Double K and Thes One, of hip-hop group People Under the Stairs, are stuck in an earlier time. Not “stuck” in the sense that they can’t get with it. “Stuck” in the sense that they don’t care to. To hear Chris Portugal (a k a Thes One) tell it, the early ‘90s was the era of breaking, turntabling, and all-around b-boying that made rap inventive, rebellious, and fun, and damned if he and his partner are going to be pulled into the new era of commercial hip-hop without a fight. Their first record, The Next Step (Step One), was picked up by OM Records in 1998, and after two more albums over the next four years, Thes One decided to blow some of his hard-earned scratch on a little personal luxury. “I thought to myself, ‘What’s the coolest thing I can buy with my money now that I have a little disposable income?’” The son of two working parents, he’d spent his adolescent afternoons in Detroit arcades, so the choice seemed obvious: vintage videogames.
His first purchase was three cabinets—Indiana Jones, Popeye, and an original Japanese Frogger with wood paneling—that he and a friend bought for $100 on the street in front of a liquor store marked for demolition. After plugging them in at home, not only did the games work perfectly, the cash boxes also yielded over $190. “We split the money, paid for the U-Haul, and went out to dinner on quarters.”
But Thes One is no passive collector. Though he feared messing with the insides in the beginning, he’s now a skilled videogame mechanic. “All consoles after 1988 have interchangeable processors, so once you get a cabinet, you can swap out different games pretty easily,” he says. Now the proud owner of almost a dozen machines, Thes One still has one title on his wish list. Naturally, it dates back to rap’s heyday. “There’s an illegally made Beastie Boys game, from when License to Ill came out,” he says with a sigh. “That’s the rarest and coolest one I can think of.”
HOW TO INSPECT, PURCHASE, AND MODIFY A CABINET VIDEOGAME
1. Comb your local resorts, like Lake Tahoe or the Catskills, where the staff constantly replaces older games with newer ones to entice the kids.
2. Ask to peek inside. Most systems consist of a central processor or PCB (the equivalent of today’s game discs), a control panel, a power source, and a monitor. Be wary of burn marks and rust, and plug the thing in. If the console is functional and its owner will part with it for less than $1,000, that’s a fair price. Less than $300? Sold.
3. Find an original operator’s manual online. (Check the newsgroups at www.klov.com.) Use it to make sure you have all the necessary capacitors, transistors, and so forth.
4. On the back of the PCB, a set of dip switches control the game’s functions, allowing you to adjust the difficulty settings, the points necessary to earn rewards, and the cost of the game. The operator’s manual will be your guide.
5. If the picture is out of whack, look for three screws behind the monitor; they usually control the RGB levels. SAFETY FIRST: The capacitors that power the monitor hold a lot of voltage, even when the machine is off. Disconnect the game’s power supply, and leave it that way for at least 24 hours before fooling around with anything connected to the monitor.
6. Geek tip: Look online for the processors to bootleg games that came out alongside arcade hits. For every Pac-Man cabinet sent to market, there was a Chinese knockoff in which a dog eats a trail of bones.