With its status as an all-encompassing culture, hip-hop has found its way into all sorts of industries ranging from fashion, skateboarding, film, sports, and even gaming. To some it may seem like an unlikely union, but doubt not; for hip-hop music and video games have quite the history, whether it’s soundtracks, style, playable characters, or even easter eggs.
Both industries are more similar than you might think. Both hip-hop and video games shifted paradigms when they first emerged in the ’70s, and both have grown into the manifest of the mainstream, generating untold millions of dollars and changing the landscape of popular culture as we know it.
Whenever hip-hop and video games manage to intersect, it usually leaves an impact on pop culture in some shape or form. Back in March, the two industries collided in a colossal way when Drake and Travis Scott teamed up with popular Twitch streamer Ninja for a gaming session of the it-game at the moment, Fortnite. As the oddly trio fought their way through the addicting battle royale style game for hours, the stream itself was racking up views. The session would go on to set a new record, bringing in a whopping 600,000 concurrent viewer and beating out the previous peak of 388,000 for an individual stream. Ninja also received a pretty hefty pay day.
For some, this may seem like a huge surprise, but for us, it’s been a long time coming. It was only a matter of time for the two industries to finally break the internet together – they’ve long relied on each other for support. Without hip-hop, we wouldn’t have one of the greatest games of all time, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, and without video games, we wouldn’t have Notorious B.I.G.‘s iconic third “Juicy” verse.
Since the creation of Parappa the Rappa, the relationship between both entertainment industries has proven strong. It’s hard to list everything, but here we’ve tracked the highlights from the ever strengthening link between hip hop and video games that’s gone from one-off under the radar rap games to breaking Twitch records.
1994: Notorious BIG references Super Nintendo in “Juicy” lyrics
There’s nothing we love more than hearing a rapper dropping video game bars, and there’s arguably no video game rap lyric more popular than Biggie’s “Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis / When I was dead broke, man, I couldn’t picture this,” on “Juicy”.
Especially in a genre of music that is saturated with personalities bragging about money, cars, and clothes, Biggie made owning a game console seem like a humble aspiration. His loftiest dreams involved Super Mario. This might be among the most frequently-cited verses in the history of hip-hop. Not a bad start to a prominent relationship between the two industries.
1995: ‘Rap Jam: Volume One’ blends hip-hop and sports.
Rap truly ventured into the video game industry in January of 1995 with the release of Rap Jam: Volume One for the Super Nintendo. As an NBA Jam-style basketball game, Rap Jam played more like a pick up game on an urban ball court setting, with fisticuffs and no foul calls. Players could choose between exhibition mode and tournament mode while playing as it-rappers at the time like Coolio, House of Pain, LL Cool J, Naughty By Nature, Onyx, Public Enemy, Queen Latifah, Warren G, Yo-Yo, and Flavor Flav.
Despite being titled “Volume One,” this under the radar game never saw a sequel. However, it did help jump start the phenomenon of rapper appearances in sport titles to come.
1996: ‘Parappa the Rappa’ creates hip-hop for all demographics.
Much like two people who grew up together, hip-hop and video games have long relied on each other for support. Thanks to the cartoon design geared towards children, 1996’s PaRappa the Rapper introduced younger generations to the hip-hop genre.
Early rhythm game elements (think Guitar Hero) required players to input buttons in time with screen prompts. Successful inputs would keep PaRappa toe-to-toe with his teacher, exchanging educational bars over simplistic beats. The game paid homage to the art of freestyling, a rap technique more prevalent in the 80s and 90s, rewarding players by giving them the highest rank if they spit a worthy freestyle instead of the expected lyrics.
1999: Wu-Tang Clan star in their own ‘Shaolin Style’ game.
This is a lesser known fighting game that revolved around the legendary Wu-Tang Clan. The gameplay sees the players fighting their way through the 36 Chambers in both story and exhibition modes. This thrilling game was well-received by critics in the game industry for its then-innovative four-player matches, in-depth story mode, and creative use of the Wu-Tang Clan license for the characters, music, and tone.
Furthermore, it pays homage to the Wu-Tang fighting style and came with a must cop special “W” controller inspired by the group’s iconic “Wu-tang W” logo.
2003-04: ‘Def Jam Vendetta’ & ‘Fight For NY’ pits rapper vs. rapper.
In 2003, EA BIG (remember them?) released a one-of-a-kind wrestling/fighting game featuring a wide list of Def Jam signed artists. The original instalment in the series, Vendetta was generally met with high praise, as you could fight as Scarface, Method Man, DMX and a few others.
The second and third games in the series, Fight for NY and Icon respectively, expanded on everything players loved about the original title, finding the perfect formula which focused less on wrestling and more on fighting styles and additional Def Jam artists including rappers Snoop Dogg, Ice-T, Lil Kim, Redman, Method Man, Bboy Crazy Legs, Busta Rhymes, Flava Flav, Ludacris, Xzibit, Fat Joe and the late Prodigy.
It was Celebrity Deathmatch mixed with WWE: Smackdown vs Raw-style wrestling, but featuring the biggest rappers at the time. What more could you ask for? Could you imagine a 2018 reboot? Who wouldn’t want to see Vince Staples brawl out with Big Sean? EA, please bring this franchise back!
2003: Snoop Dogg’s an Unlockable Character in ‘True Crime: Streets of LA’
After the huge success of Grand Theft Auto III, many other publishers wanted in on the open-world action genre, and True Crime: Streets of LA was Activision’s less-than-stellar 2003 attempt. It was a fine game, but True Crime‘s claim to fame wasn’t its Los Angeles setting, or the bizarre action gameplay – it was actually its unlockable character, Snoop Dogg.
If you found all 30 “Dogg Bones” collectables in the game or entered a specific cheat code (remember those?), you could unlock Uncle Snoop, complete with his own mission and car. It was one of the first major appearances from a rapper in a game that wasn’t a sports title, and really the only reason to play True Crime over GTA.
2004: ‘Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas’ captures the essence of West Coast hip-hop.
First thing’s first, GTA: San Andreas is one of the greatest games of all time. It redefined what the franchise could do and set a benchmark in almost every video game category – be it the amazing storyline, the open world gameplay, the graphics, or simply the infinite amount things to do in fictional San Andreas world. More importantly, Rockstar’s game stood out in the industry for its take on West Coast hip-hop culture in the ’90s.
San Andreas‘ main protagonist, Carl “CJ” Johnson, and the rest of the Grove Street gang were inspired by iconic rap group N.W.A., with real life MCs like The Game, Big Boy, MC Eiht, Ice-T, and Frost appearing throughout. Like any GTA installment, the in-game radio featured many relevant hip-hop tracks of the time including Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Tupac, Too Short, and many others.
As of now, GTA: San Andreas has sold over 21 million units according to Take-Two Interactive, and was awarded the most successful PlayStation 2 game by The Guinness Book of World Records 2009 Gamer’s Edition, selling 17.33 million copies for that console alone. At this moment, the video game industry fully embraced rap culture, opening the doors for artists to star in their own single player titles.
2005: ’50 Cent: Bulletproof’ proves rapper-lead video games can work.
Despite critic reviews, 50 Cent: Bulletproof is arguably the best rapper-lead video game to date (#ChangeMyMind). The first of a two-part series of games played like a Max Payne-style shooter but with 50 as the protagonist and the rest of G-Unit squad as side characters.
To make the game even better, 50’s entire discography was accessible in-game and could be played at anytime while you shoot up NYC. What more could you want?
50 Cent: Bulletproof wasn’t an award-winning groundbreaking title like GTA: San Andreas, but it was a hell of a lot of fun to play. It also sold over 1.2 million copies, proving that gaming titles with a rapper-led protagonist definitely work.
2009: ‘DJ Hero’ brings turntables to console.
Coming off the success of Guitar Hero and Rock Band, DJ Herowas born in 2009. As the other two rhythm games catered toward the rock n’ roll crowd, their little brother gave rap and EDM fans their own video game shine. The LP-scratching title explored the origins of hip-hop, shining light on experimentation with turntables and break beats, made popular by classic DJs like Grandmaster Flash and DJ Kool Herc in NYC. It was an interesting concept with an even more interesting soundtrack.
With the game’s turntable controller, players could mash up classic hits with modern rap songs, like JAY-Z‘s “Izzo” with The Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back”, or Eminem‘s “My Name Is” with Beck’s “Loser”. It was popular enough to garner a sequel in 2010.
2012: JAY-Z executive produces ‘NBA 2K13’ Soundtrack
In 2012, rap’s big brother JAY-Z ventured into the gaming industry by putting his stamp on the popular NBA 2K series. The NY rapper served as executive producer of NBA 2K13. Many headlines focused on his curated soundtrack for the game, scoring hip-hop’s best including Kanye West, Nas, Mobb Deep, 50 Cent, Busta Rhymes and more, but HOV’s involvement went deeper than music.
In an interview with Billboard, 2K Sport’s vice-president of marketing Jason Argent explained, “Jay is completely obsessed with authenticity. So right off the bat, he said ‘Look, I love this franchise and I love this game, but if you want me to be involved, I need to be truly involved. I want to actually help make this game.”
The hip-hop mogul gave input on what Argent referred to as “what happens off the court,” making his mark on intro and outro videos, game menus, and more. “We wanted him to truly be involved from a behind-the-scenes production standpoint,” Argent continues. Sadly, there were no in-game Jay appearances at the Brooklyn Nets arena or customizable “Roca-fella diamond” celebrations in MyPlayer. Missed opportunity?
NBA 2K13 would go on to be a success, and opened the door for future collaborations with hip-hop artists including Pharrell and DJ Khaled.
Stream the soundtrack below.
2016: Kanye West shocks Madison Square Garden with ‘Only One’ video game.
In 2016, Kanye West surprised a packed crowd at Madison Square Garden during a listening event for his album The Life of Pablo with a sneak peek of a video game he was creating involving his late mother, Donda West. “The idea of the game is my mom traveling through the gates of heaven,” Kanye said at the launch, before playing a short trailer.
Ye later took a trip to E3, an annual expo for game press conferences and reveals, to show off Only One to developers. According to host Geoff Keighley, ‘Ye told them about his desire to go to school and learn how to create video games before he got into hip-hop.”
Many were anticipating Kanye’s unexpected foray into the video game industry but sadly, that day never came. Almost two years since the game’s teaser debut, Only One has faded from existence.
2017: Rappers start streaming.
Rappers are just like us. They play video games, too. In 2017, streaming service Twitch really took off, averaging more than two million streamers each month. As the site’s traffic continued to rise, so did the percentage of rappers streaming. Artists including T-Pain, Logic, Post Malone, Lil Yachty, and even Snoop Dogg have all created accounts on the platform to play and connect with fans.
Last year, we got in on the streaming craze, teaming up with Xbox to bring our own interactive livestream game show Pushing Buttons to Mixer. We brought in hip-hop artists and influencers including Joey Bada$$, Just Blaze, and Flatbush Zombies for an hour of candid conversation, interacting with viewers, and nonstop gaming.
Live streaming has become a phenomenon with more and more entertainers and artists flocking over to Twitch. It was only a matter of time until it started making headlines.
2018: Drake, Ninja, and Travis Scott break Twitch stream record
Started at Rap Jam, now we here. Back in March, Drake and Travis Scott teamed up with popular gamer Ninja to livestream a gaming session of Fortnite on Twitch. After a few tweets from the 6 God, Ninja’s stream pulled in a record breaking 600,000 concurrent viewers, beating out the previous peak of 388,000 for an individual stream. Not only did it set a new Twitch record, the event became a viral meme throughout social media thanks to Drake’s in-game bush skills.
During a second stream, Drake revealed to Ninja that he’ll incorporate Fortnite lyrics in future music only if Epic Games adds an in-game “Hotline Bling” emote. Only time will tell if both will follow through, but with the biggest rapper out right now and the most popular video game intersecting like this, we’re bound for more record breaking and pop culture moments to follow. The relationship between hip hop and gaming culture is far from over.
For more like this, take a look at 9 Rappers and their favorite video games.
- Main / Featured Image (left): Drake / Paras Griffin / Getty Images
- Main / Featured Image (right):Parappa the Rappa / Masaya Matsuura / Sony Interactive Entertainment