From the Lil’ Wayne documentary to a film about slain Run-DMC pioneer Jam Master Jay, it seems like we hear about a new hip hop movie roughly once a week. Now, with the GZA’s new Wu-Tang documentary in the works — you can watch the trailer here — we at Flavorwire thought it’d be a good time to look back over some other essential hip hop films. Here are our picks for ten of the best, spanning nearly three decades.
Wild Style (1982)
Wild Style and 1983’s Style Wars marked the film debut of the culture that had emerged during the 1970s in the Bronx and Harlem. Focusing largely on the graffiti scene in New York, Wild Style nevertheless incorporated enough of the hip hop culture that evolved in parallel with that scene to justify its claim to being the first hip hop film. Nearly 30 years on, it makes for fascinating viewing. It’s made in a true punk, DIY spirit, decidedly rough around the edges but full of passion for its subject matter, and walks a strange line between documentary and fiction – many of the protagonists essentially play themselves, and the plotting is kinda loose. It’s hard to overstate how important this film was in taking hip hop culture to the world.
Beat Street (1984)
Beat Street is a genre classic that followed in the footsteps of Wild Style and Style Wars and developed the ideas of those films into a full-blown feature narrative. For all its occasionally somber subject matter, there’s a real exuberance to Beat Street, a sense of freshness and possibility that’s all the more poignant when you consider it only just pre-dated the crack epidemic that laid waste to the scene it depicts. As with Wild Style, there’s also a didactic element to the film, exploring and explaining the interlinked elements that defined early hip hop culture – DJing, MCing, graffiti, beatboxing, and breakdancing – and bringing them to a mainstream audience. Beat Street also functions these days as a eulogy to a disappeared New York: a ramshackle city of double-lettered subway lines, boom boxes and block parties.
Krush Groove (1985)
Another early classic, perhaps overlooked in comparison to Wild Style and Beat Street. The plot focuses on fictional record label Krush Groove, which bears a distinct resemblance to Def Jam (and that label’s founder Russell Simmons was one of the film’s producers). Krush Groove features appearances from real-life Def Jam artists Run-DMC and Kurtis Blow, along with the most excellent Sheila E. It’s an interesting insight into the early days of one of hip hop’s most influential labels.
Boyz N The Hood (1991)
If early hip hop movies were fundamentally optimistic, Boyz N The Hood set a markedly different tone. It opens with the sound of gunshots and the statistic that one in 21 black males will be be murdered, the majority by another black male, and goes on to provide a bleak depiction of life in South Central Los Angeles – the gun crime, the drugs, the atavistic social dysfunction, but also the sense of community and the desire to make a better life against the odds. It was a celluloid parallel to the new brand of hip hop that was emerging on the West Coast, eschewing romanticism for realism. Its depiction of Compton and surrounds is neither sensationalized nor sanitized; as with much of early gangsta rap, before the self-aggrandising mythology took hold, it simply told it like it was.
Although he’d won plenty of acclaim for an uncharacteristically serious performance in New Jack City, CB4 was Chris Rock’s first attempt at breaking away from Saturday Night Live and transferring his act to the big screen. It’s also arguably the first hip hop comedy, a parody of gangsta rap that tells the story of fictional group Cell Block 4. It plays on the idea that plenty of “gangstas” were middle-class kids, with a bunch of cameos from real hip hop stars and also a role for Charlie “We talking about Rick James!” Murphy. And it’s hilarious.
Fear of a Black Hat (1994)
Also adopting the hip hop parody idea, with even more spectacular results than CB4, was hip hop’s answer to This Is Spinal Tap – Fear of a Black Hat. Gangsta rap’s posturing and image obsession are ripe for parody, and Fear of a Black Hat impaled just about every genre convention you could think of with unerring accuracy. Perhaps the best moment is Ice Cold’s explanation of his “political” song “Come Pet the P.U.S.S.Y”: “P is for political, U is for unrest, S is for society, another S for stabilize, and the Y is for yeah! Embrace the pussy!”
The Up In Smoke Tour (2000)
Frankly, if you haven’t at least once got massively baked and watched this, you don’t really like hip hop.
8 Mile (2002)
Released at a time when Eminem could do pretty much nothing wrong, this “loosely autobiographical” star vehicle catalogued the rapper’s early life and also depicts MC battle culture in all its dick-waving glory. The final battle scene, where Eminem’s character Jimmy eviscerates rival MC Papa Doc by revealing his middle-class past (“This guy’s a gangsta? His real name’s Clarence!”), leaving him speechless, is one of cinema’s great cheer-along moments. With Eminem’s new album getting largely lackluster reviews (albeit better than the last one), it’s worth reminding yourself of just how good he was at his peak.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy of Biggie Smalls’ untimely death is that it has come to define his life. As the years go by, you hear him mentioned less and less outside the context of “Who killed Biggie and/or Tupac” discussions, and it’s a shame, because his mellifluous raps and startling honesty were remarkable when he first emerged from Brooklyn in the early 1990s. This might not be the greatest biopic ever made, but regardless, it sheds a welcome light onto his life, rather than just his death – and it’s got a cracking soundtrack.
I’m Still Here (2010)
Also known as “That Joaquin Phoenix documentary.” Sure, this hasn’t been released yet – but anything that goes any way toward explaining just what’s going on in its subject’s head these days has gotta be worth watching.