“I gotta believe!”

That was the optimistic motto of gaming’s preeminent MC, PaRappa the Rapper, and the declaration of hip hop’s looming arrival to videogames as more than a collection of beats and rhymes. Like punk rock and reggae, hip hop began as a musical movement and developed into a rich culture that allowed for a diversity of styles and viewpoints. Hip hop has been pulsing in and out of gaming like a sine wave for nearly two decades, and while commercial tie-ins have always been a part of this relationship, recent years have shown hip hop’s true potential to lend a unique vitality to game worlds.

I don’t blame you if your first mental connection between hip hop and gaming is gangster-turned-rapper 50 Cent – it’s hard to ignore someone whose idea of formal attire is a bulletproof vest. PaRappa’s lighthearted anthems and 50 Cent’s hard attitude couldn’t be more different, yet they’re distant cousins of a common ancestor. Such contradictions are common in hip hop.

Hip hop culture arose in New York in the 1970s and absorbed influences from every location it visited. It provides one of the few spaces where a chorus by The Police and rumbling bass, sweaters and oversized hoodies, Hummers and bicycles can all coexist. Even at its most subversive, as in the sounds and behavior of Young Buck, or individualistic, as in the dancing of Junior (aka Buana), the prevailing attitude is one of community and uninhibited expression.

Hip hop began with experimentation. Mixing records on turntables lead to new sounds and paint-sprayed shirts into new fashions. At times, it feels like that willingness to experiment is sorely lacking from the games industry. Perhaps this is why a handful of developers have turned to the malleability of hip hop for inspiration to challenge genre conventions and energize their gameplay.

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It wasn’t until Jet Grind Radio that a game wholly embraced hip hop as a focal point of its design. Although its cel-shaded visuals were revolutionary at the time, Jet Grind Radio‘s style was firmly rooted in the traditional elements of hip hop – breakdancing, graffiti, rapping and DJing. Many of Jet Grind Radio‘s movements and rhythms came straight from the dance floors, and the tags that characters spread around the city with spray paint could have been pulled from the sides of real buildings. Jet Grind Radio was hardly radical in terms of its hip hop aesthetic – you could even call it old-school. But it was a pioneer of a style that, nine years later, still attracts a dedicated fanbase.

It’s likely that Jet Grind Radio helped pave the path for The World Ends With You. Both are set in the vicinity of Tokyo, and both protagonists have a strange affinity for their headphones. But the most striking similarities lie in the engaging colors, bold outlines and sharp angles of a graffiti-inspired art style rarely seen in gaming. Every background and two-dimensional portrait radiates with a depth that is much harder to convey in a polygonal landscape.

While PaRappa the Rapper, Jet Grind Radio and The World Ends With You tap into the expressive forces of hip hop to enliven their worlds, they pale in comparison to the urban pastiche of Afro Samurai. In Afro’s world, created by Takashi Okazaki and rendered in an atypically loose and dirty style, swordsmen carry cell phones, gold chains compliment kimonos and a cyborg teddy bear dual-wields katanas.

Afro Samurai‘s incongruent influences may nearly sever the game’s tenuous ties to reality, but they’re neatly woven neatly together by Howard Drossin’s thumping soundtrack. The music – a post-modern cyclone of urban beats and shamisen – is the game’s lynchpin; without it, Afro Samurai nearly collapses under the weight of its own peculiarity. Like hip hop’s pioneers, Afro Samurai takes a lot of chances, and while critics have excoriated its gameplay, it has been equally praised for its audiovisual style.

PaRappa the Rapper wasn’t the first game to dive into hip hop. ToeJam and Earl were rocking gold chains and b-boy poses back in 1992, but their beatboxing antics and attire weren’t exactly vital to the game – if anything, they were attempts to cash in on hip hop’s rising popularity. But the original honor of blatant culture-farming goes to the Make My Video series, featuring acts as diverse as Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch and Kris Kross.

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The Def Jam series is an example of what happens when marketing and hip hop collide head on. It’s the only place where you can see an all-star cast of influential, grill-mouthed figures like Lil Jon, Slick Rick, 2Pac and the girth of E-40 duking it out with high-kicks and handsprings. The music and characters have been recreated with perfect detail, but Def Jam‘s only connection to hip hop culture is its star power. You could easily swap out the cast and music for by rock ‘n’ rollers and power chords without really altering the overall experience.

I don’t hesitate to place 50 Cent’s games – Bulletproof and Blood on the Sand – in the same category as the Def Jam series. These titles have celebrity associations with hip hop but lack meaningful expression. Blood on the Sand is a fusion of influences, but not in the spirit of experimentation. It’s a checklist of profitable elements from other games, including The Club‘s gameplay, gratuitous violence and 50 Cent and the G-Unit crew. Afro Samurai featured the voice of Samuel L. Jackson and some extremely grisly deaths, but the two games have separate motivations. Jackson is playing a character, not selling himself, and the violence is a device to emphasize Afro’s unwavering quest for vengeance.

It’s important to make such distinctions between meaning and marketability as games and hip hop continue to merge. Thanks to the rise of gangsta rap in the late 1980s and early 90s, popularized by figures like Ice-T and N.W.A., hip hop often carries the burden of negative perceptions regardless of its true intent. Many people haphazardly label any songs with beats and spoken rhymes as proponents of violence and sexism. Hip hop is a vibrant culture and has been the medium for countless activists and artists to spread positive messages about social and political change. I would hate to see that potential squandered in videogames because of a rapper posing with a gun.

Unfortunately, there is simply no changing the minds of some people. I’m reminded of a recent debate among my friends regarding the artistic integrity of sampling in hip hop. My friend called it plagiarism. I defended sampling as a means for artists to breach conventions and give listeners the pleasure of experiencing the familiar in new and unexpected ways. In the tradition of sampling, games like The World Ends With You and Afro Samurai latch onto the unifying powers of hip hop and welcome us into unexplored territories of gaming.

Brian Rowe is a freelance writer often seen around the pages of GameShark. He wholly endorses beatboxing in the shower instead of singing.

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