Middle school afternoons devolved into hours of video game playing for me; I’d even finish all my homework in school *just* so I had more time to game before bed some days. Ever since I wrapped my hands around a Playstation controller to play Animaniacs Ten Pin Alley at six years old, video games have always brought me joy, but it wasn’t until 2003 that games began to affect the course of my life. When Def Jam Vendetta was released 12 years ago, my hip-hop sensibilities lied somewhere between Lil’ Bow Wow and 50 Cent, with very little middle ground or even understanding of what the genre was about outside of “this sounds good.” I just so happened to get my first hip-hop history lesson while watching Ghostface chokeslam WC into the floor of a wrestling ring.
The game was distributed by Electronic Arts’ sports division EA Sports BIG, the same people behind arcade basketball classic NBA Street and snowboarding sim SSX, was originally pitched as a sequel to WCW Mayhem, but EA lost the rights when WCW was bought out by The World Wrestling Federation in 2001. The game was redesigned as a way to collapse their already established wrestling fan base with the ever-growing number of hip-hop heads in the wake of the genre’s perpetual mainstream appeal. And they got me *good*. The game featured a roster of Def Jam’s finest, from Method Man and Redman, to Joe Budden, Ludacris, Keith Murray, Scarface, Ghostface, and more.
Not only was the game’s Story Mode a superficial excuse to have one of four speechless scrappers rub elbows with hip-hop’s elite at the time while winning back your Christina Milian-voice girlfriend Angel (who you could also play as in a Divas-esque mode involving other real life models), but the soundtrack was jam-packed with hardcore raps, both new and old. Booting up the game to the main menu brought up “Do Sumptin” by Comp, which gave way to an even split between established tracks (“Nothin” by N.O.R.E.) and a host of what were “Hot new joints” in 2003 like “Uh, Huh” by Method Man; beating your way through the ranks of end boss D-Mob was all the crazier with the newly released “X Gon Give It To Ya” and Funkmaster Flex bombs blasting through your eardrums.
Regardless of what song I was beating ass to (usually as the color-coded pimp Iceberg), the soundtrack was my first serious introduction to hardcore hip-hop and inspired me to dig deeper into hip-hop’s backlogs, from hardcore New York (Onyx’s Bacdafucup), to Southern (Ludacris’ Chicken n’ Beer, Scarface’s The Fix), and even a little West Coast (WC’s Ghetto Heisman). I didn’t know it at the time, but this was my personal crash course that sent me searching through every corner of hip-hop.
Aside from the crazy soundtrack, Vendetta was a fun game to boot. Every character has their own set of attacks, grapples, and Blazin’ finishing moves that they can use. Capone boxes you into a daze before tapping your forehead and watching you fall, DMX grabs your neck with his feet and snaps it, Chucklez the clown (really) turns characters into human pogo sticks. And some critics at the time had the nerve to say that the game wasn’t over the top enough.
The game sold better than He’s Keith Murray did regardless, and inspired an even better sequel Def Jam: Fight For NY, with more rappers, more music, a more diverse fighting system, and an actual character creation system. With the increasing ubiquity of video games, it’s easy to take them for granted as music discovery tools. Hell, that’s half the appeal of Guitar Hero and Rock Band. Hip-hop doesn’t get many chances to shine in video games outside of curated Grand Theft Auto or Saints Row radio stations, but Def Jam Vendetta helped plant the seed for a whole new generation and even inspired NBA Street and & SSX to take on similar but more toned-down aesthetics in their sequels. How do I manage to pinpoint the impact this game had on me? The game mislabeled the Ghostface song “The Grain” as “Buck 50” and i’ve been calling it that for 12 years.