Hip-Hop was once regarded as a cultural bubble that was going to burst at any moment. Pundits like Tipper Gore thought the musical genre was just for the youth and she spearheaded the campaign to put parental advisory stickers on the CDs with “explicit lyrics.” Well, Tipper, you and your cronies successfully made hip-hop infinitely more popular, and that label is some pretty sweet branding.
Now, 20 or so years later, hip-hop has become a touchstone in our American culture that has been monetized not only by the youth, but by millions who want to express themselves in a way that was once shunned. Hell, N.W.A. even used a banging sample of the titular song “Express Yourself” to solidify the genre’s power.
But, you know as well as any, hip-hop was going to find its way into the film and quite welcomely, I might add. Early films like BREAKIN’ and BEAT STREET (both from 1984) portrayed the sillier, more fun side of hip-hop. The sub-genre developed into stories about life on the streets and overcoming adversity to fulfill your destiny– 8 MILE/GET RICH OR DIE TRYING/ATL, all starring rappers: Eminem, 50 Cent and T.I., respectively. Those aren’t the best, but those films made a splash with the MTV generation.
That’s an almost 20-year gap, so what happened in the 90s? Well, hood movies is what happened, beginning with the ferocious of portrayal of South Central L.A. in BOYZ IN THE HOOD. It jump-started the (then) wunderkind John Singleton’s career and many pretty damn good piggy-backers followed, like MENACE 2 SOCIETY, SOUTH CENTRAL, BLOOD IN BLOOD OUT, JUICE, and it culminated with the Wayans Brothers’ spoof DON’T BE A MENACE TO SOUTH CENTRAL WHILE DRINKING YOUR JUICE IN THE HOOD (best title ever). Those aren’t technically hip-hop films, but they influenced film/rap culture quite a bit.
This sub-genre has not always had the best films, but it showed us a lifestyle that was foreign to many and actually had a point-of-view. With the N.W.A. biopic STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON hitting theaters tomorrow (or late tonight) here are some films that are cornerstones in hip-hop.
BEYOND THE LIGHTS (2014)
Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood
BEYOND THE LIGHTS hits the highest of falsettos with its melodramatic tone, but Gina Prince-Bythewood’s direction melts away any of the over-the-top tropes that make most romantic dramas laughable. The film follows the young starlet Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) while she’s on the rise to being of the world’s most profitable pop stars.
Noni is just seen as a product (like most pop stars) to everybody in her inner circle, including her “mommy-ger” (Minnie Driver), her fake boyfriend and rapper (real life hip-hop artist Machine Gun Kelly), and her record label who refuses to let Noni write her own music. She’s a woman with a voice that is heard by millions, but anything of substance and truth gets muted by those who think they know what’s best for her career. She’s apologetic when she speaks out and it all comes to a head when she attempts to end the seemingly perfect life that was architected by her oppressors.
I explained all of that to say this most likely happens to pop stars all the time. These figures are given larger-than-life sex symbols that many can’t, or don’t want to live up to on a daily basis. We saw this earlier in the year with the documentary AMY, where her closest confidants were controlling her every move and forcing the spotlight, even in most intimate of settings.
Prince-Bythwood gives Noni her voice back, not only as an artist, but human being. Noni was forced to sacrifice everything that made her Noni, and Mbatha-Raw has the it-factor to make this pop star persona actually believable. Not to mention BEYOND THE LIGHTS has a helluva love-story intertwined with the poignant commentary about celebrity culture. -Cole Clay
BEYOND THE LIGHTS is available on Netflix.
8 MILE (2002)
Directed by Curtis Hanson
There are plenty of great hip-hop influenced films out there that are based on true stories, whether it’s NOTORIOUS (for the most part) or the upcoming STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON, but the Curtis Hanson-directed film, 8 MILE, is little less on the nose. The film takes us through the storm-tossed life of Marshall Mathers, aka Eminem. The acclaimed artist plays a version of himself through the character of Jimmy “B-Rabbit” Smith, a struggling rapper trying to cope with a broken family and overcome the difficulties of being a white man in a predominantly black hip-hop scene.
8 MILE is a harsh yet hopeful story that highlights the moments that are so true to music it celebrates. It gives us a glimpse into Eminem’s formative years that led to his successful career, while showing how rap serves as a form of escapism and a way to express one’s self. Rappers/poets can share their thoughts in a rhythmic way, and 8 MILE does a great job displaying this– even giving us some killer tracks, including the Oscar-winning song “Lose Yourself.” – Preston Barta
HUSTLE & FLOW (2005)
Directed by Craig Brewer
The year was 2005 and rap had fully gained the respect of mainstream America. Then, Craig Brewer’s balmy tale HUSTLE & FLOW followed Memphis based pimp Dee-Jay (Terrence Howard), who’s trying to transcend the odds and do something positive with his life– in his case it’s becoming a rapper.
HUSTLE & FLOW won an Oscar for best song with Three 6 Mafia’s “It’s Hard Out Here For A Pimp,” even Howard gained a nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role. This was taken seriously and rightfully so. Brewer gave this setting life brimming with struggles not only for our leading character, but for the women that are under his employ. This story liberated the constraints of what hip-hop in film could be, sadly Brewer never replicated such success. But you can see Howard crushing it now on FOX’s fantastic melodrama EMPIRE. – Cole Clay
Directed by Boaz Yakin
Some of you have probably never even heard of this film. FRESH may have gone unnoticed by the general public, but it was highly praised among critics. Marketed as a “hip-hop, hood film,” FRESH tells the story of Michael (Sean Nelson), nicknamed Fresh, a 12-year-old kid who does drug-runs for gangsters. His alcoholic father (Samuel L. Jackson) who is also an extremely skilled chess player, forces him to learn chess. Using the same strategy skills from the game, he devises a plan that will free him and his drug-addict sister (N’Bushe Wright) from their miserable lives. This leads to an unbelievable and shocking twist of an ending that no one saw coming.
The story itself, written by Boaz Yakin (NOW YOU SEE ME, MAX), is fresh. It’s a clever and brilliant script that gives us a glimpse into the rough New York City crime life and how people can be so immune to witness cold-blooded deaths. FRESH provides incredible performances and a great soundtrack, which features music by Wu-Tang, Cold Crush Brothers, and Grandmaster Flash. – Susan Kamyab
KRUSH GROOVE (1985)
Directed by Michael Schultz
Now, we can’t talk about movies revolving around hip-hop and rap culture without mentioning the granddaddy of them all: KRUSH GROOVE. An interpretation on the story of the rise of Def Jam Records, the plot revolves around Russell Simmons (portrayed by Blair Underwood, in his feature film debut) doing whatever it takes for his label, known as Krush Groove Records, to get known. Meanwhile, his brother Joe “Run” Simmons and his group Run DMC find instant success with their record “King of Rock” finding heavy radio airplay. They are then overcome by the stresses of success with Russell trying to acquire the necessary resources for the company to stay open (he can’t print records fast enough), and Run realizing the talent of his group is bigger than the label. In the main subplot, a high school group known as The Disco 3 (played by rap group The Fat Boys) are trying to get known by entering contests and make their name.
It’s clear that the main focus of this movie is the music and promoting the real-life Def Jam label. There was no care in making the plot cohesive in any way, even though they take the time to keep established artists in the business plot (Run DMC, Sheila E, Kurtis Blow), with up-and-comers in the record contract competition subplot (New Edition, The Fat Boys, The Beastie Boys, and the then-unknown LL Cool J). The movie constantly jumps around without the connective tissue to make it a good story. Also, most of the story never really happened in Def Jam’s actual history, a fact admitted as much by Russell Simmons himself. However, any fan of rap or hip-hop should watch KRUSH GROOVE because it was a sign of rap/R&B to come. Did you see all of the acts I listed?! It’s a murderer’s row of rap legends on the verge of greatness and the musical numbers play like the cool set pieces of a bad action movie. For example, LL Cool J’s cameo is gratuitous as it has nothing to do with anything, however it’s sample of his first hit “Radio” BEFORE IT EVER WAS A SINGLE. The movie doesn’t entertain you with cinematic device, but it entertains with its musical history. – Jared McMillan
Directed by Teddy Cool
When you think about the origins of hip-hop, Dallas is probably far from being one of the places that come to mind. Local filmmaker Teddy Cool’s imaginative documentary WE FROM DALLAS shows how and why Dallas deserves to have its place in the records of hip-hop, street dancing and finding fresh beats. It covers the rise of hip-hop culture in Deep Ellum, KNON radio and the ascent of the southern rap culture. It also shows compelling insights from local heroes and legends, DJ’s, graffiti and street artists. It’s an exhilarating documentary for students to learn about Dallas, its music and fans who proudly state: “we from Dallas.” – Preston Barta
Directed by Dan Forrer
Musical documentaries or biopics often deal with how recognition leads to either a satisfying end to a struggle or a struggle that leads to a destructive end. SAMPLE THIS tells of an unlikely jam band being accredited with a song that is one of the most, if not the most, sampled track in the rap community. The song is “Apache” by The Incredible Bongo Band, which was made more famous several years later by Sugar Hill Gang’s version of the same name. The film opens on a credit sequence with commentators like Questlove and Melle Mel, emcee of Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, praising “Apache” then leads to example of the track getting sampled by Missy Elliot’s “We Run This”, Amy Winehouse’s “In My Bed”, and Nas’ classic “Made You Look”. The narrative then starts with how the assassination of Robert Kennedy led to the creation of a band that would eventually birth a hip-hop staple, starting with a former aide to Sen. Kennedy named Michael Viner.
The documentary revolves around Michael Viner having this vision that stemmed from producing a soundtrack for the B-movie THE THING WITH TWO HEADS. After collecting several of the best studio artists at that time (including percussionist King Erisson and drummer Jim Gordon), he labeled them The Incredible Bongo Band and they released the record Bongo Rock. It didn’t do well in terms of sales, however it made its way through the most unlikely of places: The Bronx. This is where the doc becomes important viewing because it goes into detail from here about DJs using “Apache” for breakbeats, including Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, and Grandmaster Flash. These breakbeats gave way to looping records, scratching, and emcees…it built the production of hip-hop/rap as we know it today; instead of ProTools and digital programs that do sampling know, it was turntables and crossfaders. Towards the end of the doc, keep an eye out as they scroll through how many songs have sampled “Apache” over the decades. It’s a fantastic watch to see how one song can change history and become something incredible. – Jared McMillan