Enter the Gungeon demands so much of your attention. Mastering the bullet hell means enduring a cycle of dodging, rolling, shooting, and dying. Its intense gameplay is driven by the fierce beats of its soundtrack composed by Doseone, whose background as an indie rapper intersects his video game work in a way I didn’t quite expect.
The rapper, producer, and poet Adam “Doseone” Drucker, has an extensive history in the world of indie rap. He’s a co-founder of the music label Anticon. With Jel, he formed the band Themselves. He has also collaborated with Mike Patton and TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe to form the band Nevermen. These are just a few examples from Drucker’s impressive body of work.
But it doesn’t stop there. In addition to Gungeon, Drucker composed for other video game soundtracks including Gang Beasts and Samurai Gunn, and is currently working on its sequel. When I interviewed him via a Skype call last week, we discussed a host of topics – creating the distinctive sound of Gungeon, the state of capitalist rap, and more. But collaborating with so many artists in the indie rap world, and how he transitioned into indie games, was what kicked off our conversation.
“I guess a couple things carried over. Expressly, some of the art music I made,” Drucker said. He noted that developer Dodge Roll’s Dave Crooks, who designed Gungeon, had listened to some of his music, as well as other people that he had met in the indie games sphere. While there was a direct influence, he said that it didn’t actually get him any gigs, but that it didn’t hurt. “You know, people were like, ‘Holy Shit, you make music for games.’ So culturally, it really helped to have it, to always be a collaborator and come from a collectivised mentality,” he continued.
“I mean, in indie rap there’s a lot of posturing and you got to prove yourself again and again. And indie games, I was intrigued by the art people were making,” he said. From there, he characterised the process as snowballing into something good. “So the transition was really pleasant, and then all my people skills were the only thing that really helped. I kind of had to learn sound design and production as I took all them games.” And that, as he noted, was part of the challenge and kept it healthy for him.
Creating the sound for Gungeon did not begin as the fast-paced signature soundtrack it ended up being. “When you start a game from scratch, it’s not always what it’s going to be,” he said, saying that’s true of the game in a physical sense but also how he perceived it. “I kind of thought when we first started working on Gungeon, I thought it was going to be a Zelda type of thing, like less, bullet hell-ey? Even though we all knew it was going to be a bullet hell.”
The result was his creation of the Shopkeeper’s theme, the second main theme, and the main theme in his first pass. As Drucker says, he got a call from Crooks and they discussed that the tracks were “almost too mellow” and that “they had to go harder.”
In 2017, I wrote that Gungeon’s killer soundtrack fuelled addictive gameplay. It’s something Drucker highlighted when he dived further into the music’s creation. “Even though the game is adorable, the music had to kind of be kicking ass, you know what I mean?” he continued. “So it’s the two together, the bullet hell-ness. The intense but likable music. Catchy but not, lyrical. All of that stuff contributes to the ease in which you feel like doing another run, you know? So that’s kind of what I worked on was just making this big body of music that sounded really similar. All the songs were sisters in how they were mixed and sort of how they felt. A little bit of chip, a little bit of strings and horns and screaming and drums. All the time.”
Last summer, the game’s welcome expansion, Advanced Gungeons & Draguns, released. New tracks were part of the big update, too. I wanted to know if creating new music for the game was easy to dive back into. “Yes, it’s like, I fucking fiend for more Gungeon ‘cause I played the game quite a bit actually,” Drucker said. “So we’re working on some new secret stuff and it’s things that I always wanted to make, but we just never did. And it sort of dawned on me that I could, so we did. So it was similar with the last batch that we did, doing music for kicking the rat’s ass was something we have always thought about. So I sort of have a bunch of ideas in my head and I just swipe at them.”
Speaking to Drucker, his love of the game and creating music for it is obvious. “When you’ve done that much work snapping off another two to 10 pieces of music is really, actually for me it’s a joy. I don’t know, maybe [for] some people it’s the worst thing ever returning,” he said fondly. “I think it’s a blast, especially when I identify and want to shoot these characters in the face. It’s fun to go make music to abide by that instinct.”
Fans of Enter the Gungeon may know about the Heart in Halves EP vinyl which layers Drucker’s distinct rap style over Gungeon’s beats. How did that come about? Drucker explained it’s something that he’ll do if it fits. “If I’m really into it, and the game has lore that I can rap in a non-maudlin way that’s still pop,” he said.
The conversation continued with Drucker delving deeper between his approach to rap and writing for games. “Because generally when I write rap... shit, it comes from prose that I don’t really sit and conjure; I find in life. So it’s more of a poetic approach to how lyrics accrue in me. And then how I rap them depends on the music,” he noted.
Games are a different story. “Like, I don’t do Revlon commercials and shit, but only with games can I seem to be able to find a craftier, happier, sillier space where I can still rap and write lyrics and do all this cool vocal representation. Because it’s for games, that I want to draw more story out on. So I’ll always do that where that can apply,” Drucker explained. Two other games he noted were Samura Gunn which has a lyric version, and there are some vocals on 2017's Gang Beasts.
Since rap is such an integral part of Drucker’s work before video game composition, and currently still is, I wanted to dig deeper into his rap background. I asked him about the album Less is Orchestra. Created with his friend and co-founder of the music label Anticon, Alias, who passed away last year, the album is a personal reflection.
There was one track I was particularly curious about which deals with the state of rap, “T.L.R.” or as I was told, a more specific type of rap. Drucker addressed that and spoke a bit about his rap history when I asked for his thoughts on rap’s current state and his place in its world. “I grew up on rap. It’s the first thing that made me want to collect art, do art. It made me love music. I was a rap purist. I didn’t like any other music for my entire adolescence, and then it made me find all these other aspects and levels of my life. So I respect it deeply and it guides me.”
“I’m very much an insider,” he continued. “I don’t play reindeer games. I don’t fucking go to rap festivals and really try to have stake in that world. To me it’s a true thing that I do from my own private Idaho as it were. But ‘T.L.R’ is actually about not just the state of rap, but just Capitalist rap.”
He further explained his thoughts on the subject. “I got off track, but what I was going to say is when I came up listening to rap music, there was all kinds of rap. There was black nationalists rap, there was a party rap. There was silly Looney Tunes referencing rap, there was aggressive rap, gangster rap, horror core styling,” he continued. “But all those things prescribed the content and what it was about. And there was variants and you could be all kinds of things and still be a rapper, and I sort of reject. And that song is about the amalgamation of rap’s content into just capitalist conjecture. It’s... motherfuckers, sounds like shopping lists, you know, describing clothing and how good it feels on your body, and watches, what they’re made of, car titles.”
With Drucker’s clear passion for rap, I wanted to know how, and if, rap impacted his approach to creating music for video games. He explained, “Yeah, I mean I think the thing that I add to the video game universe, if anything is the passionate sensibility of rap through beat and base information.”
The connection dictates some of that creative process, as he explained. “It doesn’t need to be melodically complex. It can be one fucking chord the whole time. It can be just drums. I learned from punk and rap. So that’s what I try to add is just the right feel for things. It doesn’t necessarily need to be this entire orchestral progression or ‘toy-a-fide’,” Drucker vocalised a short melody to demonstrate his point before continuing, “Melody shit, you know? So, rap. Yeah. Constantly influences what I think is right and how I call a song done.”
With video game music, Drucker makes it clear that he is always learning. Citing inspirations from artists such as Disasterpeace (Hyper Light Drifter, Fez) and Jukio Kallio (Minit, Luftrausers) to sound designers Joonas Turner (Downwell), Martin Kvale (Gonner) and Gungeon’s very own Erica Hampson, Drucker expanded on his respect. “I love music a lot. So if I’m a big fan, it means I’m a big student more or less,” he said. “I’m a big fan of all those people and they never miss, you know, everything they do is either exactly what I love them for. It’s more of it or it’s a departure from their sound and something I never knew I wanted from them. Jim Guthrie of course too, speaking of which. He can do no wrong.”
I first saw Doseone live in 2017 for a predominantly Gungeon heavy setlist, and then again last summer for a set showcasing music from the game High Hell. I was curious to learn what it was like performing the high-intensity tracks in a live setting. It turns out, creating is much different from playing the tracks live. He said, with a laugh, “I was thinking about this the other day. When I play those songs back and I’m totally into it and nodding my head and smashing around and re-sequencing, that is nothing like when I sit and make it. I sit, I bite my fingernails and I stare and don’t nod my head at all. I was thinking about how the generation process is so much less energy than the playback.”
Our conversation ended as it began. When I asked him how he was doing ahead of the interview, Drucker described himself as “a workaholic.” We got to talking about how busy he is when I asked him what projects he was working on. He was unable to talk about a lot of what he has planned but assured there were a lot of secret things in the works.
The one game he could mention was Samurai Gunn 2, which he is excited for. “So, [I’m] working again with Beau [Blyth], and he has a whole team of people with him on this one. So it’s really awesome. And right now I’m just watching them and working. We’re creating a single player campaign that is meant to deliver what one would want from a game like that. ‘Cause there’s nothing remotely single player about the original, it’s just this melee death brawl,” he said. “What I’m working on today is exploring what that music is gonna feel like for the whole world.”
With such an intriguing history and his deep connections to rap, art, and creating music for video games, it’ll be interesting to see how Doseone brings the heat in the future.