The Long, Strange History of Street Fighter and Hip-Hop

Capcom's signature fighting game franchise has had a decades long relationship with rap music and culture—for surprising reasons.

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Dec 15 2016, 8:59pm

Two men square up. One is shirtless, encased in muscle. He hunches forward, his afro obscured yet impeccable, gleaming in the sun. The other rocks a crisp white t-shirt. A bleached blond cowlick spills down his forehead. Determined blue eyes sparkle underneath his black eyebrows. He glares at his opponent. A punch erupts from his chest. It hurts. His opponent's afro comes into full view as the blow propels him backwards and out of the frame. The camera pans up. Welcome to the world of Street Fighter, hip-hop's favorite video game series.

It's an odd choice for a favorite series. Street Fighter II, the series' biggest hit and the game that comes up the most, doesn't share any obvious affinity with hip-hop. It's over two decades old, its music takes cues from 80s dancepop, and its sole two black characters are outrageously square: One has a hairline that looks like it was shaped up by a velociraptor and the other is Billy Blanks reimagined as a kickboxing rapper. Yet Street Fighter II and its progeny endure, appearing in lyrics, instrumentals, music videos, movies, merchandise, and concert fonts. Even as rival fighting games and eventually racing games, sports games, and crime games have come to firmly embrace hip-hop (e.g., Midnight Club, Grand Theft Auto, Shaq-Fu, NBA Jam, NBA Street), Street Fighter has remained king.

To trace its reign, I talked to musicians, Capcom employees, a former record executive, and the founders of a creative production company. I also pored through three decades' worth of artwork, marketing, games, music, and movies. What follows is a tale of coincidences, nostalgia, some very wack rhymes, and some surprisingly good rhymes. It turns out that Street Fighter and hip-hop don't have an inherent affinity. But they do have history, and in hip-hop, history is always possibility.

Pouring the Asphalt

Hip-hop has a unique way of elevating elements of everyday life into new realms of being. Shoes become mission statements. Nicknames become personas. City boroughs become island nations. Ad infinitum. Street Fighter isn't immune to this alchemy, but its relationship with hip-hop is more concrete. Street Fighter isn't just another piece of pop cultural debris that's been picked up and turned into gold. Street Fighter and hip-hop go back.

Before Street Fighter was being referenced by Nicki Minaj and Lupe Fiasco (and Dizzee Rascal, Lil B, Sean Price, Madlib, etc.,) it was doing its own sampling. The original Street Fighter is sprinkled with graffiti and the swagger that comes with it. The game's logo is introduced via a nameless punk who punches a hole through a tagged-up wall and then turns his back to reveal a Street Fighter logo on his jacket. He literally fights the streets. Within the game, the home stage for the character Joe is a trainyard that features a train car with a top-to-bottom tag. The game's overall engagement with hip-hop is superficial, but somebody at Capcom had clearly been watching Style Wars.

Hip-hop became a bit more than a sample during the development of Final Fight, which was originally intended to be a sequel to Street Fighter and for a time was titled "Street Fighter '89." Final Fight takes place in a barely fictionalized New York City that's awash in graffiti, garbage, gangs, and an unfathomable supply of metal barrels. Its character designs and gameplay are more directly informed by Guns N' Roses than Run DMC, and its plot elements are directly lifted from the bizarre neo-noir musical odyssey Streets of Fire, but its vision of New York City couldn't exist without hip-hop. The streets are simultaneously threatening and thrilling, most of the stages are set on the peripheries of the city which hip-hop made cool. One of the bosses is even a crooked cop. Final Fight is basically a Spike Lee-directed Beastie Boys video.

Street Fighter II would go on to abandon these elements of hip-hop, trading the gritty streets of Final Fight for scenic, globe-trotting vistas. But the foundation had been laid, and as Street Fighter II became an arcade and console hit, the streets began to do their own sampling.

Potholes

Strictly speaking, the character Dee Jay, first introduced in the third version of Street Fighter II, Super Street Fighter II: The New Challengers (1993), is Street Fighter's first direct engagement with hip-hop. His dialogue in the game references rhythm and music, he raps at other characters, and his ending after defeating Bison details his music career. But these are mostly just generic flourishes. Not only does his name actually reference his creator, James Godard, who designed under the name DJAMES, Dee Jay was directly modeled after the character Khan from the 1990 movie King of the Kickboxers, played by Billy Blanks. (Blanks did actually go on to try rapping and his infamous Tae Bo program is entirely reliant upon generic but peppy hip-hop beats that are unmemorable yet easy to count to. But those are just coincidences.)  

The first substantive union between hip-hop and Street Fighter came via "Track 10" from turntablist DJ Qbert's 1994 mixtape Demolition Pumpkin Squeeze Muzik. "Track 10" wasn't the first song to sample Street Fighter II (that honor goes to Hi-C's "Swing'n), but it's one of the most memorable. On the track, sounds from the game are mixed with scratches, sounds from Mortal Kombat, Super Bowl commentary, a Wild Magnolias drum loop, and a Roy Ayers bass loop. The mixtape as a whole has such odd pairings, but I'm still a bit surprised when Qbert tells me how casually the Street Fighter samples came about. "We just played the game so much that it was like, 'Damn, what should we sample? I don't know. Street Fighter!' I just did it and it came out kind of cool," he tells me. Qbert essentially saw Street Fighter II as just another thing to be sampled, but still, I press him: Why Street Fighter in particular? "I think hip-hop is a cool thing, I think Street Fighter is a cool thing," he says nonchalantly.

Qbert's answer is straightforward but it makes sense. The marketing for Street Fighter II made no overt gestures toward hip-hop, neither in magazine ads or commercials, and the "street" in the title was a more a product of franchising than game design. For him, Street Fighter II and hip-hop came together because he placed them together, not because they were meant to be.

Legendary Hip-Hop Producer Just Blaze Schools Waypoint Editor-in-Chief Austin Walker in Street Fighter V.

Andrew Shack, a former A&R and president of the record label Priority Records, had a similar experience. When he was executive producing the soundtrack to the Street Fighter movie, which is almost entirely hip-hop, he wasn't thinking about whether hip-hop and Street Fighter had a natural affinity. "That's all we knew. My world was the rap world," he chuckles when I ask him why the soundtrack is so heavily skewed toward rap.

Shack's even more tickled when he explains how Priority landed the gig. "What had happened was that I decided we needed to get into the film business, and we were developing the movie Friday and we didn't know what we were doing. We were just getting out there and thinking 'How are we gonna get into the film business? People are kind of doing soundtracks and we need to find one to do,'" he recalls. The soundtrack they ended up finding was for Street Fighter. And yes, you read that correctly: The Street Fighter soundtrack has rap on it solely because a rap label wanted to make a soundtrack, any soundtrack, as an introduction to the movie business.

What's striking is that despite these arbitrary origins, and the fact that the soundtrack was created with barely any knowledge of the film, the music and the content actually manage to align. Some of the tracks are a bit too on the nose ("It's a Street Fight" and "Rap Commando") and MC Hammer and Deion Sanders should never again make music together (or individually?), but generally the concept works. Street Fighter's mixture of competition, bravado, and individualism easily translate into the trials and travails of a rapper. "Niggas respect violence so I become it," Nas raps on "One On One," perfectly bridging the two worlds. The album may have been a small step in a grander scheme, but Priority didn't step lightly.

"One on One" by Nas, from the Street Fighter original movie soundtrack

Street Fighter and hip-hop stepped into sync for real on the third version of Street Fighter III, Street Fighter III Third Strike: Fight For the Future, which featured dense arrangements from composer Hideki Okugawa. Okugawa had also worked on the first two versions of the game, but those scores were more indebted to hip-hop's cousins and kids: house, jungle, techno, drum n' bass. For Third Strike Okugawa rebuilt and remixed previous songs and recruited Toronto rapper Infinite to serve as a performer and in-game announcer. Multiple songs feature the Amen break, the rapping is natural, and the general corniness that characterized the series' past flirtations with hip-hop is totally absent. Infinite had a single afternoon to write his three songs, and he only had a single studio session with Third Strike's sound team, most of whom he couldn't even speak with, but the chemistry is there. Okugawa set out to make a hip-hop-infused score and he actually did it.

But again, this wasn't the product of an innate synergy. Not only had the two previous versions of Street Fighter III worked fine without being hip-hop-centric, but Infinite readily tells me that he was mostly in it for the opportunity. "It was just business," he says. Because he had grown up playing Street Fighter, Infinite did have some attachment to the series, but he can't front. "I probably [still] would have did it if it was a game that I never really messed with like that," he admits.

When Capcom went to Toronto seeking a rapper, any Canadian rapper could have won those auditions—Devon, Choclair, Saukrates. Infinite was chosen because he was comfortable rapping over video game music. His knowledge of Street Fighter was a coincidence, a complete afterthought. What made the game transcend its random circumstances was its makers audacity. They never asked whether Street Fighter and hip-hop were compatible: They just pressed start.

A Street Fighter Named Desire

If Street Fighter and hip-hop aren't naturally compatible, why are they constantly being paired? Super Street Fighter IV was promoted with custom music from Just Blaze. Drake and Lil' Wayne toured using a tailor-made concert app that featured content licensed from Capcom. Some guy made this song. Another guy made this album. This Bandcamp page can't just be an accident of the universe. There's got to be something there, right?

John Diamonon, the director of licensing and consumer products at Capcom [USA], offers insight. "Our customer research showed that [Street Fighter] over-indexes tremendously with Hispanics, Asians, and Blacks," he tells me over a conference call. Considering this, it makes sense that Capcom would market Street Fighter games with Just Blaze commercials and Black Thought verses. But it doesn't necessarily explain why that marketing would translate.

Just Blaze's Super Street Fighter IV track 

Diamonon mentions "authenticity," and speaks intimately about his own connection to hip-hop (I knew he was for real when he mentioned Dan the Automater) and to the fighting game community, which he rightfully describes as able to "smell something that's not authentic." Matt Dahlgren, Capcom USA's director of brand marketing, backs him up, explaining, "The core of the brand is about bettering yourself and becoming a true warrior," a quest for authenticity. 

I don't doubt their expertise, especially since Dahlgren is a former competitive player. But sitting on the other end of a deep dive through hip-hop and Street Fighter's history, I'm skeptical. Not only have its engagements with hip-hop mostly been haphazard, but Street Fighter is mixed martial arts with magic. It condenses real fighting styles to thumb swoops and shouted phrases. It reduces real countries to bizarre panoramas. It's every 80s martial arts movie at once, an anthology of stereotypes, cliches, and fantasy. It is inauthentic by design. And that inauthenticity is one of its most charming features.

When I talk to DJ Sokai, a musician from Riverdale, Georgia who specializes in outrageous mash-ups, he mentions a more convincing word: potential.

"If you look at Chrono Trigger, it wasn't really hip-hop. It was more orchestral, very arranged, very classical. But when I add Project Pat to it and recontextualize hip-hop with that sound, people are like 'Oh shit! You can mix Project Pat with this?' There's some sort of hidden potential there. Sometimes you have to rearrange the sequence or break it up to get it right, but it's a very modular sound and when done right becomes a hip-hop hit," Sokai tells me. For him, hip-hop and Street Fighter (or Chrono Trigger) are puzzle pieces that fit together under the right conditions. And whether those conditions are authentic or imagined is besides the point: Their compatibility only emerges once you ram the pieces together.

Street Fighter's key attribute is its capacity for contingency.

And that's where the real affinity between Street Fighter and hip-hop lies. Street Fighter isn't hip-hop's favorite video game series because of Capcom's marketing team or Hideki Okugawa's beats or John Singleton's product placement or Ryu's ambitions. Neither is it hip-hop's favorite game just because fighting parallels rap battling (if that were the case, Tekken, Dead or Alive and Virtua Fighter, Guilty Gear, and Smash Bros. would come up just as often as Street Fighter). No, Street Fighter reigns supreme because repeatedly, through caprice, design, nostalgia, and ambition, its handlers have reached into the abyss—of memory, of possibility, of curiosity, of marketing—and always believed they could pull out something different.

Street Fighter may have all the trappings of continuity—stable character rosters, unchanging command inputs, looping and recognizable music—but its key attribute is its capacity for contingency, its potential to create something unexpected and thrilling. Those thrills can be as cheap as winning against an experienced older sibling or as spectacular as pro-player Daigo parrying his way to a tournament win (or Daigo losing a match to Lupe Fiasco or two cosplayers getting married). Sometimes, they never come at all, but players don't mind that so much; since the beginning Street Fighter has insisted that success is just two quarters, one "Continue?" away. That's not much different from the allure of the rap game.

Though Street Fighter II was built to devour quarters and hip-hop was built to escape the corniness of disco, what's propelled them past those early goals, together and separately, is an unwavering belief in the contingent. Most players won't become true warriors, most rappers won't become stars, Max won't ever dodge that punch, and most songs about Street Fighter are fucking terrible. But hey, you never know.