The period between Thanksgiving and Christmas is marked with wreaths on the door, tree shopping and for some, countless trips to the mall. This time frame is also described as Oscar season in the film world because the most award worthy movies are released to create maximum buzz before the awards in February. Hip Hop being featured in film is nothing new, various rap songs have been in movies for the better part of 3 decades and the 90s brought about many MCs silver screen debuts.
Those films were generally cult classics made for hip hop fans and not really targeted for award season. That has all changed though, and hip hop songs are not only being featured in big Oscar worthy movies but the artists themselves are being hired as music supervisors, lead actors and even directors. That impact is felt in the genre itself as we see younger groups like the Flatbush Zombies and Odd Future producing, writing and directing their own videos. So let’s take a look at some groundbreaking performers that have paved the way for hip hop to take over celluloid.
Eminem’s 2003 film, “8 Mile”
On the surface of it, this seemed like a movie that we had seen before. It would be a glorified look at the hip hop world and how a star was born. Turns out it was nothing like that at all. Curtis Hanson (LA Confidential) was tapped as the director and it became clear within the first 5 minutes of watching the movie that this was going to be different. Eminem gives an incredible and painful first performance as “B Rabbit”, a character that is very close to the actual life of Marshall Mathers. The film was a surprise hit financially earning over 10x its budget and then again at the Oscars where Eminem became the first rapper to ever win an Academy Award for his song “Lose Yourself”.
2006’s “Hustle and Flow” wins Oscar for Three 6 Mafia’s “Hard Out Here For a Pimp”
“8 Mile” paved the way for studios to explore hip hop in a more in depth way. As a result of the success of Hanson’s film, “Hustle and Flow” was greenlit for production. Terrance Howard plays the lead as a down and out southern pimp who just wants to make it in the world of music. It was a gritty and sometimes painful look at a struggle that is so often lionized in hip hop songs and popular culture. The film takes place in Memphis and features native sons Three 6 Mafia. DJ Paul, Juicy J and the rest of the mob were asked to write the title track for the film and the one Howard would perform over and over again. The song was a hit in the film and then again at the Oscar’s where it won for Best Song in a film. Their acceptance speech will go down as one of the greatest of all time.
Jay Z Soundtrack For “American Gangster”
Music Supervisor is one of the most important jobs on a film. People often think of visuals when they’re watching a movie but it has been proven the audio experience is just as crucial as the moving pictures. In a perfect marriage Jay Z created a full album of new music for the 2009 “American Gangster”, a biopic about a legendary New York drug smuggler who lived large, Frank Lucas. Lucas, (portrayed by the iconic Denzel Washington), was somebody that Jay Z admittedly admired as a businessman during his younger years. The movie was widely promoted, big budgeted and did very well in theaters. Even though the movie was a period piece, existing in a time before hip hop had entrenched itself in Harlem and across the country, Hova’s musical accompaniment pairs perfectly.
The RZA was always the mastermind behind some of Wu Tang’s most iconic music videos and grew up obsessed with Kung Fu films. As his musical career propelled him into rarified air, The RZA took the opportunity to make it big with movies. He’s worked in almost every capacity on a film set, from actor, to artist, to soundtrack supervisor and eventually writer and director with his 2011 “The Man With The Iron Fists”. The film is not only a summation of a life long love of the genre but is a great indicator of the level of respect that hip hop artists have in Hollywood. It’s incredibly difficult to get a film made, especially as a first time director and the financial endorsement that RZA received from the studios shows faith in his overall artistry.
“Straight Outta Compton” Receives Commercial and Critical Success
Ice Cube and Dr. Dre have obviously become very successful since their days as members of NWA but the incredible success of “Straight Outta Compton” was a shock to most box office experts. Casting mostly unknowns (including Ice Cube’s son) the film was praised for its intensity and realism. Although it didn’t get the credit some felt it deserved at last year’s Oscars it was still beloved by film critics and fans alike. Most importantly, it showed to the world that the history of rap music is not only something that deserves to be explored but also that it is something so many people want to learn about.