Film Ed

It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back

by Justin Madore
From the October 2015 Issue

With the recent success of Straight Outta Compton, we take a look back at Tinseltown’s role in hip hop’s steady rise from a niche NYC curiosity to a cultural sensation; From headphones to Hollywood.Compton1
In 2015, there’s no denying the impact of hip hop on American and even international culture. And while it’s now a cultural juggernaut, affecting aspects of our lives such as the syntax and makeup of our language, (see Drake’s 2011 hit “The Motto”) our fashion choices, or inspiring political movements (as can be seen in the YouTube video of protesters chanting the chorus from Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright”), it wasn’t always so present in the public consciousness. While the music certainly speaks for itself, its integration with film over the years has helped as well. Because of landmark films like Wild Style and 8 Mile, hip hop has become more mainstream than ever. The movement reached a climax this year with the release of Rick Famuyiwa’s Dope and F. Gary Gray’s smash hit N.W.A biopic, Straight Outta Compton. These films and the films before them have had a significant role in pushing it to the forefront of the cultural zeitgeist and having the genre be perceived as artistically valid.

The inception of hip hop goes back much farther than you might think. While it didn’t really come into its own until the second half of the ‘80s, its roots go way back to the ‘60s with a pair of James Brown songs, “Funky Drummer” and “Sex Machine”, the former of which becoming one of the most sampled songs in the history of rap for its famous drum break. Listening to them now you can retroactively hear a huge influence on the sounds of hip hop in the ‘80s and ‘90s; however, the big break for hip hop in mainstream music came in the late ‘70s with The Sugarhill Gang’s seminal classic “Rapper’s Delight,” which became the highest charting hip hop song to date, peaking at #36 on Billboard. Around this time, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five began recording as well, helping to popularize the genre. Soon after came Ice-T, Run-DMC, Public Enemy and the Beastie Boys.

With these artists paving the way, room was made in the music industry for hip-hop’s first true super-group. Six men from Compton came together to fill that void. DJ Yella, Arabian Prince, MC Ren, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and Eazy-E became known as N.W.A. Their songs were an instant success, selling millions of copies to rabid fans across the globe. But as Straight Outta Compton exposed, they stirred up quite a bit of controversy as well, sparking the debate of whether or not hip hop glamorizes violence and promotes drug use. The song “Fuck tha Police” became one of the most controversial songs of the 20th century, sparking political and social unrest.

The group made its members famous, and with fame came celebrity, particularly for member O’Shea Jackson, better known as Ice Cube. With this celebrity, Ice Cube took a turn towards Hollywood, starting out with the ‘90s hood classic, Boyz n the Hood. While Wild Style was the first “hip hop film,” the performance Cube gave as a key cast member in Boyz n the Hood brought him into the acting world for good, and established him as a money making star, as the film grossed over $55 million dollars on a shoestring budget of only $6 million. Ice Cube, a hip hop star, had proved that he had mainstream appeal, thus bringing hip hop as a whole closer to its current cultural domination.Hood1While Boyz n the Hood kicked off the acting career of Ice Cube, it was also a landmark film for black people. Director John Singleton became both the youngest person and the first African-American man to be nominated for a Best Director Academy Award (Adaso). He was also nominated for Best Original Screenplay. While he won neither award, a nomination by the Academy for a movie with an all-black cast was a pivotal moment for people of color in the industry. The lack of diversity in the voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is not a secret, and it was certainly less diverse in the early ‘90s. The nomination of a film featuring an all-black cast by a mostly white voting board for mainstream awards was not only a win for hip hop in film was also a landmark victory for the black community in media.

The ‘90s continued with other mainstream hits like Juice, starring Tupac Shakur; Friday, starring Ice Cube; and Chris Rock’s CB4, which satirized the hip hop culture of the time. And while satire is meant to make fun of a certain topic, the fact that hip hop was the subject was a significant development. The rap genre had reached beyond a cult following in music and in Hollywood. Hip hop had gotten big enough to draw substantial criticism.

The early ‘90s were huge for hip hop, with the explosion of popularity in both the music and films dealing with related subject matter. With this massive influx of popularity, the genre of hip hop started to attract an increasing amount of negative criticism from the media. Accusations of misogyny, the promotion of violence and the negative influence hip-hop could have on your children were leveled at industry leaders, such as Tupac Shakur, Biggie Smalls, and later Eminem and 50 Cent, well up through the 2000s. Was hip hop poisoning the minds of the next generation of children? Was hip-hop even art?

The answers to those questions came sooner rather than later. In 2002, 8 Mile was released to widespread critical acclaim. Eminem played a fictionalized version of himself in the biopic. The film was a smash success, grossing $242 million worldwide, proving yet again that hip hop had mainstream appeal. The film also spawned a little song called “Lose Yourself”, which seemed to definitively respond to that all too important question with the answer: Hip hop is art. The song has sold more than 6 million units to date, and became the first hip hop song to be nominated for an Oscar. It won, and Marshall Mathers (Eminem) entered film history.Mile1It wasn’t the last hip-hop song to win an Oscar, though. Three years later, another critical darling came along called Hustle & Flow, which got star Terrence Howard an Oscar nomination. Three 6 Mafia became the second hip hop act to win an Oscar for their song on the soundtrack, “It’s Hard out Here for a Pimp”. In addition, just last year, rapper Common and singer John Legend won an Oscar for their collaboration on Selma’s theme song, “Glory” (Adaso).

2015 has been an excellent year from hip hop both in music and in film. Drake’s “If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late” is on track to become one of the most successful albums of the decade, and Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” seems to be a lock for a Best Album win at the Grammys, but two memorable hip hop films have been released as well. Dope premiered at the Sundance Film Festival to critical acclaim, and seven months later, one of the biggest films of the year, Straight Outta Compton, released and became a cultural phenomenon.

Having grossed close to $200 million at the box office since it’s release in August, Straight Outta Compton is the first hip hop film to become a bonafide hit since 8 Mile. It also garnered a significant amount of acclaim from critics and audiences. More than that though, it’s injected hip hop into the mainstream in ways that other films have failed. The brilliant marketing campaign (built partly on the “Straight Outta Somewhere” picture generator) got all types of people talking about the film in positive ways early. N.W.A and Ice Cube’s record sales spiked, putting them in the iTunes charts for weeks on end (MaGee). The public, and not just hip hop fans, were paying attention for the first time in a major way to a part of the genre’s history. The film has led to the rediscovery of classic albums like “Straight Outta Compton” and “The Chronic” by those inspired to listen by the film.

Drawing from decades of inspiration, Straight Outta Compton is a landmark film that has set a new bar for what hip hop movies should be. It illuminated a crucial time in the genres culture for the public, spoke on current issues of police violence and inspired a new wave of hip hop fans. More than that though, it’s the latest in a series of films to greatly improve the legitimacy of the genre in a big way. For a long time, hip hop has struggled to overcome its critics because of its sometimes violent or crude expression of rough urban environments. It’s sometimes been a voice for the voiceless and a very powerful voice at that. Like Jazz and Rock ‘n’ Roll before it, hip hop has proved itself not only to be a legitimate genre, but an integral part in global culture. Without films like Boyz n The Hood, 8 Mile and Straight Outta Compton bringing the movement to the big screen, this may not have been the case.

Works Cited
Adaso, Henry. “Hip-Hop at the Oscars.” About.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Sept. 2015.
Adaso, Henry. “The History of Hip-Hop: The Early Years.” About.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Sept. 2015.
MaGee, Ny. “‘Straight Outta Compton’ Boosts Album Sales of Dr. Dre, N.W.A.” EURweb. N.p., 22 Aug. 2015. Web. 29 Sept. 2015.

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