Chiptune/videogame music mixer Dj Cutman (yes, the lowercase J is intentional) has been picking up steam lately, and if you listen to his stuff, it’s clear why. Combining classic videogame themes with modern dance music (notably house and dubstep), he produces catchy, danceable jams that keep feet moving, whether they belong to videogame fans or not.
DualShockers got to sit down with him and talk about what developed his musical interests (in both games and electronic music), how he samples, his live shows, and what’s coming up soon for Cutman.
As a videogame-based DJ, you’d expect for videogames to be an important part of his childhood, and you’d be right. “I remember a guilty pleasure of mine was plugging a pair of headphones into my gameboy and listening to the gameboy music,” he said, making specific mention to the score for Super Mario Land. “[The] old themes have really kinda stuck with me and… made me feel good when I heard them, so when creating Dj Cutman, I was looking for something that could blend modern DJ dance and club music with the classic music that I enjoyed as a kid, so I could enjoy the music from now, but at the same time, kinda get that nostalgia, get that happy, good feeling that came with those old video game melodies at the same time.”
As he mentions, that combination of “classic music” from games and more “modern” electronic music genres like house and dubstep are what set Dj Cutman apart. Along with his love for classic games comes a love for electronic music, and he notes a specific genre as important to his development as a musician: trance. “I used to listen to trance really hard when I was in high school. I remember there was a period where I listened to nothing but trance for, like, I dunno, must’ve been four or five months or six months. I never went out to like parties or anything, but I downloaded a lot of music on the cryptic, ancient Internet, and I listened to just almost all electronic trance music, and I didn’t realize how that had influenced me until more recently,” he describes, with notable nostalgia. “What it gave me is an understanding of space and format for this kind of modern dubstep and house music, where the syntax of the music hasn’t really changed a whole lot; the sounds and the style and the tempo maybe, but electronic music has a sort of structure that remains, for the most part, unchanged, so listening to all of that old-school trance kinda let me jump into making and mixing modern electronic music easier than I even thought that it would be.”
Cutman doesn’t work primarily in trance, so how was he exposed to other electronic music genres? Well, he has Dance Dance Revolution and Konami’s line of Bemani rhythm games to thank for that. “[That] was a big chunk of my life, was playing Pump It Up and games like DDR on my PlayStation and stuff like that, and I just fell in love with the rhythm and the fun and the different kinds of music because internet wasn’t so huge back then, there wasn’t services like Spotify or anything, so to have a game that had sixty songs that were so far out of anything that I had heard–they were all J-pop and euro-pop and stuff like that, which was so far from what I was listening to–that it was really kinda cool.”
He goes on to mention how rhythm games even helped him with making electronic music, not just through inspiration, but through technique. Timing is very important to skilled mixing and production, as anyone who’s even messed around with Fruity Loops will tell you, and Dj Cutman thinks that his experience with rhythm games helped him perfect his sense of timing, letting him make effective use of the software at his disposal, such as through “setting up queue points, working faders and triggers, and having a good rhythm and sense of when and where to mix.”
Along with his trance background, he’s been producing a few dubstep releases over the past year, such as the videogame-focused The Legend of Dubstep, the more chiptuney Dubtropolis, and Dubstep Is Dead, a tribute to the artists that established the genre. He is sure to mention that he “[mixes] a lot more dubstep than [he produces],” saying, “I really think that there are some guys that just do such a more awesome job than me, so with albums like Dubstep Is Dead and The Legend of Dubstep, I really wanna feature the guys who are taking the genre of music and really doing awesome stuff with it. There’s a lot of guys–Ephixa, 23 are two of my favorite guys who really do great things and really push the genre forward.” As to why he finds the genre so appealing: “I really like the music just because it’s sort of been catching a lot of waves and it’s really fun to dance to and it’s fun to mix. So I’ve been kinda just running with the stuff I love; you know there’s dubstep producers who are kind of nerdy and who have done video game dubstep tunes, as you can hear from my Legend of Dubstep mix, so I really wanted to bring that out, have a modern dance sound with these kinda nostalgic and, ultimately, fun melodies and samples.”
Dj Cutman’s sets, like The Legend of Dubstep, draw from a lot of different mixes and different games. Stringing all of those samples together is a long, difficult process, but is there any rhyme or reason to it? According to Cutman, it’s heavily reliant on trial and error. “It is not so much the particular songs that I say, ‘I want Chrono Trigger here, and I want Mortal Kombat here,’ it’s whatever works, and Legend of Dubstep, like all of my mixes, contains about twenty to thirty songs–I guess I should have a real count of how many songs are in there–but I probably go through over a hundred songs when I’m mixing, and I try this and I try that.” And sometimes, even when he really likes a song, it’s hard to fit it into a mix. “[Sometimes] songs you won’t expect–like the Chrono Trigger one in particular, I really love that song, I thought when I first heard it, ‘There’s no way this is gonna fit into a mix; it’s like, it’s different, it’s downtempo, and it’s so cool, and I love the theme, but, damnit, it’s just not dubby enough, or it’s not fast enough,’ but, sure enough, I found the right pairing of songs, and the song’s in the right key and the right kind of feeling, and it worked.” Sometimes the gods of mixing shine upon us and give us good opportunities for mixing, and other times it’s hard to string things together; such is the art of the DJ.
He had a lot to say for the process that goes into producing one of his full mixes; it’s quite an interesting sequence of events. “[It's] a lot of trial and error, like I will work on a dubstep set for maybe three or four weeks before I play it live, and then I’ll play it live for a few months and get a feeling of what works, what doesn’t work, what works in a live scenario, what works… in just a listening scenario at my house, and then, from all that information that I gather, from trial and error and playing it out and seeing what people respond to, from that I build my final mix, and then I play a particular show where I debut the finished mix (and I don’t really tell anybody that it’s gonna be the finished one), and if it goes really well, then I record it, and I make the album art, and I post it up for everyone who wasn’t at the show to hear.” Performing live is how you show off your new stuff to your fanbase in the best way possible, and that live experience is integral to being a DJ. The trial and error of sampling continues over into that.
On live performances, he specifically gave “big ups” to MAGFest, the Music And Gaming Festival in Maryland every year. “It is the coolest place on earth, and it’s… sort of the birthplace of Cutman, and I’ve played there last year, and I’m playing again this year, and it’s just awesome.” Though for anyone looking to book Dj Cutman at a show, make sure there’s a nice ramen place nearby; that seems to be the way to his heart.
So, what’s in the future for Cutman? Today (just as it hit midnight), he released his new collaborative EP with Spamtron: Bagu and the Riverman, a series of chiptune-house remixes based on Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. I eagerly anticipated its release up to the moment it dropped on its Bandcamp, and, believe me, it deserved my excitement. It’s some of his best work so far, creating a perfect fusion of the “classic music” and “modern DJ dance and club music” that Dj Cutman is based around.
Outside of that, he’s got huge plans for Magfest X, in early January. He’ll be releasing Game Chops Vol. 2, the second in his line of chiptune anthologies; unveiling Chiptopia, a new chiptune mix; and selling print copies of Bagu and the Riverman. For anyone in the area, you have to check it out and see him live. If it’s like what I’ve heard, you’ll be moving your feet until the break of dawn.