Videogames and Hip-Hop: Bambaataa Would Be Proud
As a child of the 70’s I remember two very distinct things growing up. I can remember hearing my first Hip-Hop song (Sucker MC’s) and playing my first videogame (Space Invaders). I can recall hearing my uncle play the record on an old turntable that caught every pop and hiss of the wax while it revolved, and being mesmerized by the feel of the kick drum that boomed from our stereo’s speakers. I also remember when my Grandmother brought home this box of awesome-smelling plastic called an Atari. It wafted this subtle aroma of non-biodegradable plastic and rubber and came with this meat mallet of a controller with the one red button. So simplistic in its form factor, but this design has cemented it in the bedrock of videogaming’s foundation.
I talk about these two very different things so fondly because they (along with my family) have influenced and constructed huge pieces of the person I am today. Hip-Hop culture imbued a style of talk, dress, self-confidence and a way to navigate the world around me. Videogames opened my mind to new worlds, concepts and language. It provided a place for me in which intelligence and logic were not the exceptions but the rule. They both ran parallel but for me also took on a symbiotic relationship; one that today is the basis for most of my friendships and social interaction.
This crossover in my life made me think about some of the games I’ve played over the years that best embody what “The Grandfather of Hip-Hop,” Africa Bambaataa, calls “The Four Pilliars of Hip-Hop”. They consist of MCing, DJing, B-Boying and Graffiti Writing. Here are some of my favorite examples.
Def Jam RapStar released by Konami in 2010 was the Hip-Hop version of karaoke. The “watch the bouncing ball” gameplay left a lot to be desired but was the best thing most home console gamers had to satiate their inner battle rapper. To date this is the only game that even comes close to replicating or giving the player the feel that they are emceeing.
ToeJam and Earl –
PaRapper The Rapper –
It all really started in 1997 with Beatmania, a game from Japanese developer Konami. One of the earliest home console rhythm games, it mixed both a simulated “keyboard” setup with a turntable for scratching. It was hugely popular in Japan but much less so here in the states.
The game that really made an impact on this front was DJ Hero from Activision. It incorporated most of the gameplay from the Guitar Hero series and mixed in its own version of DJing notation to make the game feel like you were actually mixing and scratching. The game surprisingly wasn’t a big hit. My guess is that this was more due to the oversaturation of rhythm games in the market, and less because it was a Hip-Hop game. (Though you could argue that Rap music is harder to use because of some of the profanity and repetitive hooks in most commercial songs, and that fact could have led to the disappointing sales.)
There is one game that comes to mind when talking about this pillar. B-Boy from FreeStyleGames launched in 2006 with not only authentic breakdancing moves in but an awesome soundtrack that had some of the most recognizable songs in B-Boy battle history. The motion capture that must have gone into that game must have been extensive, looking at how smoothly the animations blended into each other. While watching a couple of YouTube clips, I wondered what a next-gen version of this game would look like. I know it would be niche but it would be great nonetheless.
Getting Up: Contents Under Pressure from Atari and the mind of Marc Eckō, was a real “love letter to Hip-Hop” kind of game. It embodied and celebrated bomber culture and “backpacker rapper” lifestyle. It did this by having a bass thumping soundtrack from RJD2, having its main character Trane voiced by prominent underground MC Talib Kweli and using tags from world-renowned graffiti artists . They brought authenticity to a game that most critics and people in the gaming community passed over. Although the game had issues, it gave a great glimpse into the graffiti scene and urban culture.
A couple of games that have to be on this list because of their status as “classics” are the games from the Jet Set Radio series. Set in a futuristic Japan, they told the story of skater gangs who needed to graffiti their turf, and escape the Shibuya police and rival crews. The first game debuted on the Dreamcast in 2000 with the sequel coming out two years later. The game was known for its vibrant graphics, eclectic soundtrack and graffiti mechanics. By using the analog stick you would mimic the sweeping motions that would draw out your tags. It felt innovative and intuitive and immersed you in the world; the added ability to make your own specialized tags brought the whole experience together as well.
In all of Bambaataa’s infinite wisdom, I believe he left out one very vital element of Hip-Hop: beatmaking. This is the integral piece that never made it into the pillar structure that holds up the culture today. The funny thing is that videogames for a long time now have been used in making music, and especially rap music. I recall a couple of friends that would compete in “beat battles” here in New York. One specifically would come and do his sets with a 13-inch TV, a PS2, and a copy of the game in the video below:
Up to that point it was unheard of to use a gaming console to make fully fleshed out tracks, but he did pretty well against his competition and won a couple rounds on some nights. It showed that videogames had a reach far beyond your living room. They became more than just tools for entertainment and games, but also musical instruments.
The convergence of Hip-Hop and Gaming was one that the founders of Hip-Hop culture could not have seen coming. These innovators reaching back into the past to snag African beats and poetry pushed forward new systems and thought processes that have influenced many of the music artists we have today. The same can be said of the Pongs, Space Invaders and Pac Mans: their reaches have metamorphosed into the Gears of Wars and Heavy Rains of today’s games, showing just how everything influences everything.
The beauty of this is that although they are on very separate tracks, in my mind and heart they are passengers on the same train going into hopefully a gorgeous, thoughtful and conscious destination.