Growing up in the 1980’s I saw many hip-hop artists effective utilize the “us vs. them” mentality to build their audience and distribute their work. It made sense given that rap music and culture were not well integrated into the mainstream, and when movies or TV shows attempted to portray it on screen, it often devolved into stereotypes and lowest common denominators. There was a seldom spoken but highly cynical assessment that “rap music was just a fad” so even when hip-hop’s cultural advocates called the media purveyors on the carpet, they’d sidestep the issue by claiming there was no need to get it right when hip-hop wouldn’t be around that long anyway.
Those same media moguls had egg on their face as hip-hop matured and rap groups like Run-D.M.C., Public Enemy and N.W.A went on to sell millions of albums and headline nationwide concert tours. The days of claiming rap music was a fad that wouldn’t last became a thing of the past, and slowly but surely I watched hip-hop creep into the mainstream. I didn’t have cable growing up, although I did on occasion manage to talk my Aunt and Uncle into taping Yo! MTV Raps for me. As the years crept by from ’88 onward, more and more of my favorite rap artists that used to only be on cable found their way into network TV shows and major motion pictures. Seeing Ice-T in a major Hollywood motion picture (portraying a cop no less) was a real eye opener. Fad? No way. Rap and hip-hop were here to stay.
More importantly for me (and for hip-hop as a whole) is that rappers were taken seriously and that neither they nor their artform were painted in cartoonish caricatures. Even in a situational comedy like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air that was played for laughs, the show and Will Smith’s role in it were no joke. Long before he’d go on to star in Hollywood blockbusters like “Independence Day” and “Men in Black” he was carving out his niche on the small screen, entertaining us while simultaneously addressing serious issues like fatherhood and male role models for young black men. To put a point on it, Will always has been and will be a crossover mainstream rap star, but he didn’t sell out who he was as a man for NBC or anybody else. He “kept it real.”
To say it was all good then or that it’s all not now 20+ years later would be factually incorrect either way. Both sides are known to exploit the other. “Married With Children” actor David Faustino made an ill-advised attempt to be a serious emcee that left a red mark on his career no matter how good his intentions might have been. “Pussy pussy pussy pussy pussy pussy cat, meow meow meow meow meow how’s that?” TERRIBLE. You’d expect actors to be bad rappers, but Nas proved in the film “Belly” that rappers can be bad actors too. And for some hip-hop emcees success as a motion picture star makes them increasingly irrelevant as musicians. “22 Jump Street” will make O’Shea ‘Ice Cube’ Jackson big money, but I don’t hear anybody clamoring for his long delayed “Everythang’s Corrupt” album. After two years and counting I strongly doubt we’re ever going to see or hear the whole thing.
Putting aside the “crabs in a barrel” mentality, I’m happy to see Ice Cube successful at whatever he wants to do, and the transition from full time rapper to full time actor seems to suit him well. For every “22 Jump Street” there’s a “Battlefield America,” and even the worst of Ice Cube’s comedies are not as bad as this hip-hop dance movie. It’s not strictly Hollywood’s fault when there’s a flop involving rappers – “Idlewild” was an ambitious idea for OutKast but barely broke even in movie theaters and doesn’t hold a high rating with any movie review aggregate. Mistakes can be made on both sides. No Limit Films had to be a huge financial drain on Master P – and he damn near invented the “limited theatrical release” in the process. It’s hard to say if any of those movies ever turned a profit even by now infamous “Hollywood accounting” standards.
What’s missing from the silver screen in 2014 is the next wave of popular rappers to successfully transition to TV and film actors. I don’t know if ScHoolboy Q is the next man to break through, but he certainly has enough charisma in his music videos to suggest he could be. And what about Tyler, the Creator? Could he successfully jump from Loiter Squad to the silver screen? My guess is yes but I’m not feeling the impetus for anybody to try. Hip-Hop’s booming popularity in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s meant that “Disorderlies” wouldn’t cut it any more, but I want to see today’s generation “Set It Off.”
I don’t just want to settle for seeing Ludacris play Tej Parker every couple of years in a “Fast” movie or cameo on an episode of Law & Order: SVU opposite Ice-T. Is it unrealistic to expect Future and Wiz Khalifa to be Hollywood stars? We don’t know unless somebody tries – and if they do let’s hope they get roles worth playing as opposed to just playing a hip-hop or urban stereotype. Hip-Hop needs a new golden age on the small AND the big screen, and now more than ever given that it’s harder to find a music video on MTV than an episode of SVU on USA.