I was 16 years old when some bastards kicked me out of Eminem’s 8 Mile at Taunton’s Silver City Galleria. This was during a particularly nazi-esque regime at the theater, where all under 17 patrons needed to be accompanied by a blood relative in order to enter R-rated movies. I was pretty pissed off at the fuckers, too (having fallen in love with the phrase “pissed off” and “fuckers” after hearing them used so wonderfully on Eminem’s records). Eventually I made my way to a theater in East Bridgewater that cared as much about rules as they did about copious amounts of popcorn butter on the floor, and it was there that I became engrossed in Eminem’s silver screen debut.
The role wasn’t a particular stretch for Mr. Mathers, a white rapper from the ghetto of detroit, who in the movie plays a white rapper in detroit’s ghetto. Probably not the greatest of acting challenges. Still, the fact he wasn’t a complete disaster in the role sparked something in the minds and eyes of Hollywood. Rappers could act!
Rappers have been in movies before, of course. Vanilla Ice was in the second Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, and Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and DJ Pooh starred in the 2001 comedy The Wash. Of course, Vanilla Ice was basically a cameo in TMNT2, and The Wash was a movie targeted to rap fans and stoners who weren’t expecting much beyond seeing their favorite rappers palling around.
The first breakout role for a rapper in a movie (like a real movie, with a plot, and production value and such) was Ice Cube’s turn in Friday.That movie, about attempting to scrounge together 200 dollars to pay a drug dealer – or else – was a vulgar-but-sweet comedy about the largely dead-end lives of two stoners in South Central Los Angeles. It cost about four million dollars to make and ended up grossing 30 million dollars, roughly 1.5 million blunts, domestically. A run-away success.
Friday was successful because it was funny, compelling, and most importantly, authentic. This was a story audiences would buy Ice Cube in. Sure, things get a little crazy toward the end, involving a ghetto beat down using a brick and sub machine guns, but at it’s heart, it was a movie about two kids hanging out on their stoop, trying to figure out what to do with their lives. It spoke to people.
Would the movie be as successful with a different leading man? If Cuba Gooding Jr took over puffing the J for Ice Cube, I doubt the movie would be any worse for the wear. But Ice Cube was an established brand with established street cred. Audiences bought him in the lead role without even thinking about it. In film, this sort of credibility is hard to come by.
Flash forward to 2012, and rappers are everywhere and doing everything. Method and Redman kept up the silly stoner comedy torch aflame with How High (get it?) and Soul Plane. Rapper Common popped up in a few movies including the Steve Carell / Tina Fey action comedy Date Night before making a star turn as NBA-Basketball-player-on-the-mend, Scott McKnight in the romantic comedy Just Wrightopposite Queen Latifah (another rapper turned actress). 50 Cent has been in a number of movies, including the semi-autobiographical (but entirely terrible) Get Rich or Die Trying. And who can forget LL Cool J in “Deep Blue Sea”?
The quality of these movies aside, it’s obvious rappers have taken Hollywood by storm, and have largely done a pretty good job doing it, too. Why? Credibility. In Hip Hop, more than any other genre, your reputation is important. Where you come from, how hard you spit your lyrics, how much they mean, are of paramount importance to having a critically successful record. In the best songs of the 90’s and early 2000’s the lyrics were important and teeming with emotional meaning and showmanship.
This is a form of acting. Sure, Fiddy Cent isn’t going to make anyone cry on his next LP, but when it comes to rapping a great deal of emotion and passion go into making the words. Otherwise it’s just a guy talking, ya know?
In much the same way a 6th grader reading Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” would be horrifying and hilarious, Rappers are careful to take roles that they (and audiences) would be comfortable in. A rapper’s first role isn’t going to be a tour-de-force performance in a David Mamet play. By giving rappers roles that are authentic to their experience (and audiences expectations) it’s less of a risk for producers who take a chance on Hip Hop stars looking to dip their blinged-out toes in the acting waters.
Some rappers have since branched out into unorthodox roles. Method Man has appeared in an episode of ‘The Good Wife’ and Queen Latifah is one one of the more coveted actresses in Hollywood. But the explosion of hip-hop stars has been intriguing, – and profitable – for studios. For audiences? They get a chance to see someone they’ve only heard on the radio display some character and (hopefully) light up the screen.
And for The rappers, well, they get a chance to expand their brand and reach audiences that wouldn’t have heard of them otherwise. Of course, if hip-hop is to be believed, mo’ money mo’ problems.
Next Time: Why Do Wrestlers Make Crappy Actors?