Hip-Hop Culture — 10 March 2010

By Malice Intended

Menace II Society (1993)
Caine Lawson (Tyrin Turner) is a high school graduate whose prospects are unbelievably bleak.  While some of his friends move on to college, he opts to remain in the brutal streets of South Central Los Angeles.  He and his sociopathic younger buddy O-Dog (Larenz Tate) live out an existence that consists of hand to hand crack sales, car theft, and murder.  As such activities become the increasingly routine; Caine becomes ever more apathetic about his chances for survival.

Released in the midst of the ‘Hood’ movie craze sparked by Boyz N The Hood, The Hughes Brothers succeeded in doing John Singleton’s saccharine coming of age tale one better.  Menace is neither a coming of age tale nor a heavy handed morality play.  It is essentially a crime film with undertones of social commentary.  The Hughes Brothers took the influences of De Palma and Scorcese and applied them to an early 90’s Gangsta rap sensibility.  The end result is a fearsome independent film that still retains the power to inspire shock and repulsion in its viewers.

Menace II Society illustrated the random violence of Los Angeles gang culture in a way that Boyz only hinted at.  It quickly endeared itself to rappers and Rap fans as the preferable alternative.  O-Dog became the living embodiment of “Gangsta”, with some rap lyrics shamelessly paying tribute to his destructive behavior.  17 years after it’s initial release, its raw power has yet to be matched.

King of New York (1990)
Newly released from Sing Sing prison, Kingpin Frank White (Christopher Walken) looks to reclaim his throne atop New York’s underworld. He also uses his position to become a modern day Robin Hood.  While his crew knocks off the old guard, they become the target of an equally ruthless group of cops who will stop at nothing to bring their reign of terror to an end.

Though it was eclipsed in popularity by the similarly themed New Jack City, Abel Ferrara’s hard nosed gangster opus actually predates it.  It also revels in the Uptown Drug Dealer chic of the era.  Gold cables and truck jewelry are on full display and Schooly D’s theme song growls to life on the soundtrack.  Looking back it would seem as though Ferrara was ahead of his time as this aesthetic had yet to become the norm for urban cinema.

King of New York went on to become a cult favorite.  The title of the film has since been co opted by Hip-Hop culture as a title bestowed upon whoever happens to be the most popular or influential rapper in the big apple at the moment.  The late, great Notorious B.I.G also named himself “The Black Frank White” in honor of the films main character.

New Jack City (1991)
A new drug emerges on the streets of Harlem in the 1980’s.  At the same time, a new kind of gangster emerges to exploit its power.  Nino Brown (Wesley Snipes) and G Money (Allen Payne) form a clique known as the Cash Money Brothers, who lay waste to Harlem’s streets and become rich in the process.  As Nino’s reign of terror reaches epic proportions, Mario Van Peebles recruits officer Scottie Appleton (Ice-T) to head up a task force.  Their purpose: bring down the CMB and its flamboyant leader at all costs.

New Jack City is essentially a Black Exploitation picture for a generation of urban youth who were too young to have experienced that phenomenon the first time around.  The soundtrack was populated by New Jack swing instead of funk and soul, and the wardrobe and slang reflected the styles of the day.  Van Peebles borrows liberally from the De Palma play book, paying homage to both Scarface and the Untouchables.    Along with Boyz N The Hood it helped to usher in a new era of urban cinema.

Wesley Snipes career making performance as Nino Brown provides the film with a vibrant core.  He embodied the crack era in all of its decadence and self absorption.  The character is now seen as a monument to ruthless ambition much like Tony Montana in Scarface.  New Jack still holds a special place in the hearts of 30 something Hip-Hop heads who remember seeing it on the big screen amidst the controversy spurred by rioting at opening weekend screenings.

Five Deadly Venoms (1978)
In Ancient China, the ailing master of The Poison clan dispatches his pupil to disrupt the efforts of his former students, all of whom have mastered deadly Kung Fu styles based on poisonous reptiles and insects.  They seek to get their hands on the accumulated wealth of their master’s former colleague.  The pupil charged with this mission aligns himself with the more benevolent of the former students in order to stop the others.

Chang Cheh’s masterpiece had long been a cult favorite of martial Arts fans around world.  That following extends into urban communities where black youth devoured the output of Shaw Brothers studios via grind house matinees and television broadcasts.  This influence began to make itself known in the early 90’s when rap stars from all regions began to reference the film in various ways.  From New York (Wu-Tang Clan) to Florida (The Poison Clan aka The Baby 2 Live Crew) to The Bay Area (2pac) it seemed that Kung Fu Flicks had earned an unofficial spot in Hip-Hop as the cult genre of choice, right alongside Black Exploitation.

Five Deadly Venoms continues to charm viewers with its kitsch value and off beat story.  The motif of mastering a combat style to defeat an opponent fits in perfectly with the battle motifs of Hip-Hop.

Carlito’s Way (1993)
Newly freed ex-con and former heroin kingpin Carlito Brigante (Al Pacino) returns to his stomping grounds in Spanish Harlem a changed man.  He no longer wishes to lead a life of crime, but to escape to the islands and live out his days as a legitimate businessman.  His ambitions are constantly at odds with his street bred instincts and his loyalty to old friends, such as his sleazy lawyer Davy Kleinfeld (Sean Penn).  To make matters worse, he becomes the target of both admiration and jealousy by new school gangsters like Benny Blanco (John Leguizamo).  A truly happy ending proves more elusive than Carlito had ever dreamed.

Carlito’s Way plays like a companion piece to Scarface.  It is centered on a more sympathetic protagonist, and its maudlin sensibilities are awash in sentimentality and melodrama.  None the less, it is a more polished and endearing film than its predecessor.  More poetic in its execution and a bit more thoughtful in it’s conception.

Carlito’s Way perfectly illustrates a favorite theme of Hip-Hop:  Making the transition from a life of crime to a life of (legal) luxury.  Carlito wants to change for the better, yet his ties to the streets are simultaneously a help and a hindrance.  Sound familiar?  Jay-Z’s early albums liberally sample the films most famous lines, and the title of Fabulous latest set “Loso’s Way” is a clearly inspired by the film.

Dolemite (1975)
After being framed by the infamous Willie Green (D’Urville Martin), Dolemite (Rudy Ray Moore) takes to the streets to reclaim his rep.  Along the way he has to contend with corrupt cops and black militants.

Made famous in the rhymed comedy routines found on Rudy Ray Moore’s immensely popular Comedy albums, The character of Dolemite displays the alpha male posturing of Black Exploitation at its most absurd and self aware.  The fight choreography is hilariously inept, and much of dialogue is spoken in the toasting style of his comedy.  Yet and still, Rudy ray Moore’s alter ego is the consummate sh*t talker.

Though his self proclaimed status as the original rapper can be contested, his obvious influence on rap Music as a whole is pretty obvious and goes well beyond sampling.  He has been featured on songs with Big Daddy Kane and in Videos with the Rakim and Snoop Dogg.  Rappers from all regions, eras and subgenres have acknowledged the considerable influence of Mr. Moore.

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