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How Grand Theft Auto Revolutionized Game Soundtracks

by Matt Helgeson on Apr 30, 2013 at 10:35 AM

The Grand Theft Auto series is responsible for making the open-world genre one of the staples of the gaming world. However, Rockstar Games' ambitious soundtracks and superb use of licensed music also changed game soundtracks. With today's new GTA trailers, which feature tracks by Queen, L.A. rapper Jay Rock, and country legend Waylon Jennings, it seems like a good time to look back at the legacy of Grand Theft Auto's music.

As video games moved towards optical disc formats in the 1990s, many developers began to realize that - instead of the relatively primitive MIDI and "chiptune" music of the 1980s - the CD-ROM format offered the opportunity to use high-quality digital soundtracks featuring recorded tracks by popular music artists. Some early examples include Road Rash for the 3DO, which included songs by then-hip alternative artists like Soundgarden, Therapy?, and Swervedriver, and Naughty Dog's Way of the Warrior for 3DO, which used tracks off of White Zombie's La Sexorcisto: Devil Music Vol. 1. Also notable were the less-than-stellar interactive Sega CD games that allowed users to create music videos for INXS and pre-teen hip-hop stars Kriss Kross.

Still, these early attempts felt more driven by the publishers' respective marketing departments. Perhaps the first game to truly present a licensed soundtrack that seemed tied to the game's aesthetic was Neversoft's Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, which featured skatepunk classics like "Police Truck" by Dead Kennedys and, memorably, "Euro-Barge" by the Vandals.

However, with the release of Grand Theft Auto III, Rockstar changed the very idea of what a game soundtrack could be. Because so much of the game was spent in cars, Rockstar North hit upon the idea of creating virtual "radio stations" that the player could switch between at will. Like a real-world station, each GTA station was formatted for a certain musical style, and was complete with DJ banter and satiric advertisements. This idea proved so popular that the stations soon became one of the draws of the game for fans, rocketing radio personality Lazlo (a real-life DJ) to cult stardom among gamers.

More importantly, the selection of music was a far cry from the usual random assortment of current pop, rap, and rock artists placed through partnerships with major label record companies. From classical station Double Clef FM (which provided a surreal soundtrack to the game's violent action) to Game Radio FM (which featured emerging underground rappers like JoJo Pelligrino and Royce the 5-9), the GTA III soundtrack pointed to Rockstar's deep knowledge of music. It's not a coincidence that the company's founders, Sam Houser and Terry Donovan, had roots in the U.K. music business.

However, it was the breakout success of GTA III that allowed the company to open the coffers and create something truly astounding with the soundtrack to Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. Inspired by Michael Mann's groundbreaking TV show Miami Vice, itself an innovator in the use of licensed music on television, Rockstar sought to sum up the diverse music of the 1980s with a soundtrack of unprecedented size and scope. The game's seven radio stations ranged from Latin music to '80s metal, and proved so popular that Rockstar actually released the radio station as a box set of CDs, a first in games. Simply put, it was a triumph. Lazlo, with a little help from the game's fictional band Love Fist, spread the metal gospel on V-Rock, and New York hip-hop legend Mr. Magic pumped out beats on Wildstyle Pirate Radio. The juxtaposition of sounds was amazing; I'll never forget gunning down drug dealers to the ethereal sounds of Kate Bush.

Much like the game itself, Rockstar managed to top Vice City in both size, scale, and quality with Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Once again, the soundtrack sought to encapsulate an entire era of music - in this case the early 1990s - while digging deep into music history.

San Andreas featured 10 radio stations, each providing an insightful, well-selected overview of a genre. This time around, both East Coast and West Coast hip-hop got their own stations, filled with genre classics (and Playback FM was even DJed by Public Enemy frontman Chuck D). Radio X paid tribute to the alternative rock revolution of the era, with tracks from Jane's Addiction, Stone Roses, and Helmet. Contemporary Soul Radio pumped out the New Jack Swing and R&B jams of the '90s, featuring the likes of Boyz II Men, Bell Biv Devoe, and Guy.

However, Rockstar also provided fans with a musical education of sorts in San Andreas. K-Jah was a great primer to classic reggae and dancehall, hipping gamers to such cult classics as Dillinger's "Cocaine in My Brain" and Toots & the Maytalls' "Funky Kingston." K-Rose was packed with classic country songs by Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, and others. Perhaps mostimpressive was Master Sounds 89.3, which was a compilation of classic "break beat" records by artists like James Brown, The Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band, and Bob James - the very records that were sampled by the rap producers of the late '80s and early '90s.

As the GTA series has continued, Rockstar's soundtracks have grown in both size and sophistication. Grand Theft Auto IV's more mature tone was cemented by an early trailer that used a piece by minimalist modern classical composer Philip Glass, a name more associated with the New York art music world than video games. GTA IV also added representation of more niche genres like hardcore punk, jazz, jazz fusion, and trance techno.

As for what's in store for Grand Theft Auto V, we can only imagine. So far, all signs point towards yet another awe-inspiring soundtrack. Instead of a familiar pop hit, the first trailer for the game features a typically canny, evocative music choice by Rockstar - the title track to the Small Faces' '60s psychedelic classic Ogdens' Nut Gone Flake. A subsequent trailer was featured Stevie Wonder's '80s hit "Skeletons," followed by the use of Queen's "Radio Ga Ga," Jay Rock's "Hood Gone Love It," and Waylon Jennings' "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?"

Given everything we've learned about Grand Theft Auto V, we expect the soundtrack to be bigger and better than anything we've seen in a game to date.

To relive some of your favorite songs from GTA history, check out the iTunes and Spotify playlists that Rockstar recently created for every past game.