would become my claim to fame. I'm a firm believer that if you absolutely, wholeheartedly believe in what you're doing — and you do it honestly, truthfully — and you spread cheer, love, and good vibes along the way, that you can't and won't fail. Van Gogh's words always stick with me: 

“It is good to love many things, for therein lies the true strength, and whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love is well done.”

Any words of advice for our readers who feel like they’re in a creative or existential rut?

Don't be afraid to start over. As an English major, we’re taught that your first draft is probably garbage. So believe in yourself as a creator and challenge yourself, then trust yourself that you can start over and be better than ever. It’s never too late. 

 

Upcoming Mega Ran tour dates:

Saturday, July 1, 2017 — AudioFeed Festival — Urbana, IL

Sunday, July 2, 2017 — The Viper Room — Los Angeles, CA

Sunday, July 9, 2017 — Anime Midwest — Rosemont, IL

Friday, July 28, 2017 — 502 Bar — San Antonio, TX 

Saturday, July 29, 2017 — Classic Game Fest — Austin, TX

Friday, August 11, 2017 — Game On Expo — Phoenix, AZ

Friday, August 18, 2017 — Our Wicked Lady — Brooklyn, NY

Wednesday, August 30, 2017 — Fox Cabaret — Vancouver, BC