Capcom Versus Hip-Hop

A video game company pits nerds against rappers with its strangely conceived product launch.

There’s one thing that really distinguishes a hip-hop concert put on by the video game company Capcom from other kinds of stage performances: hardly anybody comes to see the actual show. It doesn’t matter how good the lineup is, or how swank the sound system is, or how much attention is put into lighting and choreography at Mezzanine, one of the hipper mid-size clubs in San Francisco’s SOMA district.

This year’s edition of Capcom’s “Fright Night” featured famed Mississippi rapper David Banner, alongside DJ Qbert, The Alchemist, Dan the Automator, and Murs from Living Legends. That’s not just a hot ticket; that’s a veritable coup. Yet it failed to impress the five hundred or so video game nerds in attendance, none of whom had actually paid to get in. Only a small handful of them gathered at the stage when Banner emerged, and some people scratched their heads perplexedly, as the rapper uncorked a bottle of champagne and sprayed it on the front row. Everyone else had their eyes glued to a line of arcade-style video games along the side walls.

Indeed, it was hard to convince most attendees that Resident Evil Revelations and Operation Raccoon City weren’t actually the night’s main stars. Especially given that a handful of people had arrived dressed as characters from Resident Evil — meaning they wore riot cop helmets, gas masks, and fake radio antennae. There was even an intermission, during which the Japanese game developers introduced their new products via a videotaped announcement, projected on the walls and overdubbed in English. David Banner just couldn’t compete.

Not that he didn’t put forth a valiant effort. “All this pretty shit that I’m doing right now, I don’t do this shit,” Banner confessed, gazing conspiratorially at the crowd. He paused a moment, as though an idea had just occurred to him. “I’ll be right back after these commercial announcements,” he said, and trotted offstage. Five seconds later he emerged with a new bottle of expensive-looking liquid, actually a thick flask of Petrón tequila. He offered it to a woman in the front row. Half the crowd cheered. The other half stared blankly. In the background, you could hear the clean, swift clicking of toy machine guns, as players tried to annihilate the last surviving zombies of Raccoon City.

Marketing personnel at Capcom, a Japanese video game publishing company with satellites in many major cities, conceived the first hip-hop show/product launch last year. It was, by all measures, a rousing success, albeit with an equally fickle audience. Last year’s edition was packed wall-to-wall and even more sharply delineated. Maybe 25 percent of the crowd was there for the hip-hop show. The other 75 percent was there for the video game. Thus, the nerds vastly outnumbered the cool kids.

Which, in its own way, is kind of cool. It’s not every day you see David Banner trying to placate an audience that would seem more at home in a Dungeons & Dragons convention. And he pulled out all the stops, doing stage dives, bathing everyone in alcohol, running through the crowd and encouraging us not to snap pictures with our camera phones, perhaps as a form of reverse psychology. When audience members pressed in around him, it still wasn’t clear if they realized he’s a famous pop star. Perhaps they were just amused by the whole spectacle.

At any rate, the other performers — including DJ Qbert, Dan the Automator, and Murs — didn’t fare quite as well, even though they delivered comparably arresting performances. Toward the end of his set, Murs addressed the small handful of women in attendance: “Ladies, there are a lot of video game nerds here, right?”

“There are a lot of lady video game nerds, right?”

Audience members looked perplexed. “Bullshit,” muttered one dissenter.

Performing for a reluctant audience is always frustrating, and it’s perhaps doubly frustrating when you’re only the secondary attraction — few people can compete with animated zombies or interactive combat systems. That said, the rappers at Capcom created one of the best hip-hop shows to grace San Francisco in recent memory. The fact that it was so different from a regular hip-hop show only made it better — there weren’t any hot groupie chicks or superfluous hype men crowding the stage, and even the paparazzi (or “documentary filmmakers,” as they’re called in hip-hop) had a minimal presence. In place of the usual entourage, Qbert regaled us with a guest breakdancer, and Dan the Automator incorporated live drums. In terms of production values, Capcom’s Fright Night outstripped the hip-hop shows you’d normally pay to see.

The only show that measured up, in fact, was last year’s edition: Marvel vs. Capcom, a similar product launch, to promote a different series of fighting games (which involved Marvel comic book characters). Ghostface Killah performed at that one, and David Banner hosted. The event drew a much bigger crowd (probably owing to milder weather, and a stronger advertising muscle). Also: David Banner, who was more out-of-shape at that time, stopped in the middle to fan himself with a piece of pizza. But only a few people noticed.


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