The best part is doing this while, like, Unsane is playing
Religious Entertainment Weekly readers already know: video game soundtracks are the new movie soundtracks. Kids spend fifty hours or more playing a video game, get songs driven into their head via repetition, and, the theory goes, go out and buy that music in droves. But video game soundtracks can be something more than a product-launch. The last two Grand Theft Auto games used music for period detail; the synthpop in Vice City and the G-funk in San Andreas meant more to the games than the cars or clothes or stunty voice-casting. Activision’s new True Crime: New York City, a game that features an exhaustively complete mapping-out of Manhattan, uses music from New York artists to give the game a specific and concrete geographical context. There are a few clunkers in there (the Bravery, Vordul Mega, Mark Ronson), but most of the games more-than-eighty tracks are canonical staples (“Rapper’s Delight,” “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” “Last Caress”) or fuck-yeah left-field choices (Suicide’s “Ghostrider,” Big Pun’s “Twinz (Deep Cover 98),” the Rapture’s “The Killing”). I can’t speak much about the game, mostly because I don’t have the discipline to finish up a mission without randomly shooting at crowds of civilians, but the soundtrack is really something. The guy who put this whole monster together is Tim Riley, Activision’s worldwide executive of music. Riley chooses or commissions the music for all of Activision’s games, including the Tony Hawk series. Status Ain’t Hood spoke with Riley about his job, which sounds wicked awesome.
I’ve got this idea about the True Crime soundtrack, that it’s kind of your thesis statement on the last forty years of music in New York. Is that what you set out to do?
It is. We always sit down with the producers and the developers and think of what we’re saying with these games and the music. With New York being such a music-rich city, we tried to keep it be all New York artists, whether they’re born and raised there or whether they’re transplanted and basically started the scene there, like Iggy and the Stooges. But we wanted to keep it New York-centered and cover all genres of music, everything from Bob Dylan to Jay-Z. That was the intention, to make the game not only look like New York but to make it feel like New York.
There’s a few things, like Bob Dylan and Bobby Womack, that stick out, but the main focus seems to be on particular scenes, like golden-age late-80s/early-90s rap and embryonic New York hardcore like Youth of Today.
When you do these things, with the exception of a Bob Dylan, you have to use music that’s driving enough that when you play the game the tempo of the songs makes sense with the gameplay. That’s where we get into a lot of the punk and the hardcore stuff. It seems to play well with any particular scene in the game.
Did you have free range in putting together the music, or did you have to include X number of recent songs?
It was pretty much free range. We tried to keep it a good mix of the newer frontline artists in a lot of the catalogues. But there weren’t any percentages; we weren’t given any kind of pie-chart. We just put a bunch of stuff together. Like we do on every game, we cleared a lot more songs than we used. And we just sat down at a dry-erase board and figured out what we were missing, what we need more of. With New York, we wanted a lot of hip-hop, so we used a lot of the older stuff like the Jungle Brothers and the Wu-Tang and Gang Starr and Big Daddy Kane. But we also had Redman do a couple of original songs, and we used some Jay-Z and some newer stuff as well. We tried to be as complete as we could.
I haven’t played the game that much because I’m terrible at it, but the way the music is in the game, it just kind of comes on when you’re in a car. It’s not like Grand Theft Auto where there’s different radio stations that you switch between. Did you have any role in the way the music would be deployed in the game?
We did. I worked with the producers and the developers. What we did is the music will cue in certain areas, so when you’re downtown you hear a little more of the punk and the rock and the hardcore, and when you’re uptown it leans a little heavier on the hip-hop. And throughout the game there are record stores. You can go into a record store in Harlem, and you’re more likely to find a Sugar Hill Gang record or a Biz Markie record or a Nas record. You gain money as you play the game, and you can use this money in the record stores. Depending on what neighborhoods they’re in, they sell a certain style of music.
Is there anything you were hoping to include in the game and not able to?
Yeah, actually it was shocking. You have a game like this, and the Notorious BIG is someone you would just assume would have to be in the game. But his camp, the people who deal with his catalogue right now, found the game too violent.
What’s the process of clearing the songs like?
It’s different. The rock stuff is pretty cut-and-dried; you usually clear a master side that’s just owned by the record label, and then you clear the publishing. With some of the older stuff, they own their publishing now, so you go directly to the artist. That’s the case with a lot of the smaller punk rock bands. If it’s a couple of guys who own the song, you have to clear it on both sides. Then you get into the hip-hop world. A lot of the songs we like have samples in them, and the writers can’t agree on the splits, who owns what percentage of the song, so you get into a situation where the songs gets scary to use. You don’t want any legal problems, so we’ll just find something else.
Where’s the next True Crime going to be?
We kind of know, but we’re not really releasing that yet. There’s a couple of different cities we’re looking at.
Are you going to try to do the same thing where you create a musical snapshot of that city?
I think we will. There’s only so many cities where you can get away with what we did here. If it’s a city in America, we’ll make the music feel like you’re in that city for sure.
It’d be really interesting to see what you could do with something like Memphis or Seattle, someplace that’s a lot smaller and more specific.
That could be cool. Something in the South like a Memphis or a New Orleans could be cool. I think they’ve got a couple of things they’re looking at right now. The next True Crime game might not come out for a year and a half still, and there’s time to look into it.
You’ve got a rarified job; I imagine there’s not too many people who do what you do. What do you see as your competition?
This is my third year at Activision; I started the department here. When I started it, the only other people who were doing it were EA. So Activision and EA are the only companies that have a big in-house department. So it’s really just us and them. I think Rockstar just hired somebody; it used to be the people who own the studio were doing it.
It seems to me that the Grand Theft Auto soundtracks would be the 800-pound gorilla.
If you wanted to say who we look at as competition and who we think do good jobs, we definitely consider the GTA titles. I think they do a great job on their music. They put a lot in there. I know what these things cost, and I know they spend a lot. It’s impressive what they do.
How did you get involved in doing this?
I come from an A&R background. I started at Geffen in 91 doing A&R. Went to Giant, Warner Brothers…
You didn’t sign Nirvana, did you?
No! I wish I did. No. So yeah, I come from a record background. As the record companies got a little bit weird, people started looking at different things to do, and music supervision was something I was always interested in. I started in the action sports world doing a bunch of action sports videos.
Do you actually play video games a lot?
I do. I used to play a lot more. We build as we’re working on a game. With True Crime, they build it level-by-level. When they get done with something, they’ll bring us over something, and we have kits in this department where we can play a game and temp up the music to see if the music makes sense. So we get to play a game as it’s being built the whole time we’re putting the music together. So I guess it’s one of those things where when it was a recreational thing I played a lot more games. Now, as it becomes a job, I don’t play nearly as much.