That's A Rap By Malcolm Fraser. Since the rise of rap music to the mainstream in the mid-to-late eighties, its practitioners have felt the need to immortalize themselves on celluloid...

Since the rise of rap music to the mainstream in the mid-to-late eighties, its practitioners have felt the need to immortalize themselves on celluloid. When a rock star deigns to appear in a movie, it’s big news, but for some reason rappers seem to feel that a movie is just another part of the overall media package. While we may scoff at the idea of MCs turned thespians, the fact is that rapping is acting: memorizing lines and playing a character is second nature to these guys, although the same can’t always be said for the finer points of the acting craft. Through sheer numbers alone, the rap movie has become its own genre, complete with classics, recurring themes, and a no-budget underground movement.

The first rap movie was Krush Groove (1985), which told the story of an eponymous small-time rap label that’s a thinly veiled portrait of real-life Def Jam Records. Run-DMC, The Fat Boys and Kurtis Blow appear as themselves, and Blair Underwood plays label head Russell Simmons. Sheila E is mysteriously dropped into the story for some crossover appeal and a love story with Run. Also appearing are a rail-thin LL Cool J and the adolescent Beastie Boys, who bust some heavy-metal fratboy rhymes no doubt embarrassing to their current, enlightened selves. The story follows Underwood as he scrambles to get his label established, running into troubles with the mob and rival labels. The Fat Boys offer one-note comic relief (roasting a fetal pig in science class, emptying out an all-you-can-eat restaurant) and take the film into surreal territory: while everyone else confines their performances to the stage, the corpulent MCs are granted a few full-fledged musical numbers. There’s an excited spirit to the movie, as the rappers in the cast are replaying their success stories not too long after they happened. It was the number-one film in the U.S. the week after it opened, and is worth seeing for any old-school hip-hop fan.

Two years later, The Fat Boys appeared in their own vehicle, Disorderlies, featuring a string of lame fat jokes and an abundance of old-school sound effects (think “boiiiing!” whenever the Boys bump into each other, or when somebody gets an erection). The film was awful, but the rap-movie phenomenon had begun.

1988 brought the Run-DMC movie, Tougher Then Leather. Directed by their producer and Def Jam honcho Rick Rubin, the film starts off as a Run-DMC slice-of-life, then takes a turn towards attempted drama when the boys get mixed up with a corrupt record label head (played by an uncredited actor who bears a suspicious resemblance to Rubin). Some inane subplots and a couple of weird, rambling monologues pad out the threadbare plot. In one, Jam Master Jay recounts his recurring dream of having his cock bitten off by a groupie; in the other, the label boss wishes that he were a giraffe so that he could fellate himself. These odd touches don’t redeem the fundamentally uninspired tone of the whole film.

The failure of the Krush Groove stars to repeat their box-office magic seemed to put a damper on the rap-movie craze. The flame would not be re-ignited until 1991, the banner year of the rapper/actor. This was the year of Ice-T in New Jack City, LL Cool J in The Hard Way, and Ice Cube in Boyz N The Hood. The filmmakers got some authenticity and target-market star power; the rappers got a fallback career, and the audiences got to see their favorite rappers acting. Everyone was happy. The aforementioned trinity has worked steadily ever since, opening the door for such capable actors as Busta Rhymes and the late Tupac Shakur (who actually attended theatre school before becoming a rapper).

Ice-T, in fact, takes his acting quite seriously, in terms of quantity if not quality. His filmography includes twelve movies in 1999 and five so far in 2000. He has even branched out into porn, appearing in Frankenpenis (1996), directed by Ron Jeremy and starring John Wayne Bobbit. In 1998, the Original Gangster signed a deal with indie production company Filmwerks, and has been co-producing and starring in a relentless stream of straight-to-video action/dramas, often bringing in Snoop Dogg and other rappers for roles whose screen time is inversely proportional to their names’ proximity to the title on the video box. I almost made it halfway through one of these.

Another aspect of moviemaking that connects to world or rap to the cinema, the rapumentary, is best represented by Brian Robbins’s The Show (1995). This film demonstrates inherent contradiction present in the public image of rapper. Possessing an ever-present obsession of “keepin’ it real,” rappers are always at the ready to disavow their gangsta images, insisting that this façade is mere “entertainment” or a reflection of “ghetto reality” rather than a celebration of it. What better way to have your cake and eat it, too, than to tell your story in your own movie?

The strangest aspect of these films is that no matter how terrible they may be, people rent them on star power alone. When I worked at a video store in a demographically opportune area, any movie with a rapper in it was guaranteed to fly off the shelves. One of the most popular was Belly (1998), starring DMX, Nas and a handful of other rappers, and directed by Hype Williams (of the Puff Daddy jet ski-race school of music videos). As one might expect from an MTV whiz, the film looks amazing; every shot is a Blade Runner -esque painting of light. Although the plot is more interesting and the acting better than you might think, the film eventually gets bogged down in the race for an unlikely happy ending.

Nowadays, many upstart rap labels include movies in their enterprises as a matter of course. This phenomenon is attributable to Master P, the New Orleans-based mastermind of No Limit Records, whose semi-autobiographical, shot-on-video I’m Bout It (1997) sold an astonishing one million copies. I’m Bout It set a blueprint for the new school of rap movies: gangsta tales, combining a serious Scorsese jones with an Ed Wood budget and aesthetic. These inherently feature a soundtrack and cast provided by their record label’s talent roster. The most hilarious of the I’m Bout It clones is Big Ballers (1998), whose marketing team decided to decorate the video box with piles of gold, jewelry, and champagne bottles; perhaps it was similar expenses that forced the filmmakers to shoot on consumer-level video with barely audible sound.

Tougher Then Leather portrayed its featured rappers as decent, family-lovin’ guys who don’t hesitate to prove what badasses they can be when the shit goes down. I’m Bout It and its imitators, on the other hand, take an inverse morality: the protagonists start off as street thugs and then-after the invariable assassination of a family member-realize the error of their ways and become upstanding rap entrepreneurs. The impoverished circumstances of the characters, and the constant temptation of crime as a means of surmounting their poverty, are reminiscent of Ken Loach (as is the fact that much of the dialogue is spoken in thick regional accents that take intense concentration to understand). The phenomenon of the autobiographical movie as therapy and self-fulfilling prophecy of success is bound to multiply as digital video technology improves.

Whether this is a good thing for viewers is debatable. Cinematic achievement as we know it seems pretty low on the priority list of the new crop of rap moviemakers; certainly, it’s secondary to self-promotion, and the audience for these movies seems content at the mere presence of their favorite rap stars. As with most low-budget genres, we’ll just have to suffer through the onslaught until the next gem emerges.

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