‘Star Wars’ Goes EDM: How Beatmakers Turned Iconic Sound Effects Into Music
Inside ‘Star Wars Headspace’ with Kaskade, Claude VonStroke, Royksopp and more
The sound design crafted by Ben Burtt and his team for the Star Wars saga is just as iconic and evocative as John Williams’ soaring fanfare. Burtt’s work — spanning from 1977’s A New Hope on through 2015’s multi-billion dollar smash The Force Awakens — is as instantly recognizable as the “Star Wars Theme”: the live wire hum and crackle of light sabers, the foreboding exhales of Darth Vader, the boisterous din of the Mos Eisley Cantina, the emotive growl of Chewbacca, the chirrups of droids like R2D2 and BB-8.
It’s these telltale sounds that power Star Wars Headspace, the dance compilation executive-produced by Rick Rubin and Kevin Kusatsu that surveys the wide galaxy of modern electronic music producers at their most playful, futuristic and nerdy. Boasting an all-star roster including Flying Lotus, Kaskade, Rustie, Röyksopp, Bonobo and evenHamilton‘s Lin-Manuel Miranda in collaboration with J.J. Abrams himself, Rubin gave these artists free reign. And while they weren’t given access to Williams’ score, they were allowed to freely tinker with the legendary Star Wars foley library. Even Rubin himself got in on the fun, both remixing a song by Abrams and Miranda while doing his own Aughts-EDM-goes-Eighties-Hi-NRG with the over-the-top “NR-G7.”
“My interest in Star Wars as a kid just seemed like a given,” says producer Kaskade. “There were constants in the world: The sky was blue and grass was green and you were going to dress up as a character from Star Wars every single Halloween. Star Wars was massive and it touched everything that we did.”
“All the creature noises to the droids, the sound of the engines, light sabers, every sound you can imagine, it’s very iconic sound design,” said Bonobo’s Simon Green, who contributed the track “Ghomrassen” and reveled in just having access to the archive. “The sounds in themselves, they were quite mythological. To be able to plunder them was a real sort of privilege.”
“There was an entire week lost just combing through all these sounds,” Kaskade said. “I could have easily made an entire album instead of just a single with this library. It was a walk down memory lane.”
Claude VonStroke sourced a bunch of R2D2’s playful blips and whirrs for the beat of “R2 Knows.” “I pretty much wrote a song about Star Wars instead of making something out of every sound out of the catalog,” VonStroke says.
In his estimation, part of the greatness of the Star Wars franchise is that it isn’t as dark and dour as other dystopian science-fiction films can be: “It’s not like Blade Runner. Star Wars is kinda goofy, so I thought I should make it a fun track and tried not to get dark and twisted.” VonStroke even worked his song into a recent DJ set, which got the crowd moving.
Star Wars‘ sense of sonic play was there from the start. Recall the joyous future-jazz swing from bulb-headed house band Figrin D’an and the Modal Nodes amid the bazaar of intergalactic creatures. The movie’s colorful cantina scene was revisited in The Force Awakens, with a twist, in that director J.J. Abrams joined forces with Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda to score the scene as the group Shag Kava. “‘Jabba Flow’ is a remix of the song that Lin-Manuel Miranda and I wrote and performed for a scene in The Force Awakens,” Abrams explains. “It was meant to be a fun piece of music played by a small local band in the film. Rick took it, ripped it apart, injected it with guts and madness and turned it into a badass electronic track. Lin and I love what he did.”
The cantina scene also informs Röyksopp’s contribution, as Torbjørn Brundtland recalled the sight of the Imperial Cruiser as it rolled across the screen as a seven-year-old in Norway and being “a little bit scared of Darth Vader. But it was an ‘awesome’ scared.” In putting together the dark and driving “Bounty Hunters,” the Norwegian duo drew on the end of the cantina scene, where Jabba the Hut’s bounty hunter henchman Greedo tries to extort Han Solo. “The way that Greedo’s voice works, it has a rhythmic aspect to it and very otherworldly, like a language that doesn’t exist,” Brundtland said, adding of the project. “It felt naughty to know we could sample directly from the movie and get away with it.”
Almost every artist involved had a deep connection to the franchise, with vivid memories of seeing the original films in the theater and absorbing their mythology firsthand. And most of them now have children of their own. Brundtland said he hopes to introduce his children to the film soon, starting with the one he first experienced, A New Hope. VonStroke has already attempted to indoctrinate his kids to Star Wars, to decidedly mixed results.
“My seven year-old daughter pretended she was sick and didn’t go to the movies with us,” he says about the night they were going to see The Force Awakens. “But then she told me later that she saw how excited I was to go see it and didn’t want to hurt my feelings but she doesn’t care about Star Wars. My son thought my song was going to be in the movie. So he just told me: ‘Dad, don’t ruin Star Wars.'”