(This past week my Internet was so flaky that I didn’t manage to successfully download a new mixtape. So I reviewed one of my favorite ones from, like, my youth.)
How did I learn to love hip-hop? I wasn’t always this fly. Once I didn’t know anything about music, growing up on oldies and then seeking youthful rebellion in the head-banging angst of nu metal. Two albums did the lion’s share of bringing me from there to here. The first of these was Amethyst Rockstar, by renowned slam poet Saul Williams — a hyper-intellectual, sometimes psychedelic, genre-bending dreamwork, more spoken word than rap. The second was The Chrono Trigger Mixtape Vol. #1.
Chrono Trigger is probably my favourite a video game, an old-school RPG for Super Nintendo. An epic story of time travel in a Final Fantasy style world of technology and magic, your eclectic band of characters must explore and fight in different eras, first to get home and then to prevent the coming doomsday that will leave their planet broken and ruined. Along with being fantastically fun, Chrono Trigger had one of the best soundtracks on SNES, and probably of all time. The Chrono Trigger Mixtape Vol. #1 (though there was no volume #2) takes that soundtrack, and puts rap music over it.
Amethyst Rockstar was the kind of music you could love while still turning your nose up at mainstream hip-hop, which I did for a while. In a weird way, so was The Chrono Tigger Mixtape. Chrono Trigger was the first RPG I ever played, a game I still feel compelled to run through every other year or so. Each track evoked sharp memories — some uplifting, some heart wrenching. I didn’t have to love rap to enjoy this mixtape. I just had to love Chrono Trigger.
The Chrono Trigger Mixtape was a also parody of a mixtape. The loud, annoying DJ, DJ Epoch, that comes on at the beginning of each track, cracking bad jokes about the video game — “Yo let’s keep ‘em dashing, hold that A button down, son!” — and talking dirty about the female characters…well, that made it clear that we weren’t supposed to take this album too seriously. And if the whole thing meant to be absurd, I could forgive the over-the-top gangster lyrics of 50 Cent, Cassidy, Young Jeezy, Ray Cash and the other assorted artists featured on the mixtape.
But parody is an insidious thing and, like imitation, often too close to flattery. When the mixtape hit the net mysteriously and anonymously in 2005, I had just discovered Saul Williams. A few months later I would go to college, where I quickly found more slam poetry influenced artists, like Sage Francis, and radical political rappers, like Immortal Technique. A switch was being flipped in my subconscious. When I searched the radio for music to drive to, I no longer skipped over the hip-hop stations; I lingered.
Intellectually I came to accept and enjoy mainstream hip-hop through my respect for Saul Williams, and my knowledge that, as unconventional as he was, he respected mainstream rappers. At a visceral level, however, I was finding myself attracted to beats and rhymes, never mind the subject matter of the lyrics. I think spending months with The Chrono Trigger Mixtape on repeat had something to do with that. I bobbed my head. I enjoyed the familiar beats. I began to notice the wordplay in the lyrics, and the cleverness, and slowly, grudgingly came to respect the talent it takes to write rap.
The best part about The Chrono Trigger Mixtape is that, five years later, it stands up. It isn’t just for video game nerds, or for reluctant fans who only allow themselves to listen to hip-hop ironically. It is genuinely really good. Mashups are hard to do, and this is one of the best, most seamless I have ever heard. Amazingly, nearly all the songs sound better on the mixtape than in their original versions — especially Common’s “The Corner,” which is nearly unlistenable with its original production. The only track that falls short is the remix of Kanye West’s “Get Em’ High,” and not because it’s bad but simply because it is pretty hard to improve on the catchiest song off the best hip-hop album of the decade.
Since I first started listening to it, my tastes have matured and broadened and moved further into pop and hip-hop’s mainstream, but I still love The Chrono Trigger Mixtape. Like my annual cravings for the original game, I occasionally get the urge to put on the album and just chill to it. Part of this is nostalgia for the video game and my childhood, but part of it is nostalgia for 2005, when the grand vistas of hip-hop opened up to me and I still had a whole world of music to explore. Those were good old days, and though days are still good, there’s no days like the old days.
The original website is long gone, but you can hopefully still find The Chrono Trigger Mixtape Vol. #1, mixed by DJ Epoch, at http://chronofan.com/Black/Music%20(Chrono%20Trigger)/CT%20Mixtape/Chrono%20Trigger%20Mixtape.rar.