[17 May 2010]
Movies that prominently feature hip-hop are a joy for any rap fan. The acting might not always be Oscar worthy, but the music and the performances are almost always entertaining. In this niche area, certain movies are bound to make it to the top of any list of potent hip-hop films.
There are the ‘80s flicks, such as the legendary Wild Style, Breakin’, Beat Street, and Krush Groove.
Then there are the films of the ‘90s, like Kid ‘N Play’s House Party series and Chris Rock’s gangsta rap parody CB4.
The first decade of the new millennium saw Eminem’s semiautobiographical 8 Mile, 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’, and the posthumous Tupac documentary Tupac: Resurrection.
In 2002, Taye Diggs and Sanaa Lathan, along with emcees Mos Def and Queen Latifah, starred in Brown Sugar, a movie that depicts a lifelong friendship and romance between a hip-hop producer and a magazine editor. Their bond blossoms through their mutual, profound love for hip-hop culture, and we watch as they expound upon the metaphor in Common’s “I Used to Love H.E.R.”
In 2009, we saw the life of Christopher “The Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace brought to theaters in Notorious.
Aside from movies that are directly related to rap, there are those inspired by themes in rap songs, such as John Singleton’s Boyz N the Hood, starring Ice Cube and titled after the Ice Cube-penned Eazy-E-performed song of the same name. This film opened the door for Ice Cube in movies, and he’s starred in many, from Friday to Barbershop and of course the often maligned Are We There Yet. As with Ice Cube’s filmography, we could cite films that star or feature rappers, even if the themes of the films aren’t specifically rap-related, as is the case with Hype Williams’s intense project Belly, starring Nas and DMX. Other rappers have found work on screens big and small, notably Tupac Shakur, Mos Def, Queen Latifah, Ice-T, LL Cool J, DMX, Busta Rhymes, Q-Tip, and Common. Will Smith, or the known in rap as “The Fresh Prince”, became a megastar cranking out all sorts of blockbuster movies.
One film has gone underrated in the annals of hip-hop cinema. The year was 1994. The movie, Fear of a Black Hat. Kind of an odd title for a film but, then again, it’s an oddball movie. Titled as a variation on the 1990 Public Enemy album Fear of a Black Planet, the movie Fear of a Black Hat leans heavily on wit and satire. Written and directed by Rusty Cundieff, Fear of a Black Hat uses humor to examine the truths and exaggerations of, and about, hip-hop culture circa 1994. In this, the film succeeds in celebrating hip-hop by acknowledging the power and influence of the music.
Fear of a Black Hat is also biting and unflinching, and in being so it forces hip-hop fans to stare soberly at the culture’s flaws and to revisit their own reasons for loving the music. Of course, 1994 was, relatively speaking, a long time ago. The movie’s relevance for us now consists in showing us where we’ve been, comparing and contrasting the past with our current state, and suggesting where we might go in the future. If none of that grabs you, at least embrace the allure of trivia you get from the brief cameo by Penny Johnson Jerald, the actress who later played the wife of Dennis Haysbert’s President David Palmer on 24.
Styled after movies like the ‘80s rock parodyThis is Spinal Tap and rendered with the resourceful independent vision of Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle, Fear of a Black Hat operates on a simple premise. That premise begins with Nina Blackburn, played by actress (and, later on, director) Kasi Lemmons. Blackburn is working on her college thesis in which she explores hip-hop’s impact on language and communication. She posits that hip-hop functions, first, as “the political voice of today’s urban youth” and, second, a “tracer of styles and values”. Her research in this regard includes filming a documentary on a fictional rap group called NWH, which stands for N*ggaz With Hats and plays off of the real-life rap group NWA, or N*ggas With Attitudes. We watch as Ms. Blackburn documents a single year of NWH’s career.
NWH is a three-man ensemble. Ice Cold (Rusty Cundieff), is the front man and main songwriter. The character comes off as a mixture of Public Enemy’s Chuck D (in terms of his leadership position in the group), Ice-T and Ice Cube (in terms of his stage name, role in the fictitious New Jack City-like New Mack Village, and Jheri curl hairstyle), and Paris (in terms of his voice and political bent). Although the other NWH rapper, Tasty Taste (Larry B. Scott), has a name that scans like Flava Flav, he is reminiscent of Eazy-E, given Tasty’s short stature, sunglasses, and (once again) Jehri curl. The group’s DJ is named Tone Def (Mark Christopher Lawrence) and, despite the humor of that, he’s probably the most levelheaded of the three. The weirdest thing about Tone Def is that he can operate his turntables with a variety of body parts and, yeah, that works out to be as bizarre as it sounds.
Ice Cold, on the other hand, writes songs that are steeped in aggression and sexual imagery, sometimes along the lines of the controversial Florida outfit 2 Live Crew. Nevertheless, he justifies his tunes as being integral to his ideology and worldview. For instance, the movie gets its title from Ice’s philosophy about hats, probably a nod to NWA’s frequent use of Los Angeles Raiders gear as part of their wardrobe.
The NWH song “Wear Yo’ Hat (Buried & Bald)” fits into Ice Cold’s supposed agenda. Historically, he tells Nina, slaves worked on plantations in the hot sun without their hats. Doing so weakened them, made them unable to rebel against their masters. “So,” Ice Cold opines, “what we are saying [with NWH] is, ‘Yo, we got some hats now, mother*ckers.” In real life, rappers have donned baseball caps, skull caps, hoodies, Kangols, and various other head gear. As we’ve seen in a variety of scenarios, fashion can be a big deal in hip-hop, from the debate over baggy pants to the issue of brand dropping in popular songs.
For another song, “Booty Juice”, Ice Cold’s political slant is that “the butt is like society”. NWH believes society should be about “openness” and “expansion”, but it’s the “white man” who wants to “clog it up” and “keep it closed”. Getting a foot inside requires grease, hence the “juice” in the song title, that occurs through dancing or “doing the nasty”. “And on the political tip,” Ice Cold concludes, “All we sayin’ is: we gonna get that ass.”
These are all strange explanations, and they reflect hip-hop’s image to outsiders in the ‘90s and beyond as a genre that suffers from aggressive lyrics, hyper-sexuality, and willful blindness to its faults. Fear of a Black Hat gives many other issues the comedic treatment. Cundieff and company take aim at racial profiling, explicit lyrics and censorship, guns and violence, groupies, misogyny, and record label politics, all of which have exhibited continued relevance.
Still, it’s interesting to see how things have changed since 1994. Society has changed quite a bit, and societal events have contributed to the reshaping of the hip-hop world. When Fear of a Black Hat was released, the LAPD’s beating of Rodney King and the resulting Los Angeles, California riots were still fresh and frequently discussed. Ice-T, who, much later, became a permanent fixture on the Special Victims Unit variation of the Law & Order franchise, released the 1992 song Cop Killa with his rock band Body Count.
Also recent was 2 Live Crew’s battle against obscenity laws to vindicate their first amendment rights. Back then, even pre-adolescent and teen rappers had a niche. The Philadelphia group ABC, or “Another Bad Creation”, wore their clothes inside out. Jermaine Dupri’s pre-teen discovery Kris Kross (Chris “Mack Daddy” Kelly and Chris “Daddy Mack” Smith) wore their clothes backwards. Thankfully, Da Brat didn’t bother with clothing gimmicks at the outset of her career. She just wore braids.
United States President William Jefferson Clinton was in his first term in office. Eazy-E, Tupac Shakur, and the Notorious B.I.G. were still alive when Fear of the Black Planet was released. This was a pre-9/11, pre-OJ Simpson-murder-trial type of world, long before the Enron scandal and even longer before the election of Barack Obama.
There was, as the movie suggests, a lot to say about hip-hop stage names, which speaks to rap’s social climate at the time. The Ice Cold character accuses other people of “biting”, or imitating, the “ice” part of his moniker, and he mocks rappers with names like Ice Tray, Ice Water, Ice Coffee, Ice Berg, Ice Cup, and Ice Box. We’ve already noted the real rap names Ice Cube and Ice-T as evidence of the trend.
If rappers weren’t “ice”-related, they were “cool”: DJ Kool Herc, LL Cool J, Kool Moe Dee, Coolio. If you weren’t “cool”, you had to have a cool acronym, like NWA, BDP (Boogie Down Productions), EPMD (Erick and Parrish Making Dollars), or like the backronyms for KRS-One (Knowledge Reigns Supreme Over Nearly Everybody) and the late and great Guru (Gifted Unlimited Rhymes Universal). Rap names were bigger and larger: Notorious B.I.G., Big Punisher, Big Daddy Kane, Large Professor, although names like “Too Short” would be exceptions. Elsewhere, others went the royalty route, with titles like King Tee, King Sun, Queen Latifah, and Queen Mother Rage.
Much has been mentioned in the 21st Century about rap names that seem smaller, diminutive, adorned with “Littles” and “Young"s. There are fewer acronyms, and more names that sound like riffs of famous ones. Nipsey Hussle and Slangston Hughes are illustrative. Keep in mind that these names aren’t necessarily better or worse, it’s just a difference in era.
One major aspect of the culture that has changed since Fear of a Black Hat is the respect earned by the once-dreaded “white rapper” label. The movie parodies Vanilla Ice via the character “Vanilla Sherbert”. The character tries to be streetwise and hip by dousing his speech in “urban” lingo, seeking to replicate the “black rapper experience”. A cultural misstep in this direction (i.e., using the so-called friendly version of the N-word) earns him a colossal beat down from our main characters, but before all of that, we recognize that he represents the white rapper stereotype of the time: corny, awkward, and incapable of authentic self-expression. Beastie Boys and 3rd Bass, however, didn’t fall into that category, and these days, there are even more white rappers who challenge that hip-hop stereotype. A few, like Eminem and El-P, have been cited as innovators.
In addition to cataloguing ‘90s hip-hop culture through satire, Fear of a Black Planet can be viewed as making a more serious statement through symbolism, and hopefully I won’t sound too much like Ice Cold advancing this theory, which goes a lil’ somethin’ like this…
At the height of NWH’s fame, the group’s unity is compromised by jealousy and internal beefs. When Tasty Taste starts dating an opinionated groupie named Cheryl C., she exacerbates the tension Tasty feels regarding Ice Cold’s higher public profile. Ice, as the standout performer in the group, receives the most publicity, and Tasty believes he is being slighted. Worse, Ice Cold warns him in no uncertain terms that Cheryl C. is only interested in tagging along with famous men and is not to be trusted. Rap songs like EPMD’s “Golddigger”, and Kanye West’s song of the same name, share this view of the rap groupie and hanger-on.
For our purposes, though, Cheryl C. exhibits the attention span of the fair-weather rap enthusiast who will support an artist when it’s trendy but abandon the cause when something new comes along. Ice Cold and Tasty Taste represent rappers vying for the support of a fickle audience. Cheryl C., like the typical opinionated rap lover, has no problem telling Tasty Taste how he should handle his career, and he follows her opinions and temperament to his undoing. Eventually, she moves on, first to an affair with Ice Cold and then on to hanging out with rival rap ensemble The Jam Boys. NWH’s ensuing dissension sends Ice Cold, Tasty Taste, and Tone Def their separate ways.
Ice Cold continues his pseudo-political agenda as a solo artist, advancing ditties like “Come Pet the P.U.S.S.Y.” as examples of his social consciousness, citing the otherwise risqué part of the title as an acronym for “Political Unrest Stabilizes Society, Yeah”. Throughout the film, we’ve seen that Ice Cold basically likes to make dance tracks and club bangers, which symbolizes one alternative for rap creativity after the implosion of the hardcore posturing “gangsta” motif.
The second alternative, if we can even call it an “alternative”, belongs to Tasty Taste. Mirroring the feud between Eazy-E and Dr. Dre, Tasty refuses to let go of Ice Cold’s betrayal and takes his beef to wax. Tasty’s solo outings, “The Ice Man Melteth” and the LL Cool J-mimicking “Granny Said Kick Yo’ Ass”, are consumed with revenge and getting the last word. This, we might say, is the hip-hop sector that refuses to move forward and gets stuck in the past, fighting old grudges.
Finally, Tone Def takes a peaceful, live-and-let-live approach. Eschewing racial classifications, he releases “I’m Just a Human Being” in a style that recalls PM Dawn. It’s sort of a hybrid of singing and rapping, and it shrugged off the genre’s perceived and actual machismo. We might say it has a “pop” feel, or maybe we’d call it “emo”. There are real world examples of this, and this style tends to illuminate the divisions between “old school” heads and those of the “new school”. Think of Drake and Kid Cudi as being closer to this than to Ice Cold and Tasty.
Fear of a Black Hat ends with the group resolving its differences when a manager promises that, if NWH can reunite, he can secure a $400,000 advance from a record label. From there, they go back to performing their NWH hits, and the credits roll. Words on the screen tell us that NWH is working on an album called The Black in the Hat Comes Back, which means they’ve come full circle, branching out but then returning to their familiar material. There is a cautionary message in this, that perhaps rap fans, especially “old school” aficionados, should not be too quick to send rap back to its “golden age”. Rappers should continue to branch out and move forward.
It should also be noted that, Nina Blackburn, the chronicler of NWH’s year in the spotlight, ends up having children with Ice Cold. You know what that means. Even those with distance and some semblance of objectivity can get too close. That’s why movies like Fear of a Black Hat serve such an important function. Sometimes it takes a laughing at ourselves to truly see who we are.