For decades now, hip hop and video games have been at the forefront of pop culture. As a result, they’ve inspired and fed off each other in a variety of ways, from rap instrumentals incorporating 8-bit sound effects to dances popularized by southern MCs appearing in open-world online games. But even with their long history of collaboration, the importance of their relationship is often simplified, overlooked merely as a fad rather than an actual art in itself. So, with the help of Puma and the retro styled RS-X Fourth Dimension sneakers, we’ve decided to break down their kinship and demonstrate how they’ve played a vital role in each other’s growth. Check out the video above and then take a deeper dive below.
As the producer behind the biggest hip hop song to ever incorporate video game noises — Houston rapper Lil’ Flip’s 2004 hit “Game Over (Flip)” — Nick “Fury” Loftin recognizes the unique sonic qualities that arcade and 8-bit sound effects can bring to the table. “At the time one of my niches was to sample obscure sounds and incorporate them into my beats,” he says. “When you create a dope beat then you take it over the top and make it undeniable. That’s what I was trying to do: Make it undeniable.”
Though he may be the sole beatmaker to craft a top-10 hit out of them, Loftin is far from the only hip hop producer to sample the digital burps, beeps, and crunches of vintage video games. Going back to the 1980s, when games still came in cartridge form, big-name producers started plucking noises — a character’s hopping sound, for example, or an end boss’ villainous laugh — and plug them into their drum machines. Consequently, some of the most celebrated rap albums of all time include songs that integrate game sound effects, including Jay-Z’s Vol. 2...Hard Knock Life, Bone Thugs N Harmony’s E. 1999 Eternal and Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter IV.
Even as sampling has become less prevalent in the genre, classic sounds continue to appear on projects, especially by instrumental-driven producers who meld together hip hop and electronic music. Sometimes instead of a typical drum snare or beat drop, they’ll incorporate a karate kick or a laser cannon blast. As Loftin describes it, “Music is all about having fun and so are video games. They go hand in hand.”
Graffiti, according to hip hop OGs, is one of the four “elements” of the genre (along with rapping, DJing, and breakdancing). That’s because, despite the artform supposedly stretching back to ancient Egypt, it served as a reflection of inner-city life and, more broadly, individuality among the oppressed during the incarnation of hip hop.
These days street art, like rap music itself, has become mainstream and is more likely to be found on the side of a brewery than on a subway car. But it can still hold meaning, especially in its accessibility (how, unlike work at a museum or gallery, anyone can see it). Certain artists have exemplified this concept by using well-known video-game characters — often of the evil or bad-guy variety — as society bucking calling cards, as if they were villainous game disruptors themselves. In France during the ’90s, for example, pixelated 8-bit character mosaics of space invaders were scattered across the streets of Paris.
But video games aren’t just political tools for street artists; they’re also used simply because they’re bright, colorful, and visually interesting. That’s why today you’ll find murals of infamous arcade-game fighters or mashups of classic game characters on the sides of walls and even skyscrapers. In some ways, their colors and lines mimic the spray-paint lettering found throughout New York City in the early 1980s
Video games’ role in the songwriting process goes far beyond sampling; entire genres are based in the technical and topical aspects of gaming culture. “The appeal for me is primarily conceptual,” says Jeremiah Johnson, also known as Nullsleep, a world-touring pioneer of chiptune, a style of synthesized music made using the sound chips in arcade machines and game consoles. “I appreciate the challenge of working within and around the technical limitations of hardware platforms...using them to produce sounds that seem like they shouldn’t be possible.”
The pride of any chiptune artist is their rig, incorporating everything from boxy personal desktop computers to 8-bit handheld consoles. Johnson is right: The pulsing and surprisingly pretty music to arise from these machines is wondrous in its unexpectedness.
There’s also nerdcore, which, sonically, is often based in the traditional sounds of hip hop but lyrically gets much headier. The artists behind the subgenre break down the complexities of everything from politics to science to — you guessed it — video games. Jeopardy’s Alex Trebek once infamously called fans of nerdcore “losers,” but 32 bars on the intricacies of a character’s origin story sounds like bliss to me.
Brooklyn’s Notorious B.I.G. infamously once said, “Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis.” It was a piece of braggadocio, a reference to the multiple consoles he owned. But rappers aren’t just fans of video games; they’re often in the games themselves, either through their music or likeness. This goes clear back to the mid-’90s, when, according to genre historians, the first instance of hip hop being used came in the form of a basketball arcade game where you could play as various rap stars of the time.
Since then, hip hop’s presence in games has grown exponentially, with the boom of sports series franchises in the late ’90s being primarily soundtracked by rap. There were even a number of titles where users could create their own raps and beats. But for many the apex came in the mid aughts, when Grand Theft Auto III was released, which allowed players to flip through their stolen vehicles’ radio dials to find a variety of hip hop stations, including some with classic material from the ’70s and ’80s.
Today the genre’s influence on gaming can most prominently be found in multiplayer online games, where users can play their favorite MC’s songs through their headsets and even purchase emotes that allow their characters to dance like them. Thus, games are now not only introducing users to rappers’ music, but also giving them a chance to walk (or dance) in their shoes, in a sense. Even when Biggie was rich he probably couldn’t picture this.
Reed Jackson is a Writer for Studio@Gizmodo