10 great hip-hop dramas

With Straight Outta Compton and Dope in cinemas, we flip the script on 10 hard-knock tales about beats, rhymes and life.

3 September 2015

By Dylan Cave

Dope (2015)

You heard it on the radio, you’ve seen it on the TV, but hip-hop has also made its mark on cinema. Over the past 20 years, rappers like LL Cool J, Ice-T, Queen Latifah, Yasiin Bey, Common, Tupac Shakur and Will Smith have conquered Hollywood, and this summer US cinema has witnessed a mini-rap revival. The Dr Dre and Ice Cube backed NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton has garnered favourable reviews and good box office, while offbeat comedy Dope proved a hit at this year’s Sundance and Cannes film festivals. But don’t call this a comeback, hip-hop movies have been here for years, so we’re throwing back and counting off 10 of the best hip-hop dramas.

As ever, the selection showcases the best titles currently available in the UK online or on DVD.  This inevitably means certain titles are absent. We’d have loved to include Slam (1998), a gritty prison drama starring rapper-poet Saul Williams and The Wire’s Sonja Sohn, and Rusty Cundieff’s Fear of a Black Hat (1993) would have added a bit more comedy to the list. As it stands the list probably lacks a strong comedy; those that are available such as Reginald Hudlin’s House Party (1990) or Tamra Davis’s CB4 (1993) contain excellent moments but need to be called out on their homophobia and misogyny. In fact, hip-hop movies in general would benefit from stronger female characters. Those that have come before are either too overblown (eg the well-regarded but clichéd Set It Off, 1996) or are simply unavailable (eg Just Another Girl on the I.R.T., 1992).

That said, the hip-hop movie canon is still varied enough to present 10 dope dramas to complement last year’s list of hip hop docs that rock. Whether dropping science on hip-hop’s four core activities (graffiti, B-Boying, DJing and rapping) or telling stories of the lives and characters shaped by a hip-hop state of mind, the films below are enduring examples of the culture as committed to the screen.

Wild Style (1982)

Director: Charlie Ahearn

Wild Style (1982)

Filmed in 1981-82, as the nascent hip-hop scene was just coming through to the mainstream, Charlie Ahearn’s Wild Style is, in every sense, the original hip-hop movie. A docu-drama following the exploits of graffiti writers Zoro, Lady Bug and burgeoning mogul Phade, Wild Style’s story is loose, concentrating instead on capturing hip-hop’s vibrant pioneers in action. Writers Lee Quinones, Lady Pink and Zephyr stealthily enter the subway network, painting end-to-end burners that travel all through the city. Breakdance crews Electric Force and Rock Steady go head-to head on street corners. The superstar DJs dazzle as they fire up the clubs while rap kings Busy Bee, Grandmaster Caz, Rammellzee and Double Trouble rock the mic. 

Ahearn frames the events within a fictional context, perfectly capturing the liberating self-expression of hip-hop’s more illicit activities, such as the graffiti. But it also gives the film room for innovative set pieces such as the rap-battle between Cold Crush and the Fantastic Freaks in a South Bronx basketball court, a cold-rock homage to West Side Story’s the Shark and Jets. Elsewhere, members of the uptown New York art scene – Interview magazine’s Glenn O’Brien and East Village darling Patti Astor – are gently ribbed even while endorsing the emerging hip-hop culture. The soundtrack features classic b-boy breakbeats as well as music provided by Blondie’s Chris Stein and the film’s co-producer Frederick “Fab Five Freddy” Brathwaite.

Beat Street (1984)

Director: Stan Lathan

Beat Street (1984)

By the mid 80s, with early chart hits from the Sugarhill Gang, Kurtis Blow and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, hip-hop had broken through to the mainstream. Breakdancing was then at the forefront of the culture and major movie companies raced to capitalise on what was seen as the latest teenage craze. Some of the films from the era enjoyed great success, with Joel Silberg’s Breakin’ (1984) apparently doing better box office than The Terminator, and spawning the now infamously titled sequel Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo (1984). But the best of the early cycle of hip-hop dramas is undoubtedly Orion’s Beat Street, the tale of a gang of teenagers building lives through hip-hop and away from the gang violence that has crushed their community.

Where Wild Style is urgent and raw, Beat Street has polish and class, with strong performances, narrative structure and the kind of budget line expected of a film devised and executive produced by Harry Belafonte. But Beat Street isn’t simply a Hollywood cash-in. The filmmakers wholly engage with the significance of hip-hop to 1980s youth, structuring the story around Henry Chalfant and Tony Silver’s doc Style Wars and featuring stage performances from pioneering acts Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force, The Treacherous Three, Doug E. Fresh and Grandmaster Melle Mel and the Furious Five. Moreover, the film’s basic story – of hip-hop kids joining forces with a performing arts school – is a hip-hop narrative staple that’s resurfaced countless times ever since – from Breakin’ to the Step Up series and the UK’s own StreetDance (2010).

Do the Right Thing (1989)

Director: Spike Lee

Do the Right Thing (1989)

For most of the 1980s, hip-hop on film was represented at face value. B-boys, DJs, graffiti artists and mainly rap stars took centre stage in movies like Body Rock (1984), Rappin’ (1985), and Krush Groove (1985), leaving little space for the wider cultural perspectives of the hip-hop kids. It wasn’t until Spike Lee broke through with 1989’s Do the Right Thing that a broader conception of hip-hop’s culture – the ambition, identity and post-civil-rights-era political sensibility of the rap generation – began to be heard. A comedy-drama about the tensions at play in a Brooklyn street at the height of summer, the self-written, directed and produced Do the Right Thing channels hip-hop’s DIY confidence. Its success led to the birth of the so-called ‘New Black Cinema’, in which hip-hop stars, sounds and attitude played a central role.

The film is powered by Public Enemy’s anthemic ‘Fight the Power’, a ferocious hip-hop track that    combines The J.B.’s militant funk rhythms with the lyrical stance of late 60s Sly and the Family Stone, Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron. The track blazes over Do the Right Thing’s unforgettable opening title sequence as Rosie Perez defiantly rocks out in a b-girl stance. It continues throughout the rest of the movie, blaring out of street king Radio Raheem’s Beatbox like a thunderous Greek chorus. Elsewhere, Mister Señor Love Daddy roll calls great African American musicians, including contemporary rap acts like Stetsasonic and Boogie Down Productions alongside James Brown, Ella Fitzgerald and John Coltrane.

Boyz N the Hood (1991)

Director: John Singleton

Boyz n the Hood (1991)

By 1990, hip-hop was big business, with rap music eclipsing the less easily packaged graffiti and b-boying. The music spread across the US with regional sub-genres – Miami bass, New York boom bap, ‘conscious’ rap – taking hip-hop in new directions. On the west coast, stars like Ice-T and “the world’s most dangerous group” NWA brought notoriety with tales of street crime and hatred of the police. It terrified middle America but captured the imagination of the youth. 

Twenty-five years before Straight Outta Compton, the tales and attitudes found on an Ice T, Ice Cube or NWA record were transitioning to cinema. Among the best of these was 23-year-old John Singleton’s Oscar-nominated debut, Boyz N the Hood (the title of which is borrowed from an early Eazy-E/NWA single). Set not in Compton but Crenshaw in the mid-80s and early 1990s, it tells the story of three friends growing up among poverty, gun culture and gang violence. Singleton’s directorial voice is strong, perceptive and clear, painting a vivid portrait of the life in the ‘hood where common teenage struggles are magnified to extremes, each adolescent tussle or misunderstanding potentially loaded with life-threatening violence. Ex-NWA rapper Ice Cube launched his acting career, adding authentic weight to an already strong cast as wayward gang banger Doughboy.

Juice (1992)

Director: Ernest R. Dickerson

Juice (1992)

Friends since childhood, the ‘wrecking crew’ are four directionless high-school teenagers who decide to rob a local store in a desperate bid to gain kudos – ‘the juice’ – on their tough Harlem streets. The robbery spins them into a cycle of crime, murder and retribution as allegiances fracture and the ‘crew’ implode. Only Omar Epps’ Quincy can see a life beyond street crime, his skills as a battle-scratch DJ offering him the promise of a music career. 

Juice features a stellar soundtrack with great contributions from EPMD, Naughty by Nature and – in Eric B & Rakim’s title track ‘Know the Ledge (Juice)’ – a golden era hip-hop classic. The DJ battle scenes also include an early performance from Queen Latifah as a club promoter. Most famously, the film gave Tupac Shakur his first major role. 

The film was the feature debut of Ernest R. Dickerson who, as a cinematographer, had also shot Spike Lee’s early films, as well as the Def Jam biopic Krush Groove. The narrative arc of Juice – witnessing how street crime turns the kids on each other – became a familiar one, played out most satisfyingly in the first series of The Wire where teenagers, Pooh, Bodie and Wallace discover that the code of the streets is stronger than childhood loyalties. Dickerson went on to play a significant role as a director on The Wire.

La Haine (1995)

Director: Mathieu Kassovitz

La Haine (1995)

Set on a Parisian housing estate, the day after a violent street riot, Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine follows friends Vinz, Hubert and Saïd as they roam Paris in the wake of the disturbance, having acquired a police weapon. Kassovitz won best director at Cannes for his handling of the tension that underlies his restless urban youths angry at the death of one of their friends (“nique la police!”). But he also managed to capture a subtle understanding of the global impact of hip-hop culture in giving voice to disenfranchised youth. 

Hip-hop manifests in the film’s side lines. In the verlan or backslang used by Vinz, Hubert and Saïd you can hear the ‘prose combat’ of French rap acts like IAM, Assassin or MC Solaar. At the start of the film, Saïd tags while waiting for Vinz to awake and later, b-boys breakdance in the corners of the concrete estate. The only major hip-hop set piece is a breathtaking helicopter shot that accompanies DJ Cut Killer’s brief turntable interlude. When he drops his ‘DJ Skud Scratch Mix’ – a turntable blend of Edith Piaf’s ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’ and KRS One’s ‘Sound of Da Police’ – we witness hip-hop in the banlieue, a soundtrack to Parisian urban malaise.

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)

Director: Jim Jarmusch

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)

Forest Whitaker’s Ghost Dog is a New York hitman who lives by the ‘Hagakure’ samurai code.  Saved from a racist beating by a mobster, he takes his rescuer to be his samurai master and proceeds to conduct a series of contract killings for him. But an imperfect hit suddenly makes Ghost Dog a target. Aware he is unjustly framed, Dog resolves to defend his reputation according to the way of the samurai.
On the face of it, Jim Jarmusch may seem an unlikely director for a samurai-influenced hip-hop thriller; his previous films – elliptical, minimalist and intimate – seeming to have little in common with action movies and genre filmmaking. But Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai shares much with Jarmusch’s earlier work; the isolated and obsessive Ghost Dog is not completely unlike the displaced characters of Stranger than Paradise (1984) or Mystery Train (1989). 

Jarmusch’s film owes a debt to Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï (1967), but his inspiration is filtered through a hip-hop lens. Like 1990s rap collective the Wu-Tang Clan, the film updates the samurai code so that its eastern mysticism and belief system provides a way for Ghost Dog to survive the streets of New York. In recognition, Wu-Tang leader the RZA provides the film’s raw soundtrack, and makes a dope cameo as a camouflaged samurai street warrior.

8 Mile (2002)

Director: Curtis Hanson

8 Mile (2002)

The hip-hop biopic is fair game for movie writers. Before Straight Outta Compton, titles like Basquiat (1996), Notorious (2009) and Get Rich or Die Tryin’ (2005) have notched up positive reviews and box-office approval, but few have caught the essence of a rap artist at the height of his fame as well as Curtis Hanson’s 8 Mile.

Set in Detroit’s 8 Mile district, the film tracks the few events in the life of steelworker-come-rapper Jimmy ‘Rabbit’ Smith (Eminem) that place him on the road to rap stardom. Over the course of the film, Rabbit endures a variety of humiliations that seem to seal the frustrated lyricist into a thankless, struggling life with a dead end job, a fractured family and few prospects. But Scott Silver’s deft script weaves Eminem’s rap persona and the notoriety of his rap songs into the fabric of the film so that the hardship and misfortunes Rabbit endures become his inspiration. The allure of hip-hop – the sheer sonic aesthetic as well as its transformative potential – is all over the film and by the final showdown, Rabbit’s anger and frustration evolves into dynamic and witty razor-sharp lyricism.

Hustle & Flow (2005)

Director: Craig Brewer

Hustle & Flow (2005)

In the mid-2000s, the kids of Wild Style were in their 50s and the new rap generation was dominated by artists considerably younger than many of the pioneer rap records. The ageing b-boy was a reality, a trait captured beautifully in Craig Brewer’s Hustle & Flow. Harnessing the success of acts like OutKast, Geto Boys, Goodie Mob and the entire Crunk sound in bringing southern hip-hop international acclaim, Brewer’s film is an allegory of rap and redemption. 

Terrence Howard received an Oscar nomination for his performance as Djay, a directionless Memphis pimp who, bordering on middle age, rediscovers his love of rap and tries to kick start a long forgotten career. The film has some dubious moments of sentimentality, but its conviction in the power of rap music to fill the void of downtrodden lives is contagious. The scenes where Djay and Shug (Taraji P. Henson) create music from the fabric of their humdrum existence is beautiful in revealing the democratic and independent spirit of hip-hop. And the final section, when Djay has to hustle his demo recording to overblown rap star Skinny Black (Ludacris, in excellent form) pack the biggest emotional punch of all the movies on this list.

Gimme the Loot (2012)

Director: Adam Leon

Gimme the Loot (2012)

Adam Leon’s terrific debut Gimme the Loot follows teenage graffiti writers Sofia and Malcolm as they plan to avenge the regular defacing of their graf pieces by a rival crew. Their revenge plan is simple – to paint the rival crew’s beloved New York Mets’ apple monument – but before going ahead, they need to find money to pay the contact who can get them into the Met’s stadium.

Leon and his production crew have a light touch in translating the impulsive energy of graffiti writing to the screen, the classic signifiers of the hip-hop world updated to reflect the lifestyles of 2012’s New York teens. The lo-fi hip-hop on the soundtrack is part of a broader revivalist score that includes northern soul and jazz.

Hip-hop culture manifests as the fresh, opportunist vibe adopted by Malcom and Sofia. Actors Ty Hickson and Tashiana Washington lend their teenagers the crafty-yet-gauche temperament necessary for tagging and painting on New York’s streets. Gimme the Loot keeps its hip-hop credentials to a minimum – the title, which comes from a Notorious BIG song, is never referenced – but the film nevertheless continues to celebrate the thoughts, dreams and ambitions of a new generation of hip-hop heads.

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