GTAV and the power of Rockstar’s soundtracks

Nowadays we take licensed music for granted, but it wasn’t always like this. Rockstar laid down the open-world template with Grand Theft Auto III, but it was actually GTA2’s London expansion that first featured a licensed soundtrack, courtesy of Trojan Records. The UK dub and reggae label’s work made for a powerful addition to the game’s sense of place, and Rockstar took it to its logical next level with GTAIII’s genre-spanning set of radio stations. Reggae returned with K-Jah; record labels were again enlisted, with UK jungle imprint Moving Shadow providing the sounds for MSX FM and New York label Game Recordings soundtracking the hip-hop station, Game Radio FM. Elsewhere were the now-standard classical, pop and ’80s stations – with the latter, Flashback 95.6, saying much about Rockstar’s influences: every track played was also featured in the film Scarface.

It was a powerful mix that not only covered a broad spectrum of tastes, giving players a filmic soundtrack to accompany their rampages, but also let Rockstar further enrich its world with commercials and talk radio stations. Later the formula would be finessed with the addition of news reports based on the main story thread, and the genre mix expanded to include country and hard rock, but GTAIII laid the foundations, and its influence persists in open-world games to this day.

The games that followed were set in specific time periods, and once again radio was key in reinforcing the player’s sense of not only being in a specific place, but also being there at a set moment in time. Vice City’s ’80s pop, hair metal and blue-eyed soul was followed by San Andreas’s alt-rock, Chicago house and G-funk-era hip-hop. Grand Theft Auto IV’s contemporary setting, however, gave Rockstar no such luxury, and instead of drawing on a rich lexicon of pop culture it passed the reins to real-world DJs and producers: Funkmaster Flex and DJ Premier spinning hip-hop, Francois K playing electro, Roy Ayers running the jazz station and Iggy Pop on Liberty Rock Radio. There were celebrities, too, with fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld hosting disco station K109 The Studio and actress Juliette Lewis doing likewise on Radio Broker.

GTA IV enhanced Rockstar’s reputation for muso-friendly radio stations further.

Grand Theft Auto V sees Rockstar continue in that vein. Pam Grier hosts the soul station Lowdown FM; British model Cara Delevingne runs Non-Stop Pop. Big-name muso talent includes Gilles Peterson, Soulwax, Bootsy Collins and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry. As in Grand Theft Auto IV, it’s a fine cross-section of contemporary music, ticking all the genre boxes and enriching Los Santos’s already remarkable sense of place. But here, Rockstar does something different: where Scarface influenced its early licensing experiment, here the biggest inspirations come from the studio’s own games.

Given the setting, San Andreas is an obvious influence even before you reach for the radio dial, but when you first get into a car as Franklin and tune the radio to West Coast Classics, it’s impossible not to marvel at how far we’ve come from the early moments as CJ cruising San Andreas’s low-poly city streets. Bombing down a rural highway in Trevor’s pick-up truck listening to Waylon Jennings’ Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way instantly recalls a nighttime San Andreas police chase soundtracked by Whitey Shafer’s All My Exes Live In Texas. And just as you start to think you’re in early-’90s Los Santos, a smartphone ad or a news item on fracking yanks you back into the present.

Vice City’s there, too, most of it coming from Kenny Loggins’ self-deprecating turn hosting Los Santos Rock Radio. It’s a misleading name, its soundtrack drawing not on contemporary heavy guitar music but 20 years of classic rock that could, maybe should, have featured in Rockstar’s snarky love letter to ’80s pop culture – REO Speedwagon, Phil Collins, Queen and The Doobie Brothers, as well as Loggins’ own glistening yacht rock.

The absence of a need to reflect a specific point in time runs through GTAV’s soundtrack and empowers a remarkably diverse selection of music, even within genre constraints. The pop station puts All Saints next to Rihanna, follows Fergie with Hall & Oates, mixes Robyn’s electro-pop with N-Joi’s piano house. There are 250 songs spread across 16 music stations, with barely any filler, and many tracks will be unfamiliar to all but serious musos. Where others delight in playing you music you already know, Rockstar seeks to educate.

Ask ten people for their favourite moment in Red Dead Redemption and most will say the crossing into Mexico. It’s a powerful visual moment, the soft yellows and greens of New Austin giving way to burnt red clay. But it would be nothing without its soundtrack, José González’s Far Away, a song played only once in the whole game and is all the more powerful for it. GTAV pulls the same move, and it’s every bit as memorable.

Then there’s the score. Health’s work on Max Payne’s music has led Rockstar to do the same again, but with multiple artists – Tangerine Dream’s Edgar Froese, hip-hop producers Dr Alchemist and Oh No, plus longtime Rockstar favourite Woody Jackson. The results are remarkable, and once again enriching, whether it’s a gentle synth as you parachute down from the sky or the throbbing Krautrock backing to a heist gone awry. No longer is GTA’s music reserved for when you’re behind the wheel: it’s everywhere. It may be its world design and improved systems that catch the eye, but GTAV is also a compendium of everything Rockstar has learnt about the power of game music in the past decade.