By Benjamin Leatherman
By Glenn BurnSilver
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Man quits day job. Spends hours a day playing video games. Speaks in rhyme. Travels country for weeks, never settling in one place. This could be a cautionary tale. This could be a diagram of a man's descent into unemployment, antisocial behavior and, ultimately, madness. This could be game over.
Could be, but it's not. It's a hero's tale, an extra life, a recent chapter in the life of Phoenix rapper MegaRan, known alternately as Random, Random Beats, and, sometimes, Raheem Jarbo. Though over the past several years, his rap alter-ego, whose main raison d'être is playing classic video games, has drawn national attention, Jarbo kept his job as a middle-school teacher until his higher calling grabbed him by his thick black glasses, shook him back and forth, and said, "Do what you love."
So although Jarbo, who turned 34 earlier this month and will henceforth be referred to as MegaRan, moved to Phoenix in 2006 for a teaching job at a private middle school, he turned in his resignation in April (and was promptly fired that day) and turned to his tunes. "I felt like it was time. I'd been teaching for six years, and this past year, a lot of big things started happening with my music career," he says over the phone from Chicago, hours before a sound check for a recent show there. "I was teaching but also doing gigs on the weekends, all over. I wound up missing a lot of days and felt like I was letting [my students] down.
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"My principal said, 'You can't serve two masters.' I wanted to do what I always do, juggle everything, but I felt like music was taking over. I was doing an eight- or nine-hour day for work, then I'd be on the computer just as long doing music-related stuff. It was burning me out; then we got a pay cut at school. My music started to take off seriously . . . there was a time in January when I was Top 10 on iTunes or Amazon. I got into a couple of magazines. Things were pulling me away from the classroom."
Those things pulling him away all grew out of his 2007 album, MegaRan, in which he rapped over tunes culled from the classic Nintendo video game Mega Man II. He eventually teamed up with the game's publisher, Capcom, to produce the album MegaRan 9 and followed with albums and mixtapes like TeacherRapperHero, Forever Famicom, and a new release centered around the landmark PlayStation game Final Fantasy VII. MegaRan has been featured in gamer magazines, placed his songs on game soundtracks, played Comic-Con, and creates a YouTube series called Life After Lesson Plans: A Hip-Hop Reality Show. His latest achievement is as a member of the decidedly nerd-riffic "Race Wars Tour," a cornucopia of geeky hip-hop performers MC Chris, MC Lars, and Adam WarRock that swings through town this week at Scottsdale's Martini Ranch.
"The tour's been great," says MegaRan. "It's been unbelievable. Of the first week into it, we've done six or seven [shows] and four have sold out. We've got people lining up for autographs, people buying shirts and CDs. It's great!"
At this point, it seems nerd culture's infested every part of American society. Most summer blockbusters have their origins in comics, real life seems more like sci-fi, and the coupling of classic 8-bit 1980s video games with live bands is a national trend. Head down to Florida and you'll find The NESkimos, who base their songs on video game themes but elaborate and expand upon them. Massachusetts' Powerglove gives Nintendo themes a heavy-metal reworking. Georgia's Bit Brigade performs live renditions of the theme music to Ninja Gaiden, Contra, and Mega Man II while a gamer plays through the games in real time on a projection screen. And the Valley's (relatively) fertile, with The Minibosses, one of the bands that pioneered the genre in the late '90s, now inhabiting the same city as MegaRan — a guy who's all for the nerding of America.
"I hope it's not a phase," he says, "or I'll be out of work. It really has exploded. All the big summer movies are comic characters. It'll really depend on people like me, the 30-plus crowd; it just comes down to how many people go see Transformers and '80s icons that they're willing to bring back. We're parents now, and therefore, we take our kids to things we want to see. And it's a great thing. When I was teaching seventh grade and showed [my students] a picture of Mega Man, they knew who that was. Has to be their parents or older brothers. We keep passing it down, just like in hip-hop. It's the 15th anniversary of Tupac's death. I taught 12- and 13-year-olds who weren't alive then, but they know who Tupac is."
MegaRan believes his immersion in video-game culture has informed his hip-hop as much as his immersion in hip-hop has informed his outlook on video gaming. "Hip-hop and gaming have so many parallels, so many things in common," he says. "I do a talk at panels with a chart about it! People who were there from the beginning will never think it's better than in the so-called 'golden era.' But then people will always think it was better back then."
The same holds true for MegaRan's thoughts on the current generation of slick, hyper-realistic video games. He doesn't have as much time to devote to his passion and looks for video games that grab his attention immediately.
"Nowadays it has to have an interesting story," he says. "It's not 'run from left to right ,solve a puzzle.' Graphics are a good thing, but it needs the perfect combination with storyline. It has to be a great story, because if I give a game 30 minutes . . . I have so many games I've started, but I'm busy and can't make time for things, and if it doesn't blow me away in the first couple of seconds, then I don't know. I have so many games that just haven't been played more than 30 minutes."
It's not all hopeless for kids these days, though, and MegaRan has come across games he believes have been built to last. "Two games that I can think of in the past five years that have grabbed me are BioShock and Uncharted. They're some of the greatest gaming experiences, like Final Fantasy VII and Metal Gear Solid — the time I put in, the emotional connection, has got to be there. But I like to pull out some of the old games too, like RC ProAm or Castlevania to maintain a little bit of gamer cred. Mega Man is one of my favorites. But I can't beat Mega Man anymore. Today's games don't necessarily foster that type of skill set, timing and precision, and I think I've lost that skill."
MegaRan still thinks highly of the kids he taught, and he misses that environment but now draws motivation from performing in front of live crowds. He knows he made the right decision to power down as a teacher and go full force into his rap career. "I'd never quit a job before, and my mother still won't understand," he says. "Y'know, I went to school for teaching, I went into debt for this. I'm still paying back student loans. It kinda hurts me, and it hurts her.
"I was afraid, but once I turned in my resignation, I got an e-mail a month later about going on tour. I got an invitation to play shows in London for two weeks. And I knew it was the right decision."
And while his mom may bemoan his career choice, MegaRan's not doing too bad. So while days in front of a video game may seem like a parent's nightmare, cautionary tales can turn out all right in the end. Plus, says MegaRan, "I spent every day around seventh- and eighth-graders. I know what they talk about. It could be a lot worse than playing video games."