Song of the Week – Hip Hop Music in Films

Ignored           Obscured            Restored

Today’s post was written by second time guest contributor, Pete McQuaid.  While on vacation together in the Adirondacks last summer, I hatched the idea of writing this Rock in Film series.  Since Pete is interested and knowledgeable in both music and film, I asked him to write about a genre that is more popular with his generation than mine.  He took the challenge and authored this terrific post.  While I originally planned to release this series in chronological order, current events have made it more relevant today.

[Writer’s Note: Tom asked me to write this SOTW a few months ago and I’ve enjoyed learning more about the history and films I discuss below in preparing to write the piece.  I wanted to make sure I mentioned, particularly in light of the necessary national conversation going on in the past few weeks, that I’m in no way an expert on either hip-hop or black film and that I would strongly recommend seeking out voices from the African-American community for deeper understanding and context on both this subject and black culture as a whole.]

The evolution of hip hop from an underground urban subculture to arguably the dominant modern pop music genre began in the early 1980s, coinciding with the arrival of a new wave of African-American filmmakers who focused their work on serious, empathetic depictions of the black experience in America.  MCing, and b-boying came to the big screen with the release of Wild Style (1983) and Beat Street (1984), bringing the world of New York City hip hop to the mainstream and leading the way for more rap-related films in the mid-1980s.

As Spike Lee was “looking for an anthem” for Do the Right Thing, his 1989 look at racial tensions boiling over during the course of a single day in Brooklyn, he commissioned Public Enemy to write what would become “Fight the Power.”  “Fight the Power” energizes Do the Right Thing from start to finish, first as accompaniment to Rosie Perez’s dance in the opening credits and then throughout the movie as the soundtrack of choice for boombox-wielding Radio Raheem.  As black men like Radio Raheem continue to be murdered by police and widely disenfranchised to this day, it’s a reminder of how relevant, prophetic, and, ultimately, sad Do the Right Thing remains 30 years after its releas

The 1990s brought more serious African-American cinema to the mainstream, with such films as Boyz n the Hood, Menace II Society, Above the Rim, and New Jack City, all of which were heavily soundtracked by prominent hip hop artists of the time.  However, “being taken seriously” in film often means Oscars, for better or worse (usually… worse).  The first rap song to win Best Song at the Academy Awards is “Lose Yourself” by Eminem in 2002 from 8 Mile, a once-jam that is now played in every suburban mom spin class. 

Hustle & Flow’s “It’s Hard out Here for a Pimp” by Three 6 Mafia won in 2005 and has not had the same staying power, but this scene from the movie is a great example of how film can reveal process and character through rap music.  Also, it’s a fun Southern banger!  Jon Stewart said it best when Three 6 Mafia accepted their award in front of a bewildered, stodgy Oscar crowd: “How come they’re the most excited people here tonight?”

Filmmakers have found more creative ways to incorporate hip hop music into their movies, though for a time, the tired trend in mainstream comedies seemed to be to have every white dude rap explicit lyricsparody current hip hop videos, or… do whatever Tom Cruise is doing here

But one thing I’ve never seen before was in Jordan Peele’s Us, where the “spooky slowed-down pop song in a movie trailer” gambit is taken to a whole other level.  Luniz’s “I Got 5 On It” is introduced by the characters in a car ride (with very suspicious snapping on the 1 and the 3 by Lupita Nyong’o) and then is eerily, orchestrally weaved into the score by the movie’s end.

Enjoy… until next week.