When the team behind a new expansion for “Grand Theft Auto Online” approached the veteran underground dance music DJ and producer the Black Madonna to contribute music and appear as a character in the game, she had one small request.
“She asked if it was possible if she could punch out a cop,” said Ivan Pavlovich, the music supervisor for the insanely popular video game franchise. “So our writers went in and figured it out. She’s spent 25 years in rave culture, and now she finally got to do it.”
A chance for digital comeuppance in the stylish, hyper-violent world of “GTA” was a perk of the job for the renowned DJs who appear in the “After Hours” update, released this week. But it’s also a sign that “Grand Theft Auto’s” long-standing reputation as a platform for music discovery is taking on new complexity in the streaming era.
“After Hours” is an online expansion to the multiplayer mode for 2013’s “Grand Theft Auto V,” a modern crime noir set in a barely fictional contemporary Los Angeles and Southern California (here known as Los Santos and San Andreas, respectively). The game shattered sales records for all types of media properties upon its release: It still holds the records as the fastest-selling piece of entertainment to hit $1 billion and the most profitable day-of-release entertainment product in history.
For sure, plenty of fans flocked to the game for its giddy nihilism and the mind-boggling expansiveness of its world. But ever since its inception, the game franchise (in which players spend much of their time driving around listening to the radio in between crime sprees) has also served a second role: as a kind of pre-Spotify, curated playlist for underground music.
“GTA V” and its subsequent spinoffs have handpicked radio stations from L.A. acts such as Frank Ocean and Flying Lotus (and Kenny Loggins manning the classic rock station); original music from Health, Off! and Tyler, the Creator; and score work from the German experimental act Tangerine Dream, among many others. The game’s music isn’t just a nice supplement to the destruction, it’s an essential part of its appeal.
“After Hours” devotes its plot line (a riff on the arc of Gay Tony, “GTA’s” morally ambiguous nightlife impresario) to running an L.A. underground techno venue. There you book edgy talent such as Dixon, Tale of Us, Solomun and the Black Madonna, and go on in-game missions with them. It’s an intriguing vouch for the cultural reach of this music in 2018 and how L.A.’s underground clubbing is seeping into the highest tiers of pop culture.
Pavlovich’s musical roots are in this exact scene. He co-founded the house music label Guidance Recordings in Chicago in the ’90s. After years of assembling diverse, nuanced soundtracks for the “GTA” series and other blockbusters for parent company Rockstar Games, he was thrilled to finally build out the experience of a proper late-night warehouse rave.
“It is a weird moment that’s come full circle,” Pavlovich said. “I’ve been entrenched in dance music my whole life, and to experience this music in a way that’s true to the scene, we had to capture it in a proper way. It was very important to feel like you were actually going out.”
For anyone who has tried to throw a maybe-legal party on the outskirts of downtown, the gameplay accurately re-creates the maddening thrill of running an underground nightclub (though hopefully real-life rave promoters aren’t also doubling-up as a Costco for criminal enterprise).
The actual process of modeling the club scenes and re-creating the DJs’ personalities was fanatically in-depth, but also a pretty good night out in itself.
“We threw a party in our motion capture studio and all the DJs played live. We got all their exact setups and riders,” Pavlovich said. “If Solomun drinks wine behind the booth, he’ll be sipping that” in the game.
Being portrayed in “GTA” has been, more or less, a total hoot for DJs used to sweating it out in bunker-like venues. The Black Madonna, for one, has been gabbing with “GTA” fans new to her oeuvre. “If you want my skin you have to wait till someone creates it. Then you can download and use my skin #mindblown,” she said to one via Twitter, referencing the fan-art communities that create additional playable characters. The GIF of her cop-punching scene is proving useful at vanquishing misogynist trolls (admittedly, some of whom are coming over from “GTA” Reddit forums).
But some are also taking new chances with the “GTA” platform. The Italian duo Tale of Us (Mixmag’s 2015 DJs of the Year) contributed an album’s worth of new music in a mix for “After Hours,” which will later be rewired into a new LP. “After Hours” is the first place for fans to hear it.
As streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music have come to dominate the music industry, uncountable artist-, genre- and mood-centric playlists have emerged on billions of cellphones (and traditional radio is still going strong). It seems common now, but “GTA” arguably pioneered the idea of hyper-curated, instantly accessible playlists for specific activities — even if those activities were blowing up whole city blocks.
In the post-streaming era, however, Pavlovich said that “GTA’s” long-standing reputation as a musical tastemaker can both set it apart from more catch-all services and, as in “After Hours,” provide the inspiration for new gaming worlds.
“We’ve built one of the biggest platforms in the world for music,” Pavlovich said. “We fight for this in every game, and artists can see that. We could have gone in any direction, but we’re making choices based on the music we love, and we focused on underground techno because we love it.”