It’s pretty easy to see why Nicki Minaj is making her much-touted return to hip-hop’s spotlight with a single called “Chun-Li.” Like the popular female Street Fighter character, she’s been the sole representative of her gender in a male-dominated game, yet kicked ass with the best of them.
She’s become a fixture of the genre as well; in the same way you almost can’t reference fighting games without mentioning the iconic, ox-horns-rocking, spinning bird-kicking Chinese reporter/spy, Nicki is a signifier to the mainstream of hip-hop authenticity and rap’s popularity across demographics. On the single cover of her impending comeback track, Nicki even adopts part of the song’s namesake’s striking, signature style: The twin hair buns Chun-Li has never been depicted without in the game’s nearly 30-year history.
Yet, despite some opinions to the contrary, Nicki Minaj is far from the first rapper to reference Chun-Li. Though it may surprise some, hip-hop and video game culture have intersected far more often than just Drake’s recent foray into Fortnite streaming on Twitch. Rappers and producers have not only used video references in their music through samples and clever punchlines, both have appeared in games of their own, like Wu-Tang Clan’s Wu-Tang: Shaolin Style and Def Jam Records’ Def Jam Vendetta and Def Jam: Fight For NY brawlers.
Chun-Li first debuted in Street Fighter II: The World Warrior as one of eight selectable fighters and the game’s sole female fighter. Naturally, she was popular among girls who played the game (my cousin was notorious for her cheap hip toss-lightning kick corner combo), but many boys loved the character as well. She’s been in every sequel since, up to the latest installment, Street Fighter V, released in 2016.
However, Chun-Li herself is so iconic that she’s the one reference rappers can’t seem to stop coming back to. Their fascination with her lightning kick and status as one of Street Fighter‘s most enduring characters stretches back almost to the character’s inception in 1991. Naughty By Nature’s Treach holds the honor of being the first rapper to mention her on “Yoke The Joker” that same year, sparking an enduring trend for the next three decades of rappers to follow.
This is evidenced by the sheer number of references to her in lyrics throughout hip-hop. Not only did DMV-area rapper Wale beat Nicki Minaj to the fierce punch by naming a Cardo-produced track from his 2012 mixtape Folarin after the fighter, the beat even samples the background music from Chun-Li’s stage in the original game, as well as her “yup” attack cry from her infamous kicking moves. Soulja Boy also used the title, as well as repeating the name in the homage’s hook, boasting that he stays in the trap, “kicking shit like Chun-Li.”