Interview: Streets of Rage Composer Yuzo Koshiro

September 25, 2014

Celebrated by Nintendo Power as “arguably the greatest game-music composer of the 16-bit age,” Yuzo Koshiro was responsible for the innovative Streets of Rage soundtracks – tunes directly inspired by his time spent in Tokyo’s nightclubs. In this edited and condensed interview, taken from our sit-downs with him during the filming of our video game music documentary series Diggin’ In The Carts, we found out plenty about the inspirations and compositions.

What was it like learning from Joe Hisaishi when you were nine years old?

I remember learning from Joe Hisaishi around my second or third year in elementary school. The reason I ended up learning with him was because my mother taught the piano to his wife. At the time, he wasn’t as famous as he is now, and was just doing regular jobs in music. Since I was just a kid, I didn’t know much about the kind of work he was doing. He was a great teacher.

Are there any secrets or tips you learned from him that still come in useful now?

Since I was so young, I didn’t study anything specific about composition with him. The kind of things I learned didn’t involve musical scores. He’d play an intro phrase, and have me continue it. I had to make music on the fly. I think that proved very useful for me.

What kind of effect did the introduction of the PC88 have on composing music?

At the very start, I bought the soundless, first generation PC88. I liked playing games at the time, and I loved programming as well. It couldn’t play music at that point. The first time it was able to play music was when the 88SR came out. That first came out when I was about 17. It had an FM synthesiser from the start, and you could make music with it. It was the first time I had an environment that let me play cool music from the games I liked, like The Tower of Druaga, Space Harrier, Gradius, and so on. At the time, the SR cost around ¥250,000, so it was too expensive for me to buy. One of my classmates happened to buy one. I went to that friend’s house to play, and the first one we punched in was the background music for The Tower of Druaga. We took a recorder to the arcade, put it on a cassette, and made a music program on the 88SR while copying by ear.

The Tower of Druaga

The introduction of FM synthesis had a big influence on popular ’80s music. Can you tell us about the features of the FM synthesiser?

Not just in game music, but in regular music too, all synthesisers before the FM synthesiser was released were analogue. Analogue synthesisers could only make very stereotypical synth sounds. With the introduction of FM synthesis, various instruments, like string, wind and percussion instruments, could all be played on one FM chip. When I first heard the music for Space Harrier at the arcade, it was so good that I thought there must’ve been a CD inside. That was when it began. I think it changed everything.

Game music began gaining international recognition with the release of the Mega Drive, but you already had experience with the PC88, didn’t you?

It’s probably not well-known abroad, but I was first involved in composing game music with Xanadu Scenario II. Then I made Ys and Ys II, and then Sorcerian. Then I left Falcom. After that, until I worked on Shinobi, I was making music for a number of games, like The Scheme and Misty Blue. The number of things I learned in that time was huge. When I first started composing, it had a very simple, small sound source with three FM sounds and three PSG sounds. When I made the game music for The Scheme, the amount of sounds had just doubled. Six FM sounds, three PSG sounds, and a rhythm sound source, which meant I was using an FM synthesiser with the same spec as an arcade machine at the time. I was happy about that when making Scheme. I made use of the experience with the new FM synthesiser I got from making The Scheme and Misty Blue when I made Shinobi.

When you went freelance to do the music for Shinobi, were you the first person to do such a thing in Japan?

I don’t think so. My name just happened to get noticed.

Revenge Of Shinobi Stage 1

Did you have any goals when you were making the music for Shinobi?

It was a sequel, of course. I’d played Shinobi a lot at the arcade, and I knew the songs, so I wanted to make something like an extension of those. As I was looking into it more, I started listening to the latest music at the time, which was club or disco music. I thought it’d be interesting to combine that style with the Japanese taste that Shinobi had. So there are some embarrassing parts here and there, like a track similar to Prince’s Batman song. I was listening to that kind of music at the time, you see. It wasn’t like now where you can listen to old songs whenever you want, so we were limited to the music we listened to at the time. Back then, if it was Prince, then all I’d listen to was Prince. I wanted to have that kind of cool music playing in games. I was trying to mix that kind of music with different kinds of Japanese-style music and cool overseas stuff with a club sound.

Can you talk about the origins of your work with Streets of Rage?

I think Streets of Rage was the first time I composed music with the overseas market in mind above the Japanese market.

When we did Streets of Rage, it was around the time the Mega Drive started selling very strongly in North America and Europe. In fact, I learned that it was more popular abroad than in Japan itself. Club music was growing in popularity overseas at the time. It wasn’t really known in Japan then. But especially in North America, where the Mega Drive was selling, club songs were playing constantly on MTV and such. So, I knew they loved club music, so I thought if I could put this into game music, then they’d be really happy. I think that was the first time I composed music with the overseas market in mind above the Japanese market.

Sega didn’t tell me what music they wanted or give me any kind of direction. I only ever did stuff that I liked myself. I told them club music would definitely take off, and I wanted it to be like that, and I gave them a demo. The manager of the consumer department at Sega back then really liked it. It was lucky. I think there were people there who would’ve refused music that wasn’t really popular in Japan. But the manager really took a shine to it.

What first got you into listening to house and techno, despite it not being so popular in Japan?

I went to LA right around that time, and I constantly had MTV on at the hotel. I felt really shocked. It was so different to what was trendy in Japan. I bought loads of cassettes as souvenirs. Nothing like that was being sold in CD shops in the suburbs in Hino back then. I went to places like Shinjuku and Shibuya and tried to find music that was close to what I got in LA, and gradually gathered more info. That was just after I turned 20.

What kind of records did you buy in LA around 1988?

What I bought at the time was Milli Vanilli, who I liked quite a bit. They were constantly at #1 in the charts, so I started off with their music. Then I bought Madonna. Madonna was really popular in Japan too, but the songs they were playing hadn’t been imported or were new songs. From then on, Madonna started leaning towards a club music sound, and those songs were the start of it. I’ve forgotten the song names though. I like rock too. I liked bands like Guns N’ Roses. When I went to Tower Records in LA, Axl Rose was there, and I ran into him and thought he was really cool.

In Japan, it was disco that was still popular around 1988. For example, in Japan, a disco called Maharaja was very trendy. I didn’t really go around that time, though. Something called Eurobeat was also incredibly popular in Japan. Club music, like house or techno, didn’t take off until two or three years later. I think it was right between the change from disco to house that I made the Streets of Rage soundtrack. I think I started going around 1989. I went to a place called Yellow in Azabu pretty often. When it came to clubby places, that was the one.

Streets Of Rage Soundtrack

Can you tell us about the opening track to Streets of Rage?

This track was maybe the first, second or third track I made when working on Streets of Rage. I think people who liked old club music will listen to this and think, “Ah! It’s like Soul II Soul and Enigma.” What they all had in common was a sound called Ground Beat. Ground Beat itself was really new and cool. This kind of subtle, swinging beat wasn’t in any Japanese music back then, and, of course, it wasn’t in any game music. I wanted to use that beat no matter what, and that’s how it started. This kind of subtle swing. Back then, if game music didn’t have a well-defined melody, then it wasn’t accepted, or at least it wasn’t popular. There was little music that focused on beats in Japan then. I felt it was becoming a beat era. Beats, rather than melodies, would lead the music. I definitely thought that kind of music would come into fashion.

Was it exciting to use fresh new ideas in game music?

I think people who liked old club music will listen to this and think, “Ah! It’s like Soul II Soul and Enigma.”

Yes, it was. This kind of sound is hardly found in Japanese music history at all. It was very exciting. I could make the same kind of sounds with FM synthesis. Not only FM synthesis, but there was a one channel PCM too. For example, among the famous Roland instruments, there were the TR-909 and TR-808 rhythm machines. I sampled those sounds and put together a beat. The process of putting together those beats was really exciting and a lot of fun.

Can you talk a bit about PCM?

Sure. The first model of the PC88 didn’t have PCM. Afterwards, something called the Sound Board 2 was added. That was the first time PCM was on the PC88. There was only one PCM channel, so I thought the best way to use it was to cover for tones that sound bad with FM sounds, so I generally used it for drums. The reason I used it for drums was because you could reproduce drum sounds with very little memory, and with realer sounding drums, the music begins to sound more realistic. For orchestral hits, which started being used back then... It could really only play sounds like “jan,” “ban,” “dun” and such at the time. So short, realistic sounds like that would be assigned to the sampling channel, and everything else would play through the FM and PSG channels.

Yuzo Koshiro - Go Straight

Can you tell us about the music for Streets of Rage 2?

Sega received the music for Streets of Rage 1 really well. So, I wanted Streets of Rage 2 to continue where it left off. The club sound is something that’s ever-changing. The music I made for Streets of Rage 2 was more techno than the first game. That’s because it was techno and hard techno that I was hearing when I went to Yellow and other clubs. It’d been getting more and more popular. I was aiming first to bring in new sounds, rather than trying to take it to the next level. I was hoping to make it sound more up-to-date when I made it. Not only that, but house music had evolved as well as techno, and was kind of leaning towards funk.

If you’re wondering what changed exactly, it was the development of the samplers back then. A style incorporating old funk music, ethnic music and such, with beats from the 808 and 909, established itself, and that time saw a lot of evolution. I wanted to reproduce that in Streets of Rage 2. I made a lot of different percussion sounds with FM. I tried putting the beats in more complex arrangements. The synthesiser was the same too. At the time there weren’t just beats, but a Roland bass machine called the TB-303 too. If you opened and closed the filter, it made a distinctive sound. I wanted to reproduce that with FM synthesis.

Red Bull

Did you have a favourite DJ at Yellow?

I liked DJs, and there were particular DJs I liked, but I really don’t remember names or anything like that. It’s a weak point of mine. I’m not especially knowledgeable about clubs and the club scene. But there’s a man named Motohiro Kawashima who I worked on Streets of Rage 2 with, and he loved clubs. He’d invite me to try new places, and we were always going out together. He loved Yellow too. I first learned of Yellow as a place that had the latest club music of the time, and had DJs who chose music with this in mind. In Japan, where disco was still at its height, at Yellow they played hard techno and such all night long. It was a unique and fun place.

Was it exciting to go to Yellow in the early ’90s?

Yes. I think it was a time when regular people would answer Yellow Magic Orchestra, if you asked them what techno was. It was a time when artists like Ken Ishii and Takkyu Ishino were just starting out. I think Denki Groove went on to make techno more famous, and it was just before that time. They mostly overlapped, though. So, among one group of people, there was a real craze, but it wasn’t like everyone was listening to it. I think it was quite a fanatical genre.

Streets of Rage 3

Can you tell us about the direction you took for the Streets of Rage 3 soundtrack?

I feel happy when people tell me they like the Streets of Rage 3 soundtrack, but I think there might’ve been some people who couldn’t take listening to it. Maybe now young people can listen to this kind of track without feeling uneasy. Back in 1994, the reason I tried to make this kind of track was because I wanted to reproduce the kind of music I was hearing at Yellow. I made it with the idea of further evolving what I’d done in Streets of Rage 2.

It’s kind of crazy, right? It’s the kind of track that leaves you wondering where the melody is. I wasn’t sure how well it’d be received, but, luckily, it was at least accepted by Sega. It took a bad beating from listeners at the time. I remember hearing people say that it wasn’t even music. It was really experimental, and I made it believing that kind of era was on the horizon. I don’t think this kind of music is accepted in Japan. I still hear people nowadays say they don’t really understand it occasionally. Some people do say they liked it though, so I think I was right to do it in one way.

How did you make these kinds of sounds on a PC88?

The way I made music changed dramatically for Streets of Rage 3. Firstly, we changed from a PC88 to a 98. To make the Streets of Rage sound on a 98, I first had to make a new music generation type program. It was different to writing notes myself. I wrote conditions, kind of like with a programming language, and wrote programs that produced sound like that. The sounds are created automatically, but you’d choose the best ones and paste it all together. It’s really close to how techno music nowadays is made. By making a new music generator program, I was able to create the new style sounds, which was what made the difference between 2 and 3.

How do you feel about the influence your music had on electronic music producers around the world?

What originally influenced me was... American and British music. It feels kind of strange to hear those people say they like my music. I think, “But it was your music originally!”

It’s a great honour for me. Nowadays there’s the Internet, so I receive messages and stuff from people overseas. What originally influenced me when making the Streets of Rage music wasn’t Japanese music, but American and British music. It feels kind of strange to hear those people say they like my music. I think, “But it was your music originally!” I had influences when I made the music, but I definitely wasn’t imitating anyone. I was making it function as game music. And I had to program the FM synthesis myself too. So the finished game music was really unique. That’s how I think about it anyway. It was something a bit different to what was playing on MTV. And since you play games again and again, the music really gets in your head.

Can you tell us about any techniques or tricks that helped you get the most out of the limited hardware back then?

I think the best way to get nice sounds out of an 88 was by making your own music driver. Making an editor that plays sounds how you want them, and making a music driver. I think going that far is what helped me overcome the limitations.

How do you feel about being called the king of the FM synthesis?

It’s an honour for me. Though there are a lot of people who use the FM synth well. As I said before, in terms of game music... Trying to use an FM synth with MIDI had so many restrictions. I don’t think people could use the chip to its full potential exactly as they wanted. Since I made my own editor and driver, I could control everything about the chip down to the fine details. So I think that’s why I was able produce that level of sound. I definitely don’t think I’m great at making quality tones though. Being able to control every little thing freely was one of the main reasons I received that kind of praise.

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