Let’s be honest – most mashups just don’t work.
Overlaying the pre-recorded vocals of one song over the instrumentals of another is no easy feat, mostly resulting in a disjointed mess.
But that’s because most producers aren’t 2 Mello.
The producer/rapper from Lexington, Ky., has gained Internet fame in recent years by combining my two favorite past times – hip hop and video games. Oct. 20, he plans to release his most ambitious mashup to date – Final Fantasy: The 3-6 Chambers, pairing the greatest rap group of all time, The Wu-Tang Clan, with the iconic soundtrack from the greatest role-playing game of all time, Final Fantasy VI.
2 mello possesses an incredible ear, taking 16-bit sounds from a decades old-Super Nintendo game and seamlessly merging them with the Wu’s eclectic flows. By the sounds of the first single “The Crew Is Back,” which blends, The Wu’s “Uzi (Pinky Ring)” with FFVI’s “Searching for Friends” theme, these two classic properties are in very good hands.
2 Mello chatted a bit about the inspiration behind his mashups, the state of hip-hop production in 2014 and some of the best characters in video game history.
Edd: Thanks for taking a few minutes to step from behind the boards to chat. Since your last two projects, Chrono Jigga and Nastlevania, you’ve built an incredible online following for your mashups. Tell us about the concept and direction behind Final Fantasy: The 3-6 Chambers.
2 Mello: For this third project, I really considered it the end of a trilogy. The theme of the trilogy was to kind of weave some of my favorite hip-hop artists’ lives and personas into the stories of my favorite games. I was doing it for fun, at first, but it emotionally resonated with me, and many others as well, and it was surprising. For this third album I am utilizing the music of my favorite hip-hop group, The Wu-Tang Clan, with the music of my absolute favorite RPG game, Final Fantasy VI. I want it to be the ultimate execution of this “story weaving” idea.
Chrono Jigga and Nastlevania really stood above most mashup projects for two reasons: The lyrics blended with the instrumentals expertly and because the albums weren’t just a random collection of songs – they were concept pieces where the music really told a story. First, how difficult was it to pair the eclectic Wu-Tang flows with Final Fantasy’s lush instrumentals, and second, does this album continue the stories of the first two albums?
2 Mello: I knew this album would be difficult going in — as any Wu remixer can tell you, the acapella sources are scarce so song choice is very limited and I see I can’t get a lot of big tracks people want to hear. I had to be crafty in my representation of the Wu and take songs that maybe didn’t become hits, but attempt to work wonders with the best songs from FFVI backing them.
Adapting the Final Fantasy songs was very difficult because a lot of them are slow and gentle, and several are written with 3/4 time signatures, which doesn’t work well with the strict 4/4 of hip-hop. I used this difficulty to provide the base for my story [the album’s concept] — I am proving my skills to the Wu in order to be allowed to join them and fight against negative, commercialized hip-hop — big artists using their power to corrupt and lay the culture to waste just like the villain Kefka does to the world with magic in the game.
In my always humble opinion, Nobuo Uematsu, the genius who composed Final Fantasy’s soundtrack, is the greatest composer in video game history. Where would you rank him? And what makes his work so iconic 20 years later?
2 Mello: Absolutely the best. Anyone who doubts this can check the epic 20-minute orchestral ending to FFVI. That was created with the S-SMP sound chip, which clocks a measly 24.5 MHz — he pushed that thing to the absolute limit and got a range of sounds out of the SNES in just one track that I don’t think anyone else has come close to. The reason Uematsu’s work still holds up is that it sounds like he worked without thinking of the limitations. He set out to make an opera with voices in a 16-bit video game and he did it well! He just didn’t let the limits bother him. I like to think I do that too. Other favorites of mine include Yasunori Mitsuda and David Wise.
I know you’ve made your name as a mashup artist, but I refuse to put you in that box – you’re an accomplished rapper and producer in your own right. Who are your influences on the mike and behind the boards?
2 Mello: On the mic I definitely take a lot of inspiration from Rakim and Guru, Q-Tip, MF DOOM, The Beastie Boys and Pgnut Prehistoric from the little-known Atlanta-based group Minamina Goodsong. You should Google that. I don’t think I particularly sound like any of these artists but some of their method, their mood, their approach and their content definitely rubbed off on me.
On the production side, I really enjoy the beats of DJ Premier, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Q-Tip’s work on the early Tribe albums, the entire discographies of Prince Paul and Dan the Automator, the inimitable swing of Dilla beats and the deep, soulful trip-hop of Massive Attack and DJ Shadow.
I’m a huge Preemo fan so I’m glad to hear that. As you know I’ve been a huge critic of production in 2014, where everything has been dumbed down to absurd levels. Some producers seem to be more interested in dropping annoying tags than creating memorable instrumentals. What do you think is really missing in mainstream hip-hop production right now?
2 Mello: I think a lot of the songs are either too complex or too simple. There are either way too many instruments being piled on, or it sounds like they barely did any work on the beat. The key, I think, is to make something that really is simple, that uses few sounds but uses them well — but at the same time, something that seems to suggest a complexity, a depth that keeps the ears interested after the song is over. I also feel like the art of samples in beats is going through major growing pains, and producers don’t know what new things to try, so old tactics are used again and again. It’s a tired sound, and it makes me tired.
Last year, we marked the 20th birthday of the Wu’s iconic debut, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). Now, your project is dropping on the 20th anniversary of the release of Final Fantasy VI. You gotta love that symmetry. Talk about the Wu’s legacy 20 years after Tims and bubble goose jackets.
2 Mello: I’m glad to be able to drop this project on that big date, when this game hit the U.S. Wu-Tang is always a name that will be spoken with respect in the community. They were an unbelievably large group of strong MCs who all had memorable, if not always outstanding, solo careers, and a branding plan that has made them all very rich, very creatively free and impressive in a business sense as well as artistically. Even through all these years, they’re still making albums together. Regardless of the creative scuffles, they’re working together. And just this year, they announced their big legacy album that shocked the entire world with its method of distribution.
Everything about the Wu really ties into their connections with Asian culture and their self-developed mysticism. They are legendary figures in a way that’s different from guys like Jay-Z who may have gotten too rich and powerful for their own good. I believe that they have always been more creative than a lot of other rappers and will remain that way.
Favorite Wu-Tang song? And while you’re at it, who’s your favorite Final Fantasy character?
2 Mello: These are both hard ones, but my favorite Wu song has to be “Protect Ya Neck.” Everyone’s flow on that song is great, but the GZA breaks it all down in his verse that ends out the song. In just a few bars, he dissects the entire problem with the music industry at the time and how all these older record labels are trying to make money off rap music, something they don’t understand. The man’s eyes are wide open and his points are so clear that every rapper who got a sour deal from a label has no one but themselves to blame — the GZA warned you!
As for Final Fantasy, my favorite character would have to be Shadow. In the beginning of the game, you hear nothing but bad things about him, how he is a cold-blooded killer for hire and would even kill his own family, but as you get to know him you see a man who is not bad, but who has withdrawn from the world and taken odd jobs for his own reasons. When he joins up with your party in order to stop Kefka, it is because after being a loner for years, he has finally found a cause worth upholding. And he’s got an awesome dog. The story of Shadow throughout the game, as those who have played it know, can be missed entirely! But the fact that it’s so strong there, under the surface, is a credit to the writers.
That’s why it’s the best RPG of all time. You won’t find a better written story. Oh, and speaking of favorites, my all-time favorite video game villain, the original killer clown Kefka, made his debut in Final Fantasy VI. Please tell me you incorporated his infamous laugh on a track? Please?
2 Mello: He is my favorite too, so you know he gets his two cents in. And that clown is always laughing.
Listen to the single “The Crew Is Back” below.