Raheem Jarbo, known as Random or Mega Ran, is a popular American underground rapper, Chiptunes DJ, and record producer. To those that love retro game music and the creativity it can spark he can perhaps be considered as a trailblazer; best known on the Nerdcore Hip-Hop scene, Mega Ran has also coined the term "Chip-Hop".
Formerly a middle-school teacher, Random's rise to popularity means he can now pursue his music career full time. Readers will probably know him from his licensing deal with Capcom to produce Mega Man themed music; Mega Ran isn't a name that'll be new to Blue Bomber aficionados. Random doesn't simply record and produce tracks to sell, however, but goes on the road to take his unique show to fans around the world.
We caught up with Random following his recent UK tour to learn more about his background and sources of inspiration.
To kick things off please tell us a bit about your background, and how you developed your passion for music.
I was born in Philadelphia in the late 70's, raised in the 80's, a place and time where there was a lot of musical experimentation coming from the area. Soul, jazz and even hip-hop were becoming huge at the time, as well as video games, and I think I have my mom to thank, from her listening to old records by The O'Jays and Marvin Gaye in the house, as well as classic comedy like “Bill Cosby, Himself”, I think that's what led to me becoming who I would be.
We'd love to know a little bit about your gaming history. What was your earliest experience in gaming? What are some of your favourite consoles and games?
My earliest gaming memory is getting an Atari 2600 for Christmas, and playing Pac-Man until my mom had to literally pull me from the television set. There was a Ms. Pac-Man machine in my barbershop that I'd plunked so many quarters into, that when it was time to get a home system, I knew it would be tough to get me away from it. My favorite consoles to this day though are Super Nintendo and Sega Dreamcast... I find a way to play those several times a year.
Can you tell us about your licensing deal with Capcom, and how it came about?
It's really crazy – I made an album called Mega Ran in 2007 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Mega Man. I released it online and it caught on like wildfire, till one day I got an email from Capcom telling me they heard it and loved it. Later on, a movie (“Second Skin,” on Netflix now) came to me asking me if they could use “Grow Up” on the film, and told me that had to get permission from Capcom. They talked to Capcom, I got an email stating I'd had a full license! It's still pretty surreal and it's been a great adventure ever since.
These days are you more Mega Ran than Random? How would you distinguish between these two musical personas?
I've just learned that it's not smart to split my already-thin resources by trying to be two people and market and promote two different personas, and cultivate two different fanbases. I feel like there's some Random in Mega Ran and vice versa, but yes, Mega Ran gets more attention than Random, and I'm okay with that. I still have the freedom to be who I wish to be, and eventually, hopefully with this next album, “Wouldn't Miss It For The World,” fans of both can come together and enjoy some fun, thoughtful music.
Prior to becoming an entertainer, you were a middle-school teacher. What elements of that career have carried across into your performances?
Everything. I feel that teaching has made me into the performer I am today, no question. I always say that if you can teach a room full of sceptical pre-teens, then you can do anything. I'm so thankful for my years in the classroom, they've worked wonders for my performances.
You’re fairly well known in the niche nerdcore genre of hip-hop. Would you say this genre has increased in popularity over the years as ‘geek culture’ itself has become more mainstream?
Yes, I'd say it has, but it hasn't. We've made a lot of huge strides, right alongside geek culture, but it's still very niche... while “The Avengers” is breaking records everywhere, nerdy hip hop songs aren't nearly as easy a sell, so there's a whole lot of work to do. I think it has to do with quality. The higher the quality of nerdy releases gets, the more people will give it a chance. Its taken some huge strides but has so far to go.
A big part of your career is in touring. Can you tell us how this year has played out for you so far, and your thoughts on your most recent UK performances?
Yes, touring is my life. I don't think there's any better way to connect with fans and supporters, and gain new ones without hitting the road. I probably do it more than anyone I know, but I work harder at a lot of things than anyone I know! I love touring, and it always tends to work out better than expected. This UK tour was amazing! It was my 3rd time coming in as many years, but definitely my best. The venue sizes were appropriate, I played some new places and cultivated fanbases in other places — it went better than I could've expected. I'm also glad my partner Mr. Miranda got to experience that as well.
What is one of your favourite songs to perform, and why?
I love to play “Language Arts,” it gets everyone going, its one of the fastest songs in my set at 114 BPM, so it's upbeat, catchy and a lot of fun. Seeing everyone with their hands up and waving is always amusing and motivating.
You put a lot of emphasis in your performances on audience participation, would you say this is a skill gained from your time as a teacher? Why do you feel it adds to the performance?
I've always been a person who learns by doing, and I noticed in the classroom that most kids were the same way. It's important when meeting someone for the first, or even the 4th time, to make sure to make a memory.... the worst thing someone can say about someone they met is “meh, he was alright.” You have to be memorable. Also, being a big fan and student of James Brown, he was the master of working the crowd, call and response, adding very subtle show elements.... he was the ultimate showman... I can't dance or do the splits, so I work on other ways to get the fans involved.
Why do you feel it is important to tell stories in your raps?
Well... I just like to tell stories, and I seem to be good at it! Sometimes it's about knowing your strengths. It's not necessarily important, some of my favorite musicians never did that, but the ones who were able to tell a vivid, weaving story always caught my ear. Ever since I was young I've had a knack for storytelling. Creative writing was my bag. Allegories, Aesop's Fables, all that. I try to include some of the things I've learned into my music... and technical displays and all that are great, but relatable stories – that's the stuff that sticks.
You have an uncanny skills for improvisation during your set, reacting to items shown by the audience. Have you always been able to think on your feet so quickly or is it something you have learned over time?
That's something I've picked up in the last 10-15 years or so. Before I had access to a studio, we just rapped on the front porch, and we'd challenge ourselves by insulting each other, improvised. It was tough, but it made me better. You either improved, or you were the butt of the jokes week in and week out. Practice makes perfect... I freestyle in my car, in the shower, even in my dreams now.
As you are on the road so much, do you get much time for gaming any more?
I am.. I just installed Destiny and now I have to run again. I got a 3DS to help with that, but I miss retro games more than anything – so i've been playing through all the old Game Boy Mega Man titles at the moment. Once this tour ends in October, I'll be back home and gaming non stop!
Who are some of the biggest musical inspirations in your life?
I wish I could say I had a close friend or family member who was a musician who had a career that I learned from, but I was just a fan, a student. I watched guys that I admired: Marvin Gaye, James Brown, LL Cool J, Rakim, The Fresh Prince (Will Smith) — and later video game composers like Nobuo Uematsu, Koji Kondo, Yuzo Koshiro — and taken as many notes as I could on their approach to music and philosophy, and went from there.
What advice would you give to an up-and-coming musician hoping to have a career in the music industry?
Find a mentor. Live below your means, and give everything you can to music. If you don't wake up music, eat, sleep and breathe music until you go to sleep thinking about music, reconsider. Remember that especially today, the traditional path is just that, traditional. Find a way to do it differently.
In closing, could you tell us about some of your hopes and goals for the future?
My hope is that we can all get along and find true peace... and I hope to bring that to the world through my music... but seriously! I'd like to one day get on at a video game company as some sort of consultant – I'd assist with music and branding stuff – that's about the only job that could probably keep me still for a while. Either that or eventually getting back into the classroom to possibly teach music business to college kids, I'd like that. Thanks so much for this interview, much love to Nintendo Life!
Thanks to Random for taking the time to speak to us.
Ninterviews are a series of interviews where we get to know interesting people with a passion for Nintendo. Please contact us if you have any suggestions for future Ninterviews. Click here to see the full series.