A Brief History of Rap Music in Video Game Soundtracks - DJBooth

It’s in the Game: A Brief History of Rap Music in Video Game Soundtracks

From 'Rap Jam' to 'Def Jam: Vendetta' to 'Fortnite,' hip-hop and video games have had a long, intertwined history.
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The only thought roaring through my head as I unwrapped my copy of Def Jam: Vendetta was how excited I was to watch DMX pound the braids off Ludacris in the wrestling ring. In the game’s main menu, the opening thumps of Redman’s “Smash Sumthin” invaded my eardrums for the first time. I loved PlayStation 2 and I loved Red's Malpractice album and for the first time, the two were one. 

Both Def Jam: Vendetta and its sequel Fight for NY weren’t just wrestling video games that just so happened to be soundtracked by rap; they created heavily dramatized worlds where Capone-N-Noreaga could pile drive Southern racists and dudes wearing clown makeup into the ground to the tune of Scarface’s “In Cold Blood” or Freeway’s “Flipside.” Even if you didn’t know the songs, every button press slid into samples and sidearms.

Over the past two weeks, Def Jam tweeted a meme asking their followers to pick one of four cities for a potential fourth game in the series (the fewer words spoken about the abysmal third installment Def Jam Icon, the better), while Madden's 2019 edition revealed a soundtrack stuffed to the brim with only rap songs—31 to be exact—featuring names like Flatbush Zombies, Young Thug, Denzel Curry, and Innanet James.

Even the battle royale shooter Fortnite, which for all intents and purposes is the most popular video game in the world right now, uses dances born from hip-hop like the shoot and the floss as victory emotes, and leans on superstars like Drake and Travis Scott to play the game with top Twitch streamers like Ninja. 

If you play your cards right, hip-hop culture and music will help your game live on forever; just ask Mario how much Biggie’s endorsement was worth in coins. For the past 20 years, beats and rhymes have played a much bigger role than just cool references.

That isn’t to say that gaming didn’t have a head start. The first example of what we now know as a video game was released in 1958, but heads didn’t really turn until Pong (forgive the pun) changed the game in 1972; two floating ball paddles would spark a movement of joysticks and pixels no one could previously picture. A mere eight-and-a-half months later, on August 11, 1973, DJ Kool Herc’s turntable alchemy gave birth to hip-hop music as we know it today. Rap and gaming had the time to grow as kindred spirits, underdogs labeled as fads and barely respected as media at all, let alone art.

Both were kicked into high gear at the start of the '90s. Biggie’s "Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis " reference on “Juicy” might remain one of the most beloved mainstream gaming references in rap, but the first attempted embrace of The Culture in gaming didn’t come until 1995’s Rap Jam Vol. 1, an arcade basketball game that let users play as LL Cool J, Queen Latifah, Naughty By Nature, and Flavor Flav, among others. But unlike the Def Jam series, there was no licensed music to transport you onto the pavement alongside your favorite characters; in fact, there wasn’t any music at all outside of the main menu. PaRappa The Rapper upped the ante on the original PlayStation a year later, incorporating silly rap songs about kung fu onions and cooking chickens into what’s widely considered the first rhythm game ever created while laying the groundwork for future titles like Dance Dance Revolution, Guitar Hero, and MTV Music Generator, a '98 gem that inspired a generation of producers. It’s impossible not to crack a smile while watching a dog rap with a police deer about getting his driver’s license.

But while the skating dog sporting an orange beanie brought something resembling actual rap to gamers the world over for the first time, it was still missing the hardcore edge that dominated the music being made at the time. Enter the Wu-Tang Clan, who, at the dawn of the early aughts, released their own fighting game, entitled Shaolin Style. It was little more than a Mortal Kombat ripoff complete with gory fatalities, but it was one of the first games to build a world around the art of rap. RZA, U-God, and Masta Killa contributed songs and voice work to the story, which featured the rap group literally fighting their way through the living and breathing 36 Chambers. Sadly, the game's authenticity couldn't make up for its poor gameplay.

As video game technology improved and game makers became more ambitious, rap also became more profitable. Yearly sports titles (Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, Madden NFL) began to feature more rap-heavy soundtracks, the product of superstar athletes like Allen Iverson and Deion Sanders smuggling rap swagger into the NBA and NFL, respectively. EA Sports' publishing arm, BIG, married the two industries even further with the creation of the Street series of their popular NFL, NBA, and FIFA games, updating the stylish arcade blacktop twist of Rap Jam with more tricks and tracks that worked in tandem with their Def Jam wrestling series. Rap music was the touchdown, the three-pointer, and the half-field goal.

Meanwhile, producers and DJs were being called on to score and curate soundtracks that breathed life into the cities and alleyways of games; RJD2 spruced up Marc Ecko’s Getting Up and Hideki Naganuma put his muscle behind the electronic/rap fusion of Jet Set Radio Future. In 2006, 50 Cent even leveraged the ever-present G-Unit brand into 50 Cent: Bulletproof, complete with an original soundtrack and Game diss track. 

The game changed for good, however, when the Grand Theft Auto series incorporated radio stations into gameplay, allowing players to toggle channels while driving around the open world. With each release in the series, the rap stations grew more and more prominent, eventually leading to names like Flying Lotus and Frank Ocean being called upon to curate the massively successful Grand Theft Auto V and its online multiplayer spinoff Grand Theft Auto Online. In-game radio stations had already become a standard in open-world games, a reflection of rap’s growing presence in the side-view mirror of the general public’s everyday life.

While censorship issues and growing pains have followed both industries, the two have continued to feed off of each other’s maverick energy for the past decade. That the Madden 2019 soundtrack features nothing but rap records should feel like more of a victory than it does. It's a landmark moment for a non-hip-hop video game, tainted only by the censoring of banished professional quarterback and political activist Colin Kaepernick, whose name was removed from Big Sean’s verse on YG’s “Big Bank.” EA Sports has since apologized for the "error," announcing the uncensored version would be made available in an upcoming game update.

Even still, there are silver linings cracking their way through the code. Digital streaming providers like Pandora, Spotify, and SoundCloud encourage personal playlist curation that’s great for parties with friends, even if they might make a video game music consultant cry at night. Fortnite, a game with no soundtrack of its own, has proved to be a sticky bomb in the hearts of rappers, winning over everyone from Lil Yachty and 03 Greedo to Nyck Caution and Yung Bans.

When I first fired up Def Jam: Vendetta back in 2003, I couldn’t even begin to picture rap and gaming mixing the way they have over the past 15 years. Their crossover appeal has earned me friends and opened my eyes to sights and sounds that would’ve otherwise passed me by. Both are capable of coloring the human condition with exaggeration and nuance that has earned them a spot in our party rotations, our pockets, and our museum halls. Even among the missteps and blatant cash grabs, rap and gaming confiding in each other is a found balance that unearths the escapism in reality and sounds beautiful while doing it. 

Whether I’m picking the city for the next Def Jam game or blasting the newest album while catching fades in Dragonball FighterZ, I’ll always play to that.

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