You’re 12 years old, you live in Europe and it’s 1992. Instead of Chrome, you’re on something called the BBS. Instead of Ableton, you’re using something called a tracker program. And the one thing you’re most excited about this weekend is the upcoming demo party.
This was, at one point, the life of Dmitry Zhemkov, a longtime chiptune artist under the alias C-jeff, who grew up in an underground community of net artists who were some of the first to get their hands on things like message boards, chat rooms and cracked software.
He was the first person I reached out to to help me learn more about the mysterious origins of keygen music and within minutes of our chat, he was helping me nail down the actual artist and tracknames of every file in my playlist.
For those not familiar, a keygen, short for key generator, is a tiny piece of illegal software, usually bundled with a torrent download, that generates an unlock code to the full version of an application. Just click “activate” and your trial version of Photoshop is now the full suite. The best thing about these apps is the music that plays every time you open one. There are thousands of these things out there and all of the tracks in them are amazing, but until today, most of the artists and track titles have remained largely unknown, or unlooked-for.
As Dmitry explains, the origin of keygen music is rooted in the early days of online piracy: “In the late 80s and early 90s there were so-called crack groups that were cracking a lot of software from the legal companies and spreading it over BBS [the earliest stage of the internet]. They started to add ‘intro’ segments to their cracked productions as a way of sending HELLOs to other teams as well as some FUCKs to someone who made some shitty prod.”
The intros were each crack team’s signature, and as the scene grew, artists making these signatures started looking at “intros” as a new form of standalone audio and visual expression.
“People started to organize groups not only for crack purposes,” says Dmitry, “but to be creative. ‘Intros’ soon evolved into what is now known as ‘demos’, which had crews coming together to create something like a music video that was completely programmed with computer code to run in real time. No special editors or anything, it was just algorithms into memory.”
Competition for which crew could make the best demo showcase soon became known as the demoscene, a movement largely responsible for the growth of chiptune music and the tracker programs it was made on.
After our chat, Dmitry pointed me in the direction of an artist he considers to be a living legend of the scene, Sweden’s Jakob Svanholm, who, at the time, was producing under the alias Radix.
“It was definitely awesome being surrounded by all these creative people, doing code, graphics or music,” says Svanholm on growing up in the demoscene. “The atmosphere is friendly. The party itself usually takes place in a big gym hall, and people bring their computers and just kind of work together to do awesome stuff. The original purpose of the demoscene was to create things that broke the boundaries of what you could achieve on a specific platform.”
Despite a growing community of demoparties around the world, the scene never broke out of the underground. Part of this has to do with the .mod format these files were being released on, yet they still have a pretty awesome advantage over .mp3. “The nature of tracker music is that it’s not rendered out like you do in a normal DAW,” Svanholm explains. “You compose your music and save the module file. The module can be opened up by anyone else.”
Another reason why artists featured in keygens never really surfaced is due to the fact that keygen apps started using demoscene era music years after it was initially made, and since many of the artists never actively sought an audience outside the scene, most probably don’t even know their music is being used. Regardless, this is a pocket of music culture that deserves some attention. Random Voice’s “Monday”, which came out in 1991, is one of the earliest computer-based dance music records ever made. Quazar is actually the demoscene alias of Axwell, and Bruno’s “Boombasticliy Sexy Teeze” marks some pretty next level tracker and sampling technique.
In a lot of ways, the demoscene feels like the 90s version of the current SoundCloud scene to me — a tight-knit group of homies doing some pretty amazing things, but you have to be paying close attention to see just how much is going on. Tracks like Dune’s “Wormsign”, Traven’s “MISS KEBAB III” and Drax’s “Building Up and Down” all feel like they could be right at home in a Maxo or Lindsay Lowend set, while Chromag’s “Waterfall” and JamSlam’s “el4” sound like selects from a Club Cheval show. All of these guys were doing a lot with a few hundred kilobytes. I guess the question for today’s producers is, when you have little to no production limitations, what’s the best way to push forward?