Def Jam Rapstar is the latest attempt to merge the worlds of hip-hop and video games. In the past, this has involved shoehorning playable rapper characters into cliched genres — a Wu-Tang Clan beat-’em-up! 50 Cent’s first-person shooter! — or rappers licensing a few throwaway songs to the latest NBA Live soundtrack. But DJR takes a different route by letting you rap along with songs by Kanye West, Snoop Dogg, and Drake, alongside a bunch of Def Jam’s back-catalog hits.
While most crossover-minded games have faltered, hip-hop has always been open about its love of gaming. Producers at all levels have found eight-bit sound effects and theme songs ripe for sample sources, whether it’s Necro’s underground flip of one of the Tetris themes for Non-Phixion’s paranoid treatise “Black Helicopters” or Mannie Fresh using Galaxian lasers to usher in the bling-bling era of the Hot Boys. Rappers haven’t been shy about their gaming habits either, with Sugarhill signings the Chilly Kids coining an early ode to gaming with “The Ice Arcade” and Gang Starr associate Jeru wildly predicting that the technology behind a nuclear bomb also “powers my Sega.” Here, then, are the 10 best examples of emcees who know their Neo Geos from their 3DOs.
DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, “Human Video Game”
Back in the days when he suffered the ignominy of taking second billing to a DJ and made humorous songs about unwittingly picking up underage girls, a young Will Smith found time to pen the greatest-ever rhymed tribute to Donkey Kong. Admitting a full-on addiction to the game, he thinks nothing of “putting 25 dollars in” in search of a high score. It’s a move that soon sees the young Philadelphia rapper close to homeless, until he’s saved by a plot twist not yet revisited in any of his movies: Beatboxer extraordinaire Ready Rock C mouths the game’s theme song and sound effects with such astonishing accuracy that Smith forgets all about his need to pump quarters into a video game.
Del feat. Khaos Unique, “Proto Culture”
At around the same time he presumably made a chunk of money by voicing one of the characters in Daman Albarn’s Gorillaz project, Ice Cube’s rapping cousin put together a lovingly detailed tribute to video games. Over a beat based around the character Morrigan’s theme song in Darkstalkers, he name-checks one-time Sega executive Bernie Stolar, plays X-Men vs. Street Fighter with the Saturn’s optional RAM cartridge, uses maps printed in the first issue of Nintendo Power to complete Zelda in an hour, and imports Xenogears and Psychic Force. A confessed Sega-head, Del also performed at the launch of the ill-fated Dreamcast console.
Beanie Sigel, “Mac Man”
The rap game, rappers are fond of telling us, is very similar to the drug game. But few have told us just how much the drug game itself is basically modeled on Pac-Man. Enter Beanie Sigel, a one-time signing to Jay-Z’s Roc-A-Fella label and genuine street-level headcase. Comparing the roles of Blinky, Pinky, Inky, and Clyde (plus Sue) to that of the police (and power-pellets to bricks of coke), he also gives Mario and Luigi co-starring roles as “two hitmen” packing “straight cannons.” Thankfully, Foxy Brown never flipped a Ms. Pac-Man remix.
Bonus Beat: (Pretty much) one-hit Houston rapper Lil’ Flip’s 2004 club anthem “Game Over” uses Pac-Man sound effects as its metronomic basis — then, for good measure, throws in a blast of the Super Mario Bros theme for a remix co-starring Bun B and Young Buck.
De La Soul, “Say I Gotta Believe”/”Say You Gotta Believe”
“We’d rather spend our money on more important things like equipment, necessities, and video games!” So explained De La Soul to recurring D.A.I.S.Y. Age character Jeff back in 1989. Come 2001, they were still keeping the faith by collaborating with PaRappa the Rapper, the 2D rapping dog, for a limited-edition seven-inch. (It’s titled differently depending on whether you picked up the single-sided picture disc or the individually numbered version.) The video also features all three members of De La in full chef’s regalia.
Cocoa Brovaz, “Super Brooklyn”
Rapping over the funkier-than-you-expect Super Mario Bros theme, the artists formerly known as Smif-N-Wessun re-imagine the joyful Mushroom Kingdom as turn-of-the-’90s Brooklyn — a place where the Franklin Avenue Posse would be more likely to rob you for your kicks than request you save a hapless princess. The song also features words you’ll never hear Mario say: “Welcome to Crooklyn, where we send shots through your fitted,” etc. The track was never a crossover hit — a lawsuit from Nintendo would have presumably buried the Duck Down label overnight — but you could likely still do good business selling “Super Brooklyn” T-shirts at the Brooklyn Flea.
Charles Hamilton, “Where’s My Fcking Genesis?”
“Am I going to take my morning piss, or go with my insatiable need to play Sonic the Hedgehog this morning?” ponders Charles Hamilton, a rapper also fond of calling himself Sonic the Hamilton and insisting that the gameplay and plot of that classic Sega series can be interpreted as a philosophy for life. Asked about people making fun of his religious take on Sega’s blue mascot back in 2008, he said, “I feel that the disrespect that I get with all my philosophies is actually more hurtful than shit to brush off, because nobody disrespects a Jewish person.” A Sega-themed comeback project with Del is a must.
Arkade Funk, “Tilt”
Opening with the declaration “I am an arcade funk machine,” this early-’80s electro track is the sound of first-wave video games taking over the world. There’s a blast of Ms. Pac-Man, a shuffling electro beat with go-go overtones, and a hideously scary voice demanding, “Tilt me!” It’s a small mercy Diplo — who incorporated the Gameboy version of Predator into his “Diplo Rhythm” track — didn’t persuade M.I.A. to chat over it back in their friendlier days. And then mix a Klymaxx song into it.
The Molemen feat. MF Doom, Aesop Rock & Slug, “Put Your Quarter Up”
If you’re gonna feature one underground-rap song about video games, it might as well be one where the rappers seem to have strong nerd roots. Over production from Chicago’s Molemen unit, Slug and Aesop Rock kick things off in a suitably game-referential manner. But it’s Doom who geeks out best, bragging that he’ll “take your high score down,” weaving in references to Robotron, Defender, Pitfall, and 25-round games of Centipede, while even making a “pshhh” sound as he talks about Spy Hunter’s car switching into a boat.
Percee P feat. Diamond D, “2 Brothers From The Gutter”
Percee P’s rap career is usually remembered for one of two things: Grabbing a Hip-Hop Quotable in one-time hip-hop bible The Source for his verse on Lord Finesse’s “Yes You May,” and pester customers outside of Fat Beats’ 6th Avenue store while hawking his homemade mix CDs. Here, on a track from his 2007 Stones Throw album Perseverance, he brags how “I never waste rhymes on wack basslines and break-beats.” Appropriately, he’s rapping over a Madlib production that simply loops the Contra start-screen music. (Also in the Stones Throw sample library: Oh No’s Castlevania III-based “The Ride” and Madvillain’s Street Fighter 2-sampling “Do Not Fire.”)
Little Brother, “Atari 2600”
A seven-inch-only homage to the old Atari console, here North Carolina’s finest rapping trio pretend that the Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA has a sly sideline doing infomercials for console manufacturers. Over a chunky, soulful beat, a suitably mush-mouthed voice advises: “When you traveling down the roads of life, you’ve got to be careful not to get hit by no truck, you know what I’m saying? So that’s why you play Frogger, you know what I’m saying? You’ve got to dodge, get out of the way, hop over the logs and shit.” Then, paraphrasing Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s famous sentiment, the chorus explains how “Atari 2600/It’s for the children.”