In the wake of Mortal Kombat 11's release, we've taken a look at the hip-hop world's longstanding adoration of the classic beat-em-up franchise.
Unfiltered, graphic and morbidly humorous, the Mortal Kombat franchise has been a revolutionary force in pop culture ever since it besieged the arcade with its gruesome fatalities. By the time it graduated from coin-operated desks to our home consoles, the eternal battle between Earthrealm’s defenders and the villainous hordes of Outworld was cemented into the fabric of entertainment and has refused to yield its iron grip on gamers ever since. 27 years, two movies, countless spin-off games and 10 major canonical releases later, Mortal Kombat 11 has finally arrived and is taking the world by storm. Lauded by critics and fans alike, the game contains a rich, expansive world to explore and has been ported to PS4, Xbox, PC and Switch. Recognized as its most successful launch to date, the groundswell of fawning praise that it’s been met with has completely eclipsed one of the more quizzical controversies that surrounded its initial reveal.
Ronda Rousey signing an autograph at the Mortal Kombat 11 Reveal in January, 2019 - Tasia Wells/Getty Images
MK11’s first trailer was doled out to the public on December 7th of last year, drenched in all the usual blood and excruciatingly-detailed gore that we’ve came to expect. Scorpion and a more malevolent incarnation of Raiden than we’re used to seeing duked it out while we heard the strains of a previously unreleased 21 Savage track entitled “Immortal.” Forged from sombre piano and 808-laden percussion, it saw the Slaughter Gang head honcho spit bars on how his “Draco get to kickin like Liu Kang.” It turns out that the allusion to MK’s Bruce Lee-inspired protagonist turned “revenant” wasn’t enough to satiate many fans that felt that a hip-hop soundtrack was “out of place” for the series. Previously mentioned by the Atlantan MC on “Woah” from 2015’s The Slaughter Tape-- “Choppa flip a n***a like Liu Kang kicks (hiyukan),” the pockets of unrest that contested the use of a rap song for the trailer are surprising if you consider hip-hop’s widespread admiration of the fighting game. In fact, the notion that the genre and Mortal Kombat should be kept as separate entities belies an unpronounced relationship between the two that’s persisted throughout the generations.
Conceived with the influence of martial arts movies at its core, it should come as no surprise that the 36 Chambers’ own Wu Tang Clan were early adopters of the franchise. Amid the momentous posse cut of “Triumph,” RZA took it upon himself to nod to Midway’s premier title and cast aspersions about other artists’ production at the same time: “Tunes spit the shitty Mortal Kombat sound, The fake false step make the blood stain the ground.”
Two years on, this passing mention would pale in comparison to the group’s decision to incorporate their mythology into the Playstation 1 title Wu Tang: Shaolin Style. Constructed from the remnants of the “Thrill Kill” engine, the Paradox Developments studio took the foundations of its infamously scrapped game and took it into more consumer friendly territory. Hyper-violent and laden with “finishing moves” that resembled MK’s fatalities, it bore way beyond a passing resemblance to Ed Boon and John Tobias’ greatest creation and became a cult title in its own right.
In the same year as the game’s release, Wu Tang stalwart Method Man combined forces with his Def Squad-affiliated brethren Redman for the platinum-selling Blackout! On the DJ Scratch-produced cut “1,2,1,2” Funk Doc adheres to the example set by RZA as he proclaims that “Like a peppa spray can sprayin, I throw lightin out the arms Raiden.”
From then on, the floodgates were opened. Mortal Kombat and its cavalcade of warriors were immortalized in the world of hip-hop on a semi-regular basis. Transfixed by the representatives of the Lin Kuei, Black Dragon, Shirai Ryu and its myriad of other combatants, this love affair with MK manifests in more than just lyrical nods. As uttered by the gravelly-voiced Shao Kahn, A$AP Ty Beats enlisted the name of MK stalwart “Smoke” in the intro of Flacko and "Purple Swag" and the SpaceGhostPurrp’ aided remix. At the tail end of last year, the foreboding voice of Outworld’s emperor made its presence felt once again in Ski Mask The Slump God and Juice WRLD’s “Nuketown.” Produced by FreshThPharmacy, the use of “Round 1, Fight!” pales in comparison to Mike WILL Made-It’s use of Mortal Kombat property in 2012. Assisted by 2 Chainz, Yo Gotti’s “Cases” saw The Immortal’s theme from the original game transported out of the realms of high NRG techno and into a new, grittier context.
Lil Wayne at World Series game, 2018 - Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
As far as lyrical nods and punchlines go, there are numerous artists that have repeatedly enlisted the iconic game as a well of inspiration. In the case of Lil Wayne, he’s name-dropped the franchise itself on Dedication 6’s “Family Feud,” “That Ain’t Me” and “Mike Tyson Flow” alongside comparing Drake to Raiden and dropping a trifecta of references on the Jay-Z sampling “Dough Is What I Get”:
“Tryna tell you I can kick it like Liu Kang, n***a, Got that Sub-Zero flow, how you owe me mine, N***a "Get over here" like Scorpion.”
Far from alone in the ranks of a repeat offender, other MCs that have littered their back catalogue with allusions to the series include Big Sean, Young Thug, Denzel Curry, a pre-megastardom Cardi B and UK artists Bugzy Malone and AJ Tracey who even dedicated an entire song to the franchise. With that said, what makes Wayne’s lyrical odes unique is that they strike upon the five main areas that account for most of the references to the franchise: the game’s title, Scorpion, Liu Kang, Sub-Zero and Raiden. While Denzel Curry has went out of his way to discuss getting “jacked like MK4” or the sorcerer Shang Tsung, it is these series staples that crop up time and time again in artist’s lyrics. In the case of Mortal Kombat itself, the household name has been touched on everywhere from Nicki Minaj’s “Miami” to Migos’ “Contraband,” and “Diablo” on the late Mac Miller’s Faces. Even Big Boi’s verse on “13th Floor/Growing Old” from the iconic ATLiens album gives a nod. For arch nemeses Scorpion and Sub-Zero, they’ve been name-checked simultaneously by Wale on the Rihanna-aided remix to “Bad” as well as Thugger, Lil Yachty, Lil Uzi Vert, The Underachievers, Lil Dicky, Cyhi The Prynce, Angel Haze and Logic respectively.
Kofi Kingston, Ronda Rousey, Xavier Woods, and Zelina Vega at the Mortal Kombat 11 Reveal - Tasia Wells/Getty Images
Regarded as earth’s mightiest warrior, the jeet-kune-do stylings of Liu Kang have been nodded to by a succession of hip-hop heavyweights including A$AP Ferg on his hit single “Shabba,” Rocky on “Out Of This World,” J. Cole on “Sideline Story” and Chief Keef on both “Superheroes” and “Pull Up.” The Mortal Kombat equivalent of Marvel’s Thor, the thunder god Raiden has had countless homages in the work of Giggs, Wifisfuneral, Mayhem Lauren, Trae Tha Truth, Milo and more. Whether it’s his affinity for dishing out viscous kicks below the belt or that longstanding penchant for sunglasses, the wise-cracking Johnny Cage has been used to epitomize cool in Migos’ “Chinatown,” Lil Skies’ “Signs Of Jealousy” and the cosmic groove of Thundercat’s “Friend Zone.” Most recently, the game was given a salute on Pivot Gang’s stellar You Can’t Sit With Us. All of these off-hand tributes signify the importance of Mortal Kombat in hip-hop culture and the role it played in many rappers’ formative years.
What’s your favourite MK reference in hip-hop? Sound off in the comments below.