We heard August 11, 2023, is the 50th Anniversary of Hip-Hop as we know it, so what better time to celebrate some of our favorite hip-hop films? Read on, player.
FROM SPENCER SEAMS:
HOW HIGH (2001)
My journey with hip-hop was strange. Initially, it was random Top 40 fare like the Lil Jon and the East Side Boyz classic, “Get Low” aka the “Til the Sweat Drip From My Balls Skeet Skeet Mothafuckas (Mothafuckas)” song. Nothing stuck with me that much until I saw the classic comedy How High on basic cable. I’m not usually a fan of these comedies…unless they are aggressively stupid and strange. How High is both of these and more. This wasn’t just my introduction to Cypress Hill. More importantly, it introduced me to the Wu-Tang Clan and one of the greatest albums of all time, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). How High is exactly what it looks like. There are plenty of the predictable jokes that come with the raunchy sex comedy; the jokes are sexist, lazy, offensive, and low-brow, and simply make me laugh. Taking it into a more hip-hop direction with a hint of mad science, the film does subvert some of the typical stupid shenanigans just enough to make it stand out. The crux of the story is centered around Method Man and Redman smoking weed that was fertilized by their friend’s ashes. His ghost is visible only when you smoke that special weed. He helps them get into Harvard by cheating, but the weed runs out so they have to try for real this time. Eventually, they create the Liberty Bong to get a whole party stoned then everyone meets Benjamin Franklin’s ghost. Cypress Hill pop up for a cameo too! This is akin to the Rudy Ray Moore (The Godfather of Rap) films, middling films that are elevated by their otherwise charismatic leads. Jesse Dylan (Bob’s son and Jakob’s brother) made a subjectively mediocre movie that only works because of the star factor of Method Man and Redman. That’s something that can’t be taught, you got it or you don’t. They make this otherwise generic comedy into something genuinely funny and infused with black and hip-hop sensibilities. It’s clear why they were able to reach the highs they hit in hip-hop. Typically in these kinds of comedies, black characters are side charaters or a joke. How High is about the black characters. Nearly all the characters that matter are black and attend Harvard by the way. It’s not a masterpiece for breaking expectations, but it’s notable despite following the trappings of the genre. It has rewatchability factor is strong. I’ve seen this minimum 30 times, start to end (all on basic cable btw). In a sense, it’s my Shawshank Redemption, my comfort jawn. Hip-hop went from something I casually liked into the coolest shit in the world. Seeing hip-hop presented in this slightly off-kilter way showed that it was more than just fashion and music. It was a vibe, world, and culture. How High was the gateway drug. It led to discovering the greatest artist of my lifetime, MF DOOM, among other things. This silly stoner sex comedy genuinely changed the course of my life and the art I would seek out. How High is a not classy or sophisticated affair but it is a part of hip-hop’s legacy.
FROM JAY ALARY:
GHOST DOG: THE WAY OF THE SAMURAI (1999)
Jim Jarmusch has always been a filmmaker who eschews conventional genre tropes to create something much more intriguing and impactful. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is an exceptional follow-up to his tone poem Dead Man (there’s even a connection to that film by way of a clever cameo, which I won’t spoil), featuring a stellar Forrest Whitaker in the titular role, a hitman who follows the ancient samurai code of honor while employed by the Mafia. While Jarmusch has a colorful cast that includes gangster movie regulars Cliff Gorman, Victor Argo, and Henry Silva, he’s much more interested in depicting a contemplative hitman who interacts with many people in his New York neighborhood, including an ice cream vendor who only speaks French, and a young girl so intrigued by samurai culture that he lends her a copy of the classic Japanese tale, “Rashomon.” Of course, the film’s gangsters double-cross Ghost Dog, but Jarmusch refuses to follow genre conventions and give the type of ending they expect. What makes Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai so exceptional is the propulsive score by Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA, which creates a dynamic hip-hop-infused score that electrifies every scene. A mix of score and songs, RZA creates what legendary music critic Robert Christgau calls “hip-hop as mystery, beauty, pleasure—as idealized aural environment,” an integral part of the film narrative that illuminates Ghost Dog’s insular world. After seeing the film in theatres, I ran out and bought the soundtrack and played it every day for months—it helped soothe me from impending Y2K gloom and doom!
GET RICH OR DIE TRYIN’ (2006)
A semi-autobiographical film based on Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson’s life, it’s difficult to imagine a hip-hop crime film written and directed by a couple of white guys, especially by one of the writers of The Sopranos and creator of Boardwalk Empire and the acclaimed Irish filmmaker of My Left Foot and In the Name of the Father. After Eminem’s semi-autobiographical breakthrough cinematic success, 8 Mile (2002), craven Hollywood looked to other rappers for another “rags to riches” tale that would delight audiences and make a tidy profit. The film, titled after 50 Cent’s 2003 album, is no crass cash-in, but a sincere and riveting story of a hustler who wants a better life for himself and perseveres over extremely difficult odds. In this way, it’s not so unusual to have perpetual underdog champion Sheridan collaborating with “Fiddy” to tell his story. There’s explosive gun violence and tender dramatic moments, characterized by the man who created both “In da Club” and “21 Questions,” two songs that are as different from one another as one could imagine coming from a gangster rapper. 50 Cent is a surprisingly good performer, far better than many critics felt at the time (and better than Eminem in his film), and it’s not surprising that he continues to act occasionally while running his impressive creative empire. Other people will choose 8 Mile, but I’m firmly in Fiddy’s camp.
the last dragon (1985)
TOKYO TRIBE (2014)
In Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, an audience of assorted young ruffians hoot and holler in tune with Bruce Lee during a revival screening of Enter the Dragon when two hip-hop dancers enter the theater aisle with a gigantic boombox. The pair press play on their tape and much to the dismay of the moviegoers begin pop-locking right there in the aisle. The audience collectively groans and boo until a beefy man takes a stand and smashes the ghetto blaster under his boot. If this is a message about the burgeoning popularity of hip-hop in the 1980s, it is loud and clear. Plenty can be said and celebrated about the underlying themes of The Last Dragon, knowing when and when not to fight, flipping racial stereotypes on their heads, and never trusting a balding record producer, but historically the movie is significant because it lies directly inside the cusp of cultural change. The old school of Motown struggles to retain relevancy amidst a fresh new wave of hip-hop crashing in, made apparent here by the soundtrack’s milking of star Smokey Robinson in a total tonal misfire of ending credits and the cynical showcasing of new talent in the ostentatious world introduction to El DeBarge – before Motown ruined his and his whole family’s careers, that is. You know, no matter how great DeBarge was, with how catchy and mood-lifting “Rhythm of the Night” is, we can’t help but think ol’ Gordy might have been trying to encode a secret warning against how hip-hop would soon conquer the planet.
This theory is semi-confidently proven in Sion Sono’s hip-hop musical Tokyo Tribe. In an act of pure indulgence, Sono soaks in his world-building, a rain-drenched post-apocalyptic Tokyo in which warring gangs compete for turf as if it’s a hip-hop theatre version of The Warriors. We can even say “Shakespearean” if we want to. It is unclear what caused the apocalypse, or if the characters’ constant rhyming is a coping mechanism or just a way of life, but this stylish but unglamorous world of whores and gangsters is completely engulfing. That’s mostly due to the story’s utilization of the simple “good vs evil” mechanism, leading us to cheer on the “peace and love” Saru gang who exist mainly to just have a chill time with friends. The story entangles us in a war between the leader of a rival, less chill gang, Meru, and Kai, the Saru hero, that turns out to be, quite comically, a literal dick-measuring contest. Aside from that, if we want, the nonbelligerent Saru tribe can be an analog to The Last Dragon‘s Bruce Leroy in that there is a pure essence of righteousness in them, no matter what corruptible elements may be surrounding them ~ and how much corruption those elements may achieve within their characters. The one actual rap song in The Last Dragon is Willie Hutch’s “The Glow,” which outlines the level of enlightenment one must achieve to win a fair, honorable fight. Kai more or less uses The Glow to win his fight against Meru as well; Sono just ain’t corny enough to show it.
One other point: The Last Dragon‘s garish villain is Sho’nuff, styled similarly to tuff guy MCs of the time like Melle Mel, but with a kung fu twist. He is the Shogun of Harlem, after all. Spanning time and influence, Sho’nuff sure does seem like a precursor to an aesthetic carried on by certain members of the Wu-Tang Clan. In Tokyo Tribe, the villains are also the flashiest and arguably most charismatic characters, so if The Last Dragon really was a harbinger of eventual world catastrophe via hip-hop, Sho’nuff could be the cause. Are we mad about it though? Sho’not!
FROM BRIAN MILLER:
In a society less annoying and didactic, the term “elevated horror” would mean a film like Bodied rather than slews of half-stepping A24 analogy films. Bodied, simply put, is about the horror of words. It is a maniac movie, full of red herrings like the battle rapper who spits about violence but is a gentle giant in real life because, in the end, the feeble protagonist is the real killer. A true anti-8-Mile (2002) where the grand success of the white rapper is not a hero moment, but a villain one because, while he does not kill bodies, he kills friendship and feelings all in the name of his own fragile ego. Much like almanac-style narratives such as Moby Dick (1851) and Miami Connection (1987), Bodied also takes time to have real-life educational moments about specific aspects of rap culture. These moments are presented in an ethically vague “take it for what you will” manner. Meanwhile, woke characters with shallow complaints about the verbal bigotry and slurs used in battle rap are quickly hushed to the side, at first creating a deeper sense of underlying dread through the film, that this is a world of cruel language violence, only to reach a finale that is both a breath of fresh air and one to present a horror far worse than the insults of stereotypes. Two battles are paired in the conclusion. One where two friends are pitted against each other and assume each other’s ethnic and gender roles. In a twist on the famous self-deprecating ending of 8-Mile, cruel language is turned on its head to deepen their love for each other. This battle is disarming for the viewer as now everything seems to have transcended the world of offensive language. Then comes a battle so heartless it is truly difficult to watch. In some horror, one covers their eyes. Here one might cover their ears. Not because of slurs, but because it gets so personal. It is doxing of the most malicious sort, and what makes it even more stomach-dropping is the way the crowd loves it.
DREAMS DON’T DIE (1982)
While most ’80s hip-hop films lean heavily into light-hearted comedy, Dreams Don’t Die has a more serious tone that is fascinating as a cultural artifact. Unfortunately, this seriousness is not only as thin as its “Made for TV” context would imply, the tone also hardly makes the film ahead of its time due to many other shortcomings. While the comedy of its peers simultaneously reflected both a genuine joyous nature in hip-hop and made the films more marketable to wider audiences, Dreams Don’t Die sends a message to the audience that they should hate and fear hip-hop. In this story of a white teen graffiti artist, all roads lead to convincing the protagonist that graffiti is not a real art form. By the end, not only must the teen embrace getting a “real job” in corporate art, but also is led there by a guardian angel who is a cop. Wack. (BTW, when they finally show the teen spray paint his train car masterpiece, it is objectively garbage. Although none of the characters seem to notice this.). History ended up proving this movie so wrong about the value of graffiti as art, yet despite all this disrespect, it is a fun one for any fan of movie-of-the-week style soap dramas that play on middle-class paranoia. The romance is cute. The light approach to a gritty NY cinema is charming. And if you love hip-hop, the ways this film gets everything twisted makes it more of a comedy than even its slapstick contemporaries.
From Justin Harlan:
Starring a young Shamiek Moore (Spider-Man: Across the Spiderverse, Wu-Tang: An American Saga) as Malcolm, flanked by Tony Revolori (Spider-Man: No Way Home, The Grand Budapest Hotel) and a fresh off of the Disney Channel and ready for the big time Kiersey Clemons (Sweetheart, The Flash) – Dope is about three high school geeks who get roped into the drug trade after being stuck with a backpack full of Molly. Malcolm, Jib (Revolori), and Diggy (Clemons) use their nerd knowledge to sell drugs in a modern way… via the Internet. Using the skills of hacker friend Will (Blake Anderson of Workaholics) and some marketing help from a viral video featuring a half-naked Chanel Iman (as Lily), they sell Molly on the dark web with Bitcoin.
The music in this film is incredible, filled with ’90s gems and several originals performed by the lead trio’s fictitious funk/punk/hip-hop/alternative mashup band Awreeoh, it’s one of the top soundtracks of the last decade-plus, hands down. With tons of factoids about hip-hop strewn throughout, rapper A$AP Rocky in a prominent supporting role, and the daughter of rock royalty – Zoe Kravitz – as the primary love interest – this is a movie that wears its love of music on its sleeve.
If you haven’t seen this one, there’s no time like the present. It’s streaming on Netflix and on all the major VOD platforms now. This is honestly among my favorite films of the 2000s and I can’t recommend it enough. You don’t have to watch it multiple times a year like me, but skipping it would surely be wack!
Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo (1984)
“Hey come on! Let’s turn the music up!”
Influential B-boys Shabba Doo and Boogaloo Shrimp star as Ozone and Turbo, alongside Cannon starlet Lucinda Dickey (Ninja III, Breakin’), in this follow-up to breakout Cannon breakdancing “hit” Breakin‘. Shrimp (real name Michael Chambers) is widely considered one of the most influential B-boys in history, a godfather of the dance style in fact. Shabba (real name Adolfo Quinones) is right up there with him, as well as having been a prominent dancer on Soul Train and a dancer/choreographer on a variety of projects spanning decades. The trio leads the film that centers around saving a community center from demolition.
A strong cast of dancers that many of us may now know from the acting and dancing roles later in their careers join alongside our heroic trio of breakdancers. In fact, the great Ice-T is among the recognizable faces… lending undeniably legit hip-hop cred to the production. While there’s not necessarily a ton to say about the film’s plot beyond this, the dancing and the music are tons of fun. It’s a cult classic for a reason.
You can rent or buy this on VUDU, but sadly it doesn’t appear on many other platforms at this time. There are, however, several editions of the film on DVD and Blu-ray that appear readily available at all the major outlets. If you don’t know, now ya know!
My Name is Myeisha (2018)
My least known film of the trio I bring to the table for our celebration of hip-hop in film, 2018’s My Name is Myeisha is based on a true story of Tyisha Miller, a young Black woman shot by police officers in her car. The film is based on the stage play Dreamscape, which is based on her life. Told through hip-hop and slam poetry, the story is rooted in street culture and has such a unique style. The details of the case, coupled with the longstanding inability of the “justice” system to hold police accountable, led to a 2002 acquittal of the officers involved in her 1999 death. However, the legacy of Tyisha Miller lives on in the form of her story, the protests, and this play/film about her life.
While the film got a ton of buzz on the festival circuit, it seemed to be lost to obscurity in the public discourse. The lead actor, Rhaechyl Walker, is fantastic as Myeisha, as are the supporting cast. The film uses a spoken word style that is decidedly a blend of hip-hop and slam poetry to deliver its message. The style of the film may, in as much, not work for everyone – but, it’s a powerful story that uses the language of those it’s about and some incredible imagery to enhance the details and really jump off the screen.
One brilliant fact about this film is that it’s streaming on a variety of services, making it easy to watch. Besides being currently on Peacock, it can be viewed entirely free via Pluto, Tubi, Shout TV, or the Roku Channel.
Check out today’s Hip Hop Day Spotify playlist!