Rick Famuyiwa’s Sundance hit “Dope” sent critics over the moon with its fresh new take on what’s been called “the post-hip hop generation.” While that label is up for debate, it’s impossible to deny the other inventive hip hop inspired films that have led up to this moment. With the film opening in select theaters this weekend, we’ve decided to round up nine of the best hip hop inspired movies to date.
“Dave Chappelle’s Block Party” (2005)
Musicians and comedians have always had a kind of symbiotic relationship — at least that’s what Dave Chappelle has come to believe, and he does a good job of convincing us in his 2005 concert documentary film, “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party.” Chappelle teamed up with Michel Gondry to film the block party concert he organized in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, with a line up that is still unparalleled to this day. The Roots, Kanye West, Common, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott and The Fugees are just a few of the artists who performed in the concert. Loosely inspired by the 1973 documentary “Wattstax,” “Block Party” definitely has an off-the-cuff tone that can make it feel disorganized at times, but by the end it is impossible to leave without a genuine sense of the history, culture, art and energy of hip hop music.
“Hustle & Flow” (2005)
Oscar nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role for Terrence Howard, and the Best Original Song winner, “Hustle & Flow” finds a compelling narrative through the struggles many artists go through to get their music recognized. Terrence Howard plays DJay, a dissatisfied pimp and drug dealer in Memphis who decides to try out the rap game instead. After realizing that he’s found his calling, he has to hustle his side jobs to finance and launch his career as an artist. The film features big talent like Taryn Manning and a pre-“Empire” Taraji P. Henson, and it gives audiences a taste of the unique Southern hip hop we’ve come to know through artists like T.I and Juvenile, who are both featured on the movie’s soundtrack.
The 2009 biopic on one of hip hop’s most influential artists shed light on The Notorious B.I.G when he was known as Christopher Wallace. The film covers his life from his humble Brooklyn beginnings to the fateful night he was shot in Los Angeles. By taking us through his life story, we come to not only understand the rapper’s incomparable talent, but also how his upbringing shaped the lyrics that would sometimes raise eyebrows in their violent and aggressive nature. The film offers a holistic view into Biggie’s life, and, most importantly, celebrates the music he made that still exudes an incredible freshness regardless of the honest, and sometimes brash, lyrics that accompany it.
“8 Mile” (2002)
Another less on-the-nose biopic, “8 Mile” takes us through the turbulent life of Marshall Mathers, aka Eminem. The rapper plays a version of himself through the character of Jimmy ‘B-Rabbit’ Smith, a struggling rapper trying to cope with a broken family, baby daughter and difficulties coming up as a white rapper in the predominantly black hip hop scene. Eminem broke more boundaries by winning Best Original Song at the Oscars for his hit “Lose Yourself.” The film achieves something similar to “Hustle& Flow,” in that it tells a compelling story while punctuating it with moments that feel so true to the music it celebrates. Rap serves as a source of motivation, catharsis and escape for Jimmy, and it provides the viewer with a glimpse into Eminem’s formative years that led him to his immensely successful career.
“The Wackness” (2008)
Jonathan Levine’s 2008 indie took us back to one of the most important moments for hip hop in a way that didn’t directly address the music itself, but instead shed light on its influence. This doesn’t take the focus off the music, however, as Levine’s soundtrack is replete with all the hits from game-changing artists like A Tribe Called Quest, The Notorious B.I.G, Biz Markie, Wu Tang Clan and Nas. The music punctuates the film beautifully and is oddly perfect for the coming-of-age tale it depicts. Levine situates us in the summer of ’94 in New York City through the eyes of Luke Schapiro (Josh Peck), a sad sack high school graduate whose only edge is that he sells weed in an ice cream push-cart that he wheels around the city. Luke’s last summer before college looks like it’s going to be just as bland as his high school days, until Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby), the reckless daughter of his doobie-smoking therapist (Ben Kingsley), shows interest in him. She joins him on his push-cart escapades, and he falls in love to the soft croonings of R. Kelly’s “Bump n Grind.”
While the 1992 film “Juice” doesn’t necessarily utilize hip hop as a theme or narrative device, it is difficult to ignore how much it still pervades the film. Tupac Shakur stars in his second foray into acting, along with other big names like Omar Epps, Donald Faison, Queen Latifah and Samuel L. Jackson. The soundtrack is also entirely consisted of hip hop artists like Salt n’ Peppa and Cypress Hill, to name a few. The film follows a group of friends in Harlem who refer to themselves as The Wrecking Crew.” They regularly skip school, play games at arcades and occasionally steal LPs from the local record store. Despite their petty crimes, none of them are prepared for what’s ahead when they get wrapped up in the shooting of a bodega owner after they attempt a heist. We watch as the boys ride on the thrill of taking lives and slowly grapple with their loss of innocence.
“Wild Style” (1983)
Graffiti, breakdancing and beats are the three main components of Charlie Ahearn’s 1983 hip hop film, “Wild Style.” Ahearn got the idea to make the film when the legendary Fab 5 Freddy pitched him the idea of making a film on hip hop culture and the art of graffiti. Thirty-some years later, we now have a serious relic in the history of hip hop, and a glimpse into the culture that first developed around it. The film is now included in Cornell’s hip hop museum and serves as one of the first films that truly captured the atmosphere and essence of the music.
“Nas: Time is Illmatic” (2004)
Twenty years after the release of one of the most groundbreaking hip hop albums, “Time is Illmatic” celebrates Nas and his legendary 1994 debut album, “Illmatic.” The music doc takes us to Queensbridge, New York where Nas first found his calling as a talented lyricist through poetry. Nas speaks honestly to the oppression of his environment in Queensbridge, and how music served not only as an escape, but also a reflection of his reality. The film opened the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival, and was followed by a full concert from Nasty Nas himself, where he performed the entire album for festival-goers. Needless to say, the film was a sensation, and “Illmatic” still deservingly holds its reputation as one of the greatest rap albums of our time.
“Beats Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest” (2011)
Aptly named after their fourth album, this music documentary locates the rise, fall and influence of legendary rap group A Tribe Called Quest. The film follows the formation of the group and their pioneering of what people now call alternative hip hop – a sound that incorporates everything from funk to jazz to reggae. Big name artists like Questlove, Pharrell and The Beastie Boys speak of the influence of A Tribe Called Quest on their own music, and how it continues to inspire the sound that we now hear in hip hop today. The documentary also grapples with the breakup of A Tribe Called Quest and what led to differences between the childhood friends that formed the beloved rap group.