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DJ Hero Was The Closest We Ever Got To Mixing Music And Gaming

Fake Plastic Turntables: How DJ Hero Tells Hip-Hop’s History

by Richard S. He
13 September 2016, 5:09am

Images: Activision

From The Get Down to Fresh Dressed and Straight Outta Compton, Joey Bada$$ to Macklemore's terrible "Downtown", nostalgia's alive and well in hip-hop. It hasn't always been this way. In fact, it never was.

Hip-hop was built on sampling: the art of taking something old and making it new. But for the first 30-odd years of its existence, hip-hop refused to romanticise its own past. Beats and flows evolved at a relentless pace; no one artist or sound stayed at rap's centre for long. The first generation of rappers and DJs - Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa, Run-D.M.C. - were so era-defining that their styles dated even faster than they were developed. The icons of the 90s died, retired, flamed out, or became more moguls than musicians.

In 2006, Nas made a statement with Hip Hop Is Dead, and whether he was right or wrong, he'd diagnosed a very real trend. Hip-hop's disregard for tradition had mutated into strange and unfamiliar sounds. Chamillionaire, Nelly, Lil Jon; radio rap was the polar opposite of Illmatic, the platonic ideal of lyrical New York rap. For better or worse, it was different.

You had to look elsewhere. Lil Wayne, one of the first major rappers born in the 80s, was becoming a star outside the usual channels. His Dedication 2 mixtape, released exclusively online, rewrote the possibilities for hip-hop - musically, lyrically, commercially. The internet wasn't just a forum for discussion: it was influencer and distributor.

By the end of the decade, the pendulum had swung back. Three generations after hip-hop's invention, enough time had passed to look back at what it all meant. YouTube, iTunes, and file-sharing had made older records more accessible. Jay Z, three albums out of retirement, released Decoded - an autobiography for himself and hip-hop as a whole, told through his lyrics. Girl Talk dropped his anarchic party mashup record, Feed the Animals, for free in 2008. The present sounded like all the pasts at once, and nothing embodied that better than - seriously - DJ Hero.

DJ Hero launched on PS3, Xbox 360 and Wii in October 2009, when Guitar Hero and Rock Band were at the commercial peaks of a bubble that would soon burst. Activision, hoping for another blockbuster franchise, recruited Jay Z and Eminem to be the game's public faces, even compiling a double album for the hefty $200 Renegade Edition.  But DJ Hero wasn't about rapping. It's the DJs who appear as playable characters - DJ Jazzy Jeff, DJ Shadow, Daft Punk - who're the game's heart and soul.

If you've never played it, DJ Hero still seems like an odd prospect - it's not a multiplayer party game, it originally retailed for $120 US, and honestly, what do DJs even do? And how do you translate that into a video game?


​DJ Hero - Expert Mode - Another One Bites the Dust vs. Da Funk​

FreeStyleGames, the independent studio behind the series, found an ingenious solution. Instead of recreating songs note-for-note, DJ Hero had you remixing mashups in real time. Guitar Hero's five-button note highway became three lanes, representing the three channels on your turntable.

It's not easily described, but like all great games, it's easy to pick up, and challenging to master. Like when you're hitting Rock Band's plastic drums, the act of playing DJ Hero instills in you the rhythms and mechanics of real turntablism. There's something intensely satisfying about juggling scratches, crossfades and effects at the same time. Every visual and button press is audible in the songs themselves. 

That's what makes DJ Hero transcendent: it gives you the illusion of creation. Guitar Hero and Rock Band are like karaoke, or playing in a cover band - nothing in those games can ever surpass the real thing. But DJ Hero's new mixes of original songs are instantly familiar, yet unpredictable even after multiple playthroughs. You feel like you're reinventing the music.

Storytelling is ingrained in hip-hop's DNA. When Kanye sampled The Jackson 5's "I Want You Back" on Jay Z's "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)", he was drawing connections. Jay tells the stories of his youth and his fame, soundtracked by Michael's joy and heartbreak. Through Jay's life, you have the highs and lows of the black American experience. But from Michael to Jay, you can chart the course of black music, from Motown soul in 1969 to New York rap in 2001. You don't necessarily need words to tell a story; one perfect sample can be enough.

The internet's encouraged the splintering of music into niches. You can find a fanbase for any obscure subgenre and stay in that lane forever. But across its 93-song tracklist spanning funk, soul, alt-rock, hip-hop, top 40 - DJ Hero brings disparate genres and eras together. There's old and new - what if Gorillaz were the backing band for Marvin Gaye? You have alternate pasts - could Rakim have rapped over a Tears for Fears record? And you have collaborations that should have been, but never were - Tupac and Jay Z  on the same song. DJ Hero's set in a cartoonish, graffiti-clad, utopian New York where Grandmaster Flash, Public Enemy, Jay Z, Blondie and the Beastie Boys were all in their primes at the same time. It's the culmination of several movements - hip-hop, turntablism, mashup, electronic music, rhythm games - and a love letter to all of them.

DJ Hero 2 was released only a year later, in October 2010, but it reflected an enormous cultural shift. The first game flirts with electronic music, but twelve months later, EDM had well and truly wormed its way into American pop culture. So 2 trades NY block parties for Ibiza nightclubs, DJ Jazzy Jeff for deadmau5. It has slicker graphics, more polished game mechanics, even more memorable mashups. "War" vs. "Superstition", "Groove Is in the Heart" vs. "Le Freak" - and The RZA himself contributes the series' most iconic mix: "The Message" vs. "I Can't Live Without My Radio". As big-budget sequels do, it improves on the original in almost every way - except charm. It feels more corporate, but that was the state of music in 2010.

DJ Hero 2: I Can't Live Without My Radio vs. The Message

Despite universally positive reviews, the DJ Hero series was a tough sell.  The games' incredible soundtracks should have converted even non-gamers, but they were never even licensed for sale. Securing the commercial rights would have been a legal nightmare - the same reality that killed Public Enemy, Paul's Boutique-style sample collage records in the '90s. And ripping your own legal copy from the discs is easier said than done. So they live on via YouTube, torrents, forums, mostly forgotten. Guitar Hero and Rock Band were revived last year to mixed results, but there's no talk of another DJ Hero

Technology is becoming obsolete more quickly than ever; yesterday's games aren't always compatible with today's consoles. But DJ Hero turntables are cheap and abundant on Amazon and eBay. They're not just entertainment; think of them as the only games you'll ever play that actively try to broaden your musical taste.

This is what DJ Hero gets about music: it doesn't exist in a bubble. DJ Hero came half a decade before this current flood of hip-hop nostalgia, but it's not about reminiscing over past glories. It creates something new, which is exactly what sampling did for old soul, jazz, R&B records. 

Music's never just sound; it's meaning, too. Every time you crossfade between two songs, make a beat, or write a lyric, you're taking part in a long lineage of ideas. A great DJ set is a conversation between one song and the next, a tapestry of genres and sounds. There are no truly original ideas, but that's a beautiful thing - because you have hundreds of years of influences to draw from and make your own. 

Hip-hop's spent decades outrunning its past. Mostly for the better - nostalgia can be a dead end. But should we revere our rap elders, or burn it all down?  As long as we care enough to have that conversation,  hip-hop's alive and well.

It might sound silly, but DJ Hero's plastic turntables really can expand your conception of what hip-hop and DJ culture can be. But is that so wrong? Early DJs and beatmakers did much more with even less - using vinyl, turntables, boomboxes and tape machines in ways they were never designed for. We're lucky - we have the whole world in a laptop. You can't live in the past, but you can learn from it. Your imagination is all you need.

Richard S. He is an award-winning pop culture critic. People still don't take him seriously. Tweet your grievances to @Richaod

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Music
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