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.
There are cultural hurdles facing anyone who makes a rap simulation game as well. According to Harmonix Senior Designer Dan Teasdale, they had a critical question in mind when making all of their design decisions for Rock Band: “Does it feel like an authentic band experience?” Yet that word, “authentic,” haunts hip hop culture. Authenticity is a serious issue in rap, far more so than it is in rock music. For example, rock culture allows for cover bands: While considered silly by some, they have their time and their place. Even very famous musicians often cover other artists’ songs for their studio albums, sometimes going as far as releasing albums consisting entirely of covers. The concept of a “cover” simply does not exist in rap. Homage, usually in the form of allusion, is acceptable, but covering a song is essentially the same thing as “biting” – that is, stealing someone else’s lyrics.
So a rap simulation game faces three major impediments: the public’s lack of familiarity with the mechanics of rap, the complexity of simulating and scoring rap, and hip hop culture’s complete aversion to anything deemed inauthentic. Perhaps a Rock Band-style rap simulator is a lost cause. But just because we can’t have a karaoke-style rap game doesn’t mean we can’t provide gameplay centered on the art of rapping.
Why not develop a game around the concept of freestyle rapping? Freestyle is the art of improvising rhymes on the spot, often in response to particular cues from an environment, an audience or a rival. Furthermore, freestyle is rap at its most playful. When codified as a freestyle battle, it becomes a full-fledged spectator sport. At first it might seem impossible to score a freestyle videogame: How would a computer judge whether someone’s freestyle is fresh?
However, cursory research into how freestyle rappers practice their art reveals patterns that could become the foundation for a promising game. Freestyling requires forethought and strategy. The moment you decide to say “I’m the illest MC to ever rock the house,” you must begin composing your next line, which now must end with an -ouse rhyme. Many freestylers rely on their vast vocabulary: Supernatural, one of the greatest freestyle rappers in history, reads the dictionary cover to cover in order to build his verbal arsenal. And the best freestylers can compose a few lines as a setup for the express purpose of a killer punch line a few lines later.
By abstracting freestyle rap into the rules and systems that underlie its aesthetics, you notice that many elements of freestyle rapping correlate directly to common gameplay elements. Rhyming is pattern matching. Vocabulary is the collection of additional patterns to match. Composition is largely strategic and very similar to the dynamics of thinking a few moves ahead to set up a combination for maximum score.
Understanding these rules and relationships allows you to experience the thought process of a freestyle rapper while circumventing the need for actual rapping. One possible game could involve the computer feeding players a series of symbols in real time, which they must read and remember while simultaneously performing button presses related to the previous input. As players perform one line of rap, they have to compose their next line in their head. The mechanics could be a series of button presses as in PaRappa the Rapper, perhaps followed by an analog stick expression similar to the way tricks are performed in skate to represent the rapper nailing the rhyme. Properly balanced for difficulty, this design could result in a game that creates a similar experience for a player as an actual freestyle session. When combined with an audio engine that performs (or royally screws up) rhymes to reflect the player’s input, the overall package could be quite compelling.
This system seems awfully cerebral at first blush, but it’s no more weirdly abstracted than the mechanics of skate. The abstractions themselves are not that far off from what rappers themselves experience. In the 2000 documentary Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme, Global Phlowtations crew member Zagu Brown says, “Sometimes I think about what I’m going to say, and then sometimes I just see photos, you know, I see images, and then I just describe them best as I can, and then somewhere in the back of my mind, it’s a conscious sign going off like, make the word rhyme now, maybe here.” If this game was developed by a studio as knowledgeable about hip hop as EA Black Box is about skateboarding, it could be a very convincing and truly authentic gameplay experience.
Of course, no one particular design for a game about rapping is the best way to go. The point is that hip hop is an extremely deep and complex culture. If we learn about its nuances and use them to our advantage, we can transcend the false promises of a “Rock Band for rap” and create a videogame that truly resonates with hip hop.