Hip-hop's history on the silver screen is as wild and wide-ranging as the story of the genre itself. It's full of straightforward biopics, like the just-released N.W.A history Straight Outta Compton, as well as fictitious stories inspired by real life, such as Krush Groove’s dramatization of Russell Simmons and Def Jam’s rise in the music industry. There are crime movies like Belly and inner-city hood tales like Menace II Society; sports movies like Wildcats and weed comedies like Friday. And just as hip-hop culture is a dominant influence on modern society, it also plays an integral role in some of the best American films in recent memory, including Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. So let’s count down some of the most Notorious movies of the hip-hop era. Who’s got the Juice?
Filmmaker Tony Silver follows young graffiti artists and breakdancers — including future legends Haze, Cap, Dondi, Crazy Legs, and a young DJ Kay Slay (then a graf writer known as Dez) — around NYC in this groundbreaking PBS documentary about the burgeoning subculture known as hip-hop. A true document of the essence of the art form, Style Wars bursts with color, characters and frantic energy and humanizes the defiant creatives who were constructing the pillars of what would soon become a billion-dollar industry.
No film made before or since has captured the beautiful innocence of early hip-hop like Wild Style. Underground filmmaker Charlie Ahearn — his no-budget martial-arts movie The Deadly Art of Survival is worth hunting down — adopted a loosely scripted, cinéma vérité style by casting non-actors and real-life graffiti-writing couple Lee Quinones and Lady Pink as the romantic leads, and Fab 5 Freddy as the impresario who tries to introduce Lee to journalist Virginia (played by the gallerist and downtown aesthete Patti Astor) and Manhattan's gallery scene. The resulting class conflict, and questions about authenticity and "selling out," continue to resonate today.
There are vivid performances of Grandmaster Flash spinning records in his mom's kitchen, Cold Crush Brothers and the Fantastic Five trading battle rhymes on a basketball court, and a rousing finale at the East River Amphitheater, where Rammellzee roamed the stage with a shotgun. The soundtrack, which features beats produced by Chris Stein of Blondie and Fab 5 Freddy and live performances by Double Trouble and other old-school legends, is arguably the first great hip-hop album.
It's 1984, and you've got your sweatband, a square of cut cardboard and a worn copy of the K-Tel comp Break-Master featuring the New York City Breakers, complete with instructions on how to breakdance. What else does a young B-boy need? For a generation of suburban kids immersing themselves in this new thing called hip-hop, Beat Street and Breakin' were appointment viewing. The former, directed by Harry Belafonte, was a morality play about a young DJ trying to crack the music industry amid the squalor and go-go capitalism of Eighties New York, with performances by Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force, Melle Mel, the System and others brightening the proceedings. Breakin' wasn't as professionally made, but it's a lot more fun, and its scenes of a young white jazz dancer trying to fit in with famed L.A. pop-lockers like Shabba Doo and Boogaloo Shrimp are both unashamedly dopey and undeniably exhilarating.
Krush Groove is essentially Russell Simmons' life story, albeit with a few minor exaggerations: He's portrayed by screen hunk Blair Underwood (who'd later find greater fame on the Eighties TV sensation L.A. Law), and his character hooks up with the stunning Sheila E. However, no actor was capable of replicating Rick Rubin's wild mane and manic energy, so Rubin got to play himself. Together, the two form Krush Groove Records (aka Def Jam Records), sign up Run-DMC (who in reality were managed by Rush, but signed to Profile Records), LL Cool J and the Beastie Boys…and the rest is his story.
Goldie Hawn stars in this football comedy, a Dangerous Minds–meets–Gridiron Gang mash-up that also features the film debuts of Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson. LL Cool J’s small role in the film marks a turning point for a popular MC acting in a film not remotely about hip-hop culture — setting the stage for Ice-T in New Jack City, Ludacris in 2 Fast 2 Furious and Will Smith in a whole bunch of summer blockbusters. LL also contributed the film's immortal theme song, "Football Rap" — these days, it's impossible to think of Wildcats without hearing the casually brilliant opening couplet: "It's the sport of kings/Better than diamond rings."
The Fat Boys, a half-ton hip-hop comedy act comprised of Prince Markie Dee, Kool Rock Ski and Buffy the Human Beatbox, get their own starring vehicle: a screwball comedy with a morbid plot about a degenerate gambler who hires bumbling orderlies — Get it? Disorderlies! —in the hopes that they'll expedite his billionaire uncle's death. The film emerged at the height of the Fat Boys' popularity, the same summer the group released their cover of the Surfaris' "Wipeout," which featured the Beach Boys on back-up and pushed their album Crushin' past platinum sales.
Spike Lee's masterwork about racial tensions in Bed-Stuy isn't explicitly a hip-hop movie. However, hip-hop culture is the film's main provocateur and conscience. Both tendencies are represented in the form of Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), who wears alternating hand rings that spell out "Love" and "Hate" (an homage to Robert Mitchum's hand tattoos in The Night of the Hunter), and annoys the neighborhood as his boombox pumps Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" at full volume. Raheem's demise at the hands of local police not only sparks Do The Right Thing's incendiary finale, but mirrors the violent clashes between law enforcement and young men and women of color that continue today.
Eazy-E once dismissed John Singleton's Oscar-nominated directorial debut as an after-school special, and he was kind of right. Cuba Gooding Jr., the central character growing up in the gang-infested Crenshaw neighborhood, seems too Hollywood clean-cut to bring real pathos to his role, at least when compared with Compton native and scene-stealing breakout star Ice Cube. But perhaps he only proved the point of a movie whose title was lifted from Eazy's rap classic "The Boyz-N-The Hood." Not all black youth are streetwise drug dealers like Cube's Doughboy; some are just regular kids like Gooding's Tre Styles, who bumbled through adolescence while trying to survive South Central Los Angeles in the process.
Former Spike Lee cinematographer Ernest R. Dickerson's directorial debut is much better than its "hood movie" reputation suggests. Omar Epps brought charisma and verve to his character of Q, an aspiring teenage DJ in Harlem whose hooky-playing games and shoplifting antics evolve into more serious crimes. His tale is pocked with engaging cameos from Cindy Herron of En Vogue, Queen Latifah, Treach of Naughty by Nature, EPMD and Samuel L. Jackson. Still, Juice is best remembered for Tupac Shakur's unhinged turn as Bishop, one of the great movie villains of the era, and a continuing inspiration for rap artists like YG ("Who Do You Love?") and Meek Mill ("I Got the Juice").
Before he became the best stand-up comic in the world, Chris Rock's career had its shares of highs (Pookie in New Jack City, Nat X on Saturday Night Live) and lows (the rest of his SNL run). CB4 is somewhere in between. More clever in idea than execution, this mockumentary about a trio of middle-class poseurs masquerading as the World's Most Dangerous Group Not Named N.W.A (Rock even sports Eazy-E's trademark jheri curl) is at its best when it's spoofing the songs of the time — "Sweat of My Balls," a hilarious reworking of Kool G. Rap & DJ Polo's "Talk Like Sex" is Weird Al–level genius.
Sharper, more penetrating and just plain funnier than CB4, Fear of a Black Hat, a micro-budgeted indie film featuring writer-director-star Rusty Cundieff (later of Chappelle's Show fame) is a This is Spinal Tap for the Yo! MTV Raps era. By satirizing everything from easy targets like gangster rap, Vanilla Ice and P.M. Dawn to materialism and censorship, Fear of a Black Hat reveals that hip hop can be just as ridiculous and ripe for parody as hair metal, or any other genre.
Who's The Man? is kind of like a feature-length episode of Yo! MTV Raps. Series creator Ted Demme (who passed away in 2002) directed this comedy-drama starring MTV Raps hosts Ed Lover and Doctor Dre as a pair of barbers who become bumbling cops. The plot is essentially a sideshow to the cameos made by a cavalcade of golden-age rap heroes, from Monie Love, Ice-T and B-Real of Cypress Hill to House of Pain as a bunch of hoods playing cards and Kool G Rap getting a haircut from Bernie Mac. MTV regulars like VJ Karen Duffy, Yo! MTV Raps co-host T-Money, and comedians Denis Leary and Colin Quinn contributed to this hip-hop version of Where's Waldo? Meanwhile, the soundtrack is best known for including the Notorious B.I.G.'s thrilling debut, "Party and Bullshit."
With 2Pac portraying another crazy Bishop-like villain — this time, he's a murderous thug trying to assemble a squad for an outdoor basketball tournament — Above the Rim should have been as exciting as Juice. Unfortunately, Duane Martin gave a flat performance as Kyle Watson, the high-school basketball star that 2Pac tries to manipulate, and decent supporting roles from Leon (of The Temptations and Cool Runnings fame), Bernie Mac and a bizarrely awkward-looking Marlon Wayans couldn't rescue the picture. The best thing about Above the Rim is that it yielded an amazing platinum-certified soundtrack from Death Row Records, then at the height of its powers. Among the hits were Warren G and Nate Dogg's "Regulate," SWV and Wu-Tang Clan's "Anything," the Lady of Rage's "Afro Puffs," and 2Pac and Thug Life's "Pour Out a Little Liquor."
After directing a series of music videos, notably Ice Cube's "It Was a Good Day" and Coolio's "Fantastic Voyage," F. Gary Gray made an impressive leap to full-length features with this Nineties comedy classic. Ice Cube and Chris Tucker were a South Central version of Abbott & Costello, with the surly and straight-talking Cube cast in the Abbott role and Tucker as his partner, the hilariously manic pothead Smokey. Cube co-wrote the script with rap producer DJ Pooh, who shows up as a haplessly bullied UPS driver, and comedians John Witherspoon, Bernie Mac and A.J. Johnson added to the nonsense. Then there was Tiny Lister, whose chain-snatching, Huffy-riding Deebo reawakened all our childhood nightmares of being picked on by the biggest kid in school. A surprise hit upon its release, Friday became required late-night viewing in smoke-filled dorm rooms across America.
An ultra-low-budget film that made Menace II Society look like a David Lean picture, I'm 'Bout It solidified its producer, co-writer, co-director and star — No Limit Records honcho Percy "Master P" Miller — as a budding, and shrewd, entrepreneur. Miller claimed that he made over $9 million on the film — a crude, violent tale about a Louisiana drug dealer —releasing it directly to VHS and selling it for $19.95. Soon, he had a distribution deal with Miramax for future theatrical releases (I Got the Hook Up and Foolish) and a spot on Forbes' list of the top ten highest paid entertainers.
Narratively, Belly's tale of two drug-dealing friends expanding their business and waging turf wars was incomprehensible. There are escapades to Atlanta and Kingston, Jamaica, and a subplot involving an assassination attempt on civil-rights activist Dr. Ben Chavis. When DMX isn't grunting and barking out rants to his underlings, Nas stares vacantly like a comatose version of Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part II. Where music-video superstar Hype Williams impressed was in his visual aesthetic. He emptied his bag of tricks, from his famed fisheye-lens technique (best captured in a promising opening sequence set to Soul II Soul's "Back to Life") to the sooty outdoor sequences that made the film seem like a blurry dream. Under his direction, Belly displayed all the tropes of hip-hop's late-Nineties jiggy era and its ethos of nouveau-rich thuggin' — even if the film's actual content didn't fulfill its promise.
What does a screen adaptation of a Fosse musical set in 1920s Chicago have to do with hip-hop? Queen Latifah. With her turn as Matron Mama Morton, the Queen of Royal Badness became the second rapper to secure an Academy Award nomination in an acting category (Will Smith was honored in 2001 for Ali). Chicago, which won six Academy Awards including Best Picture and grossed over $300 million worldwide, helped make Latifah a mainstream multimedia star who would eventually topline major studio films (Bringin' Down the House), host a talk show and become a face of CoverGirl.
8 Mile is Rocky meets The Karate Kid with battle raps replacing boxing and karate, but the lack of originality doesn't deduct from its greatness. Starring Eminem in all his self-loathing glory ("I'm a piece of fucking white trash," he raps during the climactic battle), the film elevated the biggest rapper of his time to a higher plateau — rave reviews, a $51 million opening weekend, and a Best Original Song Oscar for "Lose Yourself," the first hip-hop track to win the award.
"Everybody gotta have a dream." For Djay, a charismatic pimp (is there any other kind?) portrayed by Terrence Howard, it's to escape a sorry life filled with nickel bags and damaged women — he understands the language of people with short money all too well. Rap stardom, he believes, is his only ticket out. Hustle & Flow is visceral: the sweat is pungent, the desperation palpable. The music hits hard. Though certain plot points now feel antiquated (the third act is essentially, "Please listen to my demo, Skinny Black."), the performers mesmerize, with Howard and Taraji P. Henson, as Djay's main girl, Shug, sharing sizzling chemistry a decade before Empire. More than anything, Hustle & Flow broke ground by setting its story in Memphis, Tennessee, proving that hip-hop, and the strivers within the culture, weren't confined to New York, Los Angeles, or even newer hubs like Miami and Atlanta.
When Eminem's 8 Mile revived the hip-hop biopic, a form that had lay dormant since the days of Krush Groove, 50 Cent was the first to capitalize. His poorly received Get Rich or Die Tryin' inevitably suffered from comparisons to Em's Oscar-winning bow. But it's a decent, watchable film. Fiddy isn't a great actor, but he manages to carry his origin story of a drug-dealer-turned-aspiring-rapper who runs afoul of Majestic, played by Game of Thrones actor Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje and clearly inspired by real-life Queens gangster Kenneth "Supreme" McGriff. Director Jim Sheridan coaxed decent performances out of all involved and created a gritty realism that made the story believable (even if much of it wasn't exactly true).
A warts and all biopic that depicts one of the greatest rappers of all time slinging crack and treating the women in his life (Faith Evans, Lil Kim, and Jan, the mother of his oldest child) like garbage, Notorious is a mixed bag. As Christopher Wallace, Jamal Woolard — in real life, a struggling rapper nicknamed "Gravy" — is a revelation, nailing Biggie's marble-mouthed voice and veering between sweet and menacing depending on the moment; Derek Luke and Anthony Mackie, however, are disastrously miscast as Puff Daddy and 2Pac, respectively. The film also suffers from its position in recent history. Why watch a reenactment of Suge Knight's, ahem, notorious speech from the 1995 Source Awards when the real thing is available on YouTube? Still, Notorious grossed over $20 million on opening weekend, demonstrating that hip-hop biopics were commercially viable and paving the way for films like Straight Outta Compton.