To say that Mega Ran is one of the most prolific rappers in the game would be true, but it wouldn’t do him justice. To say that he’s the king of video game rap, the undefeated champ of pro-wrestling bars, an esteemed member of the hip-hop literati, and an MVP among an all-star lineup of indie MCs would also be correct, but there’d still be more in his bag. The Philly-born rapper, now residing in Phoenix, is also a former teacher, a new foster father, and a long-time staple of the burgeoning internet-based DIY underground. Live ‘95, his latest album, is a throwback to the halcyon days just before that online revolution took off, when basketball highlights came compiled on VHS tapes, and hip-hop was just coming out of the tunnel, into the international spotlights. We sat down to talk with Mega Ran about Live ‘95, his work with Young RJ of Slum Village, and his Generations of Miracles tour that will be coming to Portland this May. Check it out below:
ELEVEN: Just to preface before we get into Live ‘95–since 2020 you’ve dropped The Dewey Decibel system with MC Lars, a literature themed album, and you dropped Black Materia: The Remake, about Final Fantasy VII. You’re a very thematic writer, and Live ‘95 is focused on 90’s basketball and hip-hop culture. Do you start with a theme for your projects, or when you’re in the studio creating, do you have different tracks that you’re sorting into buckets as you make them?
Mega Ran: That’s a good question. I feel like it depends. Sometimes I’m in a moment, like it’s wherever I am in my life. With Live ‘95, it was a really fun time where I realized basketball was becoming a bigger part of my life again, and it reminded me of times in the 90’s where basketball was everything for me, so it put me in a really fun space, where I was able to reminisce. It really just depends on how the wind blows. I’ll get stuck. I start concepts and projects and they just sit. Those might be Patreon releases, or they might just never come out. There’s Final Fantasy based or video game based projects that I started, and I just couldn’t see them through, I didn’t have the inspiration. It’s wherever the inspiration takes me. But I love writing in themes and concepts. It allows me to partition off my brain and it keeps me focused. I can write a random rap song, but I like for albums to be a full, complete thought.
11: Moving into Live ’95, you did a kickstarter for that album, and when you posted it, you said you were about halfway done with the album already. Is that typical for you, to have a body of work and then go out and raise funds to get it to where you want it to be?
MR: Yeah. When I started off, Live ’95 was going to be six songs, either six basketball players or six situations or six references, and that’s it. But I kept writing and I kept having more ideas, and I was like, “I really want to make this a big release,” and in order to make it a big release I needed some assistance. I needed to make sure that the production and the artwork and the merch around it, the full release would feel like it got the attention and the respect that it deserved, and that was why I went to kickstarter. It was something I was kinda hesitant about at first, because it’s very, I guess, scary, asking people for money, you know? It’s very difficult asking people for money, but I’ve been very fortunate to have a following, a fan base. I call them my family, my extended family, that want to see me see through projects, so that’s really what it was. I made sure to tell them, “this is going to be a great project,” and I wouldn’t start raising funds for it if I hadn’t already started. I just wouldn’t feel right, like, “hey, I’m going to make this album tomorrow, it’s called My Diary. I haven’t started yet but it’s gonna be great, now gimme some money!” I knew [Live ‘95] was going to be special, but at the same time, it was a good way to give myself some peace of mind, because I’m not putting the pressure on what the album has to do after release. The money was already made. I was very fortunate that we hit our goal, we passed it, and I was able to fund everything and then go beyond with stretch goals, and pocket a little bit of money to keep this Mega Ran train running for a while.
11: How do you know when a project is done?
MR: Hmm. I think for me, it’s when you don’t have anything else to say, or to add. Especially now, we’ve gotten a point where brevity is appreciated in music. People don’t have a lot of time. Tik Tok is the biggest social media platform, it’s 45 second videos, just give me your best thing. Gimme a thing that’s gonna make me laugh, or make me feel something, and then keep it moving. So I kept telling myself “I’m gonna be brief on this project.” Then there’s also time constraints on vinyl. If you want a vinyl record, I think about 35 to 45 minutes is as far as you can go. So knew, “alright, I gotta cut the fat. I gotta make sure this is a well received album by making it the tightest of the tight,” so I started cutting verses, cutting songs short, taking a piece from that one, putting it on that, saving this for later. This’ll be a kickstarter exclusive song, this’ll come maybe next year…
11: Yeah, you have that moment on the title track, “Live 95” where you almost start the third verse, and then you cut it off.
MR: (laughs) Yeah, I got a kick out of that. Even myself, I do third verses occasionally, when it calls for it, but I thought it was funny to be like, “no, we don’t do that anymore, we keep it short.”
11: Going back a little to the idea of a theme, I think part of what makes each album a holistic piece is the soundscape, the production. How did you put together the beats for Live 95? It’s very much that stadium arena sound, 90’s basketball jams, coming out of the tunnel.
MR: Yeah, there’s mainly one producer, DJ DN3, wo did most of the beats on there, and I told him, “man let’s just make a throwback fun 90s album.” What I did was, there’s a video, an old VHS we used to have, called NBA Jam Session. I got ahold of it digitally, and it’s just this great forty minute video of NBA player highlights over the newest jams of the moment, hip-hop and R&B, and it’s fast paced, it’s funny, it’s high flyin’. I was like, “this is what I want, if you muted this and played my album, it would work fine with it.” That’s really where I was with it, and that’s where I told every producer to go. I said, “I want to mute this video, and it’s got, like, Shaq playing around, dunking the ball on people, that’s what I want this album to sound like. If you can mute this video and play our beats alongside it, I’ll be happy.”
11: I think it works, it takes you right there. I have to say, as a Michigander, I appreciated the Fab Five references!
MR: Hey, ok! Man, that started so much for us. For me, that was the first link between basketball and hip-hop culture. We were like, look at these kids, look at the swagger these kids have! They’re mean but they’re stylish, they’re doing new things we haven’t seen before, they’re brash, they’re cocky, you know? That would lead the way. Before that there was a UNLV team, the running rebels, the 90’s team, with Larry Johnson and a few guys, but never had we seen five kids come in, all swagger, dope gear, black socks, baggy shorts, and it really took the game by storm. That’s really what did a lot to help me get into college basketball. I went to Penn State, so we weren’t ever good at basketball, but we were close enough by those Michigan and Michigan State teams that were really good during those years.
11:It’s a crazy energy, and I think you captured it. Going back to the Michigan connection, I also wanted to ask you about Two Hands Up, with Young RJ of Slum Village, I love that album!
MR: CLASSIC! Sorry to cut you off Henry. I think it’s classic record, I love it so much.
11: I do as well! I also think sonically, if what people connect to in your body of work is Live ’95, Two Hands Up might be what I show them afterwards.
MR: Ok, I can see that. Man, I’m so proud of that record. I’ve just been revisiting it, because Young RJ was a student, protege of J Dilla, and today is J Dilla’s birthday, and there’s a new really great Dilla book out, called Dilla Time, I don’t know if you’ve read that yet?
11: I have not gotten a copy of it yet. but I’m aware of it, and going to track down a copy soon. (The book is Dilla Time, by Dan Charnas.)
MR: I’m listening to the audible while I’m driving, and it’s so nerdy! It’s the most nerdy approach to Dilla I’ve ever heard, and I love it. It gets really scientifical. But RJ’s dad [Detroit funk/soul artist and founder of Barak Records, R.J. Rice] is interviewed for that book, and they talk about a lot of the closeness he had to J Dilla. Young RJ took me to Detroit, we walked around, we went to Dilla’s neighborhood, we went to their school, where they shot videos, and it really helped me to get into the mode of creating that album. Then the pandemic hit. We were planning to go overseas with it. We were planning to go all these different places and things got canceled, and then when we finally put it out, in May, all hell breaks loose in America. It was like a week before George Floyd. It was the beginning of a new racial resurgence in pop culture. We didn’t plan for it to be that way, but I feel like we inadvertently made a soundtrack to that. There’s a lot of talk on there about police brutality, about being black in America, about the way things are. For it to come out right before things started happening was kinda divine intervention. That record will always be special to me, because it has a very unique timestamp, where it’s connected with historical moments. And I just think it’s great rhymes, great beats, and to be that close to someone who was so close to Dilla’s lineage, and Slum Village, is an honor. Young RJ gave me the look of a lifetime. He hit me up and was like, “let’s work on an album together,” and I was like, “for real?” And then I heard his beats, and I was like,”these are incredible dude.” We just started working on songs, and I think it’s some of my best work, and his too. We’re working on a follow-up. There will be a Two Hands Up 2.
11: We’re here for it! Incredible record, and I definitely recommend that people check for it. Moving on, you said you were going to tour that album, and now you’re getting ready to embark on this new tour in May, the Generations of Miracles tour, with Sammus, and Richie Branson, and Rustage. Is this the first tour you’ve done for Live ‘95?
MR: It is. I was on the road when Live ‘95 dropped, actually. We were ending a tour. It was October, and we dropped it right at the beginning of the basketball season, so it was the end of the month. But yeah, this is the first time I’ll be out playing a lot of these songs, so that’s going to be exciting. I’m playing with folks from a lot of different backgrounds. I’m playing with Richie Branson, who’s a well known established anime hip-hop artist, who’s done a ton of things in the video game and anime space, Sammus, who is a PhD college professor and an amazing rapper/producer, and Rustage, who’s a youtube sensation that I found, 24 years old, makes his own beats, mixes and masters, puts out incredible music every week and has over a million subscribers doing that. So yeah, it’s just a motley crew of folks I put together, outcasts and people you may not hear everyday, and I’m really looking forward to bringing them in front of my audience. Specifically Portland, I feel like Portland is really gonna love it. Portland is a weird town.
11: We are. I know you play all kinds of events, cons, shows, things like that, but when you’re putting together a live show, how do you go about doing that? Are you pulling mostly from your most recent stuff? I know you have a massive body of work to choose from, so do you switch it up, or practice a set?
MR: I love to mix it up for sure. I’ll put together a setlist, and then I’ll change the setlist twenty minutes before I play. I feel out the crowd, I feel out the evening, I feel out what’s going on in the world. It’s a very loose setlist, but I practice the new stuff off the new album. I make sure I’m gonna play a couple new songs, a couple of the big hits from the past, and maybe a couple new songs that’s not even out yet. Then we do a freestyle or something that’s specifically endemic to that show, something that’s only going to happen that night. I try to make a real customizable thing, because for me the ultimate goal is entertainment, and I want people to leave there having had the best time, and so in order to do that I know that I have to switch it up sometimes.
11: One song that I’m sure people will want to hear is “Tractor Beam,” the single you just dropped a video for. It’s a super dancey track, live show track for sure, but a bit of an outlier on the album. Can you talk a little bit about making that song? That’s your beat as well, right?
MR: Yeah, that’s one of the few songs where I made the beat, I did a lot of the mix, the production, the arrangement, the singing and writing and everything, and yeah, it’s definitely an outlier. It was the first song made for the record. I made the song maybe a year and a half before the album came out, but I was afraid of it. I was like, “man, I don’t know if people are going to like this, I don’t know what people are going to think,” but it kept sticking with me. I let people hear it who I really trusted. I let all my producer friends hear it. A large part of why I don’t make my own beats all the time is I don’t always trust my own ear, and my own self. It’s like people say they don’t like how their voice sounds on the answering machine or voicemail, I don’t like how my voice sounds on my own beat. I feel kinda naked and exposed, like people are going to pick it apart and not like it. I’m not super confident in my production, I’ll say that. But I focus grouped the heck out of this song, I workshopped it to so many people, and everyone loved it, so I was like, “OK, I’ll find a place for it on this album.” But who knows? This might become the new thing. It’s me stepping out of my rigid conceptual theme self, so maybe on each album from here on out, I’ll have one song, the outlier. I think that would be a fun way to approach creating for the future.
11: I did want to talk about the video for that track, which has a cool dual style. Who put that together? Did you come with the concept for that?
MR: I did. The first half of it was made first. My friend James Brooks hit me up and was like, “lets do a cool sixteen bit super nintendog/genesis style video.” We started working on it and I liked it but I was like, “I like it but I don’t love it, but the song, I really love it. I want to love this.” I thought, and I mentioned to him, “what if at the halfway point of the song, the whole video just changes?” He was like, “what do you mean? That might be beyond my scope.” Then I had this guy outta nowhere hit me up. He sent me a picture of that 3D Mega Ran guy, and I was like “that looks cool to me, what can you do with this?” He was like, “I’ve never animated before, I’ve never done any animation, but I’ll try!” His name is Rob, and he has this instagram called Not Real Toys, and he creates really dope 3d art that looks like a toy but isn’t. I was just like, “dude, this is incredible!” He was kinda how I was with the song, he wasn’t really confident in himself, but I saw it and I was blown away. Then I let James see it, who did the first half, and he was like, “dude this is it! We’ll combine the videos and make it a two-part thing!” I was like, “how about we put in this expansion chip, like the N64 used to have, and boom, it changes the whole thing into 32 bit 3D,” and they loved it. It came out great, I’m super proud of it, I can’t even begin to explain how proud I am of it.
Mega Ran will be playing with Sammus, Richie Branson, and Rustage at the Star Theater on May 15th, 2022.
This interview has been abridged from the original transcript for ease of reading.