Tupac Shakur as Roland Bishop in "Juice" (1992)
During his short career, Tupac Shakur was known as an actor just as much as he was a rapper. Born in Harlem and coming onto the hip hop scene through hip hop group Digital Underground, soon after his emergence Pac delved into acting, with one of his most notable roles being that of Roland Bishop in the 1992 crime drama "Juice". Accompanying a friend to an audition for the film, Shakur originally had no intention to audition himself but, on a whim he auditioned, and gained the role, an accomplishment that he later attributed to God. Alongside Omar Epps, Shakur played out for audiences the lives of young African-American men coming of age in the streets of Harlem, New York. The film was received well by critics and Shakur was praised for his role as Bishop. In an interview while promoting the film the rapper described his character in the film as “a psychotic, insecure very violent, very short tempered individual.” Shakur portrayed the role with effortlessly leading some to question whether or not the rapper was actually acting or simply being himself. Regardless of the subtle controversy, the film grossed more than $20 million dollars world wide and Shakur’s memorable performance left him being considered the “film's most magnetic figure”, according to Rolling Stone Magazine.
DMX as Tommy "Buns" Bundy in "Belly" (1998)
Although reviewed badly by critics, "Belly" has since its release proven itself a classic. Starring an A-list cast including rappers DMX and Nas, the 1998 urban crime drama was also music video director, Hype Williams directorial debut. Among the prominent cast rapper DMX was commended for his role as a ruthless New York City drug dealer and robber. The rapper met Williams on the set of his first music video for the single “Get At Me Dog” which Williams was directing. According to DMX the director offered him a part in the film, and the rest is history. Along with New York-bred rapper Nas, DMX assisted in the production of the script for the film with Williams, showing that he was not only a talented actor but also creative mind. In spite of the film being perceived by critics as having a “weak plot” it was described as “visually inventive” due to its noir cinematography. Although just two years ago, X publicly admitted to being in a booze-filled haze throughout the filming of the movie, DMX’s acting debut as Tommy Bundy will without a doubt remain one of the highlights of his career.
Cam'ron as Rico in "Paid In Full" (2002)
Leader of hip hop group The Diplomats, Cam’ron is one of the only members who has tried his hand in acting and made a name for himself doing so. Formerly known in the hip hop world as ‘Killa Cam’ the Dipset rapper thrived in the early 2000s, releasing his platinum album Come Home With Me and co-starring in the Damon Dash produced film "Paid In Full". Distributed by ROC Film/Rock-A-Fella Films the 2003 crime drama focused on the lives of three friends at the dawning of the cocaine outbreak in 1980s Harlem. The film was named after Eric B. and Rakim’s 1987 album and based on the lives of three notorious drug kingpins from Harlem, although despite a well-known cast the film did not fair well in the box office. However Cam’ron’s performance, alongside actor Mekhi Pifer, gained reviews calling the film a "well-acted tale". The rapper's first acting performance in "Paid In Full" served as a platform for several other acting roles.
Ludacris as Anthony in "Crash" (2004)
Winner of three Academy Awards, including Best Picture, the controversial yet critically acclaimed film "Crash" undeniably put Atlanta-based rapper Ludacris (born Christopher Bridges) on the map as a significant actor in Hollywood. The crime drama, which touches on both racial and social issues in Los Angeles, featured a cast of top actors in film including Sandra Bullock and Don Cheadle. A far leap from one of his debut roles in the action drama "2 Fast 2 Furious", alongside the late Paul Walker, the rapper's role as a young, black man living in Los Angeles and struggling with his existence while pursuing a life of crime gained him copious amounts of admiration. The role additionally earned Bridges a Screen Actors Guild Award along with a nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture at the 37th NAACP Image Awards. Critics claimed that the rapper and actor's “unique talent” stole the film and proved that he had “officially become an actor.”
Yasiin Bey as Edward "Eddie" Bunker in "16 Blocks" (2006)
Mos Def, now known as Yasiin Bey, began his acting career as a teenager, appearing in made-for-television films and a short-lived sitcom. The Brooklyn-born rapper's career in acting began to take off around the early 2000s and he appeared in various film roles, many of which were celebrated. One of his most memorable acting performances, however, was alongside Bruce Willis in the 2006 crime thriller "16 Blocks". It was reported that Willis initially wanted rapper and actor Ludacris for the role of Eddie Bunker, yet Yasiin was cast in the role against his wishes. The second highest earning film in its opening weekend, "16 Blocks" obtained favorable reviews from most commentators. Rolling Stone Magazine called Yasiin and Willis “a terrific team” while notable film critic Roger Ebert called Yasiin's acting “completely unexpected." Vastly differing from his notorious role in the romantic film "Brown Sugar", Mos Def displayed his wide range as an actor.
Queen Latifa as Cleopatra "Cleo" Sims in "Set It Off" (1996)
We all remember Queen Latifah in the lead role of her early '90s sitcom "Living Single", but little did we know the rapping queen had immense talent when it came to acting on the big screen. The 1996 action/crime thriller "Set It Off", starring Latifah alongside actresses Jada Pinkett and Vivica A. Fox, centered around four women living and struggling in the rough streets of Los Angeles. The friends decide their only way to make a better life for themselves is to rob a bank, and they carry out their plan. The suspenseful film acquired much acclaim and Latifah’s role gained her nominations as Best Supporting Actress at the Independent Spirit Awards as well as Outstanding Lead Actress in a Motion Picture at the 1997 NAACP Awards. Numerous media outlets and critics hailed the film and Latifah's acting as a “career-making performance that should make her a big Hollywood Star” (Variety Magazine). And they were right, the rapper's character in the film, which has been described as both “fantastic” and “complicated,” ultimately lead to many future film roles and shortly thereafter the title of Hollywood A-lister.
Ice Cube as Darrin “Doughboy” Baker in "Boyz In The Hood" (1991)
Writer-director and producer John Singleton’s directorial debut, "Boyz In The Hood", did not only open doors for the young creative’s future career but it did so for the cast of his critically exalted film also, the most notable being rapper Ice Cube. Born and raised in Los Angeles, California the former N.W.A. rapper took on the role as gang member and high school drop-out Darrin “Doughboy” Baker in the coming of age, urban drama. Starring in his debut film role the young rapper's performance was described as “standout,” leading the film, along with his well-known co-stars, to be nominated for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay at the Academy Awards that same year. Following the troubles and tribulations of young friends growing up in South Central Los Angeles, the film and its budding cast captivated the entire world and the film is now regarded as “one of the best films ever made.”
Eminem as Jimmy "B-Rabbit" Smith, Jr. in "8 Mile" (2002)
Described as a “hip hop masterpiece” by Vibe Magazine, rapper Eminem’s (Marshall Mathers) debut film "8 Mile"’s extreme success was due in part to his spectacular performance portraying the story of a young, white rapper who is attempting to launch his music career amongst opposition. Set in Eminem’s hometown of Detroit in the mid-1990s the film, although it has been described as semi-autobiographical is nothing more than a “representation” of what it was like growing up in Detroit during that time, according to the rapper himself. The hip hop drama, which made over $51 million dollars within its opening week lead to the controversial rapper receiving multitudes of admiration from critics such as Ebert & Roeper, who called his performance, “convincing” and “raw magic.” The film also gained Mathers an Academy Award for Best Original Song, making him the first hip hop artist to ever win the statue, along with an MTV Movie Award for Best Male Performance.
Ice-T as Scotty Appleton in "New Jack City" (1991)
A pioneer of West Coast gangsta rap, Ice-T, who we can now watch on the hit crime series "Law & Order: SVU" plunged into a serious acting career in the 1991, when he took one of the leading roles in director and actor Mario Van Peebles debut crime film, "New Jack City". Although having only limited acting experience, Ice-T was approached by Van Peebles regarding the role while out partying in a Hollywood club one night in 1990. The young director asked the gangsta rapper to be in his film and Ice-T obliged, later admitting to being nervous about taking on such a role. Not only was the nervousness a product of it being his first leading role in a film, but the fact that the rapper would be playing a police detective despite having a rough, gangster persona in his real life and career. The rapper turned actor succeeded in accomplishing the role with outstanding ease. One of the highest grossing films of 1991, "New Jack City" and its raw portrayal of the crack outbreak of the 1980s gained Ice-T a nomination for Best Breakthrough Performance at the MTV Movie Awards, and his acting was described by top critics as "effortlessly authentic and convincing."
Kid as Christopher Robinson, Jr., Play as Peter Martin in "House Party" (1990)
This cult classic just might have gained New York City based rap duo Kid ‘n Play more recognition than their successful music career. The 1990 comedy written and directed by Reginald Hudlin saw much success with its Spring release that year and still does to this day. With a storyline that was described by reviewers as both “infectious and engaging,” the film also drew in much attention due to the fact that it was a film based on the lives of black teenagers yet failed to “revolve around social problems [or] drugs…” according to Roger Ebert. Although Will Smith (known then as The Fresh Prince) and DJ Jazzy Jeff were to originally star in the leading roles of the film both Kid and Play executed their roles more then successfully. Kid was described in the film as “natural and unaffected” and both rappers were perceived as “terrific” with an abundance of “energy and exuberance.” The film's favorable reception and the duos acting accomplishments lead to the films extensive success prompting two "House Party" sequels.
50 Cent as Marcus Greer in "Get Rich Or Die Tryin'" (2005)
Following in the footsteps of fellow rapper Eminem and his film "8 Mile", rapper 50 Cent (Curtis Jackson) presented audiences with his 2005 film, named after his debut album, "Get Rich or Die Tryin'". Acting in his first feature film, the former G-Unit rapper starred alongside seasoned actor Terrance Howard in the urban drama telling the story of a young man who is forced to sell drugs on the streets of New York, all the while aspiring to make it in the music industry. The film initially gained attention due to its first-rate, Academy Award winning director Jim Sheridan as well as Jackson’s celebrity as a prominent rapper. It encountered moderate controversy early on, however, when renowned actor Samuel L. Jackson made it publicly known that he had turned down a starring role in the film due to his lack of confidence in the inexperienced rapper as an actor. Nevertheless the filmed thrived, sans Samuels, grossing over $12 million during its opening weekend and leading to an abundant amount of admiration for not only the film itself but the rapper's promising acting chops. Critics commended the rapper, calling his performance an, “impressive debut” with a “rich and convincing texture.” Jackson’s raw portrayal of his desperate yet hopeful character has since been called “his crowning achievement” and has resulted in a prosperous acting career.