Hip Hop X Video Games: A History

Image by Marco Lombardo

It’s exciting news for fans of the popular PaRappa the Rapper video game franchise that a remastered version of the original beloved game is due out in just a couple of months. For those unfamiliar, PaRappa is about a dog who must win the heart of a girl by overcoming his fears through rapping with the assistance of various teachers. To some it may seem like an unlikely union, but doubt not; for hip hop music and video games, media in opposite entertainment universes, do indeed have history. It goes back to January 1995 with the release of Rap Jam: Volume One for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. More . Whether it be through soundtrack, objective, style or easter egg, hip hop and video games have done the tango throughout time.

Back to PaRappa the Rapper, though. Early rhythm game elements (think Guitar Hero) required players to input buttons on time with the screen prompts. Successful inputs would keep PaRappa toe to toe with his teacher, exchanging educational bars over simplistic beats. It also pays homage to the art of freestyling, rewarding players by giving them the highest rank if they spit a worthy freestyle instead of the expected lyrics. Thanks to the game’s childishness and cartoon design, it helped introduce younger generations to the hip hop genre.

Then in 1999 developer Rare, under Nintendo, released Donkey Kong N64, an update for a long time Nintendo staple. Composer Grant Kirkhope wrote a rap which describes each of the game’s character’s unique traits. George Andreas and lead programmer Chris Sutherland can be heard performing the song during the game’s introductory sequence. Unfortunately it’s none to popular with the public; perhaps it is just a gem that came before it’s time. On the flip side there are also video games based entirely around rap, such as Wu-Tang: Shaolin Style a video game product of legendary rap group Wu-Tang Clan.

Another series of games that are entirely hip hop based are the Def Jam series. Vendetta, the first in the series, is a wrestling game published by EA Big (a recurring name on this list) for the PS2 and Gamecube where the player fights the likes of Scarface, Method Man, DMX and more throughout the game’s story mode. The second and third in the series, Fight for NY and Icon, expanded on the fighting aspect by focusing less on wrestling and more on other fighting styles. Additional Def Jam artists make appearances throughout the series as well, like Lil Kim, Busta Rhymes and Ludacris. It truly was a one of a kind game; who wouldn’t love to see rappers settle their beef in virtual reality? Could you imagine an update with the likes of Drake and Meek Mill? So long boring twitter fueds.

EA Big had another series of sports games, this time taking to the gridiron and blacktop respectively. The NFL Street and NBA Street series’ saw two popular sports reimagined with fewer rules and a whole lot more swag. Seriously, there was nothing cooler than scrambling with Mike Vick in NFL Street 2 and juking out the entire opposition with a well timed wall run. Both games make it into this recounting of the past, however, because of their hip hop laden soundtracks, featuring Nas, Ying Yang Twins, Nate Dogg and even Pete Rock & CL Smooth. If you listen closely to Nas’ “Disciple” on NFL Street 2, his line, “And I’m not a dictator…,” sounds more like, “And I’m not a potater”; easily a top ten line to rap along to while Moss-ing the shit out of your friends. Xzibit and Nelly were even playable characters; Xzibit appearing in the NFL franchise and Nelly and his St. Lunatics squad in NBA Street. Of course, street sports and hip hop music were destined to work stupendously together. The recently popular 2K Basketball series has also employed the assistance of hip hop stars for the curation of their soundtracks. Jay-Z, Pharell, DJ Premier, DJ Khaled and more have put work into developing engaging playlists for on the court.

Then of course there is the entrepreneurial 50 Cent, who’s business forays have often times yielded ripe fruit. His first dive into the video game industry was 50 Cent: Bulletproof in 2005, followed a few years later in 2009 by 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand. Both multi-platform gems featured run-n-gun action featuring none other than Curtis Jackson III himself, who provided voice acting along with other G-Unit members. Blood on the Sand was the better received of the duo, thriving in its over the top action but only topping out at 56,000 US units. Maybe his past venture has deterred him but I’m sure the hip hop community would wholly welcome a new 50 Cent game.

DJ Hero, another rhythm game like PaRappa, released the same time as Blood on the Sand and took a whole different direction with its hip hop influence. Capitalizing on the rising popularity of dance music, Activision, who also published Guitar Hero, developed a mixer peripheral a la the Guitar Hero guitars and birthed it’s LP-scratching little brother. Players could pretend to hype crowds with mind-warping drops and unlimited wubs. On the other side, however, it was also exploring where hip hop was born, in 1970’s Brooklyn when DJs like Grandmaster Flash and DJ Cool Herc started experimenting with turntables and break beats. It was an interesting concept for a game and was popular enough to garner a sequel in 2010, but the IP has been lost ever since the disappearance of a portable version that was supposedly being developed for the Nintendo 3DS.

Afro Samurai is a multi-platform action game that featured an afro-clad samurai seeking revenge for past transgressions. The art style and music direction is very hip hop influenced, due in large part to the fact that Wu-Tang mastermind RZA composed and produced the project. It doesn’t get much love in the video game community but to some Afro Samurai is a cult classic. This is an unfortunate fate as there’s something uniquely satisfying about slicing and dicing opposing ninjas to some oriental beats. Shoutout to Samuel L. Jackson too for lending his voice and trademark acting to a character in the game as well.

Finally, many will remember when Kanye West dropped the trailer for his video game Only One, which to this day remains shrouded in mystery. No indication has been given on what kind of game it is or if it is even still in development. Surprisingly though Kanye didn’t come up with the idea to release a video game out of the blue; his shift into beat production actually came from the necessity to make music for his weird, sex-oriented video games that he had developed in his youth. Perhaps Only One will reach shelves sometime in the future and Ye’s dream of developing a game with finally be achieved, but if it remains locked away somewhere it doesn’t seem like we would miss out on much.

When two things from opposite platforms and mediums come together and work so harmoniously it is truly something special to behold. Hip hop music and video games doing this is but one example, albeit a great one as far as True Too is concerned. Hopefully the two continue to meet from here on into the future and bring players even more delight. Seriously, we need that rapper smackdown game, there is so much potential there.

Let us know if we missed any other great examples of video-games and hip hop coming together in the comments, and for all things hip hop keep reading at True Too.

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