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05th Aug 2020

Def Jam Vendetta: The strange story of the greatest hip-hop wrestling game ever

Wil Jones

The story of how the wrestling/hip-hop mash-up happened is just as interesting as the game itself

Hip-hop. Video games. Wrestling. Those are three of the greatest things in the world. So it is surprising that it took so long for somebody to put them all together in the same package. But that’s what made the Def Jam Vendetta series of video games so great.

For the uninitiated, the series, that ran for three instalments (2003’s Def Jam Vendetta, 2004’s Def Jam Fight For NY and 2007’s Def Jam Icon), was essentially a wrestling game, but instead of The Rock or John Cena, the roster was filled with real-life rappers like DMX, Ludacris and Method Man.

Which initially seems like a totally mad concept, but makes more sense more you think about it. Just like wrestlers, rappers create larger-than-life personas for themselves that slot perfectly into the world of games (plus Method Man and Ghostface Killah had both already been in their own fighting game, the not-actually-very-good Wu-Tang: Taste The Pain).

The story of how this random mash-up came to be is almost as interesting as the games themselves. In the early 2000s, wrestling was coming off the golden era of Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock, and wrestling games were big sellers. Some of the most beloved grappling simulators of the period were made by Japanese developer AKI (if you remember any of the classic N64 wrestling games, those were AKI titles).

AKI was hard at work on creating WCW Mayhem 2 for the PlayStation 2, to be published by EA. But then in 2001, World Championship Wrestling went out of business and was purchased WWF owner Vince McMahon. Which kind of ruined EA’s plans to release any WCW branded games.

But EA still had this great engine for a wrestling game from AKI kicking around, just with no licence to put on it. They started considering original characters and properties to fill the void.

At the same time, in the offices of legendary hip-hop record label Def Jam, label president Kevin Liles was having a brainwave. Himself a big gamer, Liles was starting to notice the increasing amount of Def Jam tracks that were being licenced by the video game industry.

According to an interview with Okayplayer in 2018, Liles got in touch with EA to discuss having hip-hop feature in games in a bigger way than just on the soundtrack. This led him to cross paths with EA producer Josh Holmes – one of the people assigned to come up with something to do with the AKI engine – who happened to be a big hip-hop fan, and actually had pitched a rap theme for the AKI game. The rest was history.

Def Jam Vendetta was released on the PS2 and GameCube in 2003. Its roster of playable characters (which included DMX, Redman, Scarface and Joe Budden) only stretched to 11 real-life rappers, which paled in comparison to the WWE games of the time, and it also lacked plethora of game modes, like weapons and cage matches.

But that didn’t matter. For kids who loved video games and rap music, it was enough. It was impossible to overstate how cool Def Jam Vendetta was. And paired with that acclaimed AKI game engine, the gameplay easily made it more than just a gimmick.

The sequel Fight For NY, which came to PS2, Xbox and GameCube the next year, easily made up for the original’s lack of content. This time there were 67 characters, including massive names like Busta Rhymes, Ice-T, Sean Paul, Snoop Dogg and Lil Kim, as well as non-rapping celebs Carmen Electra, Henry Rollins and Danny Trejo. There was a dense story mode (a rarity in fighting games at the time), and it was truly steeped in hip-hop culture – you could by clothes from brands like Air Jordan, Sean John and Phat Farm, and get jewellery from notorious real-life figure Jacob The Jeweller.

The final entry in the series was Def Jam Icon in 2007, on PS3 and Xbox 360. Sadly though, this time they ditched the AKI engine for one based on EA’s popular boxing franchise Fight Night. This meant it focused more on brawling than wrestling, and this, coupled with a more ‘serious’, less fun aesthetic, made the game seem like a disappointment to many fans.

There were no more Def Jam games released, outside of 2010’s Def Jam Rapstar, a microphone game released at the height of the SingStar craze, and that had nothing at all to do with the other titles.

But those first two Def Jam games remain fondly remembered by both gamers and rap fans, and there have been several teases at a comeback. The Def Jam Twitter account has occasionally shown love for Def Jam Vendetta, and even just earlier this week Ice T himself said he wanted a reboot.

Def Jam’s current roster of artists included the likes of Kanye West, Rihanna, Big Sean, Logic, YG and plenty more. How great it would be to see them get into the ring? Make it happen, EA.