Raheem Jarbo, aka Random, might be independent music's best-kept secret. Though the Philly-bred artist's self-billing of "Teacher, Rapper, Hero" might suggest a certain hip-hop braggadocio, there's not even a shred of arrogance apparent in his positive attitude and welcoming demeanor. Where some rappers spit endless rhymes about substance abuse and violence, Random relentlessly pursues a message of hope ... and videogames. Fresh off the release of his Final Fantasy VII theme album, Black Materia, Random's accruing nerd cred at an exponential rate.
But who is this man? Is he Random, semi-indie, semi-nerdcore rapper? Is he Mega Ran, hip-hop robot on a ceaseless crusade for justice? Is he Raheem, middle school teacher with a music career? If you've never heard of him, you're in for a treat!
You've already given a good summary of how you got started on Black Materia, so this probably feels like old hat to you, but for those who haven't heard: How'd you get your start? Where did Random come from? What about Mega Ran?
Wow. Definitely not a new story, but one I love to tell. I was born and raised in Philadelphia, home to a lot of great musical history. I was a huge fan of old school soul and R&B. I couldn't sing, so one day, my friends and I decided to try our hands at writing rhymes. I called myself "The R," then later changed to Random, after a character who appeared in X-Factor comics. The rest is history, I guess.
That was in 1994 or so. Mega Ran was born in 2007, when after releasing my first commercial release, The Call, I had become bored with music and imposed a hiatus. In this time, I went back to videogames, and was inspired to create an album based on my favorite 8-bit titles, the Mega Man series. It was a calculated risk, but it worked out, because a rep from Capcom contacted me and told me they loved the album and were interested in licensing the product. Mega Ran was born.
You often cite your past as a teacher. Were you a teacher first, a rapper first, both at the same time? Will you ever go back to teaching?
I was a rapper first, but I was and will always be a teacher. There's no more of a rewarding career. And though I don't do it in the classroom anymore, thanks to the gift of music, I can still teach through the speakers. For that reason, there's always a message in the music.
Who are your major influences outside of videogames? How do you describe your sound?
Outside of gaming, I don't have to look any further than my own upbringing for inspiration. I was raised on a block in Philly where I'd seen just about every negative situation you can think of. People say that makes it hard to think positively, but it's easy for me, considering what I've been through.
I call my sound "New Retro." It's something old and something new. For the people who say that today's rap music is too formulaic, there I am. For those who thought music of yesteryear didn't sound fresh, there I am.
Black Materia and Mega Ran are certainly your more popular releases. What are some less well-known tracks you'd suggest to fans fresh off of Black Materia?
I'm a huge lover of the Heroes album, as well as Patches and Glue. These albums are nostalgic, and fun, and show a different side of me. People think the gamer-related albums are a different person, but the same values are there, so I really think it's possible to enjoy a Random album as much as a Mega Ran project.
Are there other tracks or games you'd love to sample/pay homage to? Are there any that you love but would never attempt? Will there ever be a Mega Ran 10, or do you feel you've already tread that ground?
Well, I'd love to do something with a lot of titles, games that had significant effects on my childhood. Great experiences like Metroid, Metal Gear Solid, Chrono Trigger, Zelda, Sonic, even newer games like Bioshock and Uncharted. But I really don't know. If it's creative and good, I'd do it, but I'd have to really feel it.
There will be Mega Ran 10, I'm working on putting that out this year, hopefully, if the soundtrack can influence great songs, like ones in the past. I can't do it just to do it. I have to compete with "Grow Up" or "Splash Woman."
Any fond gaming anecdotes you'd like to share?
When I was young, I had a cassette recorder called a "Kid-Corder," and I used to hold it up to the TV set to record the theme music to my favorite games. Then I'd take the cassettes, put my music in my Walkman and go to school listening to Mega Man and Mario themes before I got into hip-hop. It's so ironic that now 20 years later, I'm working with those themes today.
That's a great story! Anyone of our generation probably did something similar. Are you still playing games? Any recent favorites?
Whenever I can. The first Bioshock, Mass Effect 2, Uncharted, Assassin's Creed. And of course I still play the retro games as much as I can.
You've got a lot of upcoming shows. Where's the best place fans can see you?
Nerdapalooza is the immediate next, but if you're out west, Comic-Con would be ideal! I'll be out there in San Diego playing a show pretty much every night from July 21-24. After that, we're taking our first ever UK tour! Check out http://www.megaran.com/shows for more.
What's next in the pipe?
Touring. But after that, more music. Just released a special edition of Heroes, that's on Amazon now, and then an album with my good friend Mr. Miranda, and then Mega Ran 10. Also working on some projects with my buddy dannyB, of Super Meat Boy fame. That should be enough for this year, right? :-) Next year, K-Murdock and I will return for a Sega-based album, like Forever Famicom of 2010.
Any words of hope for aspiring artists out there?
Yeah, but it'll sound lame: don't be afraid to be different. I was so afraid of doing what I did because it hadn't been done. Now the door is open thanks to that courage. Have no fear. And as I've learned, keep multiple avenues open. Learn a new skill. I'm trying to learn the guitar right now. Never be afraid to expand the sound. Keep moving upward!
Anything else you'd like to promote while you're here?
Of course! I do a reality/documentary show every week called "Life After Lesson Plans," check that out on YouTube.
I also just got these super cool Black Materia USB drives, get one of those with the whole album + instrumentals and bonus tracks!
And, finally, a self-serving question: When are you gonna come to NYC? I saw you were playing at the Rotunda in Philly (one of my old haunts as a teen) and it nearly broke my heart.
I'm in talks to play at NY Comic Con, let's hope that comes through! I love playing NYC, and honestly, I haven't in quite some time! If not this year then very very soon. Some great news came across my desk today, and if it works out, I'll be there, and in fact, Destructoid will be the first to know.
I’ll keep my fingers crossed! Thanks for your time!
Thanks for the opportunity!
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