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Horror Director Eli Roth: My Top 5 Hip-Hop Songs of All Time

The 'Hemlock Grove' executive producer discusses the one thing he likes almost as much as horror

July 15, 2014 9:00 AM ET
Eli Roth.
Eli Roth.
Ernesto Ruscio/Getty Images.

Before he was polarizing audiences with horror films Cabin Fever and Hostel, film director and Hemlock Grove executive producer Eli Roth was a suburban teenager becoming obsessed with hip-hop.

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For the man who directed Snoop Dogg's "La La La" and co-wrote RZA's directorial debut The Man With the Iron Fists, the relationship between hip-hop and film runs deep. "The only people who know more about movies than directors are rappers," Roth tells Rolling Stone. "All Snoop and RZA do is watch movies. When I met Snoop, I was astounded by his level of cinema knowledge. Those guys know everything."

Before Roth releases his Cannibal Holocaust-influenced upcoming film The Green Inferno in September, the filmmaker is concentrating his efforts on Hemlock Grove, the supernatural horror series on Netflix whose second season premiered last week. Like Roth's films, reaction has been mixed to the series, an aspect of the process that doesn't faze the controversial filmmaker. "People wanted to be the first to declare it cool or the worst piece of crap on television, and Netflix liked the controversy," Roth says. "People would either say, 'I watched them all; it's terrible' or 'I watched them all; it's amazing and I'm watching them again.'"

"You don't make movies like the kind that I make to be universally loved," Roth adds. "You make them because you want to provoke people and you want a reaction. Time is the ultimate critic. A lot of the time, people are reviewing me and over time, there are people that just don't have any association and couldn't care less about me and just enjoy it."

Roth says he approaches the compilation of a Top 5 song list the same way he would a Best Horror Films list. "What makes horror great is 'the scare,' but it loses a little bit of potency each time upon repeated viewings," Roth says. "When people tell me a horror movie doesn't 'hold up,' I go, 'You can't judge it that way.' In thinking about hip-hop, I tried to pick my list based on 'How excited was I the first time I heard it?' I was trying to think of songs I became obsessed with that changed the way that I saw what hip-hop could be. 

1. Eric B. and Rakim, "Paid in Full" (1987): Hearing the beat, layers and textures of that song transported me. It was like I was in a trance. I was working at this restaurant and one of the girls came in and put that on as we were cleaning up and I was just completely hypnotized. There was also that line, "Yo Eli, turn the bass down," and I just went, "What?! There's a person named Eli in hip-hop?" That sealed it. Suddenly my name was cool and that became my song. When we were at a party and that part came on, everyone pointed at me [Laughs].

2. Slick Rick, "Mona Lisa" (1988): Everyone loved Slick Rick because before 2 Live Crew, he was the dirtiest rapper. I remember girls being into Slick Rick and going, "Wow, girls like lyrics like this?" When he said "Doing their smash hit, 'Mona Lisa,' you know, like the picture?", I remember thinking, "What? Is Slick Rick talking about the Bob Hoskins movie?" "Treat Her Like a Prostitute" and"Indian Girl (An Adult Story)" faded away, but "Mona Lisa" and "Children's Story" are the ones people can still listen to now. I think I earned the respect of RZA when we were at a party and someone threw on Slick Rick and I knew every word.

3. De La Soul, "Buddy" (1989): Hearing [the group's debut album] 3 Feet High and Rising was the first time I felt so disconnected from pop culture because I had absolutely no idea what they were talking about in any of the songs. As a white Jewish kid growing up in suburbia, this album became the Rosetta Stone. You had to go through every single line on every song. "Buddy," especially, presented hip-hop from this peaceful, spiritual angle and suddenly I wanted to hear A Tribe Called Quest and Jungle Brothers. You could put on "Buddy" and everyone could listen to it.

4. Cypress Hill, "Hand on the Pump" (1991): I was in New York City the night the Los Angeles riots broke out. We were watching L.A. fall apart and everyone was afraid that New York would do the same. You could tell people were upset and pissed off about the situation, but there wasn't the urge to go and trash the city, so everyone was sitting tight. We held a huge party in the NYU cafeteria for people to just hang out so that nobody would go out that night because everyone was afraid that there would be marauding gangs of people. We played the whole Cypress Hill album and I never heard rap that was that dangerous and edgy. "Hand on the Pump" in particular just had this funky beat and blew my mind. You can put this song on now and people still go crazy for it.

5. Beastie Boys, "So What'cha Want" (1992): This is when hip-hop merged with skateboarder culture and you just felt Beastie Boys were at the cutting edge of everything. If you want to make a room full of white guys go completely insane, put on "So What'cha Want" at full volume and watch everyone start jumping around and rhyming every single word. I still don't know what they're talking about half the time or who they're referencing, but it doesn't even matter. Everything you thought you knew about them was rewritten [on Check Your Head]. I remember hearing that and thinking, "Oh, that's who these guys are. They're not 'Fight for Your Right'." They just completely reinvented what the language, sound and culture of hip-hop was.

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