As Danny Brown's GTAV Radio Station goes, live, we look back at the days where gaming developers would place players in control of their favorite MC's across sports titles, beat-em-ups and action games.
These days, it’s almost impossible to pick up any sports title or grounded sandbox game and not find yourself with plenty of hip-hop music to ingest while playing. Considering it’s the most prescient genre in the world and has been for many years now, it’s no surprise to find rappers such as Jay-Z and Travis Scott curating the soundtracks for NBA games while this year’s editions of Madden, 2K and FIFA harbour tracks from a broad spectrum of artists including JID, Skepta, Sampa The Great, Tierra Whack, Denzel Curry, Jay Critch and IDK to name a few. Elsewhere, the past week has seen Danny Brown seize the opportunity to construct his own radio station for GTA V, crafting an eclectic mix of US & UK hip-hop that’ll allow the pixelated populace of San Andreas to cruise around to the sounds of Slowthai, Pop Smoke, Megan Thee Stallion, D-Block Europe, Freddie Gibbs & Madlib, Schoolboy Q and more.
Danny Brown at the HNHH office - Image by HNHH
Speaking of the experience to Billboard, Danny seemed nothing short of gleeful about the trust that Rockstar bestowed upon him. "Rockstar just hit me up and asked me to send a big list of stuff I thought was dope," the Detroit MC enthused. "They had a few things they wanted to see on there, too. I put some stuff on there that I thought would be too far-fetched, but I forgot it's Rockstar and they can clear fucking anything [laughs]." With representation on the soundtrack now all but a prerequisite, it seems as though hip-hop’s compatibility with the gaming world would mean that its culture, imagery and artists would be amply accounted for in the marketplace beyond just their music. Although GTA V inserted cameo voiceover appearances from Danny, Tyler and Flying Lotus into the game, and there's Lil Pump’s likeness being scanned directly into NBA 2K20, it still feels as though there’s a reticence to make hip-hop artists into the focal point of a new video game title.
Arguably brought into the fold for the first time by intergalactic rappers Toejam & Earl and their whimsical adventures on the Sega Genesis, there was a time where games that derived inspiration from the hip-hop realm were far less anomalous. From the day-glo, rhythm-based experience of Parapa The Rapper to the vehicular combat of 187: Ride Or Die, or another one of the founding four elements getting highlighted with the graffiti-laden Mark Ecko’s Getting Up, hip-hop has proven itself to be malleable to just about any format of game that dev teams should desire. That said, rap karaoke games such as Get On The Mic!, Def Jam Rapstarand the mobile effort known as Battle Rap Stars failed to pan out as desired.
Nowadays, you might be able to hop online and see any number of rappers unwinding on Twitch or liaising with some of the top E-sports teams in the world. With artists ranging from Lil Yachty to Drake actively keeping an oar in their world, it seems bizarre that both major and independent studios have renounced the idea that hip-hop mainstays can be placed centre stage on a game’s box art and shift units in the millions. However, this wasn’t always the case. Back in the day, even at a time when hip-hop was less of the commercial powerhouse that it is now, seeing your favorite MC in digitized form was much more commonplace.
Constructed for the SNES, 1995’s Rap Jam: Volume One is a strange relic of a bygone era. Not least of all because its title would suggest a sequel that doesn’t exist, but because of the ragtag ensemble of legendary artists that it features. One of only two titles to ever be published by Motown Games, this basketball effort flouted the traditional rules of the sport in favour of a more smashmouth style that left room for hockey-style fights to ensue courtside. The legendary soul label attracted iconic groups such as Public Enemy, Naughty By Nature and Onyx to lend their images to the game, as well as LL Cool J, Queen Latifah, Warren G, House Of Pain, Coolio and Ice Cube’s former protégé Yo-Yo. Although critically derided, the game has taken on a cultlike status among fans ever since.
Raekwon, Rza and U-God of Wu-Tang Clan - Theo Wargo/WireImage/Getty Images
Four years later, the next time a hip-hop group would make a foray into gaming would take us from a no-holds-barred take on basketball to something far more blood-splattered. Structured around the engine of an infamously banned beat-em-up entitled Thrill Kill that was deemed too vulgar to be published by EA, the game receiving a death sentence at 99% understandably left Paradox Development unwilling to let all that hard work be for nought. Thus, enter the Killa Bees themselves, the Wu-Tang Clan. Unveiled for the Playstation in late November of 1999, Shaolin Style— which even came with a Wu symbol shaped controller— took the group’s pre-existing, martial arts movie-inspired lore and pushed it to delightfully ludicrous heights. With U-God’s energetic “Rumble” from Golden Arms Redemption acting as its theme song and a farfetched story about the Wu looking to retrieve their master from the villainous Mong Zhu, its mortal kombat style fatalities and the ability to play as each member of the group, as well as fluidly wage war with up to four characters onscreen gave it plenty of replay value. Yet no matter how much PS1-playing hip-hop heads may have relished the opportunity to partake in kung-fu style combat as the RZA, GZA or Raekwon, Shaolin Style— Taste The Pain for those outside the US— would ultimately serve as a precursor to what is indisputably the finest hip-hop video game series of all time.
When news of Def Jam Vendetta hit, both rap fans and studious video game players were quick to rejoice. On the one hand, you had a stacked roster that featured a who’s who of the early 00’s leading lights including DMX, Method Man, Redman, Ludacris, Ghostface Killah, N.O.R.E, Joe Budden and Keith Murray to name a few. But for wrestling fanatics that’d grown up on WCW/NWO Revenge or WWF NoMercy, the news that Def Jam Vendetta would use the cherished AKII engine ensured that the game would transition from intriguing premise to an immensely enjoyable gaming experience. Held in a variety of detailed underground clubs and soundtracked by some genuine classics in the shape of Scarface’s “In Cold Blood,” Onyx’s “Throw Ya Gunz” and C-N-N’s woefully underrated “Stompdashitoutya,” the first instalment in the series saw you take on the mantle of an unknown fighter that quickly ascends up the ranks of D-Mob’s clandestine fighting ring, making no shortage of enemies along the way.
A genuine triumph that outperformed expectations in both a critical and commercial sense, everyone that fell in love with this game would likely be shocked to learn that it actually came about courtesy of a throwaway remark in a brainstorming session. As revealed to Okayplayer, former EA producer Josh Holmes made the comment in an offhand way when they were deciding how to use the AKII engine. Little did he know, he’d make history in the process. "So we were really into hip-hop and urban culture, and we just sort of threw out — what if we did something that was grounded in the world of hip-hop?" He continued, "Steve Schnur, who was the head of music at EA at the time, said, 'Oh, that’s great. I know some folks at Def Jam. We can get them together and we could have rappers fighting each other and stuff.' Suddenly, this idea started gaining momentum. I was like, 'Whoa, okay, that was a dumb idea. No, let’s not do that, guys. Let’s keep going. Let’s come up with another idea…we should do anything but this.'"
For all that the battle to dethrone D-Mob provided an excellent foundation, it is by no means the pinnacle of the series. Arriving a year later in September of 2004, Def Jam: Fight For New York took the bare bones of its predecessor and expanded them on a massive scale. Bolstered by a new, multi-discipline combat system, full customization of your character and a vastly expanded roster that featured such icons as Slick Rick, Snoop Dogg, Busta Rhymes, Flava Flav, Freeway, Ice-T and both members of Mobb Deep to name a few, DJFNY is quite simply the most immersive hip-hop gaming experience that’s ever been committed to a disc. In terms of the ethos that informed the sequel, producer Dave Blanchet told Waypoint that it came from two distinct ideas that were executed to perfection. "We wanted distinct styles and character choices so that there was lots of depth for players to explore and lots of characters to master. We also liked the idea of making a game where you could sit down with your friends on a Saturday night, have a few cold ones and beat the hell out of each other."
Boasting a vibrant online community to this day that resulted in the 2004 title being incorporated into the competitive gaming on offer at CEO 2018, the fact that this game hasn’t been remastered or that another enterprising developer hasn’t attempted to take this formula and translate it to hip-hop’s modern era seems incredibly short-sighted at best. However, the less said about the PS3 follow up that was the clunky, “beat-based” fighting of 2007’s Def Jam: Icon, the better.
But in-between the crown jewel of hip-hop gaming and the emergence of the franchise-killing monstrosity that lay ahead, another series that placed control over a rapper’s journey through the NY underworld would be brought to life. Constructed by Vivendi Universal Games, 50 Cent: Bulletproof took the essence of the merciless killing machine that he often portrayed on early records and translated it into a rich, animated world. Featuring G-Unit as 50’s muscle as well as cameos from Dr. Dre and Eminem as an arms dealer and corrupt cop respectively, this action/third-person shooter title sold over 1.2 million units in the US alone and later would spawn a PSP redux. Littered with issues with the game mechanics, Bulletproof was a case of style over substance but still had its place due to sheer novelty value. Yet just as Def Jam Vendetta would pale in comparison to what’d come afterwards, Vivendi’s first effort would be left in the dust by the superior and vastly more absurdist sequel 50 Cent: Blood On The Sand.
Handed over to the now defunct Swordfish Studios, this middle-eastern adventure sees 50 and G-Unit— who’ve been booked to play a show in this unspecified nation— go on a bloodletting rampage in the pursuit of a crystal skull that’d been given as payment. Facing off against paramilitaries, the game not only featured exclusive music from 50 but was seen as a marked improvement on the previous title. Sadly, 2009 would mark the last time that we’d have the opportunity to play the role of 50. Since then, rapper-oriented video games have largely gone extinct, perhaps due to the increased fiscal pressure of creating a new title or an unwillingness to invest in licensing music acts in any way beyond the soundtrack.
John Singleton and Snoop Dogg, 2004 - Kevin Winter/Getty Images
However, it now seems that one game that was shelved may find new life. Ever the entrepreneur, Snoop Dogg has ingratiated himself into the video game market like no one else. Discounting his appearance as the malevolent rival gang boss “Crow” in Def Jam: Fight For NY, the Doggfather was also an unlockable character in True Crime Streets Of LA and somehow attained his own stage in Tekken Tag Tournament 2, surveying the action from a purple throne as two scantily-clad females stand guard. First optioned in 2004, Fear & Respect was a game that was set to enable players to take control of a fictional character named Goldie, who bore Snoop’s voice and likeness, as he makes his ways through a gangland turf war on the streets of South Central. Created by Midway and orchestrated by none other than the late director John Singleton, anticipation for the game was high and its trailer suggested that it’d be revolutionary for its time before it was cancelled in 2006 over fears of oversaturation. Now, in the wake of The Boyz N The Hood architect’s untimely passing, Snoop has expressed a desire to get the wheels in motion once more to honour his friend.
"Man, that game was going to be hard," he told Cheddar Esports. "We had really put together a real story that was like a motion picture, but a few things got dropped behind the walls. But I think it was a great idea, and it should be revisited in the memory of John Singleton." Whether it comes in the form of Snoop’s long-gestating inner-city war or a new beat-em-up that compiles a massive roster of today’s stars and gives players the opportunity to throw down against their least favorite MCs, hip-hop’s continued cultural dominance means that we’re long overdue a return to the golden age of rappers taking the lead within video games.