The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972)
Although it appeared earlier on, the Godfather was one of the first films to both romanticize mafia life and delve deep into the mafioso psyche. It set a standard and paved the way for future films that have had an even more direct influence on hip-hop, such as Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas and Abel Ferrara's King Of New York. The trilogy as a whole remains a point of reference in the rap game to this day.
Example: The album cover of Nas, Foxy Brown, AZ and Natures's 1997 group project The Firm was styled after the aesthetic of the film, both in font and imagery. Peep it in the gallery above.
Wild Style (Charlie Ahearn, 1983)
Graffiti is one of the four fundamental elements of hip-hop, and Charlie Ahearn's Wild Style pretty much defined it, along with the other three: DJing, breakdancing and emceeing. Although fictional, it has a documentary feel, and essentially covers the birth of the culture, which took place in the South Bronx, New York in the early 80s. It also served as an introduction to pioneers such as Fab 5 Freddy, Grandmaster Flash, Cold Crush Brothers, Busy Bee and more. In 2007, the VH1 Hip Hop Honors officially recognized the film's profound influence on the culture.
Examples: Many classic albums feature samples from the film, among them Nas' Illmatic, Jurassic 5's Quality Control, A Tribe Called Quest's Midnight Marauders, Cypress Hill's Black Sunday, Common's Resurrection, MF DOOM's Operation: Doomsday and the Beastie Boys' Check Your Head.
Shaolin & Wu-Tang (Gordon Liu, 1983)
Kung-fu films have influenced hip-hop culture since the 80s, with elements of the characters' fighting styles showing up in B-Boy breakdancing routines early on. In the early 90s, RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan took it to the next level, naming the collective he founded after the Wu-Tang martial art school and sampling audio from the English dub of Shaolin & Wu-Tang for their 1993 debut album Enter The Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers. Traces of the Far East have lingered in the rap game ever since.
Examples: The Wu-Tang Clan's group name, as well as countless samples throughout their catalogue.
Scarface (Brian De Palma, 1983)
"The world is yours."
This one speaks for itself. Brian De Palma's Scarface is possibly the most referenced film in all of hip-hop. Countless rappers name-drop Tony Montana and identify with his rags-to-riches story, and although the celebrated anti-hero meets a violent end, his ruthless ambition remains an inspiration to many.
Examples: Veteran Houston emcee Scarface (of the Geto Boys), Nas' "The World Is Yours" and samples in Raekwon's "Criminology".
Beat Street (Stan Lathan, 1984)
Stan Lathan's Beat Street took the concepts covered in Charlie Ahearn's Wild Style to the next level, both reflecting and influencing hip-hop culture by showcasing the state of graffiti, breakdancing and DJing at the time. Although fictional, it includes performances from early hip-hop acts Grandmaster Melle Mel & the Furious Five, Doug E. Fresh, Afrika Bambaataa & The Soul Sonic Force and the Treacherous Three, Kool Moe Dee included.
Example: On The Notorious B.I.G.'s "Suicidal Thoughts" he rhymes: "Should I die on the train tracks like Ramo in Beat Street? / People at my funeral frontin' like they miss me."
Do The Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989)
Arguably Spike Lee's best film, Do the Right Thing explores racial tension in inner-city America (specifically Brooklyn, New York City), a concept all too familiar in hip-hop music. Emcees identified with Lee's character Mookie, an average guy trying to make ends meet in the 'hood while remaining ethical. The film also popularized Public Enemy's "Fight The Power", which, bumped constantly from Radio Raheem’s boombox, was a rallying cry against oppression.
Example: A sample of Pino (John Turturro)'s racist rant in the film is used on Ice Cube's 1990 track "Turn Off The Radio".
Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese, 1990)
Once again, this one needs little explanation. Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas is one of the most important mob flicks ever released, and it's loved in the hip-hop community and beyond. Although an ill-fated rags-to-riches story much like Scarface, Henry Hill's relentless drive for success remains an inspiration to this day. The fact that it's based on true events doesn't hurt either.
Example: Compton's Most Wanted's 1992 track "Def Wish II" samples some of Henry Hill's narrative reflections.
King Of New York (Abel Ferrara, 1990)
"If a nickel bag gets sold in the park, I want in."
With NYC being the birthplace of hip-hop, how could Abel Ferrara's King Of New York not have had an effect? Christopher Walken's Frank White is a charismatic but ruthless drug kingpin aiming for total control of the city, similar to how many emcees aim for dominance in their respective cities. He's an anti-hero, but a hero nonetheless, and his name continues to ring throughout the rap game. If you haven't seen this one, it's about time you did.
Example: "The nigga Bigge Smalls tryna turn into the black Frank White." -The Notorious B.I.G.
Boyz N The Hood (John Singleton, 1991)
This classic and pioneering example of the gangster flick is one of the most important entries on this list. Set in South Central Los Angeles, it's a realistic portrayal of the urban struggle, contrasting family values and positivity with aimless ignorance and violence. Starring Ice Cube, it presents the world that N.W.A. rapped about, causing the viewer to think without overly glamourizing gangsterism and serving as a reference point for the disadvantaged. This story won't soon be forgotten.
Example: Ice Cube's 1993 single "It Was A Good Day" references the film.
New Jack City (Mario Van Peebles, 1991)
Mario Van Peebles' ode to Scarface, although not quite as brilliant, has been embraced by the hip-hop community for the same reasons. Wesley Snipes' drug kingpin Nino Brown is an ambitious anti-hero that not only inspires, but entertains. Supporting performances from Chris Rock and Ice-T don't hurt either.
Example: "It's like what the crack did to Pookie in New Jack." -The Notorious B.I.G.
Juice (Ernest R. Dickerson, 1992)
Another hugely important film in hip-hop, Juice helped define street credit and the pros and cons that come with achieving it. Possibly Tupac Shakur's best performance, it deals with the trials and tribulations of young adults in the 'hood, an ever-present topic in rap music. Artists identify with both the power-hungry Bishop (Tupac) and the more musical Q (Omar Epps). This one's a classic, without a doubt.
Example: Chance The Rapper's 2013 track "Juice".
Menace II Society (Allen & Albert Hughes, 1993)
A darker, more violent and less hopeful version of Boyz N The Hood which some would argue is more realistic. Antiheroes Caine and O-Dog don't attempt to better themselves throughout the course of the film, instead spiralling downward into a life of violence and crime. They are America's nightmare: young, black and just don't give a fuck. Many rappers are drawn to their brand of gangsterism, and although it becomes a cautionary tale in the end, it does glamorize that life.
Example: A$Ap Rocky references the film on "1 Train" - "Braids like I'm O-Dog / My la familia go hard."
Friday (F. Gary Gray, 1995)
This comedic take on the subject matter covered Boyz In The Hood and Menace II Society is an undeniable favorite in the hip-hop community. Unlike most of the films previously mentioned, Friday is a lighter, cartoonish examination of 'hood struggles. Ice Cube and Chris Tucker are in their prime here, and the chemistry is generally hilarious. As serious as hip-hop can be at times, it's important to laugh as well.
Example: French Montana's video for "I Told 'Em" features the infamous character Deebo from the film.
Dead Presidents (Albert Hughes, 1995)
This film popularized the term "dead presidents", a synonym for cash used in rap music to this day. It follows three Vietnam War vets from the Bronx who return to their neighbourhood to find it overrun by violence and drugs. However, instead of rising above it, they decide to orchestrate a heist. This one's about that paper chase, plain and simple - another ever-present trope in hip-hop.
Example: Jay Z's various "Dead Presidents" tracks.
Belly (Hype Williams, 1998)
How could we omit Belly? Although not the most critically acclaimed film, Hype Williams' answer to Master P’s "I’m 'Bout It" is an undeniable 'hood classic, starring Nas, DMX and Method Man (it was also co-written by Nas). It may suffer from a slightly weak plot and amateur acting, but it's on point stylistically and illustrates the antiheroic fantasy world that many emcees refer to in their raps. Think of it as an extended and extremely detailed music video.
A comprehensive list of 15 films that have had a profound impact on hip-hop music.
There's no denying the inspiration rappers draw from movies, whether the sound is on or off. Films such as Juice, King Of New York, Belly, New Jack City, Boyz In The Hood, Menace To Society and Scarface have helped shape the persona many of your favorite emcees adopt on the mic (whether they're entirely aware of it or not). Artists, especially those born into poverty, tend to identify with characters that rise above all odds and prosper, in a criminal field or otherwise. Tony Montana, Frank White, O-Dog, Mookie, Master Liu - the list of "inspirational" characters goes on. In fact, as the rap game becomes increasingly fictional and exaggerated, many emcees are just like actors - they play a role.
Other than character inspiration, general movie references appear constantly in rap lyrics. Because of its detailed storytelling nature, it could be argued that hip-hop is the most cinematic genre of music there is. The freedom of expression and potential for imagery is essentially limitless. Not to mention, films are a huge sample resource for many producers, and hip-hop music has been included on film soundtracks for decades. The two pretty much come hand-in-hand at this point.
We'll leave it at that. Read on, and if you haven't seen all of the following flicks, it's about time you get familiar.
(Keep in mind, they appear in chronological order only).