Lots of popular music borrows from videogames, but hip-hop’s relationship to games is special. Sampling a soundbite from Street Fighter II or Golden Axe gives you something that basing an entire song around a game doesn’t: inclusion. When someone like Kanye West uses a sound from a game, it not only scratches a nostalgic itch, but also appeals to an audience that might feel maligned by popular culture. Sometimes, though, basing a whole song on a videogame just sounds cool.
Over the years, rap has shown videogames a profound amount of love, and that’s lead to a ton of great songs. Here, in no particular order, are ten of the best crossovers between videogames and rap music, from awesome samples to rappers who’ve based their whole personas on games. And, of course, just a dash of Snoop Dogg.
This moment’s been talked about to death, but that’s because it’s such a strong one. Games don’t use diegetic music very often, so for Saints Row: The Third to nail a sequence where your character jumps out of a helicopter as “Power” starts playing says a lot about how well the moment is crafted. (The video above isn’t the actual scene from the game—it’s not on Youtube—but it’ll give you a small taste of what it’s like.) It’s at once a perfectly fitting and dissonant moment the first time you come across it, which perfectly sums up Saints Row: The Third. “Power” was at the tail end of its popularity by 2011 (the year The Third came out), but the moment just barely got away with using it without feeling dated.
German-born, Virginia-raised rapper D.R.A.M. (Does Real-Ass Music)’s “Cha Cha” was a certified Summer Jam last year—one of the biggest, in fact. But while “Cha Cha” has a strong hook, some easygoing lyrics and a message anyone can relate to (that of liking to Cha Cha), it’s the Super Mario World Star Road sample that really ties the whole thing together. It’s only slightly modified to fit the song, but D.R.A.M. is okay with letting a good thing rock, and that’s perhaps true artistry: recognizing that the Star Road theme is just that good and that people have wanted to Cha Cha to it for ages.
Where many rappers and producers simply sample videogame sounds, New York rapper Enongo “Sammus” Lumumba-Kasongo embodies the beats of her youth and upbringing. Donning the moniker of a woman who’s constantly asked to prove her worth in a preoccupation dominated by men, Sammus goes as far as showing herself in Samus Aran’s Varia suit on her 2014 album Another M. She can work a game sample with the best of them, but has also worked and expanded her output over the years beyond the simple gimmick. She also got her start producing with the Playstation 2 game MTV Music Generator, which is kind of impressive in its own right.
Hot off the trainwreck of 50 Cent: Bulletproof, the Curtis Jackson name wasn’t especially strong in the realm of videogames. But after seeing Gears of War in action, Jackson wanted another game bearing his name on the market. The result was 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand, a game that isn’t quite as good as its inspiration but is most definitely the 50 Cent game we deserve. It’s got a ton of his music in it, appearances from his G-Unit posse (like Tony Yayo and Lloyd Banks), and, well, lots of really aggressive posturing from Fiddy about finding his skull. It’s a ridiculous romp that isn’t always a good time, but man, if the ambition on display here isn’t impressive. I’m a bit surprised other rappers haven’t tried something like it since.
Del isn’t exactly shy about his nerdly roots. Deltron 3030 is more or less a concept album ripped from a mid-‘90s videogame. But the extent to which Del goes to catalog his adventures as The King of Fighters’ Joe Higashi taking on all rap challengers using his Tiger Kicks is both a really weird idea for a song and a deep dive into both hip-hop battle culture and the fighting game series. Del’s love for videogames bleeds through this song, even if he does pronounce Mario “Meh-rio.”
Videogames are only one of Chicago rapper Antoine “Sir Michael Rocks” Reed’s inspirations; he loves anime, having six cell phones, and making money. Rocks wears his love of all things nerdy on his sleeves, but I wouldn’t call him a “nerdcore” rapper; he adds enough of his own storytelling and material that it’s just one of the things that defines him, not the thing. Even if he didn’t proclaim that he’d “break that bat on your back like I was Ness,” he’d still have solid lines about how he goes to the Olive Garden for the unlimited breadsticks. Of course, his game samples are also on point.
Perhaps the best rhythm game of all time is also the one with the most focus on hip-hop. The genre makes its way into the game through the mashup conceit, where you use the slider on a turntable controller to switch between one of the two songs in mashup. It was incredibly fun as a rhythm game, and the turntable gave it a physicality unique even in a genre full of plastic instruments. Most importantly, though, the format (which had you playing a mix artist instead of guitarist) allowed songs like LL Cool J’s “Rock the Bells,” Q-Tip’s “Good Thang” and Missy Elliott’s “Get Your Freak On” to get some much-needed love. It wasn’t entirely a hip-hop game, but it still ended up being one of the few times songs you can’t play on a guitar got a spotlight in a rhythm game.
There were a ton of uses of Street Fighter samples looking for a spot on this list. There’s MF DOOM’s “Do Not Fire!,” Kanye West’s recent “Facts” and even Sir Michael Rocks, who already has a spot on this list, wrote a song called “Perfect.” But Frank Ocean’s “Start” (the intro to the incredible Channel Orange) wins by making the sample part of the album’s story; the song is only 45 seconds longs and half of it is the sound of a TV and Playstation turning on, followed by the Street Fighter II character select screen. It tells so much about Ocean’s character in the album (an estranged rich kid with a ton of nostalgia), and the way it leads into “Thinkin Bout You” is a superb intro for an album about longing for something we can’t get back.
Made towards the tail end of the mash-up era, Team Teamwork’s The Ocarina of Rhyme represents one of the best results of the craze. Teamwork does just enough work here to make the Ocarina of Time tracks live up to the vocals and cadence of Dre, Aesop Rock, MF DOOM and Jay-Z. Some of the drum loops are as strong as any of the Koji Kondo-inspired material, honestly. There’s not a weak song on the album, and I dare say a couple are better than the originals; I can’t go back to Pusha T’s original beat for “Virginia” after envisioning Pusha wondering around the Lost Woods.
Snoop Dogg’s collaboration with Namco for Tekken Tag Tournament 2 is among the weirdest and best crossovers between gaming and hip-hop. The song “Knocc Em Down” is okay at best, but everything else about the collaboration makes the team-up better than it should be. There’s Snoop getting his own stage in the game, where he sits atop a massive throne wielding a cane. There’s the way the music video for the song actually jumps between in-game footage and real-life fights that, while completely crazy, doesn’t seem like the dumbest thing you’ve ever seen. But the best part of the whole deal is how Namco actually included prominent fighting game players like Justin Wong, Rich “Filthierich” Bantegui and Tekken national champion Rene “Kor” Maistry in on the whole thing. And be honest; when you think “Snoop Dogg and Tekken,” it just sounds right, doesn’t it?
When WWE moved away from using the vaunted AKI wrestling game engine in 2001, EA quickly hooked up with the Japanese developer. But then WCW went out of business, leaving them without a wrestling company to build a game around. Enter Def Jam Recordings, the iconic hip hop label started by Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons in their NYU dorm in 1983. Def Jam: Vendetta plugs a rap-fueled story and a roster of real world heroes (including Method Man, Ludacris, DMX and more) into maybe the best wrestling engine ever created, resulting in a ridiculous and unforgettable brawl.
Suriel Vazquez is a freelance writer who almost included Jay-Z’s “Cash, Money, Hoes” on this list because of the brilliant Golden Axe sample. He’s written for Paste, ZAM, Playboy and several others. You can follow him on Twitter.