It was an offer he couldn’t refuse. When Ice Cube was approached by 2K Games to work with DJ Shadow on a new song to promote Mafia III, it didn’t take much convincing.
“He played me this track that reminded me of The Sopranos in a way. Real old-school, Deep Mill, singing on the hook, sayin’ ‘Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.’”
The result, “Nobody Wants to Die,” is the centerpiece of the launch campaign for the latest installment of the Mafia video game series, in stores Friday.
Using Shadow’s sample and a synopsis of Mafia III, the artist born O’Shea Jackson came up with “two cool verses, tailor-made for the game.” Cube recorded at his studio in Burbank. “The hook is a remix, but the lyrics are all mine. It took me about two hours to get it all perfect. I was on a roll — good ideas, good concept. Sometimes, the best work comes the quickest, and the songs you labor over are kind of forced. When things are going good — you’re finished writing and the cadence and rhythm are just second nature — you’re excited to record.”
2K Senior VP Marketing Sarah Anderson emphasized her company as a powerhouse in the music department, citing collaborations with Sean Combs and Jay Z. “Even for us, working with Ice Cube was a high point. He’s an MC, one of rap’s great storytellers and a cultural icon. He was at the top of our list.”
The goal was to produce a song that was edgy yet evocative of Mafia III’s 1968 backdrop. The original sample is from the song “Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven,” performed by Glenn Yarbrough and The Limeliters, active through the mid-’60s. “It’s such a great track, you can almost hear the grooves in the vinyl,” Anderson said. “It feels really of-the-period, blending that ’60s sound with something powerful and new that conveys the intensity of the story in such an emotional way.”
Cube admits he’s not your typical game fanboy: “I don’t really have time to play anymore,” he shrugs, admitting that back in the day his tastes ran toward Madden NFL, not shoot-’em-ups. The Mafia III series appealed to him with its character-driven action and cinematic visual style. The game takes place in a reimagined New Orleans — New Bordeaux — circa 1968, exploring the world of black gangsters, as seen through the eyes of anti-hero Lincoln Clay, a biracial orphan who’s out for revenge against the Italian mob. In addition to themes of munitions, music and car culture, the civil rights movement and Vietnam War provide subtext.
So while fans of the Mafia series show up for the arsenal of weaponry and stalk-your-enemies excitement, it’s the details that make the property distinctive, and keep gamers coming back for more. The original Mafia was set in Lost Haven (1930s San Francisco), while the sequel jumped to Empire Bay (a mash-up of New York, Los Angeles and Chicago circa the late ’40s/early ’50s). The series has progressively gained in popularity, and Anderson promises this installment “takes it to a new level.”
“I think it’s cool that people will not only have fun playing a game, but learn a little bit of history,” Cube said. “It really does give you a window into that time period and the way things were in New Orleans.” Because 1968 was a seminal year in music, the soundtrack is front and center, with more than 100 tunes, including hits by Aretha Franklin, the Beach Boys, Canned Heat, Marvin Gaye and Sam Cooke.
Meanwhile, fans will be hearing the hook from “Nobody Wants to Die” in 30-second TV spots and backing an extended game trailer online. Indeed, 2K has been marketing the game for months, but Anderson called the unveiling of the Cube creative “a final celebration piece,” and “something unique” for fans.
In February, he puts his unique stamp on New Line’s Fist Fight, which culminates in a schoolyard throwdown between two teachers (he’s the buff one that has the nerd cowering in fear). As yet, Cube hasn’t contributed to the soundtrack for the comedic film. “I try to stay away from that a little bit — songs for my own movies — because it can break character,” said the founding member of N.W.A.
The idea is to make “Nobody Wants to Die” available for download, though details are still being worked out. Meanwhile, 2017 marks the 25th anniversary of Ice Cube’s second solo LP, Death Certificate, with plans for a first-quarter reissue, including vinyl, an art refresh and three new songs (though he won’t say if this new game track will be one). The plan is to roll right into the release of his first studio release since 2010, the long-awaited Everythang’s Corrupt.
Special 180-gram audiophile vinyl pressings of the Mafia III soundtrack and its orchestral score (by composers Jesse Harlin and Jim Bonney) will be packaged in a $149.99 limited collectors’ edition. The game retails for $59.99, and is available for Xbox One, PlayStation and PC.