When rap music was created, it gave Americans a view into the hood. The media refused to cover the poverty-stricken minority-filled neighborhoods, so rappers became our ghetto journalists. After hearing the tales of gang culture, drug dealers, pimps, the crack epidemic, and gun violence, Americans were shocked. Hip-hop music videos were banned from several stations, but the imagery was powerful and the message began to spread.
Soon the imagery that was confined to 3-minute videos took a tremendous leap from television screens to movie screens. The industry was unable to ban films in the same way that they did music videos, and millions of Americans flocked to their local theater to view depictions of Black America from the viewpoint of Black Americans. Directors like John Singleton and Mario Van Peebles were able to explore complex issues and themes that were too heavy for music videos, but perfect for full-length feature films. Movies like Boyz ‘n The Hood and Menace II Society highlighted the plight of minorities in the ghetto, while films like Friday and House Party were able to convey more lighthearted cultural subject matter. Rappers started using movie characters from these films to help illustrate their messages as well, and so began the relationship of Hollywood and Hip-Hop.
Rapper-actors are commonplace in the industry today, but pioneers like Tupac and Ice Cube opened the door to that possibility in the early 90’s. Hip-hop influenced movies, and now movies also influence rappers. Characters like Bishop, Pookie, Nino Brown, B-Rabbit, Q, O-Dog, Sincere, and Smoky have been referenced by every prominent rapper imaginable. Punchlines, metaphors, and entendres have been formulated from gangster movie plot twists and defining hip-hop movie moments. Below is a list of the most influential hip-hop movies of the last thirty years, films that are essential to any hip-hop fan’s movie catalog. If you haven’t seen every movie on this list, you should question your hip-hop fandom. If you don’t know, now you know.
Menace II Society
The Hughes brothers made their directorial debut with this classic. Menace II Society introduced the world to Caine and O-Dog, two Los Angeles South Central youth surviving in the hood. The violent and gritty depiction of life in Watts educated the world on the harsh reality that many hip-hop artists were raised in. Originally, Tupac was supposed to star in the film, but he was fired from the set after vehemently arguing with the directors about the authenticity of the role.
Who isn’t in this movie? Tupac stars alongside Omar Epps, Jermaine Hopkins, and Samuel L. Jackson, but several hip-hop superstars make cameo appearances. Queen Latifah, Treach, Ed Lover, EPMD, and Fab-Five Freddy are just a few of the stars that grace the screen. Based in Harlem, Juice follows the story of four friends that yearn for more respect in their hood. Tupac’s character Bishop becomes deranged in the process and turns into a murderer. The impact that Juice had on Tupac’s career, and hip-hop as a whole, was powerful. It helped launch Pac’s acting career, which influenced rappers for decades to act as well.
Boyz ‘n The Hood
South Central is the setting for this John Singleton directed masterpiece. The all-star cast was comprised of Cuba Gooding Jr., Ice Cube, Morris Chestnut, Laurence Fishburne, Nia Long, Angela Bassett, and Regina King. In fact, Boyz ‘n The Hood launched Ice Cube’s acting career. Singleton became the first Black director nominated for the Best Director award at the Oscars in 1992 because of his work on this film. The epic drama follows Ricky, Tre, and Doughboy, and illustrates the dangers of gang lifestyle in LA. Black power, gentrification, drug abuse, sex, and the importance of a college education are all topics that are addressed before the gut-wrenching conclusion.
DMX and Nas star as Tommy and Sincere in this Hype Williams directed gangster flick. At the time, Nas and X were two of the hottest rappers in hip-hop, and their real-life gangster persona helped the authenticity of Belly. Tommy and Sincere are two New York crooks who enter into the drug game and watch their life fall to pieces around them. Hip-hop legends such as TLC’s T-Boz, Method Man, Ghostface Killah, AZ, and Sean Paul all make appearances. Hype Williams took his stunning shooting methods from the music video industry to the big screen, and although the acting can be weak at times, visually Belly is stunning.
“… and Clarence’s parents have a real good marriage.” Everyone knows the plot of this one. 8 Mile brought battle-rap culture into the homes of millions of Americans when it dropped in 2002. The single for the move, “Lose Yourself,” is the most successful song of Eminem’s prestigious career: it won him an Oscar and two Grammy awards. Proof, Obie Trice, and Xzibit all make appearances alongside Hollywood heavyweights Kim Basinger, Mekhi Phifer, Anthony Mackie, and Michael Shannon.
You can probably get a contact high from watching How High. This comedy is a classic, and it brings together two of hip-hop’s most beloved stoners. Redman and Method Man are admitted into Harvard University after they smoke a special strain of weed that allows them to see their deceased genius friend who gives them answers to their tests. Both Red and Meth find themselves chasing gorgeous women, causing mayhem on campus, and making faux historical discoveries. Mike Epps plays a local pimp, while Al Shearer plays a seemingly mute hustler that goes by the name “I Need Money.” The soundtrack is just as good as the movie itself, and features DMX, Mary J. Blige, Ludacris, and Cypress Hill.
F. Gary Gray made his directorial debut with Friday, and Ice Cube wrote the script alongside DJ Pooh. Cube wanted to release a film that contrasted the more depressing views of the hood that were being portrayed in several other movies. His vision worked successfully and showed America that South Central was about more than just gang bangers and murder. Lighthearted and hilarious, Friday also helped launch the acting career of Chris Tucker. Tucker immortalized his character Smokey, an ignorant pothead who gets high on his own supply and becomes indebted to his supplier. Two sequels have been released, with a third still in production.
Teenagers who throw a party at their friend’s house while their parents are away… now that’s a relatable story. Kid ‘n Play star in the raunchy comedy that has since become a cult classic. House Party was monumental in launching the careers of Martin Lawrence, Tisha Campbell, and Daryl Mitchell. Legendary actor Robin Harris (known for his Bébé’s Kids routine) played Kid’s father in the film, but passed away soon after the movie’s debut. Fun fact: The lead roles in House Party were originally written for Will Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff.
New Jack City
Mario Van Peebles directorial debut is a gripping tale that details the rise of the crack epidemic in New York City. Starring Ice-T, Wesley Snipes, Allen Payne, Mario Van Peebles and Chris Rock, New Jack City’s influence on hip-hop was immense. Cash Money Records was named after Nino Brown’s Cash Money Brothers (CMB) clique in the movie. “Cancel that bitch” is one of the most famous lines from the movie, and it has made its way onto several rap records over the last 26 years. Based in Harlem, Nino Brown is relentlessly hunted by Scotty, a detective who blames the death of his mother on Nino. Brown’s character is based on legendary Harlem gangster Nicky Barnes, who was played by Cuba Gooding Jr. in American Gangster.
Paid In Full
Based on the Harlem drug-dealing trio of Azie Faison, Rich Porter, and Alpo Martinez, Paid In Full is named after Eric B. and Rakim’s classic 1987 debut. Cam’ron, Wood Harris, and Mekhi Phifer star as Rico (Alpo), Ace (Azie), and Mitch (Rich) respectively. The story follows the come-up of two friends, Ace and Mitch, who build a drug empire in the hood. After Ace gets arrested and meets Rico in prison, things take a turn for the worse. Rico joins Ace and Mitch’s drug empire, and ultimately destroys the crew. Damon Dash and Jay-Z serve as producers for the film, which was released through Roc-A-Fella Films.