All it took was an offhand tweet for social media speculation to run rampant. Prefaced with 'hypothetically', Def Jam Recordings posed the question of who fans would like to see grace the cover of a new iteration of the lauded game franchise, and instantly transported a generation back to the clandestine fight clubs where we once waged war with hip-hop’s elite. Salvaged from the wreckage of a sequel to WCW Mayhem that never saw the light of day, the AKI engine so cherished by N64 gamers would be repurposed by Josh Holmes and EA Canada for 2003’s Def Jam Vendetta.
Built around the premise of pitting a fledgling street fighter against an all-star cast of MC’s that included Wu Tang Clan stalwarts such as Method Man and Ghostface Killah alongside DMX, Redman, Joe Budden, Ludacris and many others, Vendetta and its expansive 2004 sequel Fight For New York introduced legions of gamers to hip-hop culture in a semi-mythical and often hilarious manner, the game positively imploring players to go beyond the fisticuffs and delve into the catalogues of these punchy rappers.
After two engrossing editions that explored a fictitious underbelly of illicit bars that became late night battlegrounds, 2007’s ICON for PS3 and Xbox 360 dispensed with not only this motif but the AKI engine and multi-man combat in favour of one-on-one fights. The core idea for combat was great, a fighting mechanic that made the beat of the music an integral part of the fighting, but the execution was whack. This most recent entry may have left a sour taste, but my appetite for a return to the series’ former glories has never subsided — and it's easy to find others who feel the same way, expressing themselves in everything from forum posts to petitions for a remastered version of FFNY on PS4 & Xbox One.
In the wake of Def Jam itself teasing a new entry in the series, you naturally start thinking about what a modern reimagining might look like and — sadly but somewhat inevitably — whether it would even be within the realms of possibility in the constantly diversifying hip-hop landscape of 2018.
From the perspective of whether the Def Jam label itself still has the cachet, the answer is an unequivocal yes. As was widely reported in January 2018, hip-hop and R&B reached a milestone that had long seemed a foregone conclusion when it usurped rock as the most popular genre in the USA and beyond. In terms of the Russell Simmons-founded label in this prosperous era, Def Jam remains a bona-fide force and boast a litany of the artform’s biggest artists ranging from elder statesmen such as Nas, Pusha T, Q-Tip and Jadakiss to pertinent MC’s including Big Sean, 2 Chainz, YG, Vince Staples, Logic, Teyana Taylor and the ever-polarising Kanye West.With that said, the unrivalled stranglehold that Def Jam once held over the ‘rap game’ has greatly diminished from the heady days of the early 2000s. In that period of its storied history, Def Jam’s prevalence was such that they were able to expand their portfolio with a myriad of subsidiaries and spin-offs including the Scarface-helmed Def Jam South, Disturbing Tha Peace, Def Jam Japan and Germany alongside a distribution deal with Irv Gotti’s Murder Inc; a label that would find itself embroiled at the heart of a high-profile money laundering investigation in 2003.
In the years since, the unprecedented growth of the genre has allowed for a wealth of record companies and offshoots to vie for superiority and market share alongside the big boys. To many this paradigm shift was heralded by Jay Z’s foresight in declining to renew his Def Jam presidency, instead forming the superpower that is Roc Nation. Boasting a star-studded clientele that would have doubtlessly found themselves on Def Jam in years gone by, Roc, Top Dawg Entertainment, OVO Sound, Cash Money, Quality Control and others harbour a lot of the stars that modern hip-hop heads would long to have at their disposal as playable characters in any hip-hop beat-em-up.
Figures that are synonymous with the genre in its current incarnation, but not part of the Def Jam lable, include megastars like Kendrick Lamar, Drake, Lil Wayne, J Cole, Migos, DJ Khaled, Meek Mill, Chance The Rapper, Schoolboy Q, BIG K.R.I.T, Run The Jewels and dozens more. In addition there's the high-profile UK imports any serious fan would be eager to see represented — Stormzy, Skepta, Giggs and JME. The thought of a new Def Jam might be tempting, but in 2018 anyone's ideal 'hip-hop roster' for a fighting game would surely include many artists that aren't part of a label. For the game to be a real cultural event you feel that deals would have to be made and, perhaps, Def Jam would need to share the spotlight. Def Jam Versus!
No matter how many deals you make, of course, there will always be oversights, exclusions or shortcomings in the eyes of some consumers. I haven't even mentioned the meteoric rises of MCs that forego the industry machine and garner worldwide fanbases through YouTube, Soundcloud, WorldStar and similar outlets, without whom any return to those volatile environments and fantastical ‘Blazin’ Move’ finishers would be predestined to feel incomplete. But fortunatelt for Def Jam, a large part of this problem can be taken care of by, just like the old days, taking some inspiration from wrestling.
2K's modern WWE titles cater to a ravenous fanbase and are steeped in a fast-moving world of heroes and villains. Within the transient world of ‘sports-entertainment’, new wrestlers or developmental talents can rise through the ranks to become crowd favourites just as tenured stars can fall out of favour. This mirrors some of the ingrained problems that developers of any new Def Jam would face, and provides an excellent template as to how they could make a start solving them.
In the case of rappers whose likeness wouldn’t be attainable by conventional means or would come to the fore after the game’s release, one common workaround would be to set up a system where players could create, upload and download their own create-a-wrestlers to a server akin to 2K’s ‘Community Creations.’ Were it to exist for a pre-existing Def Jam game, ardent hip-hop heads would be painstakingly rendering versions of rappers du jour such as 6ix9ine, Lil Uzi Vert, Lil Yachty, YBN Nahmir, Playboi Carti, Lil Pump, Joyner Lucas, Ski Mask The Slump God, Princess Nokia, the late XXXtentacion and many more as we speak.
Alongside customisation, 2K's WWE games also provide a model of waves of DLC following the initial release (as well as a much-maligned habit of pre-order exclusives). The possibilities for hip-hop DLC are endless: new MCs, new tunes, new stages, new gear, maybe even packs themed around 'invading' labels.
All of this is just a Def Jam fan getting over-excited, until we get an official announcement at least. But what is clear is that 'making a new Def Jam' is a much trickier proposition than it's ever been in the past, and to in any way capture hip-hop culture it would probably need to see other labels signing deals and sharing the spotlight. But on that topic, the potential influence of Def Jam’s current president Paul Rosenberg cannot be discounted. For those unaware of the mark he's made on the music industry, the chairman and CEO of Goliath Artists is best known for being instrumental in the careers of Blink 182, Danny Brown, Xzibit, Action Bronson and, most pivotally of all, the hip-hop titan that is Eminem. Having assumed the presidency of Def Jam in August 2017, the multi-faceted mogul and co-founder of Shady Records remains among the most well-respected and well-connected figures in today's industry. With Rosenberg's phonebook, renowned deal-making skills and close ties to labels such as Interscope and its subsidiaries Bad Boy, Aftermath and TDE, the concept of getting the Def Jam renaissance that fans have longed for seems a tiny bit more plausible.
Given hip-hop’s hostile takeover of the mainstream and the calibre of modern stars that it boasts, you'd think a new hip-hop beat-em-up would be a license to print those dollar dollar bills. Who knows whether Def Jam's tease indicates that something serious is going on behind the scenes, or was just an attempt to take the temperature. What players of the originals know is that a return to those grimy, bass-rammed New York fight clubs is long overdue.