Over the course of its history, hip-hop culture has had a profound influence on cinema and vice versa. While rappers like to evoke the imagery from various movies to color their verses, Hollywood had its fair share of movies flirting with or even wholly embracing hip-hop’s audience and aesthetics. Some movies have a stronger connection to the culture than others though, and some are even crucial the parts in the way that our history was shaped. Here are 7 flicks the TRU BT feels no rap aficionado can afford to miss.
The Warriors (1979)
“Warriors, come out to plaaaayeeeeyaaaayy” (sic?)! This war cry has been quoted and/or sampled by everyone from Ol’ Dirty Bastard to Puff Daddy to WC to T.I. to Method Man to Lloyd Banks to Lordz of Brooklyn to… well, you get my point. We know of course that this line originates from the 1979 cult flick The Warriors, based on the 1965 novel of the same title by Sol Yurick. That’s right, 1965. But how can The Warriors be a “hip hop flick” if its origin predates hip hop itself?
The Warriors is a tale of gang and turf battles laid in the backdrop of New York City’s gritty streets, barren, for the most part, aside from the occasional law enforcer – be they of the judicial law or street law variety. The atmosphere is bursting with the tapestry of run-down buildings and graffiti-bombed subway cars. Visually, it’s as hip hop as early hip hop could possibly get. What’s interesting about The Warriors is that despite being steeped in the grimy realism of late-70’s NYC, the film also maintains a futuristic/fantasy feel to it as well. Listening to Edan’s “Fumbling Over Words That Rhyme” suggests the sense that early hip hop was like some sort of wacky Petri dish science experiment, with the pioneers of DJing, emceeing, breaking and graff-writing building a culture from the ground up and running with it, antiquarian notions be damned.
I’m reminded of a particular scene in the film in which Swan, the leader of The Warriors, is sitting beside Mercy as a prom couple walks into their subway car, highlighting the contrast between upper/upper-middle and lower/working classes. Embarrassed by her appearance, Mercy reflexively fixes her hair before Swan grabs her arm to stop her, staring into the eyes of the couple sitting in front of him. Later on, when the couple had long since left the subway, Swan picks up the prom girl’s flower that had fallen to the floor and offers it to Mercy saying: “I hate see in’ anything go to waste.” The Warriors is a story of survival, yes, but it also tells the tale of the rose that grew from concrete. (I just had to get a 2Pac reference in here, didn’t I?) Can you dig it?
Wild Style (1983)
This is one of the genuinely great hip-hop films. Why? Because Charlie Ahearn set out to capture simple facets of hip-hop culture (graffity, turntablism, etc) and wound up accomplishing much more. Because it doubles as a showcase for budding street idols who would go on to become agents of the genre. Because it served as an exhibition of sorts for a pantheon of hip-hop ambassadors, guys like Fab Five Freddy, Busy Bee, the Rock Steady Crew, the Cold Crush Brothers. And because it represented wide-eyed poets, wall crawlers, breakdancers, and everyone else who participated in the culture of hip-hop, as well as those puzzled by it. Viewed through the dusty lens of nostalgia, the gritty lo-fi exhibition of Wild Style still resonates powerfully today.
Style Wars (1984)
KRS-One once said that “anybody who wants to understand what hip hop is all about needs to see a movie called Style Wars.” It’s hard to imagine higher praise being heaped upon a film from a hip-hop standpoint, but when Style Wars is concerned it’s only right. The film perfectly captures the competitive spirit of young guys out to earn nothing but respect, while using their art to damage a system oh who’s fringes they’re forced to live. Painting a train chips away at the control the Transit Authority (in essence, ‘the man’) have over them, and transfers that authority to the painter. Doing it big and creatively (and in multitude) builds your rep among your peers, and an impressive piece is admired and respected by almost everyone, no matter their specific allegiance. Formal authorities hold no sway and are to be ridiculed, but when an unknown newcomer decides to flagrantly disregard the unwritten rules of their culture and starts doing ‘throw-ups’ over pieces, differences are set aside and the community comes together to find out who this guy is and how to stop him. That’s when the documentary makers Tony Silver and Henry Chalfant get an engrossing story thrown into their lap that that they use to paint a powerful and defining picture of early hip-hop culture. Mandatory viewing for every padawan, is what I’m saying.
House Party (1990)
The moment anyone mentions “House Party” it brings a smile to my face. Who doesn’t think fondly on this classic movie from the ‘90s? And while the story was entertaining, the music is what brought it all to life, because think about it..whats a party without music? From Play dancing in his living room while vacuuming pre-party, to (my personal favorite) the dance scenes between Kid ‘N Play vs. Sydney & Sharane, to the infamous Kid N’Play rap battle, hip hop music was the movie’s 3rd main character. It was what brought everyone together – their love for hip hop, their need to dance to it, perform it – it was in them, around them, consumed them and that’s what makes me think fondly about the movie. You cant think of hip hop movies without including this one (as well as its sequels) because it was just a good time – the movie was good, the cast was great and the music was amazing. It was ultimately successful because it was authentic and original, and that’s why its still a classic to this day.
When you’re talking about Hip-Hop cinema, Juice HAS to be in the discussion. Straight off the rip, the whole feel of the movie is cold New York City, the birthplace. At the time the movie came out (1992), we were on the tail end of Hip-Hop’s Golden Era, but guys like 2Pac, Naughty By Nature and Gangstarr (just to name a few) were on the rise. This was one of the first glimpses at Pac’s genius, and a great example of the “wild and crazy” Pac that we saw in his portrayal of the homicidal street kid Bishop. The downward spiral this quarter of friends falls down starts out innocent enough – cutting class, waxing nostalgic over vintage crime flicks (40s in hand) and stealing records to help the budding DJ in the crew, Q (played masterfully by Omar Epps).
The DJ sequences, which some have criticized, brought a major element of the pillars of Hip-Hop to the forefront. Not to mention the massive amount of stars who had cameos, from Treach and Queen Latifah, who both had minor roles, to Oran “Juice” Jones, Doctor Dre & Ed Lover, Special Ed, Fab 5 Freddy and EPMD – as well as Cindy Herron from En Vogue playing Q’s love interest. Hell, Samuel L. Jackson also has a memorable role as the ear to the street. This was also Ernest Dickerson’s first film as director, having spent ‘nuff time creating Hip-Hop-infused cinema with Spike Lee (most notably Do The Right Thing). For some reason, Juice gets lost in the sauce, and a potential misstep of a remake starring Soulja Boy as Bishop (?!?!?!), many of today’s fans should do the right thing and revisit this undeniable classic.
Menace II Society (1993)
Menace II Society has long been my favorite of the 90’s urban criminality dramas. Looking at the film now through the lens of Hip-Hop, one can easily observe its sprawling reach and wide base of influence. Beginning with the cold open, the famous liquor store robbery scene has been reenacted over several media throughout the years. From the Jim Jones Certified Gangstas music video to the kid arguing with a storeowner about his change, the opening scene of Menace II Society has swayed not only Hip-Hop, but also the cultures that so often overlap with it.
This 1993 production, the first of what would become a Hughes brother’s dynasty within the genre, had a heavy Hip-Hop flavor right from the start. Originally, it was slated to feature 2pac and Spice 1 in leading roles but ended up casting Compton rapper MC Eiht as A-wax. Although it was released almost 20 years ago, Menace II Society is still required reading for the student of rap. The film lives on through the lyrics of many prominent West Coast artist like Ice Cube, MC Eiht, The Game, and Jay Rock but is also heavily used by lyricist across the nation from Jay-Z, TI, Lil Wayne, and Erick Sermon to the more socially activist Immortal Technique.
Aside from Bishop in Juice, there is likely no character so immortalized for his representative stature among urban youth of this time period as O-Dog in Menace II Society. Larenz Tate captured a piece of the 90’s young black culture with his specificity of ambitions, the instability of his home life, his dogged adherence to the codes of street culture, and even the way he held his gun. That iconic portrayal represented a snapshot of the Black Los Angeles youth in the wake of the crack cocaine epidemic and added an early visual element to the lifestyle widely being heralded through the Hip-Hop music of the time. From carjacking to drug sales, O-dog (and Caine by extension) represented a great portion of the subject matter of the rap music of the time and delivered it within the parlance of the era and locale. Menace II Society will, no doubt, go down in history as one of the most important films to the genre.
8 Mile (2002)
Rapper comes out. Rapper blows up. Rapper signs big movie deal. The movie is lame, right? Not if the movie in question is 8 Mile. Eminem’s semi-autobiographical tale of a white rapper trying to make it in a genre where he sticks out like a green hat with an orange bill is equal parts bleek, gritty and riveting. A great supporting cast including Mekhi Phifer, Kim Basinger and Brittany Murphy add to the movie’s brilliance, and Xzibit and Proof drop in to add authenticity to the film Not that it needed more; director Curtis Hanson did a great job portraying a grim picture of an economically-failing Detroit as the backdrop to the movie. But Eminem is the real star of the show here, bringing intensity and just enough compassion to his role for him to be the perfect 21st century underdog. And who can forget those awesome battle scenes? While watching, it’s hard not to put your hands up, even if you’re not from the 313.