The video game character Mega Man is known for saving the world. Lesser known is the role the character played in saving Raheem Jarbo’s life.
Jarbo, an American rapper known under the stage name Mega Ran, said the reason he is alive to perform music today is due in large part to video games, and he even plans to include the statement in the first lines of his autobiography.
“It’s not hyperbole in any way because there’s literally been times where I decided to stay at home and play video games, either with my friends or even by myself, and it's kept me away from situations that could have been dangerous or troublesome in any other way,” Jarbo said.
The character and the games Mega Man belongs to are the reason Jarbo chose the stage name Mega Ran.
The rapper will perform at Norman Music Fest at 10 p.m. April 26 at the West Stage presented by The Winston.
Among the music played will be his signature “chip-hop,” a blend of hip-hop and chiptune, which is 8-bit video game soundtrack music. He grew up with these sounds.
Jarbo found video games at a young age. As a kid growing up in Philadelphia in the '90s, it was the easiest way for him to stay away from drugs and violence, he said. Even away from home, Jarbo and his peers found their haven: playing video games, reading comics and trading cards under their teacher’s watchful eye during recess.
The rapper’s first rhymes included references to video games. His music career began on a friend’s front porch in the summer of 1994.
That summer, Jarbo wrote his first couplet of rhymes, inspired by the talents of up-and-coming artists such as Wu-Tang Clan and Snoop Dogg, whom Mega Ran would later open for and tell Jarbo, “Keep going, nephew.”
“(My rhyme) was pretty terrible,” Jarbo said, “I remember it being the worst of the crew ... But in that song though, I made references to ‘Street Fighter.’ I remember saying, ‘I sonic boom like Gao.’”
Jarbo performed under the name Random for a majority of his early music career while pursuing higher education. He attended Penn State University to double major in English and African American studies.
The writers Jarbo studied in school inspired his music career even further, he said. He was moved to write by the works of James Baldwin, Nathan McCall, Ta-Nehisi Coates and James McBride.
Though he created music constantly, Jarbo graduated college and pursued a career in education. In 2006, he put out his first record, "The Call," under the name Random, and moved from Pennsylvania to Phoenix to begin his teaching career. Though he taught middle school during the day, Jarbo spent his nights either behind a pen or microphone.
Jarbo quickly found a way to blend his passions: incorporating rap into his curriculum.
“I would do like a freestyle Friday where right before our spelling tests or exams ... I would rap the words and use them as sentences and kids could give me the meanings,” he said.
In 2007, Jarbo released a second album under the name Random called “Mega Ran,” which broke the mold and pushed him into the music scene in a major way.
Combining the iconography of the first “Mega Man” game with his soon-to-be signature chip-hop style and the artist’s shared experiences, the album began to spread.
Jarbo bombarded Kyle Murdock, also known as K-Murdock, an audio engineer at Sirius XM, with CDs, mixtapes and demos. One fateful day, Jarbo decided to send Murdock two CDs: his first album and another, which had a black Mega Man character on the front.
“I literally got so many albums sent to me, so a lot of times I had to go by cover art,” Murdock said. “I probably wouldn't even listen to half the stuff sent to me because ... that's your first impression even before you listen.”
But Murdock did listen. In fact, he drove home listening to the “Mega Ran” album and stayed in the car for the duration of the 50-minute album, even after arriving at his destination in just 10 minutes.
“I had never heard anyone doing what Mega Ran was doing at the time,” Murdock said. “It was so cool to listen to that. I'm glad I didn't follow my first inclination to just toss the CD, and I just listened to it.”
Enter player two. Murdock and Jarbo teamed up for their 2010 project, “Forever Famicom.” Though they lived apart, the pair was able to physically meet in the studio for the track “Dream Master,” where Murdock would finally see Jarbo’s process up close.
Murdock described Jarbo’s songwriting process as incredibly unique. His off-the-cuff, freestyle skills were present in the studio as well.
“I had never seen anyone work like this,” Murdock said.
Murdock let the song’s beat loop for an hour. In that short span of time, Jarbo wrote every lyric for the song into his iPhone notes app. From there, Jarbo freestyled the iconic chorus vocals of the song in the makeshift studio in Murdock’s closet.
In 2011, Jarbo’s music began to spread. He remembers receiving a text that one of his songs made it to the front page of Reddit.
“What’s Reddit?” he asked.
By the end of the day, Jarbo found his album on the iTunes Top 15 rap charts among artists such as Kanye West or Jay-Z.
He thought that if other people made it into the top charts without working two jobs, then maybe it was time for him to become a full-time musician.
So, Jarbo leveled up.
Jarbo proceeded to make music — tons of it — releasing numerous albums and singles as both Random and Mega Ran between 2011 and 2015. Jarbo then chose to rap under a single name to unite his brand.
In 2015, the artist released the album “RNDM” under the name Mega Ran. The album served as a rebrand but also worked as a way for Mega Ran to talk about his life, current events and a serious self-reflection.
The sixth track, “The Meeting,” is based on a play of the same name written by Jeff Stetson about an imaginary meeting between Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X at the height of the civil rights movement. The song, too, refers to a parallel meeting of Jarbo’s two personas. The two identities meet and discuss each other’s methods for making music and handling real life.
Just like that, all monikers Jarbo employed became unified his current stage name: Mega Ran.
Mega Ran’s discography only grew larger. He continued to write serious albums but also recorded albums based on games like “Final Fantasy” and “Castlevania,” and even branching into other aspects of pop culture with items such as his "Stranger Things" project from 2017.
Sammus, or Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo, Norman Music Fest alum, came up as a sort of second wave to the chip-hop movement. Eventually, she found Mega Ran, and the two toured together. Mega Ran’s spontaneity is present at his shows as well, Sammus said, citing his freestyles and willingness to bring back songs neither performer has sung in years.
Sammus praised Mega Ran’s talent, highlighting his speed and variety as factors which make him different. Mega Ran is not like most rappers, Sammus said, but should still be judged in the same vein as other artists in the field.
“We consider ourselves to be part of this much bigger, broader movement, and there's a history there that we very much come out of. Even though people feel like they're giving a compliment when somebody says (you’re not like most other rappers), it's this erasure,” Sammus said. “‘Oh, because your music has geeky undertones,' or ‘All your lyrics go along with video game levels,’ that puts you outside the bounds of hip-hop, therefore, saying there's not that level of intelligence.”
After Norman Music Fest is over, Mega Ran will keep working. He is writing an autobiography, touring the Midwest in May and later publishing an album with MC Lars, titled “The Dewey Decibel System,” about the pair’s favorite books, poems and comics, including a track called “Watchmen,” which features multiple artists and released everywhere March 15.
Keeping with Mega Ran’s signature style, he came up with a freestyle regarding Norman Music Fest at the end of his interview. It took him 11 seconds:
This April, I'll be in Norman/at the music fest and they won't be boring.
Norman Music Fest, I would say “It's the best,
because it's got the best musicians from the East and the West.”
In fact, I'll be playing, I believe on Friday
This would be a great time to get tickets. Don't delay.
See you there in Norman. Bring all of your friends.
This is Mega Ran and this is where the interview ends.