Music in fighting games can make or break a game. You can’t go toe to toe with your best friend with drinks on the line or likewise the final of a competitive local tourney with a weak ass song playing in the background. It saps both you and your opponent’s energy. Certain stages and each character will have their own atmosphere and vibe. That’s why we have such a wide variety of genres in fighting games. Perhaps you need a heavily orchestrated song for when you’re fighting in an underground cavern.
Maybe you have a guest character from a different franchise and want to give their main theme a makeover to suit the faster pace of a fighting game. Or if they’re from another fighting game franchise, a different take on their theme that could also draw from their originating game.
Or maybe the game wants to tell the player you’re fucked and to say goodbye to every single quarter you have.
Either way, we encounter lots of genres in these games. It’s what makes a fighting games’ OST special. But one genre has always shown to be a perfect match for fighting games. Hip-hop.
It’s no secret that fighting is one of the biggest tropes in hip-hop. The fight, or the scrape to survive, is one of the core foundations of hip-hop’s creation. Whether it’s used by someone such as LL Cool J in Mama Said Knock You Out to make a statement and assert their dominance (the song itself was made because many people felt LL Cool J was out of his prime), or even explicitly call out other rappers simply to say fuck you, as per Tupac’s classic song Hit ‘Em Up. There have been numerous references to boxing as well.
When I rhyme somethin’ special happen every time/I’m the greatest, somethin’ like Ali in his prime/I walk the block with the bundles, I’ve been knocked on the humble/Swing the ox when I rumble, show your ass what my gun do.
- 50 Cent in Many Men (Wish Death)
But none took this trope more to heart than the Wu-Tang Clan.
In 1984, three cousins formed to create a rap group called The Force of The Imperial Mind. Each cousin had their own alias. Robert Diggs, known as The Scientist. Gary Guice, The Genius. Russell Jones, The Specialist. They would release a song called All In Together Now and slowly make a name for themselves in the underground New York rap scene, even capturing the attention of Biz Markie. With this newfound exposure, Diggs and Guice took their chance to become solo stars, all the while keeping The Imperial Mind on the backburner. When 1991 rolled around, Diggs and Guice would be signed by separate record labels, that being Tommy Boy Records and Cold Chillin’ Records respectively. Guice would retain his alter ego of The Genius and Diggs would assume a new one, Prince Rakeem. The sky was the limit. But issues arose quickly. Prince Rakeem would release a promotional version of a new EP, Ooh, I Love You, Rakeem, but he was forced to remix the single when Tommy Boy was unable to secure the rights to the main sample. The remix and EP would bomb. The Genius would be able to release a full album titled Words from the Genius, but the album would get lackluster promotion from the studio. The album bombed. Both would be cut from their record labels. Famously, Diggs would be replaced by Irish American rap trio House of Pain.
Damn, they chose a bunch of whiteboy shit over me.
- Diggs after learning House of Pain replaced him.
Things would only get worse. Diggs would face attempted murder charges after getting caught in a shootout in ’92. Eight potential years in prison. But he received a reprieve. A not guilty verdict. With an unquenchable fire in both of their hearts, Diggs and Grice would reunite with cousin Russell Jones and form the Wu-Tang Clan. They also recruited some of their childhood friends as well. It just so happened that they were some of the best underground MC’s in New York.
The Wu-Tang Clan’s roots in Kung-Fu are an understatement.
…he (Diggs) cobbled together an idea of a hip-hop clan based on the Eastern philosophy he’d picked up from kung fu movies, the watered-down Nation of Islam preaching he’d picked up on the New York streets, and comic books.
Let’s start with the clan name itself. It’s based on Gordon Liu’s Kung-Fu film Shaolin and Wu-Tang. Each MC had their own alter ego, like superheroes. RZA (Diggs), GZA (Grice), Ol’ Dirty Bastard (Jones), Masta Killa (Elgin Turner), Method Man (Clifford Smith Jr.), Ghostface Killah (Dennis Coles), Inspectah Deck (Jason Hunter), U-God (Lamont Hawkins), and Raekwon (Corey Woods). ‘Ol Dirty Bastard’s name is based on Yuen Siu-tien’s Kung-Fu movie ‘Ol Dirty and the Bastard. Their first album, the critically acclaimed Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) released in ‘93, combines the names of two of the greatest Kung-Fu movies of all time. Gordon Liu’s The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and Bruce Lee’s Enter The Dragon. Then there’s the references in their songs. From more Kung-Fu movies to boxing.
I smoke on the mic like “Smokin’ Joe” Frazier/The hell-raiser, raisin’ hell with the flavor/Terrorize the jam like troops in Pakistan/Swingin’ through your town like your neighborhood Spider-Man
– Wu-Tang Clan in Protect Ya Neck
As you can tell, the Wu-Tang Clan’s songs have a very gritty, underground tone to them. That’s thanks to Kung-Fu movie samples, soul samples, and admittedly cheap ass equipment. This sound heavily counteracted Dr. Dre’s and other rappers’ more funky sounding hip-hop and brought it back to the streets. The streets of Shaolin that is.
While that was happening, just a year later, a DJ named DJ Qbert released a breakbeat mixtape called Demolition Pumpkin Squeeze Musik, considered to be the greatest break mix of all time. This tape contained tons of beats sampling from all kinds of pop culture and entertainment. Rock bands such as Rush, comic book shows like 60’s Spiderman, even NFL broadcasts. Listen to this one and tell me if you hear something.
That’s right. That’s Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter 2 sounds you’re hearing. This is arguably the first time anyone sampled fighting games, a milestone thus far.
That very same year, Universal Studios released Street Fighter, a movie very loosely (and I say loosely very lightly) based on Street Fighter 2: The World Warrior. It gave us one of the greatest scenes in cinema history.
It also had a soundtrack. A fire one at that. It was very hip-hop/rap centric. Critically acclaimed names like Ice Cube, LL Cool J, Public Enemy, Nas, and even MC Hammer! Yet another step for the relationship between hip-hop and fighting games.
It also had Deion Sanders for some reason too.
At this point, there has been some heavy flirtation between hip-hop and fighting games, especially with Street Fighter. Street Fighter Third Strike would confirm the marriage. The past two alliterations of Street Fighter 3, New Generation and 2nd Impact, were really toying with their soundtracks. Both New Generation and 2nd Impact had lots of elements of house and Jazz in many of the stage themes.
But for Street Fighter 3rd Strike, they introduced hip-hop to the party, creating arguably the most electric fighting game soundtrack in existence. And it all revolved around Canadian rapper Infinite. After splitting with his rap group Ghetto Concept following his brother’s death, he sought a solo career. Capcom gave him a shot. He would provide narrations and three songs that became synonymous with 3rd Strike. The main theme (named Third Strike), the character select screen (Let’s Get It On), and the Staff Roll music after defeating Gill (Moving On). These weren’t even video game themes anymore. They were genuinely great rap songs that just so happened to be in a fighting game.
Much like the Wu-Tang Clan, these songs had a very underground vibe that belonged to New York City. By the way, this entire soundtrack is on Apple Music so go download it. Like right now. Whether it’s for working out or just vibing in the car, do it. In 2011, 3rd Strike would get re-released with online capabilities (and with a buttery smooth rollback netcode, something triple-A fighting games still for some reason don’t use, looking at you Smash Bros), and Infinite’s songs would get a touch-up. A bit of techno spice. But Swedish rapper Adam Tensta would handle the vocals this time. And he didn’t miss. If this music didn’t get your blood pumping for a fight, nothing else would.
So we’ve talked enough Street Fighter. Where has hip-hop been seen in other fighting games?
Ok, I kinda lied about the not talking about Street Fighter part but I was telling the truth about the SNK part. Good ol’ Capcom vs SNK 2, yet another beloved fighting game with a banging soundtrack. The vocals in this song took an obvious backseat to the high tempo jazzy beat, again perfect for a New York stage (you sensing a trend here?), but it’s honestly kinda cool to hear Michael Jordan’s name get thrown in like that. I don’t care how cheesy the line sounds, it’s fun. I like fun.
Now, you remember me mentioning that DJ Qbert was one of the very first people to sample fighting games, right? Well, that opened a flood gate of hip-hop songs that sampled fighting game songs or sound effects. Like, look at the sheer number of songs that sample Street Fighter 2 sound effects. It doesn’t stop there. Plenty of songs feature the voice of Shao Khan in Mortal Kombat 2, or the more modern Mortal Kombat announcer.
Then there are the rappers that take the time to express their love for fighting games, such as Lupe Fiasco in Gold Watch.
Rapper Del The Funky Homosapien took it to the next level (get it? Cause it’s video games? I’ll see myself out) when he and fellow rapper Khaos Unique collaborated and made Proto-Culture. Sampling Morrigan’s win theme from Darkstalkers (another fighting game created by Capcom), they gush about all the video games they played, including Street Fighter vs X-Men and Marvel vs Capcom. It’s truly a love letter to the culture.
References to these games are all over the place if you can catch them.
Cause he went and tried out a new condom/Slipped off in a threesome, good problems?/Right? Wrong/Askin’ him if she wanna play games/With the Super Smash Brothers, but none of them you
– Childish Gambino in Heartbreak
Gotta talk about the flow ‘cause you is concerned / Only down-south rapper could’ve been in The Firm / Or the Commission or Wu-Tang, nigga / Tryna tell you I can kick it like Liu Kang, nigga / Got that Sub-Zero flow, how you owe me, ma? / Make her get over here like Scorpion
– Lil Wayne in Jay-Z’s Show Me What You Got Remix
Over the past few years, Mortal Kombat has been utilizing hip-hop whenever they unveil a new game during E3. It began with MKX, with it came easily one of the best fighting game trailers of all time. Shit is spine chilling.
Yep. That’s Wiz Khalifa you’re hearing. Knowing he’s a bonafide nerd himself (he’s sampled Chrono Trigger, Kirby, and Sonic in numerous tracks), it's a match made in heaven. The dark nature of the song combined with its fast tempo was perfect for Mortal Kombat, especially X, for it emphasized darker color schemes for its stages and characters. 21 Savage would feature for the MK11 trailer, but in my humble opinion, it just didn’t have the same impact the MKX one did. I mean it sounds nice but I feel the song wasn’t the best fit.
Many wonder why hip-hop and fighting games suit each other. I say there’s plenty of reasons, besides the ones I previously mentioned such as the Wu-Tang Clan’s connection to kung-fu. In hip-hop, you can freestyle. Much can be the same for combos in fighting games, especially for games like Street Fighter or Smash Bros Melee. Creativity and flow are key. Both are able to create something out of nothing. And sometimes, with intense mastery, those random things can end up becoming revolutionary. Thanks for reading.