When the man in charge of the 214-song soundtrack for "Grand Theft Auto IV" first wanted to figure out what songs should play from the radios of cars in the game, he drove through Liberty City.
This was back in 2006, when "GTA IV" was only half-done but complete enough for former DJ and label manager Ivan Pavlovich to soak in the culture of a partially constructed digital metropolis.
"Even early on, you start to see the little details that really make 'GTA' what it is, whether it's sneakers or clothes or different neighborhoods that you can really get a connection to and identify with," he told MTV News during an interview last week at the office of Rockstar Games, the maker of "GTA." "[You realize] there should be music for this neighborhood, these people from the city or this culture."
If you're Pavlovich, one of two soundtrack supervisors for the game and a guy with about 4,000 records back in his mom's basement (not to mention a few more hidden behind the couch at home), you wind up with a list of 850 songs you'd like to consider including in "GTA IV." You put in requests with more than 2,000 people. And you try not to give away that you're asking for these songs for "GTA."
The labels all know that "the 'GTA' call" is coming. But you don't want them to blab. "My heart died when some little band out of nowhere was posting on their blog, or something like that, talking about how they were requested for 'GTA,' " Pavlovich said.
"GTA" soundtracks are a big deal. " 'GTA,' more than any game, helps people discover new music and become aware of old music and break bands and all that," Pavlovich said. Those who've been bingeing on the game this week, hearing many of its tunes in their heads, would find that hard to dispute.
As a result, a lot of artists are eager to please, especially if the aim is to re-create the feel of New York radio. DJ Premier made an old-school hip-hop mix for a station called Classics. Green Lantern and Mr. Cee essentially replicated New York's leading hip-hop station, Hot 97, with the Beat 102.7. Their friends from the station shout out the fictional boroughs that stand in for Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx.
Dancehall DJ Bobby Konders, also a Hot 97 veteran, went to Jamaica to get dancehall artists to re-record their records to call out the boroughs. "I think everybody went to the extremes to make sure this felt like a living, breathing experience," Pavlovich said. The game has one original piece of music, its theme song, which was composed by Michael Hunter, who also wrote the theme for previous "GTA" games.
Other artists wanted to be involved even though they didn't always make the cut. Like 50 Cent, for instance. "He was very cool with us using his music," Pavlovich said. "It did not make it in, but he was definitely very willing to license his music."
Hip-hop turned out to be the most difficult to license. "There's so many people, there's so many samples," Pavlovich said. "You get all these guest artists that are now on records. You have eight different writers, some of whom own only 2.5 percent of the publishing, and you can't get in touch with them." It's no wonder that in the back of the "GTA IV" instruction manual, where all the songs in the game are listed, the longest credit listing is for a rap song, "Crack House" by Fat Joe, featuring Lil Wayne.
So even as the "GTA" franchise builds a reputation for a certain style of gameplay and a certain attitude of content, its soundtracks have turned out to be educational and inspirational. The vibe Pavlovich gets from fans of the game is that they're saying: "Teach us about music; show us new things." He heard from reggae star Stephen Marley, son of Bob Marley, who said he discovered a song to sample by first hearing it in "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas."
Sam Houser, executive producer for Rockstar, pushed Pavlovich to consider unusual cuts for the soundtrack. He pushed Elton John's "Street Kids." Pavlovich tried to out-obscure his boss. They wound up with an experimental station in the game, the Journey, that Pavlovich plays during night drives through Liberty City, the almost beatless sounds of Philip Glass giving the city a magical feel.
Design breakthroughs presented some new opportunities. "This is the first 'GTA' where you can actually find out what song you're listening to while you're playing the game," Pavlovich explained, noting that all a player needs to do is send a text message from "GTA IV" protagonist Niko Bellic's in-game cell phone to get a text back with the info. A Rockstar-run Web site called the Rockstar Social Club can even track players' favorite songs and direct them to a custom Amazon.com playlist where they can buy the music. (The developers had considered letting Niko go to an in-game music store but scrapped that.) Also new: The songs in the soundtrack don't always play in a set order anymore. Many of the stations randomize the playing order. There are even multiple DJ intros to songs, just to mix things up.
What's not new: Niko really only hears all this music when he's driving. "GTA IV" is set in modern times, but Niko has no MP3 player. Why not? Pavlovich said it was considered but didn't make it in because of design decisions he wasn't privy to. And Niko can't use his cell phone to call in for a radio request. Not a bad idea, though. Said Pavlovich, "That would be sweet."
Pop artists didn't make the cut this time. There's no Fergie, no Christina Aguilera. Some of MTV's biggest bands didn't make the "GTA IV" soundtrack: no Fall Out Boy, no My Chemical Romance. "Not in this version," Pavlovich said.
But future versions of "GTA" allow for new possibilities. Maybe new radio stations for the planned downloadable bonuses coming to the Xbox 360 version of "GTA IV"? Rockstar isn't saying. Maybe the ability to update the soundtracks in the base "GTA IV" game using online connections? "I think a lot of the decisions are things that we're deciding on for the future. We'll figure out where we're going when we get there."
The present provides a different challenge, because another thing that happens when you're asking 2,000 people for music is that they remember. They wait a little while and ask for something back. Now they call him. They want copies of the game. Two for each artist, if they can get it. "The list is growing every day," Pavlovich said. Like so many others, it seems, the music industry wants to hear the sounds of Liberty City. They want to take a ride through too.
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