Making art that captivates a generation is one thing, but repeating the feat is something else entirely. At once a lightning rod for controversy and a pillar of technical innovation, Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto series has spawned many imitators but remains utterly unequalled. Revered by avid gamers and casual fans alike, any news about an upcoming installment is received with internet-combusting zeal. And depending on who you’re inclined to believe, the team is either muddling through early development on GTA 6 or teetering towards completion.
Either way, the details fans are clamoring for remain thin on the ground — primarily, what pseudo-satirized American city will they be revisiting, and in what era will it reside? Be it something along the lines of the immaculately tailored, cocaine-fueled wonderland of ’80s-Vice City, or the congested, Californian melting pot of the ’90s, and modern day San Andreas (as seen in both the 2004 PS2 title and GTA V). Once this information is obtained, theorizing on one of the most crucial components of the GTA experience can begin; this being, of course, its phenomenal soundtrack.
For anyone who has spent time as one of GTA’s engagingly amoral protagonists, hopping into a vehicle and careening through its bustling open-world with the radio blaring is a uniquely engrossing experience. But when it comes to one genre in particular, GTA’s inspired use of music represents so much more.
Amid the ballyhoo about its supposedly corrosive impact on young minds and the endless accolades it’s received, one of the series’ greatest contributions has been sorely downplayed. Away from the insurmountable impact it’s had on gaming, GTA has simultaneously provided players with not only potted histories of hip-hop through the ages, but a greatly enhanced understanding of the artform as a whole.
Constructed in Dundee, Scotland, the developers of the game provisionally called “Race-N-Chase” couldn’t be further removed from the realm of garish Americana they would create. First pitched in 1995, series co-creator Mark Dailly has said: “It was supposed to be a cops and robbers thing but nobody wanted to play as the police.”
Intended to be a straightforward arcade title, the attributes that would take its first installment from transience to a timeless cultural document would arrive alongside two brash, rap-infatuated brothers from London. Modelling themselves after Rick Rubin and the 808-fueled output of early Def Jam, Dan and Sam Houser didn’t fit the video game industry’s mould and, after coming aboard, neither did the team’s re-christened brainchild.
Unable to secure licensed music despite their ties to BMG, Rockstar – then known as DMA Designs – were forced to improvise. Tasked with creating a wide array of music for the PS1 title, in-house composer Colin Anderson recalled that the turning point came with Grand Theft Auto’s title track. Which, as fate would have it, parodied the musical style that they’d soon foster a deep-seated bond with.
“I had to win a lot of arguments to get GTA its radio stations,” Anderson reflected in 2015, “and that first hip-hop track played a big part in convincing potential supporters and silencing the nay-sayers.”
As the series progressed to 3D, Colin’s crude musical pastiches would give way to licensed tracks which set the tone for its championing of both contemporary and classic hip-hop. With record companies noting the upside of aligning their new artists with the controversial, parliamentary debate-inciting title, the healthy rapport between GTA and hip-hop began in earnest within Grand Theft Auto III’s Game FM. Embodying the murkiness of early 2000s East Coast and Midwest rap, the Liberty City station steered away from the extravagance of the jiggy era to hone in on the streets with artists such as Royce Da 5’9″, Sean Price, Nature, and Bad Boy hopeful Black Rob.
Arriving at a time when a glaring chasm existed between the sound of chart-friendly hip-hop and hard-nosed MCs who catered to the underground, the decision to capture a scene rather than functioning as a jack-of-all-trades would set the tone for the years to come.
Whether steeped in sun-kissed climates or opaquely gray cityscapes, GTA’s site-specific attention to detail enables each game to tap into one or more of hip-hop’s prevailing movements in an era while reflecting the ebbs and flows of public tolerance towards the genre.
In Vice City, hip-hop is found only on Mister Magic’s pirate station Wildstyle FM, which clandestinely broadcasts the raw sound of Miami bass to its audience. Meanwhile, on 2004’s San Andreas, Radio Los Santos documented the first wave of west coast gangsta rap while MC Forth Right — as portrayed by Chuck D — provided golden era nostalgia amid hip-hop’s first generational rift on Playback FM. A trope that carried through to GTA IV, players could enjoy the latest from Swizz Beats, Nas, Styles P, and others, courtesy of the Hot 97-aping Beat 102.7, while DJ Premier immortalized its illustrious past that “must be respected in a major way“ across The Classics 104.1.
In a testament to hip-hop’s shift in stature from the ostracization of Vice City to the contemporary Liberty City that you navigate as Niko Bellic, Beat 102.7’s intro celebrates the genre’s rise to cultural dominance, lovingly proclaiming: “It began on the streets of South Bohan [Bronx], it’s taken over the world.”
By GTA V, Radio Los Santos evolved from a West Coast-only outlet to something that reflected hip-hop’s post-tribalist landscape. Although there was Californian representation from Nipsey Hussle, YG, and the TDE camp, the regional specificity of the ’90s was dispersed so that Freddie Gibbs, A$AP Rocky, and Gucci Mane could shine on Los Santos’ premier station. Composed by The Alchemist and Oh No, GTA V’s overview of modern hip-hop was bolstered by the 2015 original score Welcome To Los Santos, a collection which contained a broad spectrum of features from Earl Sweatshirt, E-40, MC Eiht, and Curren$y, to name a few.
Described as a “dream project of its own” by Flylo FM architect Flying Lotus, the online expansion of GTA V also empowered its creator to chart hip-hop’s evolution in the intervening years since it hit shelves. Helmed by the likes of Frank Ocean [Blonded] and Danny Brown [December 2019’s iFruit Radio], Rockstar’s predisposition towards creative freedom means that these stations are constructed on the basis of healthy dialogue between the studio and its curators.
“[Rockstar] asked me to send a big list of stuff I thought was dope,” Danny said of iFruit’s playlist. “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.” By updating in increments, culturally vital artists such as Lil Uzi Vert, Future, Megan Thee Stallion, DaBaby, Skepta, and City Girls have since found themselves transplanted to GTA V’s hyper-real virtual playground.
Broadening a rapper’s reach in a way that Spotify’s strategic playlisting cannot, GTA’s formula for promulgating hip-hop was perfected within the HD universe. And now, with its place as the world’s dominant musical form solidified, the series’ role has shifted from providing a gateway for the genre to infiltrating unsuspecting homes. Sharing GTA IV’s The Beat 107.2 airwaves with Mister Cee, DJ Green Lantern leapt at the chance to produce original music for the 2008 release.
“They got a couple of people over there that are really in tune to what’s going on,” he informed Billboard. “They had the idea to give me my own show and create all brand-new music… it’s just a no-brainer.”
On top of Rockstar’s institutional understanding of hip-hop, Green Lantern’s motivations for contributing encapsulates GTA’s unique appeal to artists within an oversaturated marketplace beset by ever-dwindling revenue streams: “The 12 million people that are probably going to buy this — that’s a big difference.”
Grand Theft Auto, much like hip-hop itself, has grown from humble beginnings to become an intrinsic part of culture. Serving as both an interactive historian and tastemaker over the years, it fittingly took something deeply misunderstood to capture the spirit of a genre that’s been dogged by aspersions about its ill effects and artistic merit since Day One. Now, whatever shape the next GTA takes, you can bet that its time-honored love affair with hip-hop will continue to blossom.