The Great Music Game Comeback of 2015 has been a boon for me. I’ve played Guitar Hero: Live every day since its release. I’ve played at least one song on the game’s Guitar Hero TV channels daily not only because I get a bonus for not breaking my streak, but because even three weeks in I’m still finding new songs I want to play and learning the new guitar’s intricacies. And when I get bored of playing guitar, I can switch to Rock Band 4 and bang away on the drums. I didn’t know how much I’d missed selecting a favorite song and learning its rhythms, trying it over and over, or just playing a selection of random songs.
But as I survey the tracklist for both games, scroll down the enormous list of Rock Band DLC and scope out Guitar Hero Live’s channel schedule (where different kinds of songs play throughout the day), I realize it’s missing something. While I like listening to new music through them, both of these modern music games lacks something for me; the joy of playing and learning my favorite songs. I’m lucky to get maybe one or two songs on that are on my phone on the tracklists for any given music game (St. Vincent’s “Birth in Reverse” in Rock Band 4 and The War on Drugs’ “Under the Pressure” in Guitar Hero Live)
And this is because I mostly listen to hip-hop nowadays. And hip-hop has been, for the most part, a genre non grata in music games.
As much I love music games, It’s disappointing to know I’m missing out on a large portion of the music game experience. There’s likely not going to be a way for me to experience Kendrick Lamar’s “Wesley’s Theory” the same way thousands of players are experiencing White Denim’s “At Night In Dreams” or Fall Out Boy’s “My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark.” Mostly I’m stuck learning more about songs I’m familiar with but don’t really care for (I never really liked “Stacy’s Mom” before, but now I hate it.)
Hip-hop has had as large an impact on modern culture as any other form of music, but it’s left in the margins when it comes to celebrating music. This issue extends beyond music games, as when this year’s Grammy’s were “whitewashed”, and not a single rap category was even televised. Mainstream industries, whether music or games, have had a hard time celebrating their black talent, and while this doesn’t have to be the reason for the lack of hip-hop in music games, one can’t help but see it through the same racial prism.
The problem exists outside of games, but within them, there’s a practical argument against hip hop’s inclusion: the main crux here is that hip-hop beats and samples simply don’t work for the format. These games exist mostly on the guitar, and automated loops simply don’t work within that structure. They’re too repetitive and they don’t use traditional guitar sounds. A lot of hip-hop involves mostly drums and whatever electronic rhythms accompany them.
This was a much better argument years ago, when the idea of being a “guitar hero” actually meant being accomplished at playing a plastic guitar and knowing the fretboards of face-melting songs. But while Guitar Hero and Rock Band still want to include those difficult shredding guitar riffs and complex chords, in their latest iterations they’re also determined to be more about creating an atmosphere. Rock Band 4’s collective track list contains an absurd variety of sounds, and because of the band setup, some songs don’t have guitar, bass, or drum notes for a large part of their duration, which is fine. Guitar Hero TV, a collection of channels that stream the game’s entire song catalog in 30-minute blocks, stresses more its similarity to MTV and the ephemerality of a Pandora playlist than learning each song individually. Between both of these approaches, there’s little reason to continue being bound by the premise that if it doesn’t have guitar parts, it won’t fit.
In fact, there are already songs in both games that don’t strictly abide by that rule. The note track for Jack White’s “Lazaretto” and Skrillex’s “Bangarang” both map parts of their songs that would usually fit on a keyboard to the guitar portion, all because these parts are so distinctive to those songs that it’d be a missed opportunity not to play those notes. They might be able to get away with “sounding” like guitar parts, but they aren’t. So if the argument is that hip-hop beats wouldn’t “fit” within the confines of the game, it doesn’t hold up, because if the developers really wanted the songs in there, they’d find a way.
Instead it seems every recent hip-hop inclusion in music games comes with its share of caveats to appeal to a more rock-oriented crowd; Eminem’s “Berzerk” heavily samples Billy Squier and Beastie Boys songs, which helps make it “fit in” with the vibe of Guitar Hero Live. Similarly Cypress Hill’s “Rise Up” features Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello—another way for a rock audience to “appreciate” a hip-hop song. For the most part, hip-hop tends to act as rock’s +1 when it comes to music games.
This isn’t to say games have been devoid of hip-hop altogether. There are the Def Jam Rapstar games, which did a good job of allowing people to feel hip-hop’s incredible lyricism but didn’t offer much in the way of fleshing out the genre’s more grandiose and sonically diverse beats. We also have a number of creation games like Timbaland’s Beaterator.
Then there’s DJ Hero, which did the closest thing to letting us play with hip hop beats, but was also tied to mashup culture, which meant a lot of intermingling with other genres, which again made it seem as though hip-hop was only included by way of something else. In fact, the games most cherishing hip-hop seem to be dance games like Just Dance and Dance Central, which let you feel out rhythms and make no qualms about including songs like Soulja Boy’s “Crank That (Soulja Boy).” But people don’t talk about these games in the same way they do Guitar Hero or Rock Band; they’re more “casual” or “party” games.
The easy answer might be for Activision or Harmonix to try their hand at a dedicated hip-hop game, since we’re long overdue for one. I could definitely do with another DJ Hero. But that’s not what I really want, and I don’t think this would solve the problem. What I want is for these songs to get included in mainstream music games alongside all the other music I enjoy playing. With both of the music game giants returning to form with models that seem more catered toward having larger, more diverse catalogs of songs, it’s time these games left the confines of rock music, stretched their legs a bit, and acknowledged that hip-hop deserves its own music game comeback.
Suriel Vazquez is a freelance writer who would also like to remind everyone that The National still hasn’t made it into a rhythm game, and that’s also a real shame. He’s written for Playboy, Paste, Kill Screen, and more. You can follow him on Twitter
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