Stellar music goes hand in hand with making a series iconic, and Donkey Kong can stand up there with the best of Nintendo’s offerings. Rare’s work on the Donkey Kong Country series, along with notable composers like David Wise and Grant Kirkhope, was instrumental in shaping the sounds of Donkey Kong and his kin. Whether that was atmospheric music to suit the mood of specific levels, more bombastic and recognizable themes like “DK Island Swing,” or even the everlasting “DK Rap.” Reggie Fils-Aime once said, “If you listen, you can hear it coming,” at E3 2010, which was followed by the cheers of fans recognizing the iconic music playing as Donkey Kong Country Returns was revealed. It’s a series that has had no shortage of legendary musical moments that are worth reflecting upon.
(For the last part in this “introspective” series, check out “Getting introspective with Nintendo’s best music, Part 2: Super Mario.”)
Jungle drumming since 1994
Donkey Kong music has been memorable from the very beginning, and that’s a result of the unusual but clever approaches taken by its most notable composers. David Wise co-composed the soundtracks for the early Donkey Kong Country games alongside Eveline Fischer and Robin Beanland. While Koji Kondo dodged the limitations of early SNES hardware by creatively remixing his notes for Super Mario, David Wise’s approach was to use custom-created single-cycle wave samples. The tracks that resulted from this method made Wise, in particular, famous among fans and the gaming industry. Starting with Donkey Kong Country, the team created music that one might reasonably expect from a platformer involving apes, but they also deviated from the sounds that other 16-bit platformers were pumping out at the time.
The instantly recognizable and groovy “DK Island Swing” song implemented swing jazz and is perhaps the best music to represent the Donkey Kong franchise. Quiet jungle beats are broken up by the sounds of chirping birds, followed by layers of percussion instruments and brass. It’s as if the jungle itself is orchestrating the music, and it was nothing like Mario at the time. The use of quieter music alongside the sounds of nature made this soundtrack one of a kind. Looking at the quality of the rest of the songs, it makes sense that Donkey Kong Country became one of the first Western game soundtracks to receive a commercial release.
The slow and calm beats of “Stickerbush Symphony” from Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest relax players before the intensity ratchets up to match the tempo of the Bramble Blast level perfectly. The catchy drums and piano repetitions of “Hot Head Bop” make it instantly memorable. “Lockjaw’s Saga” presents a full-octane melody to complement the drama of trying to escape K. Rool’s pirates, and the percussion instruments of “Treetop Tumble” in Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble! perfectly suit the high-flying forest climbing of its accompanying level.
What you may be noticing among these tracks is a common motif of using music to match gameplay. It’s something that Koji Kondo always had in mind while composing Super Mario music, and David Wise excels at it in the Donkey Kong Country series too. The songs are meant to heighten player immersion by suiting the mood of each level, and it’s a more restrained approach that lets each zone stand out from each other. For example, “Cave Dweller Concert” involves wooden xylophones and the sound of water droplets to convey the deep and echoing environments, while new-age tracks like “Aquatic Ambience” use gentle synth sounds to create a more dreamy feeling environment for underwater levels.
The lack of David Wise’s involvement in Donkey Kong Country Returns was noticeable to fans, and he later returned with Kenji Yamamoto to compose the score for Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze. His signature ambient soundscapes worked alongside more epic tracks like “Seashore War” with its wondrous bells and claps, proving that he hadn’t missed a beat in his return to the series.
Moving into the more modern era of Donkey Kong also means talking about composer Grant Kirkhope. His score for Donkey Kong 64 included beautifully emotional songs like “Banana Fairy Isle” and the infamous “DK Rap,” which remains relevant to this day through internet memes and dedicated fans. Kirkhope has since been surprised at how many fans know the lyrics to the rap, including his own son, and mentioned that it was partly inspired by Run-DMC’s “It’s Like that” and “Funky Cold Medina.”
Kirkhope also mentioned that the rap was intended to be a joke by the team and that he was happy he made it when all was said and done. His later work on the Donkey Kong Adventure expansion for Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle brought some of the classic tunes back to the modern Donkey Kong experience, and this time with full orchestration. Whether catchy and upbeat or atmospheric and natural, the music of Donkey Kong has endured the test of time, and we can’t wait to see where it goes next.
What are some of your favorite Donkey Kong songs?