Features, Music March 16, 2010 By Sonaar Luthra

You aren’t left wondering whether a DJ is checking his email onstage because the sounds you hear are so legible. Combined with the kind of live visuals produced by Philadelphia’s NO CARRIER on custom Nintendo ROMs, a true 8-bit performance offers up a sort of cutting edge live demo that doesn’t mask the machines that they’re made with, but re-appropriates them, embracing their limitations as a vehicle for expression. It’s a dynamic Johnson is constantly exploring in Nullsleep’s music and an aesthetic he’s dubbed post-cyberpunk: “What happens if everything falls apart and all we have to rely on is this old hardware? Technology is becoming increasingly complex and it’s easier to grasp the operating principles of older gear at a low level.” And you could hear that earlier in the night when he served up thirty minutes of thumping and droning tension that didn’t paint over the sound with melodies or hooks, but plunged deeper into the sound chip of his Game Boy and drove ahead into fertile ground.
     Before landfills were full of obsolesced hardware, underground groups of artists and programmers engaged in the earliest forms of digital graffiti, inserting graphics, animations, and music into cracked software. They proudly showed off their work in a practice that eventually broke off into free-standing demonstrations of their own. The demoscene, as it came to be known, insisted on squeezing every ounce of performance out of hardware rather than simply upgrading, and distributed CG animations set to original music that often produced effects on screens and through sound cards that were without precedent. Yet demos were never a live medium, and as chip music formed into a niche community in its own right, it was never clear that “video game music” would ever be anything more than novelty – until it added the element of performance, that is.
     By 2005, monthly showcases matured into full-blown tours. When Stockholm’s Covox got in touch with Bit Shifter and Nullsleep, telling them he wanted to play in the US, they didn’t hesitate to start lining up shows. They called it the Data Destruction Tour, an 8-bit showcase featuring “Game Boys and Nintendo Entertainment Systems, forcibly conscripted into the manufacture of unprecedented electronic music – low-res, high-energy, and completely unique.” Momentum built, and by 2006 an invitation to play shows in Belgium and the Netherlands evolved into the International Chiptune Resistance world tour, which brought them to Japan and back through the West Coast. In the span of a year a global community of musicians that had been primarily an online phenomenon transformed as they all started to meet in person. Then nine of Japan’s best got in touch with Nullsleep and Bit Shifter, saying they were coming to New York and wanted to play shows. The Tank wasn’t big enough, as there were too many musicians for one night; and so, Blip Festival was born.
     “What we have is a time and a form of music that can be owned completely by the musician, where there’s very little barrier to entry,” Johnson says. “If you have a passion for it there’s not much of a barrier between where you want to be and how to get there.” There’s no need for labels with online distribution, and no need to break a wallet when a Game Boy running an LSDJ cartridge (what Nullsleep composes on and performs with) can be had at the merchandise table or on eBay for under $50. Today’s intern for 8bitpeoples or the Tank might end up playing shows tomorrow. As Rosenthal explains, “A lot of people who start off as enthusiasts turn into performers. Our intern [Jean Y. Kim] a few years ago met everyone working on the scene and started doing visuals. She worked on Blip Festival last year and was doing visuals for Starscream this year.”

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