The Secret History Of ‘Def Jam Vendetta,’ The First Hip-Hop Video Game

Elijah C. Watson Elijah Watson serves as Okayplayer's News & Culture Editor. When…
The Secret History Of 'Def Jam Vendetta,' The First Hip-Hop Game In Historycommercial 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 in 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.

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)

The Beginning

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.

The Secret History Of 'Def Jam Vendetta,' The First Hip-Hop Game In History

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.

The Oral History Of 'Def Jam Vendetta,' The First Hip-Hop Game In History

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.

The Oral History Of 'Def Jam Vendetta,' The First Hip-Hop Game In Historyfour 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.

The Oral History Of 'Def Jam Vendetta,' The First Hip-Hop Game In Historybreaking 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.

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