Dj CUTMAN Interview: Chops and Beats
Dj CUTMAN has gained massive popularity in the game music scene for his “cuts”, where he takes samples from original video game soundtracks and infuses them with his own brand of hip-hop. While his music also includes the more general sphere of chiptunes, Dj CUTMAN’s most recent album release, titled Volume IV, gives a collection of new and classic video game music the CUTMAN treatment.
In this interview, Dj CUTMAN talks about his background in music, and his arrival onto the VGM scene. He also discusses his recent release in depth, from the inspirations behind some of the tracks on the album, to his musical growth between Volumes of music. Volume IV is now available on Bandcamp, and will be up on iTunes and Spotify today.
Interview Subject: Dj CUTMAN
Interviewer: Emily McMillan
Editor: Emily McMillan
Coordination: Dj CUTMAN, Emily McMillan
Emily: Thanks so much for chatting with us today! To get started, can you tell me about your background in music, and how you got onto the game music scene?
Dj CUTMAN: So I was always a fan of video game music. In concert band in grade school, I would take MIDI files and covert them to sheet music so I could stay after class and play chocobo themes on my saxophone. I went to school for film, but I was always into music, and I got into producing music. Once I finished school, I got a job at a recording studio. I worked there for four years, mostly mixing and recording rap music, in upstate New York. That kind of led me into the convention scene. I went to my very first convention, which was MAGfest, and I fell in love with the community aspect. I had never been around so many nerds!
Emily: What was – oh, hi! Who’s this?
[at this point, a cat had walked in front of Dj CUTMAN’s camera]
Dj CUTMAN: Tween! I call her Tween Animation Cat. Her middle name is Helvetica, like the font.
[we spent a few minutes talking about Tween before moving on]
Dj CUTMAN: So at MAGfest – that was around 2010 or 2009 (I should probably know this, but I don’t) – I was not even in that building for two minutes when I said, this is a place that I want to be. I had found my home. I got back home, and I was still working in the studio, and I took my personal collection of game music from soundtracks, music from OC Remix, and I started adding them to my collection of hip hop beats I got from making rap music at my day job. I combined the beats and my VGM collection to make what was at the time called “GameChops Volume 1, Dj CUTMAN’s first studio album” – because I’d literally made it at my studio – and the rest is history. I put that out, people were into it, and I kept at it. The album coming out now is the fourth volume of that.
Emily: So that’s where both GameChops and Dj CUTMAN started?
Dj CUTMAN: Yeah, Dj CUTMAN started as a live Dj, and GameChops was my mixtape – there were literal chops – samples – of video game music, put together in an instrumental mixtape. That’s where both names came from – that very first album.
Emily: How long had you been familiar with OverClocked Remix?
Dj CUTMAN: Since forever – since I was 10 or 12 years old. I remember going onto their website and getting music on dial-up. Dial-up internet! I loved that there were so many different versions of video game songs. I loved video games, and I loved the music, and being able to go into this community and hear all these different versions of these game soundtracks – was awesome. I was always collecting the music – on my hard drive, iPod, and so forth. So when I realized I had this venue through Dj CUTMAN, this new project of producing and performing video game music – I already had this big library of tunes that I liked, so this was this big jumping off for the live shows. I could play this music at a bar, or festival, or at at a convention.
Emily: How much of the music you perform is chiptune versus game music or remixes?
Dj CUTMAN: So when I first started performing as Dj CUTMAN, it was three different types of music I played – original game music I had edited, OCR and VGM community stuff, and chiptune community stuff. So I was able to find a lot of video game-y tunes from the chiptune community that mixed really nicely with the video game music, and provided this balance with the OCR stuff. Dj CUTMAN was never constant VGM or chiptune – it was a blend of these two different communities making music that I thought played very nicely together.
Emily: Recently, you released the 2BA Mixtape album, a Pokemon-themed album of remixes. How frequently do you work with anime music?
Dj CUTMAN: I’ve always enjoyed anime, but I’ve always stuck to certain series. Honestly, I’m kind of an anime newb. [laughs] I love Cowboy Bebop like crazy, and I have a collection of DVDs – Studio Ghibli stuff, like Princess Mononoke. I’m a big nut for pacing and timing, and I’m a Western-raised person. Cowboy Bebop had a very Western pace – I heard that it was not too popular in Japan, although it’s very popular here. But I don’t have the patience for something like Bleach, or DragonballZ – there are so many episodes!
Emily: I’m the same way! If it’s over thirty episodes, I’ll rarely start it.
Dj CUTMAN: Yes! I always check to see the number of episodes before I can start watching an anime.
Emily: Moving onto the volumes that you’ve been creating – do you have certain goals or themes with each album, or are they each just whatever music you’re feeling at the time?
Dj CUTMAN: So they’re not premeditated – they’re literal volumes of work, them of them like collections of stories. I’m producing all the time, and since I wrapped up my podcast in December, I’ve had a lot more time to produce. With all of the volumes, they’re essentially eras of my production – things that I think are the best examples. So I’ve been cutting stuff from Volume IV all week – I remember Volume III had candidates of over 75 tracks, and was cut down to around 30. I try a lot of stuff, I make beats as production exercises, or for fun, or for projects. I look for tracks that can stand up as full productions on their own – if they’re just beats, but don’t gel with the rest of the music, they won’t get on there. But if I can listen to it over and over again, and not change anything about the production, that’s what’s on the volume.
Emily: Do you take track order into consideration when deciding which tracks go on the album?
Dj CUTMAN: That happens very organically. The tracks make the cut, then they go into a big playlist. I work with the playlist as if it’s alive. I use the same software and methodology as when I’m playing a live show to arrange the tracks on the album. What I’ve been doing this week is adjusting the track order so that it plays naturally from track one to the end, and then adjusting the beginning and end of the songs to make them feel seamless. I’m very proud of how Volume IV plays from front to back; I wouldn’t change a thing if I was doing it live. It feels like a performance in the way these beats are produced.
Emily: Do you feel like you’ve improved over the course of your volumes?
Dj CUTMAN: Of course. This is my best-sounding album. Hands-down, 100%. There may be songs I love on other things, other favorite songs, but in terms of a volume of work, this sounds the best. I mean, the last time I did this was 2015, when Volume III came out, and since then I’ve had three years of producing, I’ve been doing some hard-core stuff, with GameChops, with YouTubers like brentalfloss, communities like Chiptunes = Win, I’ve been doing a lot of mixing and mastering. This is the first time in years that I’ve been able to really focus on stuff on my own, and take the time I need to get my music to a place where it is perfect.
Emily: Do you have a favorite track on Volume IV, or a track you’re most proud of?
Dj CUTMAN: Yeah, I think my favorite track on here is from Breath of the Wild. It’s called “Fortune of Kakariko”. I have the Breath of the Wild sound selection [CUTMAN pulls the album off his shelf and opens it] and it has Kakariko Village from Breath of the Wild. There are no individual credits on here, unfortunately, no liner notes. But the Kakariko Village theme from Breath of the Wild has beautiful Japanese instruments, beautiful recording, beautiful performances. I spent a really long time making this Dirty South, very American-south hip-hop beat that I feel like cooperates with these very traditional Japanese instruments. I think I got it – there’s this very interesting dynamic between the drums and the Japanese instruments that after tweaking them, I feel like really sound like they’re in the same room. It sounds like a real international collaboration – you can hear the Japanese stuff, you can hear the Dirty South American hip-hop, and I’m really happy with how it turned out. I think it’s a good fusion of these two very different styles.
Emily: It does sound like a lot of cover artists have enjoyed working with that soundtrack in general – it’s very different from the other soundtracks in the series, and maybe presents a good challenge.
Dj CUTMAN: I think it’s a fitting soundtrack to a game that felt so different from the entries in the series. I’ve been a Zelda fan my whole life – I think Link to the Past is my favorite – but Breath of the Wildwas able to take that franchise, and really brought it to a whole new place with every decision those developers made. The soundtrack is immaculate and subtle and powerful, and I love it.
Emily: You said that these volumes are collections of music you’ve performed live. Are there any tracks on Volume IV that have been waiting for a long time to be put on an album?
Dj CUTMAN: That’s a great question! For the first time – no! Volume IV is all brand-new stuff that has never existed in any form before 2018. This is all since this year’s MAGfest. All the other volumes took place over the period of a year or so, but sometimes reaching farther back. With Volume IV, I really wanted to raise the quality bar on stuff, and the only way to do that was to commit to not taking any old projects, any old techniques – completely starting fresh. So there are a lot of tracks that ended up not making it on this – I don’t have a count – but Volume IV is all brand-new. I think that’s one of the reasons that production-wise, it’s the strongest of the series.
Emily: Was there anything on here that you’d been wanting to do for a while? Breath of the Wild is newer, but I also saw from the tracklist that you had some older tracks, like “Bombing Mission.”
Dj CUTMAN: Yes! I love “Bombing Mission” and the fact that I was able to pull that remix off was a miracle. There are a lot of classics on there – Final Fantasy VIII, IX, X – and some new stuff, too! Super Mario Odyssey – the ending track is a B-Side from the Mario Odyssey soundtrack. I also got to do some remixes of Persona 5, which was my favorite game of last year. For the longest time, I thought there would be no way I could remix the tracks because they were just so good. I’m such a big fan! But there were a couple of tracks that cooperated with my beat-making methodology.
Emily: Persona‘s got a strange style – was that acid jazz style more difficult to work with than other kinds of soundtracks?
Dj CUTMAN: Yes, yeah. One thing is – the way that the Persona 5 soundtrack was recorded and mixed was very much my style. I’m a remixer who only approaches a song if I feel like I can improve on it somehow. If I can bring it to a different style, or a different tempo – I can turn it into something new. A lot of those Persona tracks are just perfect though, so I tried to remix a couple songs when I first got the soundtrack, and immediately thought, “no way!”, so I just stayed away from it. And then I was working on the Volume IV tracklist, and was determined to meet a certain number of tracks, and I popped open the soundtrack again, and found an alternate version of “Beneath the Mask” that was very stripped-down. That’s what I ended up using on the album.
Emily: Is that the “Rainy Day at the Cafe” track?
Dj CUTMAN: Yeah! It’s the quiet, no-percussion, acoustic version of the track, so there was enough room for me to contribute musically to the piece. The other tracks have room – they have great singers, percussionists, bassists – there’s no room for Cutman on a lot of that soundtrack! I had actually done a licensed cover of “Beneath the Mask” with YouTuber Dodger on YouTube last summer, so I had already worked with that song in one form. So to do an actual remix later, it was actually pretty fun.
Emily: What else would you like to share with your fans, or our readers at VGMO?
Dj CUTMAN: I really hope people like it. It’s very much songs I really love. I love every single track on Volume IV. I know they’re not all going to be for everyone – some are a little silly, and some are a little somber. But every single track on here has had time and care put into its production, so I hope people enjoy it.
Posted on March 30, 2018 by Emily McMillan. Last modified on March 30, 2018.