Melancholy ballad from Super Nintendo classic inspires some truly great remixes, mashups
Chicago-based remixer Tim Jacques has made a name for himself on Soundcloud by pairing classic video game themes with hip-hop tracks under the name Team Teamwork. He's let Slim Thug stomp all over Zelda's "The Great Fairy Fountain," paired Blackstar and Earthbound, and mashed-up Gang Starr with Super Mario RPG. But his best edit is his 2011 mix of the Bad Boys posse cut "Flava in Ya Ear" to the theme from a level in the 1995 Super Nintendo smash, Donkey Kong Country 2 – "Stickerbrush Symphony."
David Wise, the legendary composer behind Donkey Kong Country 2's music, had a knack for contorting the primitive Super Nintendo sound chip into exotic shapes. "Stickerbrush Symphony" was his opus; a dreamy, forlorn, new-age ballad unlike anything we typically heard in console mascot games. The game was released in 1995, one year before the dawn of the Nintendo 64, and Rareware famously pushed the aging 16-bit technology to its limits. Artists sculpted out chunky, paper-mache backdrops, and molded the character models with a surreal, not-quite-3D depth. It was a far cry from Mario and Luigi's jointless sprites. Wise matched those efforts by putting together a truly avant-garde score for the era. In an interview with FACT, he said "Stickerbrush Symphony" came from trying to compose something that emulated synth sounds that were just out of the console's reach.
"When you consider the limitations of the Super Nintendo sound chip, it takes a lot of CPU power and virtual VST synths to get something that sounds as powerful by today's high standards," he said. "But that also provides a huge amount of creative freedom to work with, and is rewarding in a completely different way."
Maybe it's just a happy accident that Biggie's luscious drawl fit so naturally into Wise's grooves, but frankly it's hard to imagine synergy this natural with anything else on the Super Nintendo. Before Donkey Kong Country, game music worked with big, blocky primary colors. The emotional scale was limited to the tenor of Saturday morning cartoons. But "Stickerbrush Symphony" is downright mournful. It's got more in common with Clams Casino than The Donut Plains from Super Mario World. While other game musicians were eager to keep up the spiky, Fisher-Price rhythms, Wise was taking the console to the ethereal plane. It's been more than 20 years, but people are still fascinated.
"To be clear, we are talking about a video game where two monkeys collect giant golden bananas."
Team Teamwork isn't the only one. DJ Max-E might be the most prolific Donkey Kong Country remixer on YouTube, offering flips on "Hot-Headed Bop," "Disco Train" and, yeah, "Stickerbrush Symphony." His best is his 2012 deconstruction of "Forest Interlude," which already sounded far too ruminative to belong in a mascot platforming game. Max-E's version dollops on some streaky, flickering synths and piped-in garageband horns. It's a producer flexing his muscles and showing how far he can iterate on the source material – but it's also very cozy and thoughtful. That's unique, considering how internet edits are generally played for jokes. ("Wouldn't it be funny if there was a dubstep remix of 1-1?")
"Donkey Kong Country's music as a whole is diverse, and it reflected myself as a composer even to this day," DJ Max-E says. "Those remixes were basically me showing my growth not just as a person who does remixes of video games on YouTube, but as a composer. David Wise is a genius. Him incorporating film score styles to Donkey Kong Country and Donkey Kong Country 2 is a breath of fresh air every time I listen to the soundtrack."
Now 25 years old, the Super Nintendo is a pretty nostalgic machine, so it makes sense that its music evokes comfort. But some of its most notable games are a little too bright. It's difficult to imagine a rework of the Super Mario World level select theme. It's too spry, too giddy, too knowable. But Donkey Kong Country 2's gauziness is absolutely cathartic. Someone once said that video games are all built to recapture the wonder of your first few steps into the hobby, and while that may not be entirely true, the dusky, CRT glow of these remixes are certainly tender.
To be clear, we are talking about a video game where two monkeys collect giant golden bananas. You never want to be too saccharine or mythologizing when talking about childhood. But that doesn't mean it can't feel like a bigger deal in certain vulnerable moments. Donkey Kong Country 2 was a weird game, perched on the edge of a massive generation shift, where the bread-and-butter 2D platformers were shelved for a new era. Decades later we'd remember exactly where we left those feelings. We touch them, recontextualize them, and celebrate them. Add a drum underlay on "Stickerbrush Symphony" and let that soft melancholy wash all over you. There's plenty of great old video game soundtracks out there, but Donkey Kong Country is one that talks back.