The first time I actually heard of or saw Method Man, he was body slamming Funkmaster Flex in a ring emblazoned with the logo for Def Jam South, all while WC’s “The Streets” played in the background.
Welcome to Def Jam Vendetta.
The Def Jam Vendetta series was a short-lived lineup of video games, spanning from 2003 to 2004 (we don’t speak of the tragedy that is 2007’s series offshoot, Def Jam: Icon), that combined the artists of Def Jam Records and wrestling. Strangely enough, that franchise proved that video games, something I as a nerdy suburban kid from upstate New York knew plenty about, created an entry point into hip-hop that I never knew existed.
def jam vendetta proved that video games created an entry point into hip-hop that I never knew existed.
Getting into hip-hop felt weird for me growing up. It just didn’t grab me. I was a preteen shut-in interested more in anime, video games, and pop-punk than dissecting rhymes or listening to boom-bap beats. I wouldn’t have been able to tell you about the beef between Jay Z and Nas, or the names of the members in the Wu-Tang Clan, but I sure as hell could list off the characters of Final Fantasy VII or tell you what was popping off in the latest manga chapter of Naruto.
It was a typical weekend in 2003 when I walked into a local Electronics Boutique (remember those?) eager for a new game to blow my allowance on. I scanned the shelves and on a whim picked up Def Jam Vendetta. What appeared as an off-brand fighting game quickly revealed itself as a bizarre fusion of Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons’ historic label and streetwise wrestling. A few minutes with the game and I was already hooked on the concept.
If you’re unfamiliar with the premise of the series, the two games effectively have your character, a fictional avatar with later games incorporating some customization, fighting against and alongside Def Jam artists (and a few other big names that vary between games like Snoop Dogg, Flavor Flav, and Fat Joe).
If you find this mashup to be a bit jarring, take a second to think about it. If beatmakers and rappers were revealing their nerdier sides—with RZA sampling kung fu movies on “36 Chambers” and several of the genre’s biggest names dropping wrestling references into their lyrics—Def Jam Vendetta was effectively the same concept in reverse: video game and wrestling fanatics sampling the inherently gritty nature of hip-hop and its biggest players to create a new breed of fighting game this side of Wu-Tang: Shaolin Style, with nearly every rapper featured in the game voicing themselves.
By the second installment, Def Jam Vendetta: Fight for NY (widely known to be the series' greatest installment), the series focused more on each individual character—giving each rapper a signature finishing move, fighting style, and taunts that either reflected the attitudes from each rapper's respective body of work, or used details and names ripped straight from an artist's lyrics and liner notes. These details cemented the fact that even the realest rappers had all the swagger, presence, and power of the performers seen in the rings on Smackdown and Monday Night Raw.
While rap was something that I didn’t really gravitate toward before, this new, conceptual presentation made the genre easy to enjoy when tucked in the candy-coated shell of my beloved video game obsession. As a 12-year-old boy, what could be a more compelling reason to listen to hip-hop than watching Fat Joe literally face drop Slick Rick in a basement fight club, see Ludacris elbow drop Xzibit in a strip club designed around his Disturbing tha Peace record label, or see Ghostface throw a grown man into the air and suplex him into the ground—all while rocking his golden eagle armband?
It’s this type of hyperbolic characterization that instantly made me interested in the people themselves. It may be hard to understand a rapper's lyrics and attitude when you're both unfamiliar with their body of work and their personal backgrounds. It's easy however, to want to discover more about a rapper's history when they're throwing bodies across a ring like The Hulk. Besides, for most of the fighters, the coolest signatures of their rap personas were truly reflected in their digital doppelgangers—be it through “Blazin’” finishing moves or after-match taunts. Say you beat the crap out of Fat Joe in a cage match at Club Murder. Well, you get to also walk away wearing his Terror Squad chain. If you're about to get wrecked by Slick Rick at the Syn Energy Power Plant, he'll yell "Ruler" (one of Rick's nicknames), before finishing you off with his "Blazin'" finisher, "The Show" (also the name of a documentary narrated by Russell Simmons). Of course, this all happens while Rick is wearing his signature eyepatch.
The Def Jam Vendetta series is an interesting little time capsule for video games and hip-hop alike. To say nothing of the outdated PS2-era graphics, the roster of characters and rappers is not an excellent indication of who is popular in today's hip-hop scene. Even a casual fan of the genre like myself could tell you that certain names are either no longer with Def Jam, or just aren't a relevant voice on the radio or in the genre anymore. This game does, however, show you (by way of its cast of characters) who was supported by Def Jam and/or had the public's interest—whether they did anything with it or not. Considering I haven’t heard any fire hits from WC recently and seen Ludacris become more movie star than rapper, I’d say that things certainly have changed over the last decade for some of the game's heroes. That said, while hip-hop's biggest names and industry players may have shifted in relevancy with the passage of time, that doesn't mean the competitive and “braggadocio” natures, shared mutually between the realms of hip-hop and wrestling, have parted ways in the slightest.
I can remember whipping Snoop Dogg (a.k.a. Crow) in that final fight at the end of Fight for NY, and walking away from the scene with Method Man (a.k.a. Blaze), who was your friend throughout the game's plot. After I turned off the game, I set out to find out who Method Man really was. The takeaway is that the game sparked an interest in the rapper himself, leading me to discover a body of work with genre gems like "The What," and the classic Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). Rinse and repeat this process with artists like Prodigy, N.O.R.E., Joe Budden, and Busta Rhymes. I certainly wasn't from an area where this genre or its artists were going to come into my life naturally—I didn't live in the city or come from a place that embodied those artists' personal struggles. But the Def Jam Vendetta series invited the rappers into my living room in a surprisingly organic way, showing me that while they were fighting for underground clubs on my Playstation 2, they were also producing music that was just as gripping, gritty, and (most of all) entertaining as the video games.
I may not have been the obvious audience for a Def Jam artist, but it became apparent that we all could enjoy our shared love: a gladiatorial battle between gigantic personalities—either with a microphone or in the middle of the ring.
Greg Babcock is a staff writer for Complex. Follow him at @GOBabcock.