Hip hop and videogames share more than just guns, flashy aesthetics, angry muscle-bound men and good-looking women on display. They’re both relatively new types of art, ways of thinking and, for some, ways of life.
For every gangsta rapper verbally unloading clips of braggadocio on whoever he’s got a beef with that week, there’s his gaming equivalent: the flashy shooter-of-the-month dripping with style, coughing up explosions and unabashedly offering the ability to “pwn n00bs” online, day or night. Gloating is mandatory.
And, no, gangsta rap doesn’t define all of hip hop just as big guns and blowing stuff up doesn’t define all of videogaming. There are underground, indie rappers like Slug, Cage and Apathy who deliver a more cerebral message – a slice-of-life approach to their music that, more often than not, deals with everyday struggles of heartbreak, poverty or simply that feeling of not fitting in. Not to be outdone, videogames, too, can wander these lonelier, less profitable streets with quirky titles like Katamari Damacy, Okami and – bringing it back to hip hop – the graffiti sim Marc Ecko’s Getting Up: Contents Under Pressure. They may fly under the radar of mass appeal, but they manage to land comfortably in their niche market.
Where did it all begin? How did these two seemingly unrelated types of media come up from nothing to find each other, fall in love and flourish into the mammoth money-makers they are today?
It all started in the 1970s in the Bronx, New York. The borough had just experienced a mass exodus of its middle class, resulting in the remaining lower-class inhabitants cheering themselves up by formulating a new, more expressive musical sound. Bred from equal parts disco and German electronica (see Kraftwerk’s 1974 album Autobahn), the percussive beats of hip hop were foremost about dancing the pain away to break beats, or breakdancing, then eventually blowing off steam with the back-and-forth ping-pong of competitive emceeing, or rapping.
Speaking of ping pong, on the other side of the country Nolan Bushnell’s 1971 hit Pong got the ball rolling – well, bouncing – on the coming videogame craze. While it wasn’t technically the first videogame, it was the first to make a monetarily gainful splash in the arcade ocean where other attempts had failed. The subsequent success of Space Invaders and Asteroids further supported the notion that people wanted to play videogames – and were willing to pay for them.
It was inevitable that capitalism would take notice of the popularity of both nascent forms of entertainment and see to each one’s immediate commercialization. Kicking things off for hip hop was Kurtis Blow, who appeared in a Sprite commercial, marking the first of countless times a rapper’s image and sound would be used to advertise a product. Eventually, employing hip hop artists’ work in other media – plus the ever-growing storage capacity and fidelity of videogame software – led to the licensing of rap songs for videogame soundtracks, a wonderful way for each media to profit.
A measly list of 10 punk rock songs make up the soundtrack for the very first Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. From its sequel onward, each game in the series not only received more songs, but also included music from the rap genre until we were finally able to kickflip to the sounds of KRS-One’s “Hush” in THPS3. The fourth game in the series expanded its hip hop line up with superstar groups like Run-D.M.C. and Public Enemy but also introduced many of us to more obscure underground artists such as Eyedea & Abilities, Aesop Rock and Haiku d’Etat.
Tony Hawk’s Underground, or THUG, took it to a new level with a nearly 80-song lineup, a full third of which was (appropriately underground) hip hop. From that point on, Tony’s games would always offer a thoroughly eclectic mix of both mainstream and underground hip hop music to skate to.
The love affair goes both ways, but not without a little heartache. Lil Flip’s “Game Over” borrows sound effects lifted directly from Pac-Man. Parent company Namco went on to sue him for it – they weren’t happy their game was being associated with drug and gun references. I guess a disembodied yellow head that eats ghosts after swallowing a large pill-shaped object is as far as they wanted to take things.
If it’s not a rapper borrowing from a game, then it’s a game flat-out borrowing a rapper. Snoop Dogg was commissioned to grace Gran Turismo 3‘s soundtrack with “Dogg’s Turismo 3” – a misleading title, since this song did not, in fact, have two prequels. Even though you’re already playing the game, Snoop is proud to remind you, “PlayStation 2 taking you to a whole new dimension / Where the cars look fly and they got good suspension.” Snoop was even set to star in his own game, Fear and Respect, but the plans fell through.
That’s not the first time a hip hop artist has plugged a Sony console – far from it. A search on your favorite lyrics site for the word “PlayStation” will net you over 50 results, a staggering majority of which are rap songs. Chamillionaire’s “Ridin’” mixes business with pleasure while warning us that “next to the PlayStation controller is a full clip in my pistola.”
Guns and games also play a role in The Game’s heartfelt single “Start From Scratch,” where he drunkenly details the events that led to him getting shot by a rival gang member with his own gun. He was at home playing a game of Madden Football when it happened. The remorseful line, “Homey, if I could rewind the hands of time / I would’ve cut off the PS2 at 12:49,” goes to show you that even gangsta rappers play videogames to unwind.
Not only do rappers play, rap about and create songs for videogames, they star in them, too. It seems the aforementioned street cred earned by The Game garnered him a role in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas as the drug-pushing lost cause known as B-Dup (west coast slang for “beat up”). Additionally, fellow West Coast lyricist Ice-T brought to light the harsh realities of fame by voicing Madd Dogg, a successful rapper who fell victim to alcoholism and lost everything. Even the game’s main character, CJ, was voiced by Los Angeles rapper Young Maylay.
While San Andreas places these rappers in fictitious roles, most hip hop videogames tend to star artists that actually play themselves. Oscar-nominated actor Mark “stop calling me Marky Mark” Wahlberg made an entry in Digital Pictures’ extremely short-lived and abysmal Sega CD music-video-making franchise Make My Video, wherein the player had to splice together video clips of the all-too-shirtless Marky Mark rapping. The payoff for this hard work was, well, watching a video of the all-too-shirtless Marky Mark rapping.
But games featuring rappers aren’t always bad. In recent years, efforts to pull the best aspects from videogames and hip hop have resulting in a pretty solid marriage of the two art forms.
The Def Jam series of games, featuring dozens of rappers playing themselves, doesn’t focus on making music but rather another popular pastime among hip hop artists: hurting each other. Though Fat Joe, Ludacris and Young Jeezy don’t really argue in real life, rest assured that Def Jam Icon will fulfill your desires to watch them pummel each other relentlessly while the background environments pulsate to the beat of the music. The game even encourages you to time your blows to the beat to strengthen each punch or kick.
Finally, there’s 50 Cent. This man’s hobby may be making hit records, but his true passion is making money. He knew his gamer fans would lap up 50 Cent: Bulletproof simply because they got to play as Mr. Cent himself – the game sold gangbusters despite being critically lambasted. Surprisingly, its much-improved sequel, 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand, only sold a fraction of its predecessor. Not thwarted one bit, 50 has plans to continue to star in more games. And I think 50’s onto something: He knows that a great deal of videogame fans are also into hip hop.
We’re only on the cusp of hip hop’s amalgamation with videogames. We’ve watched two extremely new art forms walk separate, profitable paths, gradually becoming the multibillion-dollar money-making machines they are today and bumping into each other along the way. We’ve only just begun to see what hip hop and videogames can do for each other.
Matt Yeomans can be found keeping it real at mattyeomans.com.