Naoto Ohshima discusses Michael Jackson on Sonic 3
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
To promote the launch of the final volume of The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers, I am sharing this segment of interview with Sonic the Hedgehog creator Naoto Ohshima, in addition to a short editorial I wrote on how the mystery of Michael Jackson's involvement with Sonic 3 has held everyone's interest for over 20 years.
Interview with Youji ISHII
18 October 2013, Arzest, Yokohama / Duration: 1h 22m
John Szczepaniak: You were producer on Michael Jackson's Moonwalker for arcades, released 1990. How did Sega get the license? Related to that, do you know about Sega hiring Michael Jackson to create music for Sonic 3?
Youji Ishii: Please ask this question to Ohshima-san, who is going to be interviewed next. He knows a lot because he was directly involved. He has a very, very interesting story. It is incredible - incredible!
Interview with Naoto OHSHIMA
18 October 2013, ARZEST, Yokohama / Duration: 1h 46m
John Szczepaniak: Mr Youji Ishii said you had an incredible story regarding Michael Jackson and the music for Sonic the Hedgehog 3?
Naoto Ohshima: Michael Jackson was kind enough to make some music for the game. He sent us a demo tape, and we all gathered around to listen to it. And it was music, but… Michael Jackson had made all of it with his mouth. <hums a beat> It was like that, but layer after layer of it, complete with oohs and aahs, a drum track, simulated trumpets - all simply hummed by Michael Jackson. And of course his trademark "Wow!" A multitrack recording in which every track was hummed by Michael Jackson - we could not believe it.
Ultimately, due to various incidents which took place, we were not able to use the Michael Jackson songs. But Sega probably still possesses that phantom Michael Jackson tape!
John Szczepaniak: Was there a working prototype with his voiced music?
Naoto Ohshima: I don't know. But even if there was, I'd think it would pale in comparison to the value of a never-released tape of Michael Jackson doing a cappella recordings.
Michael Jackson and Sega
Given how many unsubstantiated Sonic rumours are accepted as true, such as the Roosevelt and Nike connections, it's strange that the fact Michael Jackson was involved in the soundtrack for Sonic 3 is often dismissed as myth. As recently as 2016 online media was still trying to ascertain if this was actually true, with The Huffington Post and subsequently The Independent newspapers acting as if they'd made some sort of astonishing breakthrough. In reality there has been solid evidence for the Jackson connection for well over a decade. The earliest example I could find was from late 2005, on the Secrets of Sonic Team website, in an email interview with Roger Hector. This is a fan website though, so if you wanted hard-hitting journalism from a reliable source, Ashley Day documented the fact categorically in GamesTM magazine by Imagine Publishing.
The August 2007 issue of GamesTM magazine (#60) contained a Behind the Scenes feature on Sonic 3, written by Ashley Day, where Roger Hector, former project-manager of the now-defunct Sega Technical Institute, on page 143 said: "Michael Jackson was a very big fan of Sonic and he wanted to record a soundtrack for the game. He came to STI and met with the team to discuss the design theme, story, and feel of the game. He then went away and recorded an entire soundtrack that covered all of the worlds. It was fantastic. The music fitted perfectly for the game, and they had a distinctive Michael Jackson sound. We had it all ready and integrated into [Sonic 3] when the first news stories came out accusing him of child molestation, and Sega had to back away from this collaboration. It was very late in the development process, and we quickly had to put together a complete replacement music track. Howard Drossin, STI's music guy, stepped in and did a great job, working around the clock to get it done. It was too bad nobody outside ever heard the Michael Jackson music."
What has never been described though, until now, is that Michael Jackson had sent Sega a demo tape of himself making music "a capella". The term as explained by Wikipedia: "A cappella (Italian for 'in the manner of the chapel') music is specifically group or solo singing without instrumental accompaniment." Basically someone acts like a human beat box and generates all sounds vocally / with their mouth.
Typing "Michael Jackson a capella" into YouTube brings up millions of results. There's an example where Jackson sings a capella for Oprah Winfrey, and a lot of fans doing remixes of his songs a capella. Some are genuinely incredible. To hear examples of Sonic music tracks done a capella, the YouTube channel blazerh44Redux has several fantastic remixes - have a listen and try to imagine Sonic 3 with this style of music, vocalised by Michael Jackson himself and output via the Mega Drive as voice samples.