All eyes on them: hip-hop film stardom

Rappers delight: the story of how hip-hop’s biggest stars crossed over into the movies, from Ice Cube and Tupac to Will Smith and Queen Latifah.

Beat Street (1984)
Wild Style (1982)

By the dawn of the 1990s, just over a decade after its emergence in 1970s New York, hip-hop had become one of the biggest-selling musical genres on the planet. Its cultural identifiers, from vernacular to clothing, now extended beyond its New York origins and reached around the world. The culture’s foundations of DJing, MCing, breakdancing and graffiti had been taken up by young people across the world. Hip-hop had ‘blackenised’ and further Americanised global youth culture.

Rap music had cut through to the mainstream and in doing so now appealed to a demographic that the guardians of that mainstream felt needed protecting from it – namely, middle-class white kids. Hip-hop had become lucrative, and while the mainstream would (partially) recalibrate its prejudices, hip-hop stars did what many of their musical predecessors had done before them: they eyed Hollywood.

Back to the roots

Migrating from vinyl to cinema hadn’t come easily. Hip-hop had been marginalised by mainstream US television in the 1980s on the basis of race, image and content, with MTV’s selective exclusion of rap continuing for a full seven years after the station’s launch, until the creation of Ted Demme’s Yo! MTV Raps in 1988.

During the 1980s, hip-hop’s major stars only gradually came to have an impact on the mainstream. The music itself was the focus. As such, hip-hop films accompanying their ascent tended to be stories about the music and its adherent culture. Authentic, almost documentary-like dispatches such as Charlie Ahearn’s Wild Style (1982) – shot in the Bronx and Manhattan, and featuring performance cameos from the likes of Grandmaster Flash, Rock Steady Crew and Double Trouble – functioned as biopics of the music, giving hip-hop fans outside New York a window onto the city, and the stars behind the music they loved.

Made in 1984, Beat Street took a similar approach to Wild Style in setting a dramatic story around the music itself, while featuring real-life rappers and DJs like Kool Moe Dee, Afrika Bambaataa and Melle Mel in cameo music performances. The same was true of Krush Groove (1985), a dramatisation of the early days of the Def Jam label. The film gave Blair Underwood his debut role, as Russell Walker, a thinly veiled version of the label’s real boss Russell Simmons, but elsewhere artists from the label’s roster, including The Beastie Boys, Kurtis Blow and LL Cool J appeared as themselves (as did Simmons’s brother’s group Run DMC, who were signed to Profile Records and later had a star vehicle of their own in 1988’s Tougher than Leather, directed by Rick Rubin).

Tougher Than Leather (1988) poster

The first hip-hop movie stars

The hip-hop music star had not yet become the hip-hop film star, sought after to play dramatic roles in films that weren’t rooted in, or reflective of, the music. That would happen at the turn of the 1990s, when figures like Ice-T (Tracy Marrow), Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson) and Tupac Shakur crossed over into the movies, heralding a shift that had a profound impact on black film stars in the US and beyond.

How and why such rappers were able to make the move to film stardom rests in part in the growing range of subjects being rapped about as the decade progressed. The party-rocking rhymes of the early 80s were increasingly giving way to starker, more sophisticated narratives that dealt with the underbelly of life in black America, resulting in the rappers who created this material developing ever more distinct, well-formed personas.

A rapper like Ice-T, for example, had through his songwriting cultivated a recognisable and authoritative narrative presence – that of the assured pimp/gangsta – so that when he came to be cast in films such as Mario Van Peebles’ New Jack City (1991), as a detective working undercover in a drug gang, or as a gang leader in Walter Hill’s Trespass (1992, alongside Ice Cube), aspects of his established musical identity were transposed to the screen and quickly accepted by cinema audiences. Filmmakers could add an instant authenticity by casting a rapper who had covered (and therein lived) similar subjects in his or her rhymes.

Movies n the hood

If hip-hop was the ‘black CNN’, as Public Enemy’s Chuck D famously called it, then those vivid narratives told through rap’s verses offered a raft of stories and details torn from the real urban environment for filmmakers to reference. The subjects of hip-hop became the subjects of movies. Art was reflecting life – and death.

Ice Cube in Boyz n the Hood (1991)

Some tracks stood as near-treatments for films; John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood (1991) took its title from the classic 1988 NWA track about gang life in South Central Los Angeles, written by Ice Cube (though performed by Eazy E). The film blasted West Coast sunlight on to the darkness of police brutality, gang rivalry and familial discord, and did so via another rapper’s standout performance: Ice Cube himself as the troubled Doughboy. His casting gave the film an added degree of verisimilitude, not to mention marketing potential.

Even when a rapper didn’t feature in a starring role, hip-hop’s influence could be felt across a range of 90s films that explored the pressures society imposes on young black men in urban environments, with characters confronted with life-changing decisions. The narratives of so-called New Black Realism ‘hood’ films like Menace II Society (1993), Fresh (1994), Dead Presidents (1995), New Jersey Drive (1995) and Clockers (1995) could easily have been taken from rap lyrics, and in turn inspired hip-hop music for their respective soundtracks.

With the emergence of the hip-hop screen star in the 90s, audiences now had a new stable of rebellious black stars to look to – screen figures who sat in the lineage of uncompromising and strong blaxploitation stars.

Tupac Shakur with Thandie Newton in Gridlock’d (1997)

The most charismatic was undoubtedly Tupac Shakur. Shakur relayed a magnetic presence in Ernest Dickerson’s Juice (1992), about four teenagers growing up in the oppressive streets of Harlem. Shakur, who had already appeared in TV’s A Different World, touched an untapped nerve in Juice, and expanded expectations around the rap film star’s potential to reflect and entertain. He went on to star in other popular films such as Poetic Justice (1993), Above the Rim (1994) and Gridlock’d (1997), carving out a place on the podium that has yet to be supplanted more than two decades after his premature death.

Will Smith with Tommy Lee Jones in Men in Black (1997)

Hip-hop stars and comedy

But not all rappers were rebels or gangsters. Humour is part of a rapper’s arsenal and rap music’s most personable chuckle brother would also become its biggest film star. Will Smith was half of the DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince duo when he was cast in the TV comedy The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990-96). The show was co-produced by Quincy Jones’s company and its global success led to Smith’s talent piquing Hollywood casting agents’ interest and to his debut movie role (Six Degrees of Separation, 1993).

The rest is history, as Smith moved into blockbuster territory with roles in Bad Boys (1995), Independence Day (1996) and Men in Black (1997), and has remained at the top ever since. But his success hasn’t just been commercial: back in 1990, who could have foreseen that Smith would become the first rapper to be nominated for an Academy Award, as he was for playing Muhammad Ali in Michael Mann’s biopic Ali (2001)?

Similarly light-hearted were rappers Kid and Play (Christopher Reid and Christopher Martin), who scored a major hit in 1990’s House Party, an infectious comedy that threw girls, school bullies, dancing, cult comedians and, of course, a house party together. Hip-hop comedy movies countered the myth that rap had no funny bone and offered big box-office potential.

Kid ’n Play in House Party (1990)

Hip-hop’s innate sense of entrepreneurship and mirth was shrewdly seized upon by a figure who on the face of it seemed unlikely: ‘gangsta’ rap star Ice Cube. Cube wrote, produced and starred in the stoner comedy Friday (1995), which proved to be a huge hit, spawning a franchise and consolidating his position in the movie industry. Cube scored a similar hit when he starred in Barbershop (2002), which again has led to several sequels and a TV show. Cube’s lyrical versatility migrated effortlessly to scriptwriting, helping to build his behind-the-scenes influence in Hollywood.

Queen Latifah in Set It Off (1996)

Hip-hop also proved itself quite capable of spoofing its own excesses in a string of satires. Tamra Davis’s CB4 (1993), written by Nelson George and Chris Rock, extended rap’s lyrical self-policing and satirically savaged the gangsta rap genre, while Rusty Cundieff’s Fear of a Black Hat (1993) and the Wayans brothers’ parody of what gangsta rap and rap cinema had become, Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood (1996), mercilessly took down those who’d deigned to take themselves too seriously.

In general, the 1990s hip-hop movie paid more attention to men than to women, but there were exceptions. Set It Off (1996) gave a major starring role to Queen Latifah (Dana Owens) as one of four women in Los Angeles who plan a bank robbery. Latifah had already made a name for herself in films like House Party 2 (1991) and Juice, but Set It Off marked her out as an actor of rare ability.

Before the decade was out, she would also star in the TV series Living Single (1993-98), which, like Set It Off, looked at the relationship between four black women. It’s noteworthy, however, that films about the interpersonal relationships of rap-loving girls and women were rarely made – the plaudits Latifah received for her role in Set It Off typically revolved around how ‘masculine’ and ‘real’ her impressive performance was.

Into the mainstream

As hip-hop moved into the 2000s, it was now unquestionably a part of the mainstream. As well as confirming the stardom of those who had risen in the 90s, the decade saw a new set of crossover faces. When Outkast’s André Benjamin scaled back his rap commitments the expectation was that he’d move into acting, which he promptly did, appearing in music-related films like Be Cool (2005) and Idlewild (2006) before expanding his résumé with comic, action and biographic roles, as when he played Jimi Hendrix in Jimi: All Is by My Side (2013).

André Benjamin in Jimi: All Is by My Side (2013)

The stealth path to screen stardom taken by Yasiin Bey (formerly known as rapper Mos Def) has been more eclectic than most, encompassing small roles in Spike Lee’s satire Bamboozled (2000) and, alongside P. Diddy, in the Oscar-winning Monster’s Ball (2001), big-budget remakes like The Italian Job (2003) and quirky roles in independent productions like Be Kind, Rewind (2008). That diversity has allowed him to avoid the ‘but he’s a rapper’ casting definition.

Bey’s character-driven film career parallels that of the rapper Common (Lonnie Rashid Lynn), who has starred in action films like Smokin’ Aces (2004) and crime epics like American Gangster (2007), as well as more sobering historical material like Ava DuVernay’s Selma (2014), for which he also shared the best original song Oscar with John Legend for the track ‘Glory’.

Today, the rap screen star is well and truly established. In particular, Queen Latifah, Will Smith and Ice Cube sit at the very top of the industry. From TV comedies to chat show hosting, Latifah is revered – recently securing Emmy and Golden Globe nominations for her portrayal of Bessie Smith in Bessie (2015, which followed her 2003 best supporting actress Academy Award nomination for Chicago).

Latifah’s longevity as a screen star mirrors that of Ice Cube, Ice-T (who now appears regularly on TV’s in Law & Order) and LL Cool J (who as well as films, stars in the TV series NCIS, and, like Latifah, is a regular host of US awards shows).

50 Cent in Power (2015)

Superstars like Will Smith, Queen Latifah and Ice Cube now serve as seniors to rap’s growing army of cinematic foot soldiers – figures like 50 Cent and Ludacris (Chris Bridges, whose appearances in two Oscar-winning films, 2004’s Crash and 2005’s Hustle & Flow, followed his rite-of-passage debut in the Fast and Furious franchise).

Eyez on the future

As hip-hop ages, who tells its story and how well it is told brings us back to the expectations its move into cinema was presumed to fulfil. Biopics like Notorious (2009), about Biggie Smalls; the hugely successful Straight Outta Compton (2015), about the rise of NWA; and All Eyez on Me (2016), about Tupac Shakur, serve as much as factual records as they do subjective checklists of a shared culture.

Television and streaming services are also telling rap’s stories via shows like Lee Daniels’s hit series Empire, featuring Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson as rap label owners, and boasting the ‘musical supervision’ of Timbaland, 50 Cent’s Power on the US Starz network, and Baz Luhrmann’s The Get Down for Netflix, which dramatises hip-hop’s early days in the Bronx, and neatly takes us back to where we came in. And so, the beat don’t stop…

This article originally appeared in Black Star: A BFI Compendium.

The Black Star season, a celebration of the range, versatility and power of black actors on film and TV, took place in cinemas nationwide, on DVD and on BFI Player from October to December 2016.

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