Hip-hop and gaming have been one of the best collabs in entertainment

OPINION: Hip-hop and video games have had a long love affair, and as hip-hop celebrates its 50th anniversary this month, we look back at the storied history between gaming and the music genre we love.

Image from the video game “50 Cent: Bulletproof” (Screenshot via YouTube)

It really is no surprise that gaming and hip-hop work well together — the two industries have a lot in common. They both started out as niche, counter-cultural art forms that were widely despised and criticized by the public at large. Despite years of fearmongering about the dangers of both listening to hip-hop and playing video games, both have become dominant cultural forces. Hip-hop has long established itself as America’s music of choice, and gaming has become a massive industry with a cultural impact that rivals if not surpasses most traditional media, bringing in over $184 billion in revenue.

As hip-hop celebrates its 50th anniversary this month, it’s worth taking a look at the storied history between gaming and the music genre we love so much.

Gaming references have been a mainstay in hip-hop ever since Biggie rapped about Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis. Gaming consoles have continually been used as a status symbol, with the Sony PlayStation, in particular, getting love from the likes of Yasin Bey and Redman. Shoot, Lupe Fiasco had a Nintendo DS on the cover of his classic debut “Food and Liquor” just to let the streets know he was ‘bout that “Mario Kart” life. Hip-hop has always shown love for gaming, and surprisingly gaming has shown quite a bit of love back. 

Full disclosure: I’m 31. So my gaming journey started in the era of PlayStation. I say that because, for my entire gaming life, hip-hop has been predominately featured in the soundtracks of so many of the games I grew up loving. For a certain generation, Lil Jon and the Eastside Boyz’s dirty south classic “Get Low,” probably brings back fond memories of raucous nights at the club. For me, it’s Friday nights in middle school spent eating pizza with my friends and playing “Need for Speed Underground.

We can’t talk hip-hop in video game soundtracks without talking about “NBA Live 03.” The soundtrack was wall-to-wall hip-hop and R&B, featuring the likes of Snoop Dogg, Brandy and Just Blaze to name a few. The “NBA Live 03” soundtrack wasn’t only the first video game soundtrack to go platinum, but to this day, it is the only video game soundtrack to go platinum. 

And yet somehow EA still can’t figure out how to make a new basketball game. Damn shame. 

Hip-hop hasn’t only been featured in gaming soundtracks. It’s been the basis of quite a few games in the last three decades. One of the earliest examples is “Wu-Tang: Shaolin Sty a fighting game featuring members of the Wu-Tang Clan. While not an elite-tier fighting game, it wasn’t bad and was honestly worth it alone for the Wu-Tang controller that came with certain copies. 

The Wu-Tang Clan weren’t the only rappers to have their own video game. 50 Cent had not one, but two games in which he was the protagonist. While “50 Cent: Bulletproof” was an OK PS2 shooter, its sequel, “50 Cent: Blood on the Sand,” is one of the most absurd gaming experiences of the Xbox 360 generation. My buddy Zipper has a saying I love: “If you can’t be good, at least be insane,” and “50 Cent: Blood on the Sand” is absolutely insane. The plot has 50 Cent and G-Unit blasting bad guys in the Middle East after his payment for a concert, a jewel-encrusted skull, was stolen. It’s like a playable version of “Three the Hard Way,” starring G-Unit. It’s playable on Xbox Series X/S, and I highly recommend you experience it for yourself. 

I have talked ad nauseam about the Def Jam fighting games. I even wrote and produced a whole-ass retrospective about them. I won’t go too long here because I legitimately have nothing left to say that I haven’t already publicly said. “Vendetta,” “Fight for New York,” and yes, even “Icon” were landmark moments in both hip-hop and gaming. It introduced gaming to an audience who may not have been checking for it, and it introduced hip-hop to a generation of kids who otherwise may not have had access or an interest in it. 

While not explicitly centered on rappers, games like “Parappa the Rapper,” “Jet Set Radio Future,” “NBA Street,” “NBA Ballers” and “Marc Ecko’s Getting Up” were all heavily influenced and steeped in hip-hop culture. Heck, you could even play as Nelly and the St. Lunatics in “NBA Street Vol. 2.” 

In recent years, hip-hop in gaming has sadly been relegated to the soundtracks of “Madden” and “NBA2K. It’s the byproduct of games becoming more homogenized, with the only options these days coming from the same few sports games, multiplayer shooters and the occasional single-player banger. While many folks pine for a new Def Jam game, personally, I’m good. Realistically, any new Def Jam game would likely be a live service filled with microtransactions. Instead, I’d rather see indie developers take up the mantle and bring the boom-bap back to gaming. 

Hip-hop and gaming have had a long love affair with one another. Games have influenced rappers and rappers have influenced games. It’s truly beautiful to see how hip-hop has managed to become such an ingrained part of our culture, right down to the games we play. I really hope that with more and more indie developers taking chances and succeeding, we see a resurgence of games influenced by and built around hip-hop. They’ve made so much history together already, it’d be a shame if that was all in the past.

Joe Jurado is a writer, filmmaker and occasional content creator whose work has been featured in The New York Times, The Root and G4. When not writing he’s either hanging out with his dog or ruining someone’s day in “Call of Duty.”

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