The Secret History Of 'Def Jam Vendetta,' The First Hip-Hop Video Game
Def Jam Vendetta turned 15 this year and a new iteration of it has been teased. The creators and some of the rappers involved speak on the game’s legacy.
Funkmaster Flex plays DMX‘s “Party Up” loudly as two animated versions of Ludacris and Method Man punch and kick the shit out of each other in a wrestling ring. People cheer from all sides as the pair pull out their best moves on one another, hoping to pin the other and be crowned the winner of the fight. This is Def Jam Vendetta, where rappers handle battles not with a mic — but with their fists.
Originally released in April 2003, Vendetta was a collaborative endeavor between Def Jam and EA Games. Prior to Vendetta, hip-hop culture and video game culture were brought together twice with varying results. 1995’s Rap Jam: Volume One allowed players to take the basketball court as LL Cool J, Flavor Flav, and other rappers. But the graphics made most of the rappers indistinguishable from each other, not to mention the game’s frustrating gameplay. Four years later came the release of Wu-Tang Clan: Shaolin Style, a fighting game that received mixed reviews but was considered innovative at the time because it allowed up to four people to fight simultaneously. Ultimately, both games served as a cautionary tale for future hip-hop video games.
In the early 2000s, hip-hop began to soundtrack video game franchises like Madden NFL and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. Rappers were also making cameos in video games as playable characters, with Jermaine Dupri and Q-Tip appearing in Knockout Kings 2000, and Redman appearing in NBA 2K1. Instances such as these showed that rappers were engaging with — or at the very least contributing to — video games. But a video game dedicated to hip-hop culture — not just individual rappers or one rap collective but the fashion, music, and slang — still hadn’t been made.
Then Vendetta happened. In the game, players must make their way through an underground fighting ring, taking on rappers like Ghostface Killah, Joe Budden, Redman, Ludacris, Scarface, and others in wrestling matches. There are three ways to win — pin, submission, or KO — and anything goes once the fight begins. As bones break from kicks, punches, and trap holds, characters also have the ability to pull off a special move when they’ve built up their power gauge. The special moves range from the “Methalize” (where Method Man breaks an opponent’s back by body slamming him) to the “Ruff Ryders Anthem” (where DMX kicks his opponent, does a mid-air spin above them and throws them to the ground, and snaps his neck).
As players win more matches they’re able to enhance their characters, preparing them for their final fight against the man behind the underground fighting league — undefeated boss D-Mob (voiced by Christopher Judge).
Vendetta allowed hip-hop culture and music to be its centerpiece. A commercial and critical success, the game went on to have two sequels, Def Jam: Fight for NY and Def Jam: Icon, and recently Def Jam teased the possibility of another Vendetta game. But this is the one that started it all and honor of Vendetta, Okayplayer has talked with the development team and some of the rappers a part of creating the game to tell its secret history — 15 years since its release.
The Players (Alphabetical Order)
Joe Budden — Rapper
DMX — Rapper
Josh Holmes — EA Games Producer (former)
Kevin Liles — Def Jam President (former)
Ludacris — Rapper
Method Man — Rapper
Redman — Rapper
Lauren Wirtzer-Seawood — Def Jam Marketing Vice President (former)
In the early 2000s, Kevin Liles isn’t just Def Jam’s President — he’s an avid gamer. And he’s noticing that music from recording artists is appearing more frequently in video games. This leads to an idea — to create a Def Jam-branded game. Meanwhile, over in Canada, Josh Holmes, a video game producer, is about to see his ridiculous idea about a hip-hop wrestling game come to life.
Kevin Liles: I was a big gamer, always. I grew up on everything from Atari to PlayStation to Xbox. We had a lot of Madden wars — we would call them in the office — after work. And when the gaming industry started putting music inside of games I was wondering, “We’re licensing all these songs to the game company — how come we’re not making games?”
I sat down with the Electronic Arts — I didn’t go around to a lot of different people — and said, “Listen, let’s think of something bigger that we can do together. Why don’t we come up with something that hip-hop will be in and actually bring it to life, and not just make a small game that people will just play for a couple of minutes, but something that people could engage with and actually tell a story and go through the whole process?”
Josh Holmes: I was working at Electronic Arts with Daryl Anselmo, who’s one of the co-founders of our current studio, Midwinter Entertainment. The two of us had just finished creating NBA Street, an arcade streetball game that was heavily infused with streetball culture and hip-hop culture and was one of the first EA BIG titles.
We were sort of working on a fighting game internally that was code-named Kung Fu Fighting, when one of the execs at the studio, Paul Lee, described to us a wrestling project that he had under his banner that had had the WCW license, and I guess they had lost the license since the WWE had bought the WCW. The team was struggling creatively and didn’t know what to do with the game. They had this incredible developer based in Japan called AKI Corporation who had done all these celebrated wrestling games in the past.
So they pulled Daryl and me aside and they asked us to do a treatment over the course of a weekend on what we would do with a wrestling title. I spent a weekend with Daryl doing a bunch of research, drafting up a design and 20 page-treatment on how I would build an arcade wrestling title.
About a week later I got another call into Lee’s office and he’s like, “Hey, I need you to consult with this team creatively. You did great work on the brief. Can you work with them and help guide them a bit creatively?” I said, “Ok, sure. I’m busy working on my title, but I’m happy to try and help a team that’s struggling a bit.” All of this was still within the vein of a traditional-ish wrestling title. I think at that point it was now called Midnight Wrestling. Then we got called into this brainstorming meeting, a bunch of marketing folks, and Lee. It was the typical brainstorming session where no idea is out of bounds, so everybody’s throwing out crazy ideas. So we were really into hip-hop and urban culture, and we just sort of threw out — what if we did something that was grounded in the world of hip-hop?
Steve Schnur, who was the head of music at EA at the time, said, “Oh, that’s great. I know some folks at Def Jam. We can get them together and we could have rappers fighting each other and stuff.” Suddenly, this idea started gaining momentum. I was like, “Whoa, okay, that was a dumb idea. No, let’s not do that, guys. Let’s keep going. Let’s come up with another idea…we should do anything but this.”
So we left that meeting and Daryl and I was just like, “Holy cow, I feel so bad for that team. We just helped give this terrible idea, put it in the heads of this executive team, and now this team has marching orders to go build that game.” Then we got a call three days later. They’re like, “Hey, you guys are being moved onto this project. You’re making the Def Jam game. Go figure it out, and you have eight months to get it out the door.”
Lauren Wirtzer-Seawood: When this happened and they asked us to project manage the whole thing and get it done, the first thing I remember doing is reading an article about the value of EA and how much money they made, and I realized, like, “Ok, we need to do this.” Somehow, they’re making billions of dollars already on console games and this is an opportunity for us to just dive deeper into the hip-hop marketplace and figure out how to pull the fans that we already have from Def Jam into the gaming space and vice-versa.
Def Jam Vendetta starts to take shape
Eight months isn’t an ideal timeframe to make a video game. But after meeting one another and seeing the shared passion they had for Vendetta, Holmes, Liles, and Wirtzer-Seawood start making moves to meet the deadline. While Liles is meeting with EA executives to discuss the importance of creating Vendetta with Def Jam, Holmes and Wirtzer-Seawood are meeting with rappers like Ghostface Killah, Method Man and Redman to convince them to be a part of the game. The pair is also traveling to Japan to make sure AKI understands that this is more than a wrestling game. This is hip-hop culture.
Liles: It wasn’t like there were hip-hop games being made at that particular time. So this was like two institutions coming together and saying, “Hey, I trust you, I believe in you.” I remember a couple of meetings and telling the executives there, “Hey, you guys might not know who I am, you guys might not know any of the artists that I’m gonna name to you. But do me a favor, write ’em down, and then go ask your kids.”
I also told this story [to Def Jam]. Think about the kid who fell in love with the new DMX album and loved the music. Think about the kid that not only could listen but now he could play as DMX. That moment for that kid, it went from his ears to his eyes to his heart. He became emotionally attached. I kept repeating that story. Guys, this is an opportunity for us to get out of just the audio and get into a visual space, as well as an engagement and interactive space, that would give full enjoyment to the kid.
[Former EA CEO] Larry Probst and his team, they made games well. They knew that we, then, had a pulse on the culture. They trusted us, and we trusted them. My biggest challenge was the success that we had in the music space, I wanted to continue in the gaming space. I truly don’t think it would have happened with any other partner, or any other chairman at that particular time, other than Larry. He really put his trust and faith in our relationship.
We took an institution like Def Jam and an institution like Electronic Arts and started to share ideas. We had to come up with a name for it so we said, let’s call it Def Jam Vendetta.
Wirtzer-Seawood: Quite frankly, it wasn’t really a hard sell, because everybody was so hard into console games at that point that I think the vision was pretty clear. And then from there, I would work with lawyers to make sure all the paperwork was taken care of and then schedule times for the artists to go and do the motion capture and the voice pieces that needed to get done.
They were involved from top to bottom. We wanted to make sure everybody was comfortable with how their characters turned out, what their character looked like — they even got to name their character’s special moves.
God, there must have been like 20 foot-long sketches on one roll of long paper of every single artist’s character that was in the game, and what they looked like and what they were going to wear. And then I would add to it and keep it. It was all in Kevin’s office. He had this big corner office at the time, and it was like all of the artwork was there just laid so that we could constantly look at it and comment on it and make tweaks to it.
Holmes: Every time I would meet somebody, I would have to fly out with Lauren. Lauren would set it up, and she would bring me into the room, introduce me to whoever it was that we were meeting with that day, and I have to pitch them. “Hey, this is the game. This is the story. This is the role that you’re going to play in the game. This is what we need from you make this happen.” They would be like, “Ok, I’m in.”
Then we would get a session with them in a recording studio, and I would have to go and write all the dialogue and lines and everything. Then I would present lines — whether it’s Meth, Red, or DMX — and they would tell me why my dialogue sucked and change a bunch of stuff and be like, “No, I would never say that shit. I’m not saying that here. We’re going to change it like this, and I’m going to do it this way.”
Wirtzer-Seawood: And then on top of that, we had to work really closely with all of the EA teams on the design side, on the environmental design, designers, motion-capture designers and everybody else, because we had to make sure that the game reflected the culture and that was really important to Kevin.
Liles: I couldn’t see us, at that particular time, doing a game that wasn’t authentic to the culture, from what artists were in the game to the character’s clothes and moves. These artists were either on the label or friends in the industry. Also, I would say 95 percent of them were gamers. So this was an opportunity for them to, like I said, memorialize themselves in that space. And just imagine, if I didn’t treat Redman right or X right, or any of these guys that participated. What if I did not do them right?
Method Man: Redman and I always used to go up to Def Jam because Kevin Liles was our big brother so I would just go up there to see what’s going on. One day I popped into Kevin’s office and he’s got these game people in there and they’re showing him this fighting game. Kevin let me play it a few times and he was like “You like this game?” And I was like “Yeah, this shit is crazy.” I was so naive — I’m telling them about how to do this and that in regards to doing wrestling moves and they already knew this shit. But what I did suggest was that they put a tutorial inside the game to show people how to do the moves and they gave me a check for that shit.
I remember telling them what I wanted my finishing move to be. I didn’t care about anything else. I was gonna put my own spin on my quotables any fucking way but I made sure they gave me the ultimate finishing move and made my character the hottest character in the game. I needed for my character to beat everybody else’s ass in the game.
Ludacris [via IGN, 2004]: I had input as far as what I wanted to wear and my moves and what I wanted to call them. So with that being said, I was very happy about that, ’cause you know having creative input on something being animated is definitely [cool]. I mean it’s like how many people can say that they’ve been turned into a video game character? That’s grateful all within itself.
DMX [via Ruff Ryders, 2013]: They used my music throughout the whole fucking game, and I’m the hardest character to get to. It’s pretty much my shit.
Joe Budden [via The Joe Budden Podcast, 2018]: A lot of the white people knew me from that video game. They knew how to franchise some shit — [the label] just wasn’t going to pay niggas for it.
Holmes: One of my favorite stories from that experience was meeting with Ghostface Killah. I don’t know if Lauren’s told you this story and I don’t know if she even remembers but it’s like burned into my memory.
Wirtzer-Seawood: This is the one thing I remember that is actually the funniest.
Holmes: So every time we meet with the artist we say, “Tell me what do you wanna wear, what’s your outfit?” And we would take all these extensive notes and we’d take pictures if there were things that they might be wearing or they would send us stuff. Then I’d say, “What’s your special move, tell me what you want your special move to be,” and I’d explain how that works in the game.
And Ghostface was like, “Ok. Here’s the thing. I gotta have all my jewelry and I wanna have a giant gold eagle on my arm. And then at a special point in the match, I do my special move and my eagle comes to life and it flies up in the air and it claws the mother fucker’s eyes out.” I turned to Lauren and said “We can’t do that. The engine can’t do that. It’s not possible.” She’s like, “Shut up. Just say yes.” I’m like, “Of course. Ok. So the eagle flies and it claws his eyes out.” He’s like, “Yeah.” And he’s describing all this shit and I’m like, “Cool.”
And I’m thinking, “I’m never gonna have to see Ghost again. I’m good.” And then we did the sequel and as soon as I met him he was like, “What the fuck happened to my eagle, man?” He was super, super pissed. And I was like, “I am so sorry. We couldn’t make that happen.”
“There are no guns in hip-hop”: Vendetta fights for its creative vision
Ghostface’s request isn’t the only problem the Vendetta team has. Members of EA’s executive team voice their concerns with some of the game’s content, particularly a cutscene of a character with a gun. During this time, video games are being criticized for promoting violence. Knowing how rap endured similar criticisms, Liles knows how to reach a compromise without sacrificing the integrity and creative vision of Vendetta.
Holmes: We wanted to push for [a mature rating] because we felt it was right for the brand. And I think there was a lot of resistance to that with Vendetta. One of the things I remember with Vendetta — the story sort of culminates at the end when you get into a showdown with D Mob and he pulls a gun on you. We’re right near the end of our deadline, like a couple months before we’re gonna have to ship and I had to show all of our cinematics for the game. [Former President of Worldwide Studios for EA] Don Mattrick lost it. He’s like, “You can’t have a gun in this. There are no guns in hip-hop.”
And I’m like, “Dude, I can’t remove this, this is about escalation. It’s about the moment. This is what’s happening in the story, this is a clear thing that needs to happen.” I was just a relatively young kid at the time and it was my boss at the time who threw himself in front of me and said, “Don’t worry about it, we’ll take care of it.” And he slowly worked on Don until we managed to keep the integrity of the story and keep our moment.
There was a lot of trying to fight for what we thought was the right tone and feel and doing that within an organization that wasn’t comfortable and familiar with this culture and this world. When we would do these pre-submissions would get feedback like, “Yeah this is really walking the line.” And then the direction that we would get as a creative team is, “Ok you guys need to dial it back.” Which as a creative I don’t really react well to that sort of feedback.
I think I was very hot-headed in sort of fighting for the creative integrity of a lot of this stuff and in hindsight I think, in some cases, I could’ve done a better job of picking my battles.
Liles: To me, we always wanted to cater to a younger audience and the gaming nature at that particular time was male-dominated. If I wanted a teen rating I had to prepare some of the things like making the radio edit. If you wanted to get radio play, you had to make a radio edit. It doesn’t take away from the song in some cases, but I made sure we pushed the envelope enough while making sure we had the reach and the audience to actually sell scale.
It’s the same as I had to confront every other conversation. Do you think that box retailers wanted to carry music with heavy profanity? There was a time where they would only allow rap music to be played for one hour every Friday. Then they gave us the weekend. Then they said the mix show. It was an evolution and to me, this wasn’t a gaming conversation. This was a cultural conversation. It was all about the messenger and the messaging and I treated the brand at EA like it was my own, speaking to the shareholders and the board and all the executives there and taking the long road for them not to just make a game but to actually respect the culture that it came from.
It’s the same fight. It’s just a different time. Look at what happened with Colin Kaepernick, with the YG record [on Madden 19]. Imagine if it was my game. I wouldn’t let that happen. I don’t mind having a conversation but at the end of the day, I would’ve shut the game down if it wasn’t going the way that we had envisioned it to go.
Vendetta goes on the road
Vendetta is complete. Now all that’s left is to choose its cover art, which goes through many, many variations before the team finally settles on one. Then, on April 1, 2003, Vendetta makes its debut. The game is well-received critically, with gaming publications like Game Informer giving it an 8 out of 10 rating. To help bring more awareness to the game, Wirtzer-Seawood embarks on a tour featuring video game competitions at Gamestop stores, as well as live shows featuring Method Man, Joe Budden, and Capone-N-Noreaga.
Liles: We probably went through 200 images [for the cover art]. Think about some of the iconic album covers that we’ve made in the course of our life. The line was, at that particular time: everything mattered. Every color, every font, every image, every word. And it wasn’t about one artist, it wasn’t about who was the best at that time. It was about hip-hop. You can’t put one face to hip-hop. And in the gaming space, I felt it was better if it was not about one person. It was about the culture as a whole.
Wirtzer-Seawood: I think, for me, the most memorable part of that tour was collaborating with GameStop and adding an element that hadn’t yet been done. I think something like gaming brings people together and when you add a hip-hop element on top of that, there are just more components to bring people together.
We know what first week numbers look like for records but we didn’t know what it looked like for games, so it was all new for us. And I remember looking at the numbers and getting weekly reports and tracking those weekly reports and thinking like, “This is actually pretty good.” Because remember, this is at a time before social media so there’s no way for us to gauge the response from fans. There’s no way for us to have this immediate response. It all came together once we started seeing numbers and sales.
I remember being surprised at how well it was received. And again, not for any reason other than we had never done that before.
Method Man: They had an idea that they would send me along with some of the newer artists they signed and some Roc-A-Fella artists and some Murder Inc. artists and we would go out and do these shows. But in the midst of us doing these shows I would stop at GameStops and play the game with people because I was that good at it. All I had to do was host the show and during the day I would go to different GameStops and play Def Jam Vendetta against the locals. And I did go undefeated up until one point. I think one kid beat me — little piece of shit.
Vendetta is “the first hip-hop video game in history”
Following the success of Vendetta, Def Jam and EA went on to create several sequels. But this all began with Vendetta, a game that, against all odds, showed the potential of bringing rap culture and video game culture together. Which is why Liles calls it “The first hip-hop video game in history.”
Redman: It was great to see that my own label had their own video game and put their own artists in it. And the ill part about it was that it wasn’t corny — it was very exceptional in the gaming industry. At the end of the day, the gaming industry does not need hip-hop. They’re a billion, trillion dollar market. But we were accepted for Def Jam Vendetta and I think that was the glory part for me — to be accepted in the gaming world.
Holmes: I grew up listening to hip-hop. At one point, I dropped out of high school and went and worked in a music shop selling guitars; one day Public Enemy came to town. Flava Flav happened to come into The Rock Pit where I worked and I ended up selling him a bass. He was so happy with the bass that I had sold him that day that he gave me backstage passes to the show.
I think I was like 16 at the time or something. It was really funny because that came full circle, not on Vendetta but on Fight For New York, when we got Flav for the game. I talked to him about that day, and he remembered coming to Vancouver and buying that base and everything, I was like, “Dude, I was that kid.”
I often think back to that experience of working on those two games, and just what an incredible experience it was for me in every way.
Liles: People used to say rap was a fad and it wasn’t gonna last. Now we sit here and we’re the number one music genre in the world. It wasn’t like that 15 years ago. It’s been told to me it’s one of the historical moments in our culture.
It wasn’t about one city or one group of people — this is about hip-hop culture. This was something that involved so many moving parts. Every single thing in the game was hip-hop. Every single thing. That’s why I’ll always call it the first game of its kind.
Method Man: I’ve been a gaming dude for a long time and I knew that that Wu-Tang: Shaolin Style game was originally another game that never came out but they did have it in one of the GamePro magazines. That game was fucking horrible. [Editor’s Note: The game Method Man is referring to is Thrill Kill, an unreleased PlayStation game that became Shaolin Style. Also worth noting that Shaolin Style was well-received by some critics, with GamePro giving it a four out of five rating.] Nothing against the developers because they were trying to capitalize on something that was hot at the time, which was Wu-Tang. But that game was rushed and horrible. I had nothing to do with it. I never even got a check from it. That game was destined to fail off top. Didn’t get any voice-over work, nothing — they rushed that bitch out. Next thing I know there’s a Wu-Tang video game out. I might’ve played it once and said, “To hell with this.”
I was so happy with Def Jam Vendetta because it was finally done right and the way it brought in street fighting, wrestling, and hip-hop all in the same bag — you’re conquering the fucking popular culture right there. You got three different genres of dopeness coming together as one. That’s fucking hot and will never be done again. I don’t like the direction that it went in later on down the line but those first two games were pretty dope.
What is the future of the Vendetta franchise and hip-hop’s relationship with video games?
The idea of what a hip-hop video game is and can be has changed since Vendetta. 2004’s Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas used hip-hop to comment on police violence against black people, as well as poverty, drug abuse, and gang violence. In 2016, Kanye West teased a video game titled Only One, which was about his mother, the late Donda West, traveling through the gates of heaven. Rappers have also become more visible as gamers thanks to video game streaming services like Twitch. Drake and Travis Scott made headlines for breaking a Twitch stream record earlier this year, while Danny Brown debuted new music on the service.
As for the future of Vendetta, Def Jam has hinted at a future title, asking fans if they’d want to see the next iteration in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Chicago, or Miami.
Holmes: I’m a West Coast guy so I would probably go with LA. I think we were also, at the time that we made Fight For New York, talking about where the sequel would be set, and we were talking about LA. Hip-hop was coming right off the heels of the whole East Coast, West Coast feud.
Wirtzer-Seawood: I think that LA has more opportunities to build creative stuff, honestly. When you think about it from a gaming perspective you almost think about it like a movie, right? There’s different stuff that you can pull from and I think LA would probably be better.
Liles: I think it can’t be about a city. It’d have to be about the world. We’re the number one music genre in the world. I want everyone to participate: the rapper in Africa, China, France, Germany, and Australia. As well as the new sound in LA, Chicago, Houston, and Atlanta. Because we still own the name we have a lot of say in whatever gets done. But let’s not limit ourselves on what the next Def Jam game will be.