An unusual E3 audience with Russell ‘Def Jam’ Simmons

On the eve of gaming’s increasingly hyped E3 expo in Los Angeles, with Nintendo’s press conference set to be screened on national TV for the first time (well, in the US at least), I’m reminded of the worst interview I ever conducted. Ever. Two years ago in that same LA Convention Center, with the Def Jam creator and hip-hop legend Russell Simmons.

He was there to flog Def Jam Rapstar while doing and saying as little as possible. He turned up with Method Man and Redman, too, so there were hundreds of rap fans trying to get a piece of them, the air a-fug with blunt smoke. I, in turn, was there to get quotes for three commissioned articles – a Sunday Times Money profile on the man himself, a feature for the upcoming first issue of Invert Look, a new games magazines being produced by the very talented Church of London gang behind Little White Lies, and FHM’s eight-page E3 special.

There was no room put aside, so we had to conduct it in a glass screen-doored karaoke booth at the centre of the Konami stand, video cameras beaming our terse exchanges out to the baying throng, the swelling noise outside almost frying my dictaphone. Oh, he was also being filmed for a reality show at the same time. It was horrible. To this day I really hope I’m not in it. “Roughed-up Englishman #1.”

Of my pieces, only the latter ended up being printed. Def Jam Rapstar was something of a footnote in that year’s big noises (Kinect! Gears of War 3! More FIFA!) so the FHM piece wasn’t so reliant on Simmons’ input. In turn, Invert Look would never be published, as Church of London became very busy working for Google and the magazine was shelved. Alas, the Money profile became a moot point when Simmons’ entourage tried to physically eject me for asking general financial enquiries such as “how much cash do you have in your pocket?” (it was $1,000, in case you were wondering).

Ah, good times. Ish. Anyway, in loving memory of Russell Simmons’ very big friends not roughing me up too much, and of the general madness of being on the floor at E3 and not knowing what could happen next, here’s the Simmons feature that was set for the sadly unpublished Invert Look, which I’ve just dug out. It was kind of prescient in its own way, though I’m sure you’ll think I’ve added those bits in afterwards…

“Games are outsiders – hip-hop is here to help them out”

Rap legend Russell Simmons has some grand console-shaped plans, but with music game sales in sharp decline, does the industry really need him?

[Originally written in July 2010 for the unpublished first issue of Invert Look]

As far as the eye can see, a flood of cameras, flash lights, boom mics and off-puttingly immaculate blonde news reporters trundle slowly through the cavernous Los Angeles Convention Center, swirling inexplicably round an invisible axis like dirty water down a plughole.

Autograph hunters rise and fall like waves, journalist-thrusted dictaphones bobbing like buoys. At the formation’s soapy centre, a solitary baseball cap floats along unmoved, as if lost at sea yet unnervingly never deviating from its course.

Russell Simmons, the third richest figure in hip-hop, has just popped in to say hi at E3, the biggest event in the gaming calendar – and has officially entered the video-game arena in the process. His glazed-over eyes and monotone drawl suggest that this voyage is purely business, not pleasure.

“This game is so needed… the white space is so big… it’s all so obvious… it’s crazy.”

Def Jam Superstar, the game for which Simmons and his cap are showing their faces, is a fun karaoke craig out this autumn, a hip-hop take on the popular SingStar franchise with some really interesting online community angles, from creating “hype videos” to starting “beef” with other rappers (virtual drive-bys seem to have been thrown out in beta testing).

Yet the laudable advances of developers 4mm Games and Terminal Reality can’t distract from why Simmons is there in the thrall in the first place. Using your name to pull in some A-list promotional talent? For sure, you’re the boss, and a special set by rappers Method Man and Redman is met with the necessary audience adulation and suspiciously green smoke clouds. But the big man himself?

Simmons’ net-worth is estimated to be $340 million. He founded record label Def Jam, and clothing brands Phat Farm and American Classics, as well as HBO series Def Comedy Jam. He is in the process of filming a reality television show. He has numerous properties across the globe he could be lounging at (“Do I own shares? I bought Cher’s house, how’s that?”). He is notorious for rarely speaking to the press. Yet here he is, tolerating the crowds, the mics, the questions from us, all for a karaoke game.

It seems the entertainment world needs gaming real bad.

“No, it’s not about what gaming can do for hip-hop,” Simmons argues, the media frenzy held back by no more than a patio door, less a sea now more a goldfish bowl. “I think that hip-hop is going to help gaming out. Games are outsiders, not even in the mainstream. They’re leaving out a lot of it.”

It’s an interesting argument – at worst ignorant, at best disingenuous – that belies the true order of it all, so let’s recap. As the music industry very publicly combusted over the last decade – sales and licensing revenue more than halving in 10 years – it searched desperately for a new model, and perhaps thought it had found it within the previously sniffed-at walls of the burgeoning video-game market.

In this formerly niche industry, revenues in the US alone had totalled $12.5bn for the year in 2006, and rose by a massive 43 per cent in 2007 to reach $17.94bn. While game revenues were busy hitting $22bn at the end of 2008, a study by market research firm Odyssey claimed that music games, such as Guitar Hero, Rock Band and SingStar, were now the second most popular (played by 58 per cent of gamers) and the major driving force behind this inviting uptake increase.

So it was that music games were ambushed by the music industry, and a new ‘pay to play’ marketplace introduced to further monetise record labels’ back catalogues, gamers downloading songs they already owned so they could pretend to play a plastic guitar along to them. Napster-hating metallers Metallica even released their Death Magnetic album on Rock Band the same day as it was released in the shops. It never looked sustainable.

It wasn’t just music wanting to share gaming’s moment in the sun. At the same E3 event as Simmons and his cap, Sir Richard Branson and his beard – approximate net-worth $4bn, in case you were wondering (Branson, not the beard) – launched his Virgin Gaming service, promising big-money competitive events to attract a substantial online audience.

The year before film director James Cameron, following Steven Spielberg before him, took an interest in gaming, this time showing up at producer Ubisoft’s press conference for half an hour more than anyone wanted him to just to make sure everyone knew that Avatar The Game was just as important as Avatar The Movie (he even had Oscar-winning film producer Jon Landau doing the demo walk-throughs). More recently, the Hollywood duo of Andy ‘Gollum’ Serkis and Alex ’28 Days Later’ Garland actually wrote and directed their own game from the ground up, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West.

While the latter is good for gaming – it is important that the world’s premier talents in all fields see it as a creative as well as a lucrative medium – too often over the years these celebrity jaunts (Shaq-Fu, Britney’s Dance Beat, every 50 Cent game ever) have seemed pure money-making exercises devoid of artistic endeavour.

However, the industry is no longer the land of milk, honey and endless royalties as it once may have appeared to the dollar-signed-eyed looking in, with industry sales down 8 per cent year on year according to industry tracker NPD. It also shows no mercy where talent from other mediums is involved. Avatar The Game, despite Cameron’s involvement from very early on, reviewed badly and “reported lower-than-expected sales” according to Ubisoft – its reliance on 3D televisions to differentiate itself proved costly – while the excellently received Enslaved only sold 800,000 in its first month.

Virgin Gaming has also so far failed to ignite anywhere near the interest that a mere Call of Duty multiplayer session of a Monday night might, with Sir Richard quickly moving on to something a little closer to his heart – publishing – and new iPad magazine Project.

But unfortunately for Simmons, the biggest hit has come for music games. While players were drowning under a growing number of plastic peripherals, barely differentiable fare and below-standard cash-ins, they put their wallets away. In 2008, music-game revenues for the year in the US totalled $1.6bn, but according to analysis by Gamasutra they’ve barely sold $250m this term. “Short of a Christmas miracle,” says analyst Matt Matthews, “music games won’t break $400m for all of 2010.”

Viacom/MTV Games has already made public its wish to sell off developer Harmonix, the brains behind Guitar Hero, Rock Band and the newly released Dance Central. Publishing giant Activision may have managed to get global superstars Eminem and Jay-Z together on stage for the first time to launch DJ Hero in 2009, and the former to headline the enormous Staples Center alongside Rihanna this year for its sequel, but both games sold disappointingly despite the hype.

Back at E3, the noise is loud, the crowd is impatient, Simmons eyes his watch.

“Why Def Jam Rapstar now?” he muses. “Well, I guess I’m lucky again. Why did I make a clothing brand, or put my first rap record out, or my first comedy show on? I was ready to.”

Here’s hoping his luck is in once more, as otherwise Simmons could be a cautionary tale for other world stars seeking a go on gaming’s golden joypad. He won’t be the last.

NB: While the first issue proper of Invert Look never saw the light of day, the sampler is viewable online here.

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