59: Throughout the Universe, in Eternity

The second installment of the VGM + pop music series looks at Eternal Champions, a 1993 entry in the canon of fighting games that was created by an all-American team of Sega employees. Eternal Champions has its own merits, but this episode is concerned solely with two tracks from this game — both composed by Andy Armer and both of which seem to have been sampled in the 1995 Bone Thugs-N-Harmony album E. Eternal 1999. Neither Armer’s work nor Sega’s ownership of the source tracks seems to be documented anywhere official, and I do my best to try and find out why.

Cover art designed by Jude Buffum, pixel artist extraordinaire.

Gamelan music sample by the court musicians of the Royal Palace of the Sultan of Yogyakarta, via freesound.org.

 

Track listing:

0:06: Blade’s Theme / Eternal Champions / Andy Armer 
2:12: Rax’s Theme / Eternal Champions / Andy Armer 
4:06: Shadow’s Theme / Eternal Champions / Joe Delia, John Hart, Jeff Marsh, Adrian van Velsen and Andy Armer 
5:28: Title Theme / Eternal Champions / Andy Armer 
9:46: Character Bio Theme / Eternal Champions / Andy Armer 
11:54: Eternal / Bone Thugs-N-Harmony
13:27: Bad Ending Theme / Eternal Champions / Andy Armer 
15:24: Crossroad / Bone Thugs-N-Harmony
17:50: Menu Theme / Eternal Champions / Joe Delia, John Hart, Jeff Marsh, Adrian van Velsen and Andy Armer
23:33: Rise / Herb Alpert
24:48: Hypnotize / The Notorious B.I.G.
25:23: Battle Room Theme / Eternal Champions / Joe Delia, John Hart, Jeff Marsh, Adrian van Velsen and Andy Armer 
28:27: Jetta’s Theme / Eternal Champions / Joe Delia, John Hart, Jeff Marsh, Adrian van Velsen and Andy Armer 
32:21: Title Theme / Ecco: The Tides of Time / Andy Armer
35:50: Ceremony / Secret of Mana / Hiroki Kikuta
37:55: Xavier’s Theme / Eternal Champions / Joe Delia, John Hart, Jeff Marsh, Adrian van Velsen and Andy Armer 
40:00: Elec Man Theme / Mega Man / Manami Matsumae

Show notes:

In December 1993, Sega released a fighting game onto the Genesis console and into a market that was utterly saturated with games that featured international casts of combatants kicking the crap out of each other. The game I speak of is Eternal Champions. Now, it’s been years since I played this game, but it nonetheless lingers in my memory. For one thing, the game featured two female fighters — Jetta Maxx, a Russian circus performer, and Shadow Yamato, a Japanese assassin. This was actually pretty rare back in the day. I looked it up. On this one point of featuring more than one female character, the only fighting games I can find that beat Eternal Champions to the punch, so to speak, are World Heroes 2, Super Street Fighter II and Sega’s own Virtua Fighter, all of which came out just months beforehand. But at the very least. props to Eternal Champions for being one of the first to do that with its inaugural installment, rather than waiting to tack on more female characters in the sequels.

If I had to guess why anyone else remembers Eternal Champions, aside from the game play itself or the fact that it was a non-Mortal Kombat fighting game that featured “M for mature” fatalities, I’d say that American gamers might have taken to it because, also like Mortal Kombat, it was created from the ground up by an American team, from the design of the characters to the way the game played to the music.

I’ve said before on this podcast that the majority of music we all heard on Japanese consoles was created by Japanese composers, so when we got something by non-Japanese composers, it sometimes had a different vibe to it — a different approach to the subject matter. It’s sort of like how you can kind of imagine how certain game companies employ certain composers for long periods of time and end up creating a characteristic sound — a Capcom sound, a Sunsoft sound, a Nintendo sound, a classic Squaresoft sound. And when someone new works on a soundtrack for those companies, you’re like, “Oh, this sounds a little different from what I’m used to.”

That’s my theory, anyway. Eternal Champions maybe stuck out from your Fatal Furys and Tekkens and Toshindens because it looked more American and it sounded more American.

I suppose another reason Eternal Champions might stick out in your memory might be if you happened to be a fan of rap music back in mid-‘90s. Why? Well, that’s kind of a funny story.

This is the second installment of a series I’m doing this year on Singing Mountain in which I look into the relationship between video game music and pop music. And when I say pop music, I mean everything — rock and rap and R&B and anything else you might have heard on the radio in the last twenty-some years. Some people maybe don’t think a lot of video game music, but those people might be surprised to learn how often VGM has influenced pop music. A lot of times this relationship is hard to notice and hard to prove and hard to find in the liner notes, for one reason or another, and I’m trying to make that cause-and-effect a little easier to trace.

In the last episode, I built up to a big mystery about how a Janet Jackson track seemed to incorporate a chunk of music from the Square video game Legend of Mana. I regret to say that that mystery continues, though I’ll have a note about it at the end of this episode. And while you could listen to this episode without having listened to the first installment of this series — Episode 56: Michael and Janet in Video Game Land — there are a few things I’m going to gloss over here that I explained in greater depth in that episode. If you’re confused, go back and listen to Episode 56.

If I’ve still got you, have a listen to the title theme to Eternal Champions.

The soundtrack to Eternal Champions was composed by five people: Joe Delia, John Hart, Jeff Marsh, Adrian van Velsen and Andy Armer, and per my understanding, the soundtrack was compiled in a “grab bag” fashion, in which Sega would decide which of the submissions would be the one to make it into the game for, say, a certain character’s stage. Like, Sega received multiple takes on the stage of Xavier, the game’s medieval wizard guy and the character I liked the best — and the best one made the cut. As near as I could tell, no place online listed the different tracks with the precise composers responsible; all five were credited with each track, which made the job of researching this episode slightly harder. See, there were two tracks I needed some background on.

In order to find out which of the five composed these two tracks, I had to track down each of them, one by one. In order, Jeff Marsh said no, they weren’t his. John Hart said no. Joe Delia said “I actually didn’t ever work on a video game called Eternal Champions,” and then once I found the other composer also named Joe Delia, who did work on the game, he said no. (It was confusing.) Adrian van Velsen said I should ask Andy Armer, and finally Andy Armer said, “Yes, in fact, I did write those songs. Why do you ask?”

I was asking because of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, the hip-hop group that in 1995 put out its sophomore studio album, E. Eternal 1999. It topped the Billboard 200 for two weeks that August — the Billboard 200 being the weekly ranking for albums, as opposed to the Hot 100, which is Billboard magazine’s weekly ranking of singles. I actually have a physical copy of this album on my kitchen table as I record this episode. I bought it online and it arrived in an envelope, and if you told me just a few weeks ago that I, Drew Mackie, would be excited for an old-school jewel case CD Bone Thugs-N-Harmony album to get mailed to me, I’m not sure I would have believed you. But yeah, as a result of this project, I have bought more physical albums in 2019 than I did in the last decade.

If you open the liner notes, you will see that songs on the album sample The Dramatics and Earth, Wind & Fire, for example, and if you look those songs up on databases like ASCAP or BMI, you will see those original songwriters being credited alongside the people who wrote the Bone Thugs songs. You won’t see any reference to anyone associated with Eternal Champions, which is weird, because two tracks on E. Eternal 1999 really seem be built on selections from that game’s soundtrack.

Have a listen to the “Character Bio” theme from Eternal Champions — one of the songs Andy Armer identified as his. I really like this track. It’s moody and sad, and if you know that the whole thing with Eternal Champions is that all the fighters are dead, and they’ve been pitted against each other for a second chance at life, the morose tone of it makes sense.

And now here is the opening 45 seconds or so from a track from this album, the name of which happens to be “Eternal.” Before I play it, I should say this is the one podcast I do where I don’t swear. The other two, not so much, but I decided I’d make this one expletive-free. That’s not going to work here just because this album is a work of gangsta rap and… there is not a way for me to play this song without swears. For the sake of my argument, however, concentrate on the music.

Now, here’s the other track I was looking into, “Bad Ending.”

And here’s another track from that same Bone Thugs album, titled “Crossroad.”

One quick aside: If you know Bone Thugs-n-Harmony and you’re saying, “I know their song ‘Crossroad,’ and what you’re playing is not it,” I would say, “You have a lot of attitude,” but also I’d point out that I played the song called “Crossroad” that comes on the original physical album, which first went on sale July 25, 1995. It is an elegy to a deceased friend of the band, which might make the use of the “Bad Ending” theme all the more appropriate. The following March, Eazy-E died and Bone Thugs remade “Crossroad” in memory of him, and that version is called “Tha Crossroad.” It does not feature any parts that sound like any Eternal Champions track, that I can tell. That newer track replaces the original “Crossroad” on reprintings in the U.S., and if you look the album up on iTunes today, you’ll find that you cannot buy the original “Crossroad,” only “Tha Crossroad.”

I talked to a lot of people to research this episode, including several who work specifically in the field of rights clearance, either  for larger companies looking to license music for use in movies, on TV or in ads, or as independent contractors who work with artists needing to get the OK to use samples in their music. These people agreed to give me basic background info on the whole process without getting into specific cases, which I was cool with because I needed to know how this works.

Okay. So imagine you’re a music artist and you are recording an album, and that album features samples or resung elements or replayed elements from other works. There are people whose job it is find out who owns the publishing and master copyrights for these referenced works: the former being what the songwriter owns or that person’s publishing company owns, and the latter being the copyright to that specific recording, which would probably be owned by the label for which that artist is recording. It’s the difference between the Bangles’ performance of the song “Manic Monday” and the composition of the song, which was actually by Prince. Do people know Prince wrote that song? Yes? Okay, here’s a deeper cut: the performance of “Red, Red Wine” by UB40 and the composition of it, which is credited to Neil Diamond. Yep, that’s a Neil Diamond song.

Anyway, the person trying to clear these samples reaches out to whoever owns the rights and asks if the artist can use them. If they can use them, a negotiation begins over who gets how much from which pile of money. As it has been explained to me from everyone I asked, this is the process for using samples from anything, including video games, which is to say no, there doesn’t seem to be any official rule that allows video games to be treated different from, say, another pop song nor the score from a movie.

Multiple times, this left me asking the same set of questions: “So if there’s no credit to a video game composer whose work I am pretty sure is being sampled or otherwise referenced, does that mean I’m wrong? Is it not a sample? Is it coming from somewhere else? Is it a coincidence? Is there any reason neither the composer nor the video game company that presumably owns the rights to the music wouldn’t be credited in the liner notes? Or on ASCAP? Or BMI? Or any official literature I can find about the song?”

There are reasons. First, a lack of credit doesn’t necessarily mean a lack of clearance, I am told. A party could decline to be credited, though I’m unsure why anyone would consent to letting their property be sampled if they, for example, found the derivative work to be obscene or defamatory or otherwise objectionable.

Second, it’s technically possible that use of the song was cleared on Sega’s end, and Sega might have received some compensation for its use, but it didn’t forward the composer’s name to the publisher of the new work. Technically. And third, it’s possible that Sega just isn’t aware that these tracks sampled something it owns the rights to, though I find this hard to imagine, given that the Bone Thugs album has been out for more than twenty years, and also they were and are a well-known group. Sega is a company with the resources to sue a music publisher if they thought their copyright had been infringed upon, and we do love suing each other in America.

The fourth instance is that it just isn’t a sample, though I’m fairly certain this isn’t the case. Because I have ears. And also because I talked to the guy who composed the original tracks.

I interviewed Andy Armer over the phone, and he says he remembers holding his son in his lap while sitting in the studio of his apartment in Los Angeles, when the melody for the “Bad Ending” theme came into his head. He also remembers being paid $500 per composition for his work. And he also remembers signing the contract that said that Sega owns those compositions.

Quote: “I was just hired to write it, and as soon as it's written, and as soon as that contract is signed, they own it.” They meaning Sega. “You know, I don't think they have to credit me. I don’t exist. In perpetuity throughout the universe, I don’t exist.”

That phrase Andy’s referring to, “throughout the universe, in perpetuity” sounds very grandiose, very Galactus, destroyer of worlds, I know, but it’s apparently fairly standard in contracts where an employee develops intellectual property — like, you know, a song — while being contracted for their services. And I’m certain that Sega would own the Eternal Champions music, and in fact the work for hire contract the composers signed might say that, technically speaking, legally speaking, Sega is the author of those songs. However, I’m not sure Andy is correct in saying that he, as a songwriter contributing to Eternal Champions soundtrack, doesn’t exist, in perpetuity throughout the universe. He is credited in the game itself. In the end credits, along with the other four guys. They… don’t spell his name right. Or Adrian Van Velsen’s, for that matter. But they are saying, “Hey, this is who made the music.”

Just in case you’re getting the wrong idea, Andy didn’t sound super angry about the situation and wasn’t clamoring for money. And it might be underselling the situation to boil it down to “Well , a credit would be nice,” but that is essentially what’s going on here, because songwriting credits are useful in this world for getting subsequent work, and that might have been handy back in 1995.

Andy said he found about the connection with Bone Thugs a few years ago, and ended up commenting on some YouTube clips, saying in effect, “Oh, I actually wrote that.” The response was positive: “I was getting these amazing comments from random strangers — like, you know, “You changed my life,” “That song was on my clock radio,” “You know, that's the reason I play guitar.” And when he said these things, there was satisfaction in his voice — the kind of satisfaction that you hear from a creative person who has observed that his work has connected with an audience.

I’d guess that one reason Armer wishes his work on these two Eternal Champions tracks got some credit on the Bone Thugs album is that he co-wrote this 1979 Herb Alpert disco instrumental “Rise.”

You might be thinking that this sounds familiar but you can’t quite put your finger on why. If you’re around my age, it’s probably the part of the song you hear at 3 minutes and nine seconds.

There it is. Yes, “Rise” attained its own level of prominence at the time but got new prominence in 1997 when the Notorious B.I.G. track “Hypnotize” sampled “Rise” and therefore got Andy a songwriting credit on the track.

It was the last track Biggie released before he died. Literally, he was gunned down a week later. Having a credit on a song like that means something. We were talking about it, and Andy told me, “There’ve been a few times where I had fun pulling that out at a music store and going, ‘Yeah, look. There's my name there. Isn't that weird?’”

I totally get it. I used to work for print publications, and there was always something cool about seeing my byline in print, even if it was all the words below that byline that really mattered. It was a point of pride.

In talking to music industry people, I’ve been encountering a recurring problem, and that is the website WhoSampled.com. The previous episode, I talked about the phenomenon of people hearing two songs and concluding one ripped off the other without investigating if both songs are perhaps using a common musical structure that is unique to neither work or if perhaps the melodies are similar but not necessarily the same. WhoSampled.com is a database of song meta-relationships: samples, covers, remixes and other forms of musical quotation. If you like music, it is a wonderful hole to fall into. And it’s helpful for research, but because the connections are submitted by users, you should treat it like you’d treat Wikipedia: a jumping off point for further research but something that you can’t necessarily trust at face value. The people I talked to are well aware of this site, and when I pointed out the similarity between the Eternal Champions tracks and the Bone Thugs tracks, I got more than one variation of, “Oh, did you find this on WhoSampled.com? Did you look into this before you asked me?”

Of the people I talked to, the one who was the most helpful was the one who listened to the tracks while we were talking on the phone and immediately concluded, “Oh, well that’s just blatant.” This person told me the next step in this investigation should be for the composer to reach out to Sega and ask, “Were these derivative works? Did Sega give sample clearance for them? Or did the company release the sample for gratis?”

Because I am curious, I reached out on Andy’s behalf to the precise person who would oversee such matters now, along with the note that I realize this whole thing happened about twenty years ago, but perhaps you know someone who knows someone. I… have yet to receive a response, though I will append any new information to future installments of this series.

I suppose a smart person listening to this weird little story might be wondering if I reached out to someone from the record label, to see what their take might be. I did, as a matter of fact — the very person in charge of clearing samples for the Bone Thugs album. Here’s a dramatic re-creation of how our exchange went.

Hi. My name is Drew, and I’m doing a research project. I understand you oversaw sample clearance for E. Eternal 1999. Can I ask you some questions?

This person: Sure! I’d love to help.

Me: Okay, my questions are about this 1993 Sega game called Eternal Champions. Can you tell me if any material from the game was cleared for use in the album?

[no response]

Me, again: Hey, it’s Drew again, and I’m still trying to get some info about the production of this album. Are you still interested in talking?

This person: Sure, what do you want to know?

Me: So all of my questions are about Eternal Champions.

[no response]

Me, one last time: Okay, well, I’d love to make time to talk if you’re free at all.

[no response]

My inner Mulder always wants to leap to some conspiracy theory and think some valuable information is being purposefully withheld from me, but I’m actually fairly Scully-dominant in these situations, and here are all the explanations I think are more likely:

This person doesn’t remember.

This person doesn’t care.

This person isn’t at liberty to speak about this specific subject because they probably signed a non-disclosure agreement back in the day.  

This person has, like, a family and real work and hobbies and just has a hundred more pressing things to do than to talk to some nerd for his video game music podcast. I do realize that I’m this little wiener kid cold-calling strangers and being like, “Hi, will you talk to me about this video game that came out twenty years ago?” When you’re asking that of someone who doesn’t think about video games on an hour-to-hour basis, it seems like a big ask.

Hearing me explain all this, you might think that I feel like the members of Bone Thugs did something wrong in using these samples. I don’t at all. I actually think what happened here is kind of genius — or at least the kind of pop culture-spanning creativity I really enjoy. The group wanted to write a song in memory of a friend who died, and they did that by incorporating the Bad Ending theme — music from a fighting game that signifies an outcome of a playthrough that is undesired. The goal was not achieved. In doing this, Bone Thugs used an element of the pop culture vernacular — fighting games, which were everywhere in 1995 — to connect with their audience, a significant segment of which would have probably played Eternal Champions and would have known what that music meant. It’s clever. And in a way it gives the original composition a new layer of complexity. As artists, the guys in Bone Thugs did their job, which is to make art. The detective work around those samples is, as I explained earlier, someone else’s job. And it might have all been on the up and up, if, per that contract, Sega wasn’t obligated to attach Andy’s name to the music. If that’s our answer, then we’re looking at a dumb failing of the system that supposed to assure artists that they get credit for their creative efforts — which is a bummer. But I still want to know why there’s no reference to at least Sega or Eternal Champions anywhere. No matter who the legal author of those songs is, it’s still a sample. Did Sega decline to be credited? Why would they? Why does it seem like video game music is treated differently in these situations, even if everyone is telling me that’s not the case.

In case you are wondering why the original, Eternal Champions-sampling version of “Crossroad” got cut from later versions of the album, I’m going to Scully you again. I don’t think anyone was covering up use of a nonsanctioned sample or anything.The remake was a hit while the original wasn’t even a single, so I’d bet good money that it was just a business decision, though I guess it is weird that the original version got struck entirely. But I don’t work at a record label. What do I know?

A few months before E. Eternal 1999 came out, Eternal Champions got a sequel on the Sega CD: Eternal Champions: Challenge from the Dark Side. It features none of the original five composers but at the very least it does double down on the number female fighters. If you’ve been listening to this podcast for a while, you know this is important to me. Beyond Jetta Maxx and Shadow Yamato, it adds Riptide, a female pirate, and Raven, a voodoo priestess who I am pretty sure is the first black female character in a fighting game. Sega put out two spinoffs — one starring Shadow, one starring the gangster-cat burglar fighter, Larcen Tyler — and then never revisited the franchise. Again, bummer.

Andy Armer did compose music for subsequent games, including the Sega Saturn title Three Dirty Dwarves.

He also worked on Ecco: The Tides of Time, composing what I think are some of that game’s better tracks. Have a listen to that game’s title theme for a glimmer of what else Andy was capable of doing with the Sega Genesis.

 

That is, for now, the limit of what I can tell you about Eternal Champions and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. Another unsatisfying conclusion, I know, but like I said, this is an ongoing project that I will update as I get answers.

Before all the end-of-the-episode stuff, I can give you this:

Like I said earlier, I also haven’t come up with the solution to the central mystery of the previous installment in this series: how this 2001 Janet Jackson song seemed to contain a looped sample from the 1999 game Legend of Mana. Two people now have suggested the melody featured in these songs might be gamelan, a percussion-forward style of traditional Indonesian music. It sounds like this.

That sampled bit might be gamelan, and, in fact, the reason I know about gamelan music is actually the predecessor to Legend of Mana, Secret of Mana. This game’s go-to “spooky music” is titled “Ceremony,” and it’s been compared to gamelan by a few people writing about it online.

It should be noted that Secret of Mana was composed by Hiroki Kikuta, and Legend of Mana by Yoko Shimomura, and the presence of gamelan-inspired music in one composer’s body of work doesn’t mean it is necessarily in the other’s. But it’s entirely possible that it might be and, as it was pointed out to me, that both the Legend of Mana track and Janet Jackson track might be riffing on a piece of music that’s very common in gamelan. I tried to find out if this might be true, but all my attempts at reaching out to anyone who knows gamelan have been unable to tell me anything. Do… you know anyone who knows this style of music well? Because if you do, hook me up. Please.

For each installment of this series, I’m posting the text at singingmountainpod.com, including clips and any relevant sources I used. As always, you can listen to all previous episodes of Singing Mountain at this website but also anywhere you’d normally find a podcast.

If you have any questions, comments or criticisms about Singing Mountain, the easiest way to reach me is on Twitter, either at @drewgmackie or at @singmopod. You can also follow Singing Mountain on Facebook — just search Singing Mountain and then click on the one that is not a bakery — and, if you like pixel art, on Instagram at singingmountainpod.

Please subscribe, and if you like the show, give me a rate and review, because those are helpful for the reasons you hear on every podcast ever.

This show was written, produced and edited by me, Drew Mackie. The cover art for this series of episodes examining VGM and pop music was designed by Jude Buffum, a pixel artist whose work I really dig. You should check his stuff out at his website.

Special thanks to Amy Smith, Clarissa Wei and Ryan Felix for helping me get this episode out.

Singing Mountain is a TableCakes podcast. TableCakes is a Los Angeles-based podcast network that features some really cool shows, including two others that I host. Check them all out at tablecakes.com. If you want to support Singing Mountain or any of the other shows on the TableCakes network, do so at patreon.com/tablecakes.

I know I normally wrap up an episode with something that summarizes the topic at hand, but I’m not going to do that this time. Instead, I’m going to end this one with a preview of the track I’m focusing on in the next installment of this series: the Elec Man stage theme from the first Mega Man, composed by Manami Matsumae. Why? I’m hoping because it’s at the center of a mystery I can solve.

 
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Drew Mackie