It’s hard to believe it’s been 10 years since ‘8 Mile’ first hit screens. Eminem’s semi-autobiographical flick hit home for everyone from hip-hop lovers to suburban wannabes and helped legitimise the culture on a grand scale. Much like its place in music history, hip-hop has always had a shaky history in the film world. The influx of inept rappers turned actors and half-baked vanity projects have made it hard for legitimate hip-hop film projects to be seen or even get made.
Before the exploitation though there was blaxploitation, see it kind of has the word ‘black’ in there (clever). This was the first sub-genre of films to be made by and starring black performers, and created the blueprint almost every rapper would imitate, along with Scarface of course. Unlike the polite or subservient black characters that Hollywood films previously featured, blaxploitation saw the black protagonists take the lead and rip Hollywood a new one.
Technically though the first movie to feature black characters in a role of power was Putney Swope, directed by Robert Downey Sr. in 1969. Hip-hop’s official relationship with the film world began innocently with filmmakers who wanted to document this exciting new culture. These documentaries were made by both music scenesters (Downtown ‘81) and curious outsiders (Style Wars). Always the industrious types, this public interest prompted the hip-hop community to get in on the action. This resulted in well meaning yet poorly performed flicks like Krush Groove and Tougher Than Leather. Not to be outdone, greasy Hollywood types took their precious hip-hop and made it palatable to a white audience, so basically non-threatening. We got gems like Body Rock starring Lorenzo Lamas and the grand daddy of them all Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, the hip-hop equivalent of cringe classics like Troll 2 and The Room.
As a culture always fighting for respect, hip-hop’s determined attitude carried over to the rap-related movies that came out in the wake of the ‘80s explosion. Spike Lee, a man never known for subtlety, was one of many filmmakers, along with John Singleton and the Hughes Brothers, who ushered in the conscious hood movie taking a heavy handed approach when it came to telling black stories. While their artistic qualities can’t be denied the likes of Poetic Justice and Jason’s Lyric suffered from being overly dramatic, like an off-Broadway play. Taking the opposite approach we also got hip-hop renditions of the gangster flick (New Jack City) and goofy comedies (Friday, How High). Then there was the Tupac film, a sub-genre on its own that typically included one great performance from its star and terrible scripting. Since then we’ve seen a rise in successful rapper-actors and Oscar winning rap epics like the excellent Hustle & Flow, yet we’ve also had to suffer through vanity projects from Soulja Boy and 50 Cent and straight-to-DVD junk like Hustletown Mobbin, starring Lil Flip.
Hip-hop means many things to different people so the chances of a rap movie that is universally approved by all will remain a rarity. Still that won’t stop us from looking at the history of hip-hop on screen, from the good to the atrocious. Did we miss your favourite flick? Let us know!