Why i love… grand theft auto’s music
Celebrating the iconic tunes and varied artists that have brought Rockstar’s worlds vividly to life
In 1991, Rockstar Games co-founder Sam Houser began his career at the now-defunct BMG Records, working on pop videos and VHS releases. BMG eventually established an interactive division, and in 1996, Houser became its head of development. The first GTA was released in the UK in 1997, and in 1998, BMG Interactive was sold to a small distributor and publisher, Take Two. Houser moved to New York, and set up Rockstar Games in late 1998. In a weird way, it makes sense that part of GTA’s origin is in music—it’s always been vital to how these worlds feel.
The original Xbox’s Vice City was a huge moment for the series when it came to music. While GTA III’s brilliant soundtrack featured lesser known artists, Vice City had station after station of tracks that my mum used to like. In choosing to make a period piece—an ‘80s-set crime romp in a Miami analogue—Rockstar used the music to bring the world to life. When Tommy Vercetti stepped into a car and ‘Billie Jean’ by Michael Jackson played on the in-game stereo, nothing like that had happened in games before.
Since then, of course, Rockstar has kept picking choices that complement the setting. In the ‘90s-set San
Andreas, the station Radio Los Santos featured the likes of Ice Cube and Dr Dre, artists that encapsulated the atmosphere that the developer wanted to tap into. And yet, once you got out of the city and into Bone County, the default radio stations began to change to country music. The developers were using music to convey a sense of distance in this virtual world, to make you believe there are different cultural tastes in a place that’s about a three-minute drive in real time from where you started.
Back to the present
In GTA IV, Rockstar returned to a contemporary New York-infused setting. The mix of old and new is extremely effective. Tracks like ‘Every Picture Tells A Story’ by Rod Stewart and ELO’s ‘Evil Woman’—music that your dad might have on vinyl—sat alongside Kanye West’s ‘Flashing Lights’ and ‘Hip Hop’ by Joell Ortiz. The jazz station seems to play the exact music that was on in my cab when I first went to New York ten years ago. Each station offers you a different lens with which to experience Liberty City. Bringing us up to the present, there were 241 licensed songs in the original release of GTA V on 360, then even more in the Xbox One version. I started with the radio station Non-Stop Pop and its unashamed lineup of All Saints’ ‘Pure Shores’ and Mis-Teeq’s ‘Scandalous’, among others. Then I graduated to the trendier Radio Mirror Park, where Miami Horror’s ‘Sometimes’ led to me buying their debut album, Illumination. That led to me buying every release of theirs up until this point, including remixes and covers. And from there, I started listening to new wave music almost every day, before branching out into different genres. Rockstar has become a tastemaker when it comes to music—chances are you’ll always know something on the in-game radio, but you’ll leave the
“You’ll leave the game loving a few tracks you’d never even heard before playing”
game loving a few tracks you’d never even heard before playing. I personally feel like I don’t get a lot of exposure to modern music outside of what Spotify thinks I want to hear, and GTA is the single biggest influence on my tastes.
When asked about how GTA shaped the 2011 movie Drive, Rockstar’s Dan Houser commented on the first time he noticed the series seeping into the public consciousness. “It’s similar
to when Vice City came out,” he told The Guardian in 2013. “I was driving in England on a Friday night, stuck on the M25 listening to Pete Tong, and there were about six songs in a row from the soundtrack. I thought, ‘Wow, games are beginning to have an influence.’” Given the farreaching success of GTA, it’s no surprise, really.
GTA is fundamentally a game about stealing cars and firing guns in gorgeously-realized locations, and the use of music has been as important to its evolution as anything else. It brings these worlds to life, evoking times and places that enhance the way we experience them. And that aside, Rockstar is able to remind us that ‘Glamorous’ by Fergie is an amazing tune.
right The game’s music helps set the tone for your own personal experience.
ABOVE Having access to the radio in GTA Online is a nice bonus.