As August comes to a close, it marks not just the 50th anniversary of Hip-Hop, but also a personal milestone for me. I’ve just completed my Master of Science degree in Esports Business Management, joining a mere 20 individuals worldwide who hold this distinction. Gaming and hip-hop, two art forms that have greatly influenced me, once again find themselves intersecting. This isn’t their first encounter; these two cultural forces have been on remarkably similar trajectories since their inception. Let’s delve into their intertwined history and explore the fascinating parallels that have shaped them over the years.
A fresh new sound reverberated through a crowded rec room where a local DJ was throwing a back-to-school party for his sister. This “Merry-Go-Round” sound captivated the audience as the DJ mixed records between twin turntables creating what would be known as the breakbeat. It was August 11, 1973, in the South Bronx, the DJ was Kool Herc, and a new musical art form was taking shape – hip-hop.
Meanwhile, a decade earlier in a university computer lab, a different kind of creative expression was emerging. A group of young programmers led by a student huddled around hulking mainframe computers, coded software, and played some of the earliest video games. It was February 14, 1962, in Massachusetts, the student was Steve “Slug” Russell, and the video game – Spacewar!
At first glance, hip-hop culture and gaming seem worlds apart. But by the 1990s, both had broken through as mass culture touchstones. How did these niche interests, criticized for glorifying violence, overcome controversy to make it big? Their stories have surprising parallels.
Hard Knock Origins
Gaming arose from unassuming beginnings. The first widespread video game, Spacewar!, came from tech students at MIT who programmed a space battle simulation on a $120,000 DEC PDP-1 computer in 1962. The makers of Spacewar! were part of an early niche gaming community, centered around universities and computer science labs, who pushed the boundaries of this new interactive medium. These early gaming pioneers shared a do-it-yourself spirit with the improvisational nature of hip-hop DJs and rappers. Throughout the 1960s and 70s, gaming slowly developed through the creation of arcade games like Pong, text-based adventure games, and basic console systems. Though still mainly seen as a geeky subculture, gaming was laying the groundwork for the breakthrough hits that would eventually bring it blockbuster success.
Hip-hop emerged from humble beginnings at a pivotal time in New York City’s history. With the Bronx in economic turmoil and city services slashed, teens found escape in a new cultural movement birthed from adversity. Pioneers like DJ Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, and Grandmaster Flash improvised techniques like breakbeats, rapping, scratching, and sampling. They drew inspiration from the records they spun to form a new sound. Energetic crews threw park jams, turning their art form into live performance. As hip-hop spread, its do-it-yourself ethos expanded beyond music into fashion, visual arts like graffiti, and dance like breakdancing. United by a sense of innovation and resourcefulness, the hip-hop community turned hardship into raw expression. Much like early gaming innovators, hip-hop founders built an inclusive subculture by pushing creative boundaries.
Leveling Up to Mainstream Appeal
For hip-hop, the watershed moment was the 1979 smash “Rapper’s Delight” by Sugar Hill Gang, which brought rapping to radio and the Billboard charts for the first time. Throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, hip-hop entered its “golden age”, with artists like Run-DMC, N.W.A, Public Enemy, LL Cool J, Tupac, The Notorious B.I.G., Wu-Tang Clan, and many more vaulting the music from its urban American roots to the world stage. The sounds and styles were as diverse as the voices. Regions like Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Miami also emerged with their own distinct hip-hop styles. As the music and culture flourished into a rich mosaic, hip-hop solidified its status as a generational movement changing the sound and face of mainstream music itself.
Gaming found its mascot in Mario, the plucky plumber who starred in Donkey Kong, and whose Super Mario Bros. for NES led the industry out of the 1983 crash into a 1990s renaissance. Other landmark titles like Sonic the Hedgehog, Street Fighter II, Mortal Kombat, Donkey Kong Country, Doom, and Final Fantasy VII cemented gaming as a global force. Online connectivity also arose during hits like Quake and Diablo, allowing competitive and cooperative play. Gaming had graduated from simple diversion to complex interactive entertainment and community.
Not Just Fun & Games
With great popularity came great pushback. Critics lambasted hip-hop’s glorification of gangs, drugs, and hypersexuality. Civil rights activist, C. Dolores Tucker became the face of the anti-hip-hop crusade, fighting censorship battles against 2 Live Crew, Ice T, and Tupac. These crusades led to the now famous, “Parental Advisory” sticker that can now be found on all music deemed inappropriate. Though hip-hop welcomed its broad new audience, it refused to compromise its core essence of speaking its truth. As hip-hop artists like N.W.A., Tupac, Biggie, and others topped the charts, their lyrics and themes were not watered down or sanitized for mainstream consumption. They maintained their gritty authenticity.
Video game controversies similarly played out on the public stage. Lawmakers grilled the makers of games like Mortal Kombat and Night Trap, resulting in the 1994 creation of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB). As graphics became more realistic, watchdogs worried games normalized violence and discouraged real-world empathy. Games like Grand Theft Auto (GTA) faced public scrutiny for their portrayal of drug use, alcohol use, gun violence, and sexual conduct despite being one of the most successful gaming franchises of all time. Showing that the industry continues to stand firm on its freedom of expression.
Hip-hop and gaming overcame freedom of expression controversies, showing the deep roots of these art forms. Both continued growing their audiences and messages despite critics. This resilience intrigued businesses that saw the profit potential. Huge brands eagerly sponsored hip-hop artists and placed products in games. Advertising in hip-hop culture has become big business, and gaming seems to follow suit.
For brands craving young demographics, hip-hop’s “cool factor” proved irresistible. Coca-Cola and McDonald’s forged deals with rappers to tap into urban culture in the ‘80s. Nike’s Spike Lee Air Jordans ads turned sneaker culture into big business. The popularity of hip-hop culture also extended into the gaming industry, as hip-hop music was incorporated into the soundtracks of various sports games. Additionally, hip-hop’s influence manifests directly in video games like Def Jam: Vendetta, which featured hip-hop musicians and culture as central elements of gameplay. As hip-hop went pop, virtually every industry wanted in on the action.
Now gaming has become the new darling of advertisers. The fanbase is 80% Gen Z and Millennial – digital natives brands desperately want to reach. Energy drinks like Red Bull sponsor pro gamers. Gaming has expanded its reach from just being played on screens to movie and television screens as well. One of the biggest hits of 2023, the HBO series “The Last of Us,” was adapted directly from the popular Playstation video game of the same name. The misperceptions that once deterred brands from advertising in games are diminishing, and research has shown that brands can find success with in-game advertising. Brands craft in-game advertising and hire streaming influencers to reach a third of the world who are playing games.
The Uncanny Connection
While springing from vastly different roots, hip-hop and gaming retain striking similarities:
- Fringe origins among marginalized groups seeking voices of expression
- Turning stigmatized activities into celebrated artforms
- Fighting censorship and stereotypes around violence to be embraced by the mainstream
- Becoming big business magnets that retain their countercultural mystique
Their journeys mirror each other across the decades. And they demonstrate the irresistible power of youth-driven creativity. Their messages just beg to be heard – no matter how much the gatekeepers resist.
Hip-hop now spawns global superstars like Kanye, Jay-Z, and Drake who rap about wealth and status, a shift from hip-hop’s rebellious roots. Meanwhile, gaming has surged into a $200 billion industry, rivaling Hollywood. However, as corporations rush into these lucrative markets, co-opting creative subcultures carries risks. Savvy brands must avoid exploiting hip-hop and gaming purely for profit. Instead, thoughtful partnerships that demonstrate actual respect, understanding, and affinity for these communities are needed. Authenticity matters more than ever when companies tap into youth-driven art forms.
Young audiences spot pandering a mile away. To succeed in these spaces, you must engage culturally on a deeper level. Don’t view these communities as faceless demographics. See them as people – with passions, interests, and voices deserving to be heard.
Then you may earn a seat at the table.