Monday, May 23, 2016

Greatest Movies About Hip Hop, Part 2: Narratives

Way, way back in February I did a post on the greatest movies about hip hop. It focused specifically on hip hop documentaries. You can check it out here. The plan was to do a post about "regular" movies about hip hop within a week or so. That didn't happen, obviously, but I haven't forgotten about it, so here we are.

What is a hip hop movie? I did a lot of research on this so that I didn't leave out any movies that I have seen and felt were deserving of a spot on this list. By research, I mean I looked up a lot of other lists of hip hop movies. What I've found is that to most people, or at the ones who made these lists, a hip hop movie doesn't have to be about the culture at all. It merely has to be "inspired" by it, or involve it in some fashion. This means every film about black urban life, that has a rapper in the cast, has a heavily rap flavored soundtrack, or a hip hop figure involved behind the scenes counts. Some lists include films that clearly are not hip hop movies, but are known to be beloved by hip hop culture. Trust me, there is more than one list out there with GoodFellas and Scarface included.

I love a lot of the movies I came across, but these lists were disappointing to me. I wanted a list of films that really are "about" hip hop. By "about," I mean a movie has to be about one of the five pillars of the culture: B-boying (better known as break-dancing), MCing (rapping), DJing (and/or music producing), Graffiti Writing (self explanatory), and Beat-Boxing (making that music with your mouth). To be included on this list, either the plot of your movie must involve one of those pillars, or one of them must be integral to the identity of a major character. And I mean character, not actor. I know, Ice Cube is a rapper and is in Boyz N the Hood and Friday. No, neither movie will be here. Characters in films such as Dope, and Top Five discuss hip hop constantly, but these won't be here, either. Nor will such movies as New Jack City, Menace II Society, or Set it Off. Okay, I'm done explaining myself, let's get on with the list.

15. Fear of a Black Hat
This is a film that is as unique as any on the list. It is a hip hop mockumentary following a rap group by the name of N.W.H. (Niggaz With Hats). Yes, this is a riff on a hugely popular real life group. The members are named Ice Cold, Tasty Taste, and DJ Tone Def. As is often popular to do by rappers in real life, they consistently find ways to rationalize outrageous behavior as socially relevant acts of rebellion. Sometimes it makes sense, sometimes not. The main act in this case is the ridiculous hats the group sports. There are others, though. The film is actually told from the perspective of Nina, a sociologist who is making a documentary analyzing hip hop as a form of communication. One notable thing about Nina is that she's played by Kasi Lemmons who co-starred in the slasher classic Candyman and would go on to direct Eve's Bayou (1997) and Talk to Me (2007). That last one made my list of the 20 greatest black biopics. Fear of a Black Hat is a very funny film that has flown way under the radar.

14. Get Rich or Die Tryin'
Named after his debut album, this film is a semi-autobiographical account of the life of it's star Curtis Jackson, better known as 50 Cent. So many of the details were ripped from his experiences, the plot reads very similar to the rapper's actual bio. He plays Marcus, a small-time hustler who was set up to head down that path practically from birth. After getting shot and nearly losing his life, he pours his heart into the rap game. However, while trying to become a star in that arena, old street beefs still dog him. 50 does quite well, playing himself and helps make this a very entertaining film.

13. Brown Sugar
A guy and a girl have been best friends forever, but it’s always been a platonic relationship. When the guy announces he’s about to get married, the girl starts to feel like he might be the one that got away. A rather straightforward rom-com ensues. Where hip-hop ties into this is in the jobs of our guy and girl. The guy, Andre (Diggs) is an A&R for a record label. He has signed some highly successful acts, but they have been lacking in substance, so he’s on the hunt for a true artist. The girl, Sidney (Lathan) is the editor of a hip-hop magazine. In addition to our main couple, there is also a bit of a love story between the artist, played by Mos Def and one of Sidney’s friends, played by Queen Latifah. Thanks to its light-hearted nature and universal themes, this is probably the most accessible film on the list.

12. Poetic Justice
Lucky (Tupac Shakur) and Chicago (Joe Torry) are both mailmen for the U.S. Postal Service who are tasked by their boss to drive a delivery truck from Los Angeles to Oakland over the weekend. Chicago brings his girlfriend Iesha (Regina King), who in turns brings Justice (Janet Jackson), a hair stylist who needs to get there for a big competition. As it turns out, Lucky also has another reason to go to Oakland. He has plans on reuniting with his cousin as the two are trying to get their music career off the ground. This follow-up to director John Singleton’s legendary Boyz N the Hood has as much to say, and is nearly as poignant, but received much less fanfare. It features a winning performance by Tupac and the poetry of Maya Angelou, who also has a cameo.

11. Breakin’
By 1984, the general public had been aware of breakdancing for a few years. The release of Breakin’ marked its zenith as a cultural phenomenon. It tells the story of Ozone (Adolfo Quinones) and Turbo (Michael Chambers), a pair of breakdancers who cross paths with Kelly (Lucinda Dickey), a rich girl who starts slumming it by hanging out with them. She is also trying to get accepted to a major dance school. Then, of course, there’s the rivalry with an opposing dance crew. Whatever the movie lacks in narrative skill it makes up for in just plain fun. As goofy as it is, it’s just impossible not to get caught up in all the shenanigans. The film also gives us Ice-T as himself, a blink and you’ll miss it glimpse of Jean-Claude Van Damme, and the most iconic dance sequence in the history of hip hop movies featuring Turbo and his broom.

10. Krush Groove
Def Jam Records is an integral part of the real history of hip hop. This is a highly fictionalized account of its formation and rise with Blair Underwood playing the role of mogul Russell Simmons. Many of the others in the cast are playing themselves, or at least versions of themselves. This includes Run DMC, Kurtis Blow, The Fat Boys, LL Cool J, Sheila E, Rick Rubin, and a few others. It marked the first time rappers were afforded parts in a major studio release. Read about my full experience with this movie here.

9. Notorious
The life and times of rapper The Notorious B.I.G. (Jamal Woolard) gives an outstanding performance as our hero in a film that turned out much better than most people thought it would, myself included. It truly captures early/mid 90s hip hop and tells a compelling story at the same time. It occasionally falls into the common biopic trap of hero worship, but is honest enough to make it a very solid film. It is also noteworthy for being hip hop’s first biopic.

8. Juice
Quincy, Q for short (Omar Epps) is an aspiring turntablist hopeful of winning the big DJ’ing competition that’s on his way. His friends, Raheem (Khalil Kain), Bishop (Tupac), and Steel (Jermaine Hopkins) support him, but they are also looking for a way to make a quick buck. Without Q’s knowledge they decide to rob the local bodega. Q reluctantly participates. It goes horribly wrong when Bishop shoots and kills the storeowner. This starts the downward spiral that culminates in Bishop terrorizing his childhood friends. It’s a classic tale about the corruptive and divisive nature of power that has gone on to become a ‘hood classic. Look for Samuel L. Jackson in a small, but important role, and a cameo by Queen Latifah.

7. Wild Style
Here, we have the story of a reclusive painter who only associates with a few and has lots of high-minded ideals about his art. One of those lucky few who calls him a friend has arranged for a newspaper journalist to do a story on some other local painters, and gets our hero to get in on the publicity. On we go from there. Zoro’s choice of paint happens to be spray paint, and his art is graffiti. Truth told, if this list were solely based on quality of film, Wild Style would much further down the list, if it made it at all. Status is what gets it this far. It is literally the first hip hop movie to ever reach the big screen. For that reason, and a handful of iconic scenes, it’s become a much revered classic within hip hop culture. Read my Blind Spot review of it here.

6. House Party
This one takes the classic teen movie trope of kids throwing a party when their parents are away and gives it a hip-hop sheen. It stars fun-loving rap duo Kid 'n Play, Christopher Robinson Jr. and Peter Martin, respectively, as versions of themselves. Of course, I have to mind my own criteria, so that's not what gets this movie here. What gets it here is that in the movie Kid is an aspiring rapper who spends a good deal of time penning lyrics. Play is not shown to be as serious as Kid, but also raps. The two would eventually engage in a battle during the titular house party. Still, that's not the draw. What keeps us entertained is just how fun, and funny, the whole thing is. Read my full blown article on it here.

5. Straight Outta Compton
Hip hop biopics are in short supply. To my knowledge there are only two: Notorious which we looked at earlier, and this one which tackles the rise and fall of Rock & Roll Hall-of-Famers N.W.A. It’s a fun ride starting in Compton in the mid-1980s and following them through the mid-1990s. We get a handful of great performances to pull us through a lively production. It’s also surprisingly touching when it needs to be. Read my full review here.

4. CB4
If the story of N.W.A. made for a great movie, the parody of that story was an even better one despite coming out twenty years prior. We start with Albert (Chris Rock), a suburban kid who longs to be a big time rap star. He modifies the name of a real life gangsta from the nearby ‘hood to fit his own purposes, calling himself MC Gusto. Along with his two friends, they form a group called CB4, short for Cell Block 4 at the local prison and become break-out sensations with their hit “Straight Outta Locash.” There is trouble with the authorities over another of their hit songs “Sweat From My Balls,” a shady manager, groupies, artistic differences, a break-up, and most important, dealing with the real Gusto who is none too pleased about having his name stolen. Despite how any of that sounds, this movie is just damn hilarious. Easily among Chris Rock’s best work.

3. Hustle & Flow
Like CB4, this film concerns a guy who longs to be a rap star. Unlike CB4, our hero isn’t just pretending to be a bad guy, he really is one. His name is DJay and he’s a pimp who looks nothing like whatever imagery that automatically conjures in your head. And this sure ain’t no comedy. The magic that takes place is how much of a sympathetic character he becomes. It’s due to some wonderful writing and a fantastic performance by Terrence Howard which earned him an Oscar nomination. He’s helped by some great work from Anthony Anderson, Taraji P. Henson, and even real life rapper Ludacris. The whole package is stamped with an exclamation point by the song “It’s Hard Out Here For a Pimp.” The tune not only got nominated for an Oscar, it shocked everyone, including Three Six Mafia (the group that made it), when it won.

2. 8 Mile
We get submerged in the world of battle rap in Detroit during the mid 90s. B Rabbit (Eminem) is a talented rapper, but doesn’t really want to be a star. He’d rather not get on stage, but everyone around him knows how good he is and keeps encouraging him to just do it. He’s also got a bunch of other problems. He’s a single dad trying to support his daughter while living with his own totally irresponsible mother. Thrown the guys from most popular rap crew in the area who keep harassing him everywhere he goes. Though it doesn’t qualify as a biopic, it is certainly a semi-autobiographical journey for star Eminem. For us, it’s a satisfying one.

1. Beat Street
Let me be completely honest, here. Beat Street is not the best movie on this list. It is, however, the movie that best brings together all of the various elements of hip hop and is set in the South Bronx, the actual birthplace of the culture. Every element not only shows up, but gets prominent screen time. This even includes beat-boxing with a cameo by the man many people acknowledge as its creator, Doug E. Fresh. The story surrounds local DJ Kenny (Guy Davis), his breakdancing little brother Lee (Robert Taylor), and their graffiti artist friend Ramo (Jon Chardiet). By the way, Kenny also raps a bit. There are some real heartfelt stories about all three and they intertwine seamlessly. In other words, it may not be better than some of the movies behind it, but it is still really good, and brings the culture to life. I go a bit more in-depth on Beat Street here.

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  1. I've seen some of these films. CB4 is severely underrated as I think it's hip-hop's answer to This is Spinal Tap. 8 Mile is awesome as is Hustle & Flow which I think is my favorite in the list. I still love that moment when Three-6 Mafia won the Oscar. They were like "Yes, we did it! We did it! Oh, wrong way! We did it!" Jon Stewart's following comments were even greater.

    House Party I liked a lot as well as it sequel that featured Iman (I saw a pic of David Bowie on the set as he was dating her at the time as everyone I'm sure was in awe of Bowie). I liked Krush Groove, cheesy but fun. Poetic Justice I think is also underrated. I liked that film. Especially when Lucky beats the shit out of Chicago for being a bitch. All he does is comb that lame-ass hair of his, dumbass motherfucker. I loved it when Janet kicked him in the balls.

    1. Yes, CB4 is hip hop's answer to This is Spinal Tap. Great call. The Three Six Oscar moment is classic.

      House Party 2 was good fun, too. Poetic Justice is very underrated. And Chicago was the worst.

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