Over the past several decades, it has become commonplace for some of the world’s biggest musicians to become invested in the world of video games — whether that’s performing on a virtual stage in Fortnite for millions of users like Travis Scott or simply being an avid gamer like Justin Bieber.
Below, take a look at 20 examples of how some of the world’s top musicians like Drake, Katy Perry, Paul McCartney and more made their impact in the gaming industry in recent years, both through the usage of samples in personal works and through creating original content for illustrious franchises.
Nine Inch Nails, Quake (1996)
In the past dozen years, Nine Inch Nails founders Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have scored some serious hardware, with Oscar and Grammy victories for their scores for The Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, respectively. But in 1996, they composed the entire soundtrack to first-person shooter game Quake. Reznor also voices the dark and Gothic game’s protagonist, Ranger.
JAY-Z feat. DMX, “Money, Cash, Hoes” (1998)
JAY-Z’s DMX-assisted Vol.2 … Hard Knock Life entry “Money, Cash, Hoes” pitches up 1989 beat-‘em-up arcade game Golden Axe’s “Theme of Thief,” looping the first few seconds of the track as the crux of the beat. The rap legend would later remix the song, this time tapping Memphis Bleek and Beanie Siegel for additional lyrics and Swizz Beatz for some production help.
Zombie Nation, “Kernkraft 4000” (1999)
If you’ve ever been to a professional hockey game, you’ll immediately recognize Zombie Nation’s career-defining hit “Kernkraft 4000.” What you may not know while you’re chanting the song’s chorus is that it’s actually sampling “Stardust,” a cut from 1984 computer game Lazy Jones. Zombie Nation’s spin on the song also hit the Hot 100 at No. 99 for a week in September 2000.
David Bowie, Omikron: The Nomad Soul (1999)
Just before the turn of the century, David Bowie worked alongside collaborator Reeves Gabrels to create 10 originally produced tracks for Omikron: The Nomad Soul. The game didn’t perform particularly well, but left a lasting impression — in addition to lending his likeness to the sci-fi adventure game (both for a character named Boz and the leader of the game’s in-house band), Bowie used a few of the game’s tracks on his Hours album, released a few weeks prior.
50 Cent, “You Ain’t No Gangsta” (2000)
The casual 50 Cent follower may be unfamiliar with “You Ain’t No Gangsta” because the track appeared on his never-officially-released project Power of the Dollar, which was originally slated for a July 2000 release. Still, the heavy-spitting song is notable for its usage of “Reclaim the Castle,” which comes from the action-adventure video game Tenchu.
Muse, “Bliss” (2001)
Though perhaps not an official sample, “Bliss,” the third single from Muse’s 2001 full-length effort, Origin of Symmetry, takes a heavy influence from popular racing game Top Gear’s “Track 1.” While the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) game arrived in the early ‘90s, its futuristic synths still feel more than capable of serving as the core of a modern-day electropop hit.
Leona Lewis, “My Hands” (2009)
Although initially recorded for her sophomore studio album, Echo, Leona Lewis’ building ballad “My Hands” later became the theme to the English version of Final Fantasy XIII, released in early 2010. “I never would have imagined ‘My Hands’ as such a perfect fit for Final Fantasy XIII, but the strong female protagonist struck a chord with me,” she said in a promotional video for the game.
Hans Zimmer, “Opening Titles” (2009)
In the midst of a late-’00s run of scoring massive motion pictures such as The Dark Knight, Inception and Transformers, Hans Zimmer also stepped in to create the opening theme for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 in 2009. The rest of the score was composed by Lorne Balfe, but the famed composer added some star power to the already wildly successful franchise.
José González, “Far Away” (2010)
One of the most widely recognized powerful moments in the world of gaming comes from Rockstar Games’ 2010 action-adventure masterpiece Red Dead Redemption. As protagonist John Marston slowly rides into Mexico, the soft vocals of the indie folk singer build in the background. It’s an extremely tranquil moment within gameplay — and one that hits all of the right tones.
B.o.B, “New York New York” (2011)
Less than a year after B.o.B took the music industry by storm with his Billboard 200 No. 1-charting debut album The Adventures of Bobby Ray, he delivered his own spin on Frank Sinatra’s classic “Theme From New York, New York” for the lead trailer in 2011 Electronic Arts video game Crysis 2. The fresh take on the track keeps the hook but trades in the verses for new, hip-hop stylings.
J. Cole, “Dollar and a Dream III” (2011)
Early J. Cole fans all remember his “Dollar and a Dream” series, but video game fanatics may prefer his third installment — released in 2011 — the best, thanks to its sample of Yoko Shimomura-composed track “Darkness of the Unknown” from Kingdom Hearts II. Nearly a decade later, it’s still the most recent entry in the franchise for the now-35-year-old rapper.
Paul McCartney, “Hope for the Future” (2014)
At The Beatles’ commercial peak, the video game options available were extremely limited — but in 2014, Sir Paul McCartney worked alongside Bungie for the soundtrack to first-person shooter game Destiny and turned in an original track of his own, “Hope For the Future.” It’d later appear on his compilation album, Pure McCartney.
Drake, “6 God” (2014)
Drake’s chest-puffing, holiness-proclaiming cut arrived a day after his 28th birthday. And though it’d take a few months before it’d hit the Billboard Hot 100 — peaking at No. 83, following the release of his surprise February 2015 mixtape, If You’re Reading This Too Late — fans picked up on its sample of “Haunted Chase” from Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest well before then.
D.R.A.M., “Cha Cha” (2015)
Singer-rapper DRAM danced his way through the spring of 2015 thanks to his infectious hit “Cha Cha,” which prominently samples “Star Road” from 1990 release Super Mario World. Still, the track is perhaps best known for the surrounding discourse after Drake dropped “Hotline Bling” the same summer, leaving many to draw similarities between the sonic elements of the two songs.
Kanye West, “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. II” and “FACTS” (2016)
In recent years, Kanye West has time and again included a brief snippet from Street Fighter 2. The “perfect!” soundbite that appears in The Life of Pablo tracks “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. II” and “FACTS” (as well at the end of The Throne’s feature in Drake’s non-album single “Pop Style) is originally from the fighting video game, after the user wins a battle while simultaneously accruing no damage.
Charli XCX, “Boys” (2017)
Charli XCX’s 2017 bouncy, summer-ready hit — which also boasted a memorable, star-filled music video — samples a coin-collecting sound effect from 1985 classic game Super Mario Bros. throughout. She also teamed up with Galantis to flip the game’s theme song for a track titled “We Are Born to Play” earlier this year.
K/DA, “POP/STARS” (2018)
The League of Legends virtual pop group comprised of Madison Beer, Jaira Burns and (G)I-dle members Miyeon and Soyeon hit No. 1 on Billboard’s World Digital Song Sales chart with their November 2018 hit “POP/STARS.” And a few years prior, Imagine Dragons — though not opting for the virtual route — released its track “Warriors,” for the League of Legends 2014 World Championship.
Katy Perry, “Immortal Flame” (2018)
Not only did Katy Perry create an original track for mobile video game Final Fantasy Brave Exvius — a spin off of the aforementioned sci-fi series — but she also temporarily appeared virtually in the game, too. Ariana Grande also appeared in the game, as Dangerous Ariana, taking a cue from her 2016 LP, Dangerous Woman. An orchestral version of Grande’s song “Touch It” was also featured.
Hikaru Utada & Skrillex, “Face My Fears” (2019)
The long-awaited Kingdom Hearts III arrived at the top of 2019 with an EDM-fueled theme, “Face My Fears,” courtesy of Japanese-American musician Hikaru Utada and Skrillex. Like the “Simple and Clean” from the franchise’s first installment — also created by Utada — the song quickly resonated among the game’s fan base, though “Face My Fears” ultimately hit the Hot 100, peaking at No. 98.
Gorillaz feat. ScHoolboy Q, “PAC-MAN” (2020)
Gorillaz’ fifth entry in its mysterious Song Machine project, “PAC-MAN,” debuted earlier this week. The Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett-helmed collective tapped rapper ScHoolboy Q for the nod to the memorable franchise, with the song fittingly reaching its end following a borrowing of the unforgettable ‘game over’ sound effect in gameplay.
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