The Root Interview: Kevin Liles Talks 'Def Jam Rapstar'

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Getty Images

 When the holiday season comes, don't be surprised to see the Def Jam Rapstar (Def Jam Interactive/4mm Games) video game at the top of a lot of people's Christmas lists, even those of the adults. Part Guitar Hero, part Rock Band, part karaoke, Def Jam Rapstar is one of the most interactive music video games on the market.


Players get to rap along with more than 40 hip-hop tunes (more songs can be added), spanning the history of the genre. From Biz Markie's "Just a Friend" to Drake's "Best I Ever Had," Def Jam Rapstar includes new and old classics to rap along to while the original videos play on the screen. The game then scores each player's rhyme-along accuracy. Players can also videotape their performance and self-edit the clip as well as create original songs to beats produced exclusively for Rapstar by famed hip-hop producers such as Just Blaze and 9th Wonder.

The Root talked to Kevin Liles, president of Def Jam Interactive, about Def Jam Rapstar, the legacy of hip-hop video gaming and why he chose to censor the n-word in all the songs featured in the game.

The Root: What sparked the idea for Def Jam Rapstar? 

Kevin Liles: One of the things I always try to do with the brand is, I look for opportunities where there is a voice. You can't tell me that there's a Guitar Hero or a Rock Band and there's nothing for hip-hop, so it's been something that's been eating at me. Even when we were [producing] the [Def Jam] fighting games, I always said we have to have a true hip-hop experience in the gaming world.

TR: The game censors profanity and the n-word. Were there arguments about keeping that word in for the sake of authenticity? 

KL: I had a say on what words we're cool with and what words we're not cool with, and I think sometimes we need to take a position on what we allow and don't allow. I took a position on the use of the word in the game. Whether people love it or hate it, it's something that I feel is my responsibility — not only as a founder and a contributor to my culture, but as a father, as an uncle, as a mentor, as a mentee, as a leader of our culture — to say, "Just because we feel it's cool, we don't have to do it all the time."


TR: The game definitely has captured the essence of what it's like to be an MC. How close is the final product to what you and the guys at 4mm Games envisioned? 

KL: Way more than we thought it would, but now that we opened up the doors, we know how far we can take it. The original thing was to put a game in stores that serviced hip-hop, then it got into social networking and hip-hop. Now it's, let's change the world. Let's make a hip-hop interactive, and let people discover, let people search, let people engage, let people vote, let people become a star in a way that I don't think any other outlet has done in the hip-hop space.


You're never going to be a big rock-guitar player by playing Guitar Hero. You're not. But if you're a dope MC and you're rapping over [a beat by producer] Bangladesh, and somebody sees you, you never know what will happen. It's a great opportunity across the board.

TR: With the built-in features that allow people to perform their own rap songs with beats by an official producer, do you see Def Jam Rapstar being the place where you and your industry cohorts discover the next real-life rap star?


KL: You never know where the next rap star is going to come from. You never know where the next big producer is going to come from. The act of discovery is what makes the music business great. Def Jam Rapstar will be an excellent opportunity to find talent, but also to nurture talent. We're looking at it as seriously as we can because I do think I'm going to find the next DMX in Germany, or the next Jay-Z in China, or the next Ludacris in France or the next Kanye West in Hawaii. It's a great opportunity because the world is in your hands.

TR: Was there any concern from people in the gaming world about whether this would work?


KL: There are so many samples, so many owners of the copyrights, that there are so many egos to deal with when we're talking about clearing records. Nobody could have did what we did, because nobody wanted to take on the responsibility of having 4,000 different conversations, but see, we do this every day because we breathe hip-hop. And I guess nobody wanted to take on the responsibility of dealing with our culture, but we are our culture. We're the people's brand. We've always been our culture, so it was kind of easy for us.

TR: One of the most impressive things about the game is the range of songs that comes with it. What was the selection process like?


KL: A lot of fights, a lot of arguments. The first 40, we weren't going to be able to [please] everybody. We just couldn't put more than 40 records in a box, but what we've been able to do is put new songs, new packages, new beats, constantly, every week. Yes, there was a lot of people arguing, a lot of people yelling. I hope everybody on the site continues to tell us what we need. Like, "Hey, you forgot about this record." Somebody said, "I hope you all got 'I Got 5 On It.' " I just think it's a never-ending cycle for us to deliver what's hot, what was hot, what's historic.

TR: As many songs and artists as the game does have, there are also some noticeable ones excluded. Jay-Z, arguably the biggest rapper today, is one example. Why won't people see certain artists and their songs in the game? 


KL: Here's the thing: They're all my friends. So you're talking about whether someone decides to do it or not to do it — that's really up to everybody. Our goal is to have anyone who is hip-hop to be involved with the game. We work hard every day for that, whether it's part of the packaging or whether it's a special package that comes out later. Everybody will eventually be a part of the game.

TR: What's your favorite song to perform yourself? 

KL: I mean, everything from Public Enemy to Lil Wayne to LL Cool J to Kanye West — I span the culture. To give a favorite is like me asking you what's your favorite rap song. You might say something, but you'll remember later on, "Oh man, naw, I forgot this." So I never put myself in that position. I love hip-hop too much.


Jozen Cummings is a writer living in Harlem, N.Y. You can follow him on Twitter and read his blog,

Jozen Cummings is the author and creator of the popular relationship blog Until I Get Married, which is currently in development for a television series with Warner Bros. He also hosts a weekly podcast with WNYC about Empire called Empire Afterparty, is a contributor at and works at Twitter as an editorial curator. Follow him on Twitter.