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Def Jam Rapstar developer hopes game will change perceptions of hip-hop

November 5, 2010 |  4:18 pm

Djrdef-jam-rapstar---wii-box-art Jamie King didn’t think selling a hip-hop slanted video game would prove to be as tough as it was. 

As one of the co-founders of Rockstar Games, King turned titles such as Grand Theft Auto and Midnight Club into classics of the gaming world, but with karaoke-based franchises such as Guitar Hero, Rock Band and Karaoke Revolution flying off shelves, the 4MM Games president rightfully wanted in on the action. 

After being approached by music executive Kevin Liles, now the president of Def Jam Interactive, King thought it was time to try something that hadn’t been previously done (successfully, that is): create a fully interactive hip-hop karaoke game.

Minus the turntable world of DJ Hero and the critically panned Get On Da Mic, hip-hop has largely been ignored by the gaming world, something that both confused and frustrated King.

“Looking at music and karaoke games, there is no hip-hop in them. Hip-hop is a global genre,” he said, pointing to urban music’s continued chart dominance -- at the moment eight out of the top 10 Billboard 100 entries are urban singles.

Spending a year getting turned down didn't help either. “Distributors kept asking why we wanted to do a game about hip-hop. There is an idea about the culture that comes with hip-hop," he said. "It was scary. Would anyone believe in what we believed in?”

King and Liles eventually inked a deal with Konami, the makers of Dance Dance Revolution, and the two began developing the recently released Def Jam Rapstar.

In the multi-platform game, users take on more than 40 rap classics, including classic tracks from artists on the Def Jam roster -- Tupac, Notorious B.I.G, Dr. Dre -- and new hits from Drake, T.I. and Soulja Boy.

To make gameplay different from the avatar-based karaoke games on the market, the two took on the daunting task of securing the video rights to each of the tracks. Performances –- which can be recorded and uploaded online on certain gaming systems -- are scored on rhythm as well as tone and enunciation, with the lyrics scrolling below the original videos.

Notorious BIG - Juicy - Gameplay Solo There is also a freestyle mode featuring original beats from producers such as Bangladesh, Just Blaze and DJ Premier.

King admits he bit off more than he could chew when it came to securing the tracks and videos. 

“For a lot of people -- especially the younger generation -- they haven’t seen these videos. Very few channels are showing videos … its really cool to have them. There are a number of songs we just couldn’t get. Even with Def Jam, it was a bit of work,” he said. “Some songs took months and months [the longest being ‘Juicy’], making phone calls to the artists and to the management. It does get to a point where you call and ask them to look in their attic.”

Though the tracklist is comprehensive -– there is additional downloadable content that includes gems from Eric B. & Rakim, Warren G and the Sugarhill Gang -– King is still smarting from not having two of rap’s biggest stars on the game: Jay-Z and Eminem.

The confusion was evident in his voice as he wrestled with what the “public statement should be.”

“I’ve asked. We’ve asked. Obviously we’re aware of that artist; we would love to have that artist involved. They were connected to [DJ Hero]. I’m not aware of any personal reasons. [Jay-Z's] of a status and stature that he doesn’t need to do anything with us. But we would love to have that music in the game,” King said. “If I was Activision [which publishes DJ Hero] I would have had him and Eminem right off the top. Maybe they are off the market.”

King said although there are plans for a second volume and he's continuing to build a franchise, nothing is set in stone. His hope is that Def Jam Rapstar has changed the perceptions of hip-hop that initially hindered the making of the game.

“There is a belief that the fans of hip-hop would never put their hands in their pocket to spend money. It makes me laugh at the thought,” he said. “For me it feels like I’ve heard that before. Looking at album sales and single sales for some reason [game executives] had it in their head that hip-hop had peaked. But the cultural impact that came with the music and artists was highly influential. It just blew our minds.”

-- Gerrick D. Kennedy


Top photo: Cover of the Wii edition of Def Jam Rapstar. Credit: 4MM Games

Bottom photo: Notorious B.I.G's classic hit "Juicy" on Def Jam Rapstar. Credit: 4MM Games