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From the early days of digital entertainment on the 16-bits consoles to the recent release of the cutting-edge Wii, hip hop has often been associated with video games. If urban music used to merely be included in a game’s soundtrack to broaden its appeal, the relationship has definitely complexified itself towards a high level of interdependence between these two industries. Let’s rewind that a bit and see how it all went down…

The release of the Playstation 1 in 1994 marked the start of a symbiotic relationship between hip hop and video games. Whether it was rappers rapping about beating each other down in “NBA Live,” participating in “Madden” and “Street Fighter” tournaments or actually sampling game music for their tracks, the worlds of urban music and digital entertainment collided.

Many major hip hop artists started sampling 90’s era video games’ tunes in their records. Among them, Brooklyn duo Smif-N-Wessun used the famous Super Mario Bros theme in their track “Super Brooklyn,” and ex Roc-A-Fella MC Beanie Siegel got sued by Namco when he used Pac-Man’s sample in his first underground hit “Mac Man.”

During the first boom of the video game market in the late 90’s, rappers started to license their image to endorse video games or more, to be featured as characters which sometimes led to, well, surprising products. The Wu-Tang Clan, famous worldwide for its shaolin influences and martial arts references, was also the first rap group to break new ground in terms of mass marketing of the brand. Remember this Wu Wear hoodie you proudly rocked back then? The Clan saw a new opportunity to diversify their activity with video games, and in 1999 they released “Wu-Tang: Shaolin Style,” a fighting game inspired by their universe.

Later on, the “GTA” series played a huge role into mixing the best of both worlds, for the great pleasure of hip hop addicts and aspiring gangsters… The numerous installments of the series, in which you play a mobster hustling his way to the top of the crime game, always had a focus on the soundtrack. The “GTA” series became iconic in the hip hop community, the universe and missions featured in these violent and realistic games being often depicted in many MC’s lyrics. This hip hop focus culminated with “GTA: San Andreas,” whose universe seems to come right out of a NWA or Dr Dre album. With this game, you could ride trough Compton in a low-rider bumping a classic Ice Cube tune and plotting your next drive-by shooting, while being safe at home. Gangsta’s paradise, or something like that!

The 2000’s saw hip hop become an increasingly mainstream genre, and many video games soundtracks featured classic and exclusive hip hop tracks to cater to this growing part of their audience. From the “Tony Hawk Pro Skater” series to “NBA Street,” every arcade-style game started to feature hip hop on their soundtracks. But for one legendary label, this simply was not enough…

Venturing into new territories, Def Jam launched the “Def Jam: Vendetta” series, a fighting game where you characters are rappers from the label’s roster. With a solid gameplay and raw background universe, the series encountered a noticeable success. And to be honest, a Ludacris VS Redman fight in an underground basement was kind of cool. This successful endeavor prompted several major acts of the hip hop game to branch out in the video game industry. G-Unit head honcho 50 Cent launched “Bulletproof” in 2005 at the peak of its popularity, while Marc Ecko focused on the graffiti component of the hip hop culture with the “Getting Up” series.

Today, music games appear to be the dominating trend. Huge commercial hits like “Guitar Hero” or the global success of the Wii have appealed to a new kind of gamers, more casual and less experienced than the traditional hard-core audience, thus enabling studios to tap into a new reservoir of buyers. Although it might seem that rock music fans are the only targets so far, with well-executed music games like “Rock Band” concentrating most of the studios’ resources and media attention, things are now changing.

No doubt that with the recent release of “DJ Hero,” we have reached another milestone in the hip hop and video game relationship. This game focuses on an original and iconic pillar of the hip hop culture: the DJ. Thanks to a well-designed and finished vinyl-like controller, you can mix your favorite tracks in various locations like a (almost) real DJ! Boasting a large catalogue of classic and recent music, “DJ Hero” is endorsed by some of hip hop’s major figures like Jay-Z and Eminem, giving the game the street credibility it definitely needs to takeover the Holiday season market. But besides the impeccable gameplay and slick marketing surrounding the project, this game also takes the democratization of hip hop a step further. Bringing urban vibes to the masses and betting on the social dimension of gaming, Activision delivered a product that is, more than a mere video game, a truly fun hip hop experience.

So do we really regret the good ol’ days when “ToeJam & Earl” were the funkiest characters on the Sega Mega Drive, or when “PaRappa The Rapper” was the dopest MC on the PS1? Although the nostalgia for the 90’s golden era is often observed by hip hop fans, no doubt that recent releases such as “Beatarator,” where you can craft beat like Timbaland, or “Scratch,” where you can learn how to cut like Mixmaster Mike, should make everybody agree: hip hop video games are here to stay.

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