Music games have exploded in popularity in the last five years. While PaRappa the Rapper may have been the first hit rhythm game, modern music games are practically synonymous with rock music. Rock Band alone has revolutionized digital music distribution, giving small bands previously unimaginable amounts of exposure and introducing a new generation of music listeners to older songs they would not have heard otherwise. Which raises the obvious question: Why hasn't there been a similar game for hip hop? It would seem a straightforward challenge to take the Rock Band formula, apply a few tweaks and make it work for a different genre of music.
Yet there's no guarantee a simple "Rock Band for rap" formula would work. Rock Band succeeds in part because karaoke culture exists for pop music; karaoke culture exists in part because anyone with an elementary school level of education has received some amount of singing instruction. People who can't sing well are at least familiar with the mechanics of singing, yet rap's mechanics remain mysterious: Many of those who love rap would be hard-pressed to rap in front of their friends.
That's partly because the mechanics of rap are so complex. It was only in 1987 that Kool Moe Dee attempted to identify some qualities of rap in the famous "report card" he issued in the LP liner notes of his album How Ya Like Me Now. He graded contemporary rappers in 10 categories, including articulation, voice, stage presence and innovating rhythms.
In the recently-published Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop, literary scholar Adam Bradley attempts to ground hip hop lyricism in the Western poetic tradition while providing new insight on what makes rap unique. He identifies dozens of techniques that rappers employ, one of the most important being a rapper's development of their individual flow. Flow, which is a rapper's distinctive cadence, is about the relationship between the rhythm of the rapping and the rhythm of the beat. Generally speaking, a rapper can flow just ahead of the beat, just behind the beat, or right on the beat; however, the most venerated rappers are able to switch up their flow at the drop of a hat.
The complexity of rap has proven difficult to model in a music simulation in the Rock Band pedigree. A 2007 article for MTV.com featured an interview with Denis Lacasse, a producer on Artificial Mind and Movement's 2004 rap karaoke game Get on Da Mic. Lacasse noted that their scoring system differed from karaoke scoring systems by putting "more emphasis on hitting the beats than hitting the pitch." But according to Bradley, hitting the beats might be missing the point. Lacasse goes on to say that a major difficulty with the game was displaying rap's rapid-fire lyrics in such a way that players could perform the music without losing track of their place. This turned out to be one of the most common complaints in reviews of the game. Get on Da Mic was not a commercial success.