For many of the greatest films of all time, the scores and soundtracks played are an integral part in that movie magic greatness. The power and effectiveness of soundtracks manifests itself in many ways. The right assortment of tracks can concisely represent different characters, build the atmosphere or establish the setting as effectively as a narrator or screenplay writer. One single track can sometimes perfectly encapsulate the plot and themes of the entire film in mere minutes. Occasionally, soundtracks can end up being more memorable and carry more impact than the film they are intended to support. And sometimes, soundtracks become memorable because of peculiar oddities that defy explanation.
In keeping with the celebration of hip-hop in movies this month to coincide with the release of Straight Outta Compton, I'll be sharing some examples of films with hip-hop soundtracks and songs that run the gamut of the effects I just described. Whereas my previous article was intent on showcasing more obscure movies, this list will contain some decidedly more recognizable entries along with one or two lesser known gems. As always, please feel free to contribute some additional entries in the comments below.
Do the Right Thing (1989)
Do the Right Thing is a cinematic landmark by the famously outspoken director Spike Lee that locks in on racial and ethnic tension, police brutality and youthful restlessness that is timeless, as relevant to the black community now as it was in the late '80s. Lee wanted to get a theme song that exemplified the energy and attitude of the movie, so he sought out the controversial and wildly popular rap group Public Enemy to provide a track. The resulting song was "Fight The Power," a scathing and galvanizing black power anthem constructed around a maelstrom of jazz, funk and rap samples smashed together into a nuclear reaction of hip-hop energy. Spike even directed the music video for the track; part live performance, part black power rally. The deeper stories behind Do the Right Thing and Public Enemy are far too substantial for this simple listicle of an article (but here's a good start). Suffice to say, "Fight the Power" is the gold standard of hip-hop soundtracks that made an undeniable impact on popular culture.
New Jack City (1991)
New Jack City is one of the most relevant gangster movies of all time. While The Godfather series weaves a classically epic tale of tragedy and vengeance, and Scarface showcases a violent coke dream hyper-realization of '80s excess, New Jack City speaks directly to the people of its time via an updated and refined Blaxploitation lens through which the previous generation let their voices be heard. The story is set during the destitution of early '90s New York in the wake of the crack-cocaine plague that decimated many urban black communities. The film stars Wesley Snipes as Nino Brown, a ruthless drug lord bent on controlling the city. Ice-T stars as Scotty, a detective who goes undercover to infiltrate and bring down Nino's powerful syndicate. Lots of rappers have made turns as actors to varying degrees of success, but Ice-T has shown that he had this acting game on lock from the beginning. New Jack City gained critical and commercial success upon its release, but its soundtrack was equally successful, charting at number 1 on Billboard's Top R&B Albums and number 2 on The Billboard 200. Of note, the soundtrack helped popularize and featured songs influenced by the "New Jack Swing" movement of R&B, which combined faster, more upbeat hip-hop rhythms and dance club tempos with traditional R&B singing. The first track of the album, “New Jack Hustler” performed by Ice-T, perfectly puts to rhyme the flashy and violent lifestyle on display in the film, but the other R&B tracks like Christopher Williams' "I'm Dreamin" helped define the musical landscape of a generation (and was no doubt the soundtrack to many a conception; if you're in your mid-20s, there's a good chance you came into this world nine months after your moms got banged out to Color Me Badd's "I Wanna Sex You Up".)
Above The Rim (1994)
A bona fide hood classic, Above The Rim is emblematic of the stories and aesthetics of the streets that burst into the main stream consciousness of America during the explosion of hip-hop in the '90s. The film tells the story of Kyle, a promising star high school basketball player seeking to earn a scholarship into Georgetown University and their prestigious college basketball program. Despite his talent, he struggles to stay on the straight and narrow, facing conflict internally because of his overblown ego, as well as externally by the pressures of poverty and bad neighborhood influences. Highlighting this conflict is his reluctant relationship between Shep, a former basketball star like Kyle whose hoop dreams were dashed by a horrible tragedy, and Birdie, the local big-time drug dealer. Though the main narrative focuses in on a young man's coming of age, Tupac Shakur absolutely steals the show as Birdie thanks to his natural charisma, heightened by the melodramatic dialogue given a modern gritty edge and his outlandish wardrobe that established his status as a style icon just as much as his lyricism. Tupac also has a track featured in a pivotal scene of the movie, but the real undeniable soundtrack phenomenon was the smash hit "Regulate" performed by Warren G and Nate Dogg. Though not exactly related to the film's plot in its lyrics, "Regulate" was nonetheless a perfect companion piece to a film about stories from the streets that reached a wider audience. And the track itself is a masterwork of musical composition in its own right, with an engrossing tale being spun by Warren G's solid emotional delivery and Nate Dogg's one of a kind silky smooth dark chocolate R&B vocals, all relayed over a sample of the Michael McDonald's Blue-Eyed Soul 1982 hit "I Keep Forgettin' (Every Time You're Near)".
Nothing But Trouble (1991)
Speaking of Tupac, it should be recognized that before his death, he was proving himself to be a great actor. His spark was evident in his earliest films like Juice and the aforementioned Above the Rim, and his skills showed real improvement in the 1997 films Gridlock'd and Gang Related. Oddly enough, though, Tupac's actual film debut came by way of a cameo in the Very Fucking Strange 1991 movie Nothing But Trouble, which was directed, co-written by and starring Dan Aykroyd. The movie was a legendary box office bomb that was savaged by critics and audiences alike, earning only $8 million off of a $40 million budget. Nothing But Trouble serves as a testament to the folly of hubris, showing that giving even the most brilliant artists and creators free reign to create art for the masses isn't always the best idea. Still, it serves as an interesting earmark for the history of hip-hop in cinema, one example of the many outside-the-box attempts to break into mainstream culture from different angles. And now that I've said that, let us never speak of this abomination again.
Another important cinematic landmark of hip-hop culture breaking into the mainstream was Friday, F. Gary Gray's directorial debut written by and starring Ice Cube, the famed rapper of N.W.A. and solo hip-hop artist fame. Truth be told, there are a multitude of other articles you can find on the net that go into great detail of the behind the scenes creation and which reflect on the greater cultural importance and impact of the film. In that regard, I'll simply reemphasize what I've said on multiple occasions in other articles and the BMD comments: Friday is just as culturally significant as the acclaimed film Boyz N' The Hood in how it's able to relate the story of the inner-city black youth to the wider mainstream audience. That it is a silly comedy compared to a serious drama doesn't diminish its impact in any way; it in fact enhances the cumulative effect of the two films. It shows that although there is much hardship and tragedy in many downtrodden neighborhoods throughout the country, there is also great joy and a sense of community that we hold dear and appreciate strongly, which ultimately promotes our humanity against longstanding institutions and practices which seek to dehumanize black people. While the film's effect is still relevant today, it should also be noted that the soundtrack was a resounding success that helped hip-hop thrive; the soundtrack album reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts in 1995 and eventually became a certified double platinum-selling album. The main single “Keep Their Heads Ringing” is still a banger after all these years, and the video features fun cameos from Chris Tucker and Faison Love playing as their characters Smokey and Big Worm from the movie.
In Too Deep (1999)
I know a lot of this stuff seems ancient coming from an old head like me, but before we move things into the 21st century, I wanna show some love for a lesser known crime drama from 1999. In Too Deep stars Omar Epps as a Cincinnati undercover cop tasked with infiltrating and bringing down the ruthless drug kingpin played by LL Cool J. What I really liked about this film is the time it takes to show the mental breakdown Epps' Officer Cole suffers through as his identity as a cop begins to blur with his street criminal alias J. Reid. Cole is truly one of the city's finest, but as his efforts grow more and more unappreciated by his superiors, he begins to gain more power and respect from the local hoods as a criminal lieutenant. It's not hard to see why, though, when compared to the truly monstrous Dwayne “God” Gittens. Say what you will of his work, but Mr. Smith has one of the most eclectic careers of any actor, let alone a rapper turned actor, and Cool J absolutely kills it in this role. He has several particularly brutal and quotable scenes that I think put him up there with among the greatest onscreen crime drama villains of the modern era. The film is based on the real life events involving Daryl Whiting, a New York “businessman” who introduced and dominated the crack game in the Orchard Parks projects of Boston in the mid-'80s and '90s. Unfortunately, the real story ends in tragedy for the true-life undercover agent. Even so, the film itself is a fine piece of work that still leaves an impact. Moreover, the soundtrack is full of terrific tracks and artists, including the debut of 50 Cent with “Rowdy Rowdy” and “How To Rob” (where he is notably more intelligible since this was prior to his getting shot nine times, catching a hot one in his face that damaged his tongue and left him with that trademark bullet scar dimple). My favorite track, though, is the Mob Deep joint “Quiet Storm,” which has straight cold-ass rhymes and one of the sickest beats in one of the illest videos ever.
Romeo Must Die (2000)/Cradle 2 Tha Grave (2003)
In the early 2000s there was a concentrated effort to expand the palate of hip-hop in cinema that came in the form of the hip-hop kung fu movie. Kung fu movies had actually been a part of the culture of many black communities since the seventies, with many a low-budget theater showcasing Shaw Brothers matinees and the great Bruce Lee openly inviting and practicing racial diversity in his teachings and movies, a departure from the traditionally isolationist martial arts disciplines. This new wave of movies was the first attempt to update the phenomenon with a modern cinematic sheen, and while the results were fairly interesting, they were unfortunately not all that great. Perhaps the best and most successful one was 2000's Romeo Must Die, starring Jet Li and the late R&B superstar Aaliyah in a riff off of the Romeo and Juliet story of antiquity. The film was a box office success, with an equally successful soundtrack that went platinum and yielded the #1 Billboard charting single “Try Again.” Jet Li starred in several other Hollywood action films, but tried his hand one last time alongside DMX in the 2003 film Cradle To Tha Grave. The film received mixed reviews and earned a modicum of success, but for most people, its greatest claim to fame is the dope as fuck song “X Gon Give It To Ya,” a hell of a track whose fight music effect lives on in various forms to this day.
8 Mile (2002)/ Hustle & Flow (2005)
Though hip-hop made its effect through its aesthetics and soundtracks of mainstream films, there were also a number of films where the art form itself was the prime subject matter of movie narratives. One of the most famous ones was 2002's 8 Mile, starring Marshal Mathers/Eminem in what is essentially his life story in all but name. Part biopic, part underdog story, the movie is solid but for the most part unremarkable. What really sets it apart from other movies, though, is its incredibly dynamic hip-hop battles, where the sharp lyrics, character reactions and electricity of the crowd evoke a sensation that exists on the same wavelength as a deadly martial arts fight sequence or a kinetic sports movie finale. Wisely, Mathers remains stoic and wooden most of the movie and lets the better, more professional actors act around him and do the narrative heavy lifting. But between small quiet moments of sadness and his explosive persona on-stage, it becomes evident that, like Sylvester Stallone and Rocky, this is a one of a kind, only in America kind of story that is worth telling. Hip-hop took center stage once again in 2005's Hustle & Flow, which stars Terrence Howard as a small-time hustler and pimp in Memphis who dreams of escaping the mean streets through the poetry of his rhymes. Once again, we have a film that, beyond some solid performances, is a run of the mill drama. In this case, the standout element comes in the form of the songs that perfectly express the narrative, as well as effectively portraying the lightning in the bottle process that is the creation of a hit song. The soundtrack and highlight songs were made by the renowned rap group Three 6 Mafia, who became the first hip-hop group in history to win an Academy Award for best original song, "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp." As great as that song is though, I actually prefer "Whoop That Trick," a great track full of fire and energy and perfect for stompin heads.
Furious 7 (2015)
The last track is the Wiz Khalifa single "See You Again," featured in the hit blockbuster Furious 7. To be perfectly honest, I'm not really a fan of this song, but similar to the film it supports, I think its cultural prevalence and effect are noteworthy. The Fast & Furious series has been lauded for the diversity of its cast, a multiracial crew of heroes that form a family bond forged in adventure and adversity, stronger than any blood ties. They are in some regards the manifestation of the infusion of hip-hop into mainstream culture. But as we see today with various fanboy chat comments and media reviews, the struggle for diversity is far from over. I see this struggle continuing in mainstream music, despite the influences of black culture. Even when the biggest white superstars like Taylor Swift and Katy Perry collaborate with hip-hop and R&B producers and artists, radio stations still to this day insist on making radio edits of their songs with the rap parts omitted, and some radio stations even go so far as to pride themselves on these exclusionary practices with advertising slogans proudly proclaiming that they "play all the hits....without the rap." So to me, it's great to have a diverse song featuring a black rapper and a white R&B singer dominating the charts, in the face of that discrimination and showing definitively that hip-hop has earned its place in American pop culture at large.
Even though this list was a bit more inclusive, I'm sure all you readers have loads more of your favorite hip-hop soundtracks that you'd like to get recognition. By all means, please share the wealth in the comments below. Peace.