Chiptune is a style of synthesised electronic music originally made, as the name suggests, through use of sound chips. Designed for video arcade machines during their “golden age” of the 1980s, technological advancements deemed chiptune a redundant mode of musical production soon after its invention. Spurred by the overproduction and subsequent cheapness of its materials, however, chiptune as an art form survived.
Chiptune artists developed a style of electronic music that was unique in its sheer speed, full of rapid arpeggios and disorientating beeps and bleeps. Despite occasional spurs of popularity in both Japanese and American popular music, the style has remained largely an underground phenomenon.
Artists’ pride in playing and displaying certain collectable 8-bit chips doesn’t tend to lend chiptune to mass appeal. The contemporary chip scene is unashamedly techy but not exclusively so; chiptune producers now aren’t required to holster such a huge cannon of entertainment system chips, nor are they, with the introduction of 16-bit and MIDI music, limited solely to 8-bit.
Arcade music purportedly spurred the development of electro, from which supposedly spawned other electronic dance music genres such as house and techno. Chiptune went on to have odd spurs of popularity among more left-field J-pop producers in the 2000s. Most notorious of these was Yasutaka Nakata, whose production defined Perfume’s Game (2007) and Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s Nanda Collection (2013) as two of the most influential Japanese pop albums of the new millennium.
Nakata himself came from a background in picopop, a genre both aesthetically similar to and descended from chiptune. His group Capsule, along with the likes of Plus-Tech Squeeze Box and Sonic Coaster Pop, explored a style of pop music of direct lineage to Japanese arcade music but which also equally owed its existence to a certain strand of Shibuya-kei. Cornelius’ Fantasma (1997) and Point (2001), both attention-deficit romps full of dense samples and high tempos, laid a path for picopop.
To some, picopop artists took the plunderphonic relish of Cornelius’ Shibuya-kei and electrified it with bleeps and pace; to others, they adopted the technical rush of chiptune and buttressed it with additional synths, beats, guitars and modern production values. The truth is almost certainly some interwoven mix of the two. Either way, the peak of picopop in the early 2000s has come to be seen as a product of the global turn-of-the-century sampling obsession and an example of the potential extremities that can be achieved within the boundaries of pop music.
Check out our Chiptune and Picopop playlist!