Doing It Better

Hip hop does it better. We’re not talking perfection here, but it‘s good. It isn’t making music or clothing. It also isn’t about generating world peace. What it is, is making videogames which trendsetters endorse and play.

Yesterday’s gaming generation is growing up. Those that played with Atari and Nintendo in the ’80s and ’90s are hitting their second and third decades of life. They grew up playing games and know the gaming culture. Today’s hip hop artists are among the few from this generation able to bridge the gap between relating an experience and truly making it interactive.

This is not the first time someone attempted to close the gap between gaming and music. The last 20 years have produced some games-turned-pop-culture hits and others that shouldn’t have even made it across the concept boards, but hip hop wasn’t the only genre trying to gain a foothold in gaming. The ’90s yielded numerous meager attempts, spanning all genres of music.

Take the 1990 multi-platform game, Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker. Premise: Run around dancing, which somehow saves children from kidnappers. Moonwalker was one of the earliest movie-game tie-ins, and while it was arguably the better half of the package, it wasn’t something to brag about owning.

Rock made its first attempt with Journey. The band, Journey, produced a series of games in the early ’80s where you ran around as them, fending off fans and other horrific encounters while listening to “exciting” midi versions of Journey songs. “Don’t Stop Believing” that this wasn’t the greatest commercial success of all time.

1992 marked the entrance of Kriss Kross: Make My Video, on the Sega CD. It was just a weak attempt at what could be that elusive musical/game culture bridge. You’d create your own music videos to Kriss Kross songs, but it was only as interactive as messing around with action figures while the radio was on. Rap Jam Volume 1 was born in 1995, starring LL Cool J, Public Enemy and Queen Latifah shooting hoops. The problem here was that shooting the SNES game cartridge through a hoop was more fun than playing the game.

KISS created KISS Psycho Circus. Ozzy tried his hand with Ozzy Osbourne’s Black Skies. Neither of which was widely received nor taken seriously. KISS Psycho Circus was an extremely poor attempt at an action game, and Black Skies was cancelled before it broke from the gates. Rock artists couldn’t sell games, either, and probably should have shied away from striking into the digital world without better design documents in hand.

These early attempts at crossover bridges were barely capable of withstanding their own weight. They were built from twigs, and collapsed under the stress of real scrutiny. Eventually, both the rock and the hip hop genre were beginning to realize gamers wouldn’t gobble up weird attempts at marketing bombs.

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Enter the hip hop artist-gamers. An article in the Boston Globe says, “The hip hop community develops products differently.” The hip hop artist community has a tendency to be a large scale trend setter. They look at what they like, and call it cool. Their fans are cool by proxy when they duplicate the artists; a trend is born.

Wu-Tang Clan started everything in 1999, with Wu-Tang: Shaolin Style, which received moderate praise and reviews. The general consensus was that the game needed a better engine to be a better game. The real revolution occurred with the help of epic record label Def Jam.

Backed by hip hop artists such as DMX and LL Cool J, they produced Def Jam: Fight for NY in 2004 and Def Jam Vendetta this past year. Both received good reviews, and actually boasted some replay value.

With Def Jam providing the foundation, 50 Cent stepped up and continued the video game trend in hip hop. In 50 Cent: Bulletproof, due to release in November 2005, 50 Cent plays a hustler who gets into trouble on the streets of New York. Bulletproof isn’t the true story of 50 Cent; it will be another underground story set in New York. One has to wonder if there’s much room in the inn, after Grand Theft Auto and Need for Speed: Underground.

While some hip hop artists are designing games, it has also become quite commonplace for celebrities to star in games as well. This is just another way of permanently bridging together these two types of entertainment. Snoop Dogg will be starring in next year’s Fear and Respect. Talib Kweli plays the main character in Marc Ecko’s Getting Up: Contents Under Pressure, which is being well received by gaming press, as its launch nears in November.

What does this spell for classic game culture? It’s still there, but the culture is broadening. People who wouldn’t normally play games are becoming gamers. Games aren’t just for the nerds, dorks and geeks anymore, games are trendy and hip. Celebrities want to be a part of them, and fans get the opportunity to become a bit closer to their favorite musicians, actors and actresses, finally closing the gap between the entertainment you perceive and the entertainment you control. Hip hop did it better.

Whitney Butts is the “woman behind the curtain” at The Escapist. Her existence revolves around the fact that Mathematics is the key to the universe, and that she alone is the square root of all evil.

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