Today’s the big day, Hip Hop Lovers Of A Certain Age: Straight Outta Compton roars into theaters, diverting us from its pat biopic beats and thin screenplay by startlingly, evocatively recreating the dangerous energy of N.W.A.’s music, and the environment that helped create it. In other words, the movie may not quite be great, but the music is — and this is nothing new. From hip hop’s Golden Age forward, filmmakers have used the music as a cinematic mood-setter, cueing up the period’s greatest records and borrowing their street cred, joy, anger, and/or anti-authoritarian impulses (sometimes straight, sometimes ironically). These are a few of our favorites.
Geto Boys, “Still” (Office Space)
Throughout Office Space, writer/director Mike Judge uses hardcore hip hop (usually enjoyed by whiter-than-his-name cubicle dweller Michael Bolton) as an ironic counterpoint to the white-collar concerns of the frustrated office drones at its center. And chief among those frustrations is the janky office printer, so when our boys have the opportunity to give that printer a good old-fashioned beatdown, Judge hilariously scores the scene with a track from one of the toughest groups in the game. The result is one of the most memorable scenes in the 1998 cult classic.
Ice Cube, “How to Survive in South Central” (Boyz N The Hood)
As a general rule, your film editor attempted to steer clear of opening and closing credit tracks — and in his transition from rapper to actor (and, later, to Are We There Yet-producing movie mogul), former N.W.A. member Ice Cube frequently went back to his day job, with closing credit tracks on Trespass, Friday, and Higher Learning, among others. But “How to Survive,” heard over the end credits of John Singleton’s Boyz N The Hood — the film debut of both the director and the actor — is just too good to pass by, a brutally candid and appropriately edgy summary of the story we’ve just seen, and the places we’ve just been.
A Tribe Called Quest, “Can I Kick It?” (The Wackness)
This 2008 comedy/drama from writer/director Jonathan Levine (who went on to make 50/50 and Warm Bodies) is an affectionate valentine to early-’90s hip hop — it’s set in 1994 — and a strikingly keen portrait of the kind of awkward white teens who were so drawn to the music (how ya doin’). The soundtrack is like a killer mix tape from the period, with classics from Biggie to Nas to Biz to Wu-Tang, but the best music moment finds our hero Luke (Josh Peck) passing on a mix tape to his therapist Dr. Squires (Ben Kingsley), who in turn gives a spin to Tribe’s brilliant “Can I Kick It?” Or maybe I just still get a kick out watching Sir Ben listening to Q-Tip.
Run-D.M.C., “King of Rock” (CB4)
Chris Rock’s first starring vehicle came at the end of his stint on Saturday Night Live, and while Lorne Michaels isn’t involved, there’s one moment that explicitly recalls the SNL spin-off Wayne’s World, which hit theaters the previous year. That movie’s most enduring scene found Wayne, Garth, and their buddies driving around their small town, headbanging to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” on the car radio; in CB4, Rock and the pals who will form the title group take a ride and rap along with Run-D.M.C.’s certified 1985 classic “King of Rock.”
Queen Latifah, “U.N.I.T.Y.” (Girls Town)
This 1993 Grammy winner was a rare, explicitly feminist moment in mainstream hip hop of the period, with Latifah pushing back against the misogynistic attitudes and abusive language that were pervasive at the time. So it’s an appropriate cue for Jim McKay’s 1996 indie, in which a trio of high school seniors (including the one and only Lili Taylor) come together to push back against the abusive men in their lives. This montage from late in the picture, in which the jazzy saxophone of the track accompanies dreamlike slo-mo images of our protagonists and the world around them, is just about perfect.
Coolio, “Rollin’ with My Homies” (Clueless)
It’s hard to decide what’s better: the appearance of Coolio’s track in the party scene of this deeply beloved 1995 teen comedy, or Tai’s teary-eyed rendition of it later in the film. No offense to Coolio, but I’m going with the latter.
Mobb Deep, “Shook Ones Pt. II” (8 Mile)
“Shook Ones” is one of the great hip hop tracks of the ‘90s, a relentless burst of street fury and sociopolitical rage that defined Mobb Deep’s sound, and the East Cost movement of the period that they helped lead. So it only makes sense that it should appear at the top of Eminem’s semi-autobiographical 2002 film 8 Mile, as both opening credit music and pre-battle inspiration for our aspiring rapper hero; it’s hard to imagine a track getting him more juiced up, and more attuned to the lyrical dexterity he should strive for.
Cypress Hill, “How I Could Just Kill a Man” (Juice)
Ernest Dickerson’s 1992 drama is overflowing with great songs, but the one that always stuck with this viewer wasn’t composed for the film, and doesn’t even appear on its soundtrack album (though another Cypress track, “Shoot ‘Em Up,” does). In the picture’s choppy but affecting climax, as our hero Q (Omar Epps, in his film debut) is pursued by his gun-toting friend-turned-foe Bishop (Tupac Shakur, likewise), he takes the chase into a party, where “Kill a Man” is blasting ominously. The song’s sense of danger and menace made it seem downright cinematic before it made its way onto Juice’s soundtrack; here, when coupled with Dickerson’s tense imagery, it’s as though it were composed for the scene.
The Notorious B.I.G., “Hypnotize” (10 Things I Hate About You)
With a few (OK, probably more than a few) drinks crumbling her inhibitions, Julia Stiles’ Kat Stratford only needs to hear the distinctive opening strains of this 1997 hit to find the music moving her — to the top of a table at a high school party. It’s a key moment in her thawing by Patrick (Heath Ledger), but also a reminder that nobody but nobody can resist shaking their money-maker when Biggie comes on.
Public Enemy, “Fight the Power” (Do The Right Thing)
PE composed and recorded “Fight the Power” especially for Spike Lee’s 1989 masterpiece, and he certainly put it to use: as the single song in rotation on Radio Raheem’s trademark boom box, it pops up several times during the film, in addition to its full play (with extra horns) during the film’s unforgettable opening credit sequence. But when it comes back during the end-of-the-day confrontation at Sal’s Famous, and during the conflagration that follows, it becomes clear that this is no soundtrack-friendly hit song: it’s the movie’s anthem, its message, and its manifesto.