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Grand Theft Auto's musical legacy continued to push the boundaries in 2020 — here's how

Grand Theft Auto 5's latest add-on The Cayo Perico Heist brings with it a new club space, called The Music Locker, and exclusive performances and mixes from Moodymann, Keinemusik and Palms Trax. We explore how the collaboration happened, and how those artists and others became part of the GTA world

“One of my favourite things is to hear that somebody discovered [music] on GTA radio stations”. Ivan Pavlovich, director of music at Rockstar Games says over Zoom from his NYC home. It’s a role that brings with it a lot of weight — GTA’s musical legacy goes well beyond the videogame world, inspiring endless club nights, playlists, compilations and playing its part as a music discovery and curation source for countless future musicians, DJs and producers over the past 19 years. 

For DJs, Rockstar’s expert curation took a more literal twist in 2018, when their After Hours update saw real-life DJs Dixon, Solomun, The Blessed Madonna and Tale of Us enter the GTA universe as part of a new plotline to open a nightclub in the fictional world of Los Santos. The add-on featured motion-captured performances from the aforementioned DJs in a new social nightclub space where players could meet and dance to each resident’s exclusive mix. 

Now, in 2020, GTA’s latest update, The Cayo Perico Heist, has once again embraced DJ and club culture, this time recruiting Detroit legend Moodymann, tech-house collective Keinemusik and Berlin-based selector Palms Trax as part of a new club The Music Locker. The iconic radio stations have also been updated with new choices from Joy Orbison and Julian Casablancas, as well as updated playlists from Gilles Peterson’s Worldwide FM, Flying Lotus and more.

For Palms Trax in particular, being invited to join the world of GTA was something of a full circle for his musical education, once he realised it was actually real. “When they first reached out at the beginning of last year I thought it was some sort of phishing scam, I couldn’t actually believe it was happening until [the] announcement. My cousins finally think I’m cool now.” 

In fact, GTA III was so influential to a young Palms Trax, he credits its radio stations with broadening his musical taste and even with his decision to become a DJ at all. 

“I was very much into rock, punk and metal when I started playing GTA III so it opened my ears to all sorts of stuff from Herbie Hancock and Mary Jane Girls, to A Guy Called Gerald and Larry Heard. Hearing Flying Lotus' and Giles Peterson’s stations, later on, got me interested in programming music for radio, which I suppose naturally leads to an interest in DJing, and here we are.”

"We managed to coax all the elements that go to make up a live audience interacting with the performance of each DJ — step by step, action by action and across multiple bpms" — Rod Edge, director of performance production at Rockstar Games

Back in Los Santos, The Music Locker is Rockstar’s most ambitious clubbing experience to date, with everything from the DJ’s tech rider and — in Moodymann’s case — backing dancers all expertly captured and detailed, including Palms Trax's E&S DJR-400 rotary mixer. “We want to blur the lines between being somewhere and experiencing something in a game, and in order to do that you have to make people feel comfortable.” Pavlovich continues, “You have to pay attention to the details. The more comfortable the DJs are the more they’re going to perform, the more real it’s going to feel for the players.” 

Rockstar’s director of performance production Rod Edge agrees. “[It’s] absolutely crucial. DJs have different specific signature movements, habits and flourishes. If you don’t capture that, you don’t have that unique DJ.”

In a year of club closure’s Rockstar’s responsibility to provide a realistic clubbing experience was even more pertinent. While After Hours introduced the concept of DJs in a social clubbing environment, Cayo Perico Heist built on the concept with more detailed motion capture, despite COVID restrictions. 

“It was a much more controlled experience,” says Edge. “We fenced off a parking lot, rented 25 RVs to keep everyone separated, cast the six main characters and tested them for COVID. Once clear, we quarantined the cast and skeleton crew for 14 days in the RVs testing every three days. Once we had a clear and quarantined cast and crew we shot for four weeks.” DJs were also motion captured for the entirety of their set. 

The next challenge was creating a natural environment for both players, dancers and DJs. 

“For [Cayo Perico Heist] we had our six actors and we layered them over and over again in multiple states of interaction and energy. The individuals in the crowd and the crowd dynamics were plotted out meticulously and we managed to coax all the elements that go to make up a live audience interacting with the performance of each DJ — step by step, action by action and across multiple bpms.”

For Pavlovich, the result was impressive. 

“You really feel like you're in this place. The people are dancing around you and you're swaying. They're reacting. [The dancer’s] reaction to the music itself is pretty incredible. Especially on [the] Moodymann mix, where the sway in tempo is so vast — I think from 85bpm all the way up to 139 — so for the dancer’s to be able to react to that range of music is pretty incredible.” 

Much like After Hours, the DJs aren’t just a bit-part in the Los Santos universe, they’re an integral part of the plot of the new update. The Cayo Perico Heist sees the Madrazo crime family having a problem with their supplier — the infamous drug lord, El Rubio. Players must infiltrate his private island — one of the most heavily fortified in the world — and escape with the incriminating files to take him down, as well as all the cash, jewels and art they can carry. 

Of course, El Rubio loves dance music, and has booked Berlin collective Keinemusik — made up of &ME, Rampa and Adam Port — for a lavish beach party on his island home, where they play an exclusive two-hour-long set. Things kick off at The Music Locker, where you meet Miguel Madrazo, and learn of their plan to topple El Rubio’s empire by posing as Keinemusik’s tour manager accompanying them aboard a private jet to the island. 

“There are two mixes in the game, one of the club and one on the beach, and they're also connected to the storyline in terms of how you're going from the club, how you get over to the island to pull off this heist. And I think that the integration is really one of the key aspects, they become part of the story.” All mixes are also available via a new Music Locker radio station.

"Giving the player the best experience, turning them on to new music, to new DJs, to new artists — I think that that's what this platform is here for" — Ivan Pavlovich, director of music at Rockstar Games

Joy O’s Still Slippin’ Los Santos is also integrated in the gameplay — rather than being a station you can choose alongside many others, it’s a pirate radio station that players will need to unlock by activating broadcast towers across the map. Still Slippin’ features tracks from Mr Mitch, L U C Y and M1LLIONZ, while Gilles Peterson’s updated Worldwide FM playlist features everyone from Madlib and Kaytranada to Jamiroquai and BadBadNotGood. Meanwhile, Flylo FM recruits the sounds of Ross from Friends, Dorian Concept and Louis Cole for its updated tracklist.

We wondered — given GTA’s reputation and legacy for music experiences, curation and discovery — did the team feel a responsibility to seek out more underground sounds or lesser known artists to give them a mainstream platform, or was it a natural part of the tastes of the wider Rockstar crew. 

“Everything in terms of the music starts with conversations with Sam, the founder. We all grew up in the music industry. We all grew up at a time period where house, music and techno were the major soundtrack of our personal lives. So we've been fans of this music for a very, very long time. Just like the other radio stations, we pick people we’re real fans of, you know?

“We've developed games that are of such high quality that we don't need anybody's ‘name’ to do something. We come at it from a place of passion and respect, and we're fans. So for us, giving the player the best experience, turning them on to new music, to new DJs, to new artists — I think that that's what this platform is here for."

For Palms Trax too, the influence early GTA games had on his musical heritage weighed heavily on his decision-making while putting the mix together. 

“I wanted to put myself in that space again and figure out what the formative records were that I’d love to share with a younger audience perhaps listening to a DJ set for the first time in the context of the game. Obviously, the licensing process ultimately shapes which tracks are included, but I kept that as a target and got pretty close to what I originally sketched out. Other than that a major difference is feedback, it all has to zip along with the game-play so you work with the music department on trimming it as much as possible.”

The Cayo Perico Heist is many things at once — aside from its obvious role as a fun and exciting add-on for an ever-growing Los Santos, it's a testament to Rockstar's continued commitment not only to showcasing music they believe in but a continued dedication to realism and immersive performance, all the way down to the glowing green Tap Tempo button on the DJM-900nxs2. For Rod Edge, music in GTA plays another role in 2020. 

“For us, it was absolutely essential to be able to offer people as real an experience as possible of something we all miss so much. In essence, we wanted to allow people to feel that togetherness and celebration of [a] shared love of music, celebration and partying together in a massive social setting. Something I think a lot of us badly need right about now!”