Hip hop goes to Hollywood

The movie industry has realised that casting a rap star can add major bling to a film's box office. As Barbershop 2 takes the US by storm, Nick Hasted examines the big screen's appetite for black culture
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The rapper Ice Cube's latest US hit, Barbershop 2, continues hip hop's love affair with cinema. From Will Smith to Eminem, Queen Latifah in Bringing Down the House to Snoop Dogg in Starsky and Hutch, even down to The RZA co-scoring Kill Bill, rappers are everywhere. This mirrors a wider reality, where hip hop dominates youth culture in the way rock used to. But, while musicians have always made movies, rappers, so often working in the LA ghetto a stone's throw from the studios, have forged far deeper ties. In a multitude of ways, hip hop and Hollywood have become uneasy but inseparable bedfellows.

The rapper Ice Cube's latest US hit, Barbershop 2, continues hip hop's love affair with cinema. From Will Smith to Eminem, Queen Latifah in Bringing Down the House to Snoop Dogg in Starsky and Hutch, even down to The RZA co-scoring Kill Bill, rappers are everywhere. This mirrors a wider reality, where hip hop dominates youth culture in the way rock used to. But, while musicians have always made movies, rappers, so often working in the LA ghetto a stone's throw from the studios, have forged far deeper ties. In a multitude of ways, hip hop and Hollywood have become uneasy but inseparable bedfellows.

Twenty years ago, this would have been unimaginable. The first hip-hop film, Wild Style (1982) (which starred real graffiti artists) and more conventional studio successors like Beat Street (1984's opportunity to see rap originators Afrika Bambaataa and Kool Herc at legendary venue The Roxy, lodged in a lame teen movie) treated rap like the fad most then thought it to be. The music's first serious eruption into cinema was Spike Lee's 1989 use of Public Enemy's insurrectionary anthem "Fight the Power" as the catalyst for Do the Right Thing's despairing race riot. But, from the rappers' side, Public Enemy's "Burn Hollywood Burn" showed their contempt for the movie industry, and its clear contempt for their culture. In it, the band rush out of Driving Miss Daisy to watch the 1970s blaxploitation pic Black Caesar back at "the crib". "Fuck Hollywood," they spit.

It was in 1991 that black film-makers, following Lee, forced their own way into Hollywood, partly using rap as a battering ram. They then set down templates for a true hip-hop cinema. Mario Van Peebles' New Jack City effectively updated the blaxploitation crime movie for 1990s consumption, just as gangsta rap was sampling the era's funk. In a witty about-turn, South Central's Ice-T, with his pimp persona, was cast as a cop, while the soundtrack was hip-hop-heavy. Slick ghetto-crime movies in the same mould, with rappers supplying music, street "authenticity" and variable acting skills, have followed ever since.

More important was John Singleton's debut, Boyz N the Hood. The story of black teenager Tre (Cuba Gooding Jr), trying to stay afloat in sun-kissed but deadly South Central at the height of its bloody gang wars, hip hop was present musically, and Ice Cube made his debut as the glowering, doomed Doughboy. But Boyz N the Hood's real service to gangsta-rap was to show the world where the music came from. Cube's notorious group, Niggaz With Attitude, and their war-cry "Fuck Tha Police", sounded more sane when you saw their devastated home.

1991 also saw a third debut by a director and rapper. Ernest R Dickerson's Juice, co-starring Tupac Shakur, encompassed hip-hop cinema's potential, and its many contradictions. Its first achievement was to adapt cinema to hip hop, visually reflecting the changes in mentalities that the music was causing. As its teenagers wake, then skip school for the streets, the score by Public Enemy's Bomb Squad is a swirling undercurrent of police sirens, video game beeps and rap-like speech rhythms all entering its flow; the urban noise and pace is relentless, as if we're inside these boys' rap-rewired heads. (This stylistic challenge by hip hop to cinema has only recently being taken up again, in last year's rom-com Brown Sugar, with its scratch-like frame-skips and a script built around rap metaphors, and Kill Bill, where Tarantino and The RZA construct a soundtrack by sampling other films' scores).

Juice was equally important for showing how uniquely enmeshed movie and rap stardom could become. Tupac, a trained actor who finished the film before his first album, played Bishop, a weak young man who, when he gets a gun, over-compensates by serial killing. Bishop's transformation comes not from music, but movies. Watching Jimmy Cagney's cackling cop-killing spree end in a fireball in White Heat (1949), Bishop gleefully leaps up, and decides that's the way to die.

The influence of movie gangsters on rap cuts that deep. The Godfather, De Niro and Pacino - especially the latter's garishly violent and self-destructive Tony Montana in Scarface (1984) - are constantly name-checked on record, and are used (along with blaxploitation's pimps) as style guides for "ghetto fabulous" videos. This obsession with gangster cinema - an aspirational genre after the crack-zone realities some rappers come from - may explain why so many are eager for Hollywood. But it also suggests why they succeed when they arrive. Gangsta albums, with their gunfire-heavy, spoken-word "skits" between songs, already function as audio movies; while tracks like Scarface's mournful "I Seen A Man Die", expected by its audience to represent street life in authentic detail, have a movie's narrative and emotional complexity. The role-playing of the likes of Ice Cube (and his alias The Predator), as they act out these dramas, also helps thin the line between gangster movies and rap. All this helps explain the free passage of rappers including Snoop Dogg, Ja-Rule, Master P and many more onto screen, on a scale no other music type can touch.

However, Juice's aftermath also showed the problems rap's unique blurring of movie roles and reality could create. More than one observer thought the sensitive, intelligent Tupac took on Bishop's ill-fitting tough-guy mantle in a life quickly overtaken by shootings and jail time.

After this suicidal trajectory ended with his murder on September 7, 1996, Nick Broomfield's hit rap documentary Biggie and Tupac (2002) implicated Tupac's label boss Suge Knight - a man who modelled his reign of terror at Death Row Records, inevitably, on Scarface's video violence. Ironically, before the death which made him a martyred icon, Tupac had shown great promise as an actor. But cinema's use of rappers in recent times has often been more cynical. Like Elvis in the 1960s, or the early 1980s lone black movie star, Richard Pryor, they have been de-fanged and put to work making endless, mediocre movies which give Hollywood access to otherwise unobtainable, would-be rebellious young audiences. Even the hippest rappers have been complicit in this, showing lazy standards they would not allow in music: observe the endless pimp cameos Ice-T now churns out; Redman and Method Man in campus cannabis caper How High, Dr Dre and Snoop in car-wash comedy The Wash, and Queen Latifah propping up Steve Martin with a ghetto stereotype in Bringing Down the House. Snoop's line of self-starring porn films was, perhaps understandably, his own idea.

At its best, this work has increased black cultural weight in the cinema. At its worst, the air of cold commerce blows both ways. The movies' soundtrack albums were often their main money-spinners. Casting and cross-marketing can be hard to tell apart.

Unsurprisingly, a white rapper has been allowed to do things differently. The massive success of Eminem in 8 Mile has taken his stardom to Elvis-like levels by adding fans who would hate his records. And, like Boyz N the Hood, its scenes of Detroit struggle are a revelatory, if sanitised, insight into his hard-knocks world. But 8 Mile's real importance was as an extension of Eminem's autobiographical rap albums; it showed how he worked on the hit "Lose Yourself" (as he was really being made to do on the set), and the struggles that made him want to rap at all. Like his music, the movie expressed his life, in his voice.

Ice Cube was never given that luxury by Hollywood. Since Boyz N the Hood, he has built his stardom the hard way - wrestling giant snakes in Anaconda (1997), and making a rap biker film, Torque (2004). But he has parlayed these B-movies into a position of independent power. Friday (1996), which he co-wrote, was his second breakthrough. A low-budget comedy about him and a friend (Chris Tucker) sitting on a South Central porch, watching the world go by, it was an unexpected hit - as were its two sequels, both similarly-themed Barbershop films, and Cube's directorial debut, the semi-feminist stripper movie The Players Club (1997). Co-produced by Cube's own CubeVision company, all these films ignored Hollywood maxims, and plugged directly into the sensibilities of many of Cube's faithful black fans. Funkily crude, not concerned with white crowds, this was the new, black-made blaxploitation. As his co-star, Omar Epps, observed, "one thing about working with Ice Cube, you ain't never gonna lose your core audience. You can go in the ghetto somewhere and see a Next Friday poster in a crack house."

A very different movie, though, shows another way in which hip-hop cinema could yet develop. John Singleton's Baby Boy (2001) is a serious, imaginative film about the ghetto-enforced emotional immaturity of South Central youth - his best since Boyz N the Hood. The rappers Tyrese and Snoop co-star with committed, powerful performances. But rap itself is present only in the bedroom mural of Tupac staring down at Tyrese like a warning, and Tupac's "Hail Mary", played loud in a crisis. Rap, and its stars, are not exploited here. They are just part of the fabric of an unflinching look at black 21st-century life - a movie, at last, to match the music.

Comments