Somewhere between the time DJ Kool Herc got the party started in the 1970s and LL Cool J's star turn on MTV Unplugged in 1991, hip-hop went mainstream. First it conquered the 'burbs. Then it went global. Before long, kids in Tokyo were rapping.
Along the way, hip-hop also muscled in on videogames, influencing everything from sports titles to shoot-'em-ups. From Def Jam Vendetta to Need for Speed Underground, it's hard to find games that don't owe a debt to rap.
The latest hip-hop game to hit the market is Marc Ecko's Getting Up. Even if you don't know who Ecko is, you've probably seen his work: He's the guy who designs the rhino-emblazoned gear worn by everyone from DMX to the dude who sells you weed.
In Ecko's game, you play Trane, an aspiring graffiti writer trying to boost his rep by paint-bombing every subway car in sight. Problem is, Trane lives in New Radius, a run-down megalopolis controlled by the oppressive Mayor Sung and his Orwellian army of goons, who have a hard-on for graffiti. “Art is a crime!” they shout as they jackboot you into the next life.
As Trane unravels Sung's murky history (hint: It involves Trane's dad), he learns how to make bigger and bolder paintings in harder-to-reach locations. Part of the fun is puzzling out how to get to the ideal spot.
It's also part of the frustration. The environments are only partly interactive. Some pipes and fences you can climb; others, you can't. You'll hit the restart button plenty, learning by trial and error.
You'll also wonder why a game that claims to be all about freedom of expression won't let you design your own tags. Instead of laying down bus-sized murals to your personal dopeness, you're forced to bite somebody else's style.
Still, some of the prefab Technicolor pieces Trane puts up are mesmerizing. Ecko recruited renowned taggers such as Cope2, Futura, and Shepard Fairey, innovator of the street-art project Andre the Giant Has a Posse, to help with design. These “legends” appear throughout the game, dropping wisdom and lending street credibility. It's like Tony Hawk's Underground, with paint instead of skateboards.
The soundtrack sparkles too, featuring Rakim, Mobb Deep, and others. A slew of notable actors handle the voice work, including the inspired choice of Adam West as New Radius' crooked chief of police. Trane is voiced perfectly by rapper Talib Kweli.
With so much talent onboard, it's hard to fault Ecko's effort. Unfortunately, the end product fails to reach its lofty goals.
Getting Up's main shortcoming is the simplicity of its message: If you don't recognize the right to spray-paint other people's stuff, you're an art-hating fascist pig. Deeper philosophy discussions go on in study hall. When Public Enemy told hip-hop fans to fight the power in 1989, they didn't have straw men in mind.
Earlier this year, 50 Cent released Bulletproof, an overhyped, overproduced mess of blood and bling. The game played the way a lot of his music sounds. Too digital. Too manufactured. Just another way for a wanksta to make a dollar.
Ecko, at least, is trying to make a statement. When game designers finally learn to blend that activism with real hip-hop, they'll have something. It might even be art.
Until then, don't believe the hype.