Playtime for Hip-Hop - Video Game Week


Rapper 50 Cent lent his name and likeness for the video game 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand that, since its release, has garnered a cult following for its campy appeal. Photo by Alex Const.

An Editorial:

I don’t know if you people are in touch with any of the attempts by the video game industry to cross-breed with hip-hop, but the conversation always looks something like this: Hip-hop has no Rock Band! Hip-hop has no Guitar Hero! (Unless you count DJ Hero as comparable, but you shouldn’t because it’s not addictive enough) WHY?!?! Why is there no rap game equivalent of these rock games?

Complaining about hip-hop’s absence from video games is like complaining that we don’t have any revolutionary music anymore; it overlooks the obvious and presumes a parallel that isn’t there. First of all, hip-hop is America’s revolutionary music and has been since the ’80s. Secondly, a video game that portrays the jazzy, improv-styles of hip-hop must be different from those that portray the mastery-oriented structure of rock music. Straight up.

Not to deviate too wildly from hip-hop, but there’s been some recent attempts to push for a return to humor in video games, which is no doubt a direct effect of the apocalyptic fear-baiting culture we’ve either grown dead tired of or bought into (literally). Humor and stylization are components not regularly associated with the gaming industry, which has thrived for the last decade on visual and interactive stimulation, cinematic riff-raff. Comedy, like hip-hop, is a bit too natural to be imposed on interactive gaming, so it’s hard to integrate it successfully without coming off as forced. Anyway, teh lulz derive, in gaming, and in most of life, from ugly failures in sincerity and not from plots to enforce laughter.

A recent incarnation of unintentional cult-status humor lies in the gruesome rap tie-in game, 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand. In the game, you traverse an absurdist rendering of the Middle East during a stop on 50 Cent’s fictional global rap tour. Some punk-ass terrorist named Karnal steals a diamond skull from Fitty at a rap show and then proceeds to leave a trail of inept cronies for you to butcher while you speak some cheap version of military speak to your Uzi-toting buddies. After puking bullets for two or three hours, putting up with Curtis Jackson’s schticky voice acting, and being forced to participate in all sorts of perfunctory man-slaying, the message finally arises: The other thing that hell hath no fury like (besides a woman scorned) is a 50 Cent robbed of his diamond skulls.

Fire in the mothafuckin’ hole!,” “All fuckin’ clear,” and my favorite, “I’m gonna rearrange your face asshole” are all things that 50 shouts at you while you carelessly run and gun through treacherous street scenes. What a “face asshole” is is (spread) wide open to interpretation, pun definitely intended.

What could possibly be missing, then, from this allegedly hip-hop inspired game? Aside from the fact that none of the humor was intended, I would say it’s missing the actual hip-hop elements that characterize the genre. There’s nothing inherently hip-hop about the game, just as there’s little that is inherently hip-hop about the man responsible for its creation (I know it’s hard to believe, but 50 Cent actually had a great deal of creative control over this one).

But if you play enough games inspired by already wildly profitable industries like the WWE or the club-rap industry, you start to notice how little it matters whether or not the games match up with comparable titles. They sell for $60 a pop, and seeing as how they’re mostly companion pieces to album releases or Wrestlemanias, breaking even should never be an issue so long as fans buy whatever the latest shilling is.

Not to be outdone by 50 Cent’s bizarro operation, Def Jam, in partnership with Electronic Arts, put out some quality fighting games that are actually more traditionally rooted in hip-hop culture. The level designs in these games somewhat reflect the environmental anatomy of street lore (the hood, the club, subway platform, etc.) and the subtle tie-ins with professional wrestling and Kung-Fu. Wu Tang Shaolin shadowboxing and power bombs are all there (in addition to being able to fight as b-boy legend Crazy Legs, which is very cool). It’s a decent exercise in anti-metaphorical rap(per) battles, but an innovative exploration of hip-hop culture it is not.

Plus, it’s too unrealistic to suspend disbelief in any game that would show Snoop Dogg not smoking lots of marijuana cigarettes, let alone leaping into the air performing triple black belt-level karate kicks (while not under the influence of performance enhancing THC).

That brings us to the Jet Set Radio series (2000), which blends the atmospherics of hip-hop cultural tenets with the adventuring and goal-achieving methodology of a well-designed, story-based game. You play as a graffiti artist who has been shunned by all the city’s gangs, so you form your own and wreak artistic havoc on the city landscape to ensure that good street art, for the sake of street art, prevails over propaganda for the sake of mind control.

Accompanying you are other underground artists, and while you paint the town, a psychotic-looking pirate radio DJ spins b-boy inflected, party-rockin’ jams that provide a soundtrack to your artistry. As you advance through each level, cops pop out of the woodwork and shoot at you while rival gangs attempt to thwart your rep by painting over your fresh tags. It’s a cel-shaded animation game, which basically means it’s stylized to look painterly and dope as hell, and a little revolutionary considering the obsession with photorealism in the artistically devoid gaming industry of the early ’00s. It’s also hilarious, both intentionally and unintentionally, if you like undisruptive gaming glitches like I do.

I don’t want to speak for the metal-faced villain himself, but it feels like a proper companion to the goofy-but-raw feel of MF Doom’s music, and it makes for a very good representative of what hip-hop’s imagination looks like in the early 21st Century.