Chris Rock recalls dutifully heading to the theaters in the mid-'80s each time a new movie falling under the burgeoning sub-genre of “rap film” would open. Each time, his teen-aged expectations were dashed by yet another formulaic bomb. “Beat Street”? Thud . “Krush Groove”? Crash . “Rappin’ ” and “Breakin’ ” (not to forget “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo”)? Kerplop . Even the action movie starring his heroes, Run-D.M.C., “Tougher Than Leather,” was tough not to loathe.
“Most of those movies were made by individuals who thought rap was a fad,” says Rock, now 26. “There wasn’t a lot of development time there, to say the least. It was ‘Let’s get this movie done real quick before rap’s over.’ ”
Rap music survived being co-opted by the Hollywood studio system, advertising execs and the other usual trend-killers. Hokey, “Fame"-influenced breakdancing extravaganzas featuring the Fat Boys faded from view, even as bona fide hip-hop became the stamp of authenticity on youth-picture soundtracks and the rappers themselves started taking dramatic movie roles. And now, for the first time since that forgettable spate of eight and nine years ago, the movies are ready to take on rap as a subject again.
At a time when even suburban Midwestern white kids think they know what Compton street life is like, don’t expect any of the strained innocence of the early rap films, which at worst had the star-seeking naivete of a Garland ‘n’ Rooney musical-- My uncle’s got a turntable, let’s put on a show --or the rock-exploitation pictures of the ‘50s, and at best came off like glossy anthropological projects. The new rap pictures, all marked by knowing cynicism, casual profanity and insiders’ satire, assume you already get it. Pity the poor trailer-sufferer who doesn’t.
Coming out of the gate this weekend: “CB4,” a comedy starring Rock, the stand-up comic turned “Saturday Night Live” cast member, and co-written and co-produced by Rock with respected black-music journalist and filmmaker Nelson George. Its satire is obviously intended as the hip-hop equivalent of “This Is Spinal Tap,” but with a slightly more affectionate, tributary tone that’s obvious from the opening credit sequence montage of historic rap memorabilia.
“CB4" is a major studio release. (“We had our battles, but this was probably the easiest black movie to ever get sold,” Rock says.) Most of the other upcoming rap-related pictures have circumvented studio haggling over mass-palatable aspects and gone the independent route. Two such indies expected to come out this summer recently premiered at the Sundance Film Festival to good response: “Fear of a Black Hat,” like “CB4,” is a raw, topical rap parody, and “Fly by Night,” a more seriously intentioned picture, which won the festival’s Filmmakers Trophy for best dramatic film.
George, who writes pop pieces for the Village Voice and Playboy and is between movie projects, says “CB4" “was made from the mentality of people who love the music. Chris’ early references as a performer are Run DMC. The first two pieces I ever sold to the Voice, one was about DJ Starsky,H and the other was about Grandmaster Flash. So for both of us it’s an integral part of our lives. We’ve tried to make a movie that’s not just about rap but is like rap--kind of wild, dangerous and in-your-face, and funny too.”
But it’s still not to be assumed that every “suit” in one of the industry’s black towers or bungalows is down with O.P.P. or subscribes to The Source now. The making of “CB4" entailed its share of debate over how specific--i.e., specifically African-American--its humor should be, though the filmmakers claim they came out on the winning end on most of the disagreements.
“I think Hollywood is waiting to see whether this increasingly popular and decidedly rebellious culture is going to kind of wash over them,” says “CB4" executive producer Sean Daniels, who served as Universal’s president of production for five years before going independent. “But I think you ignore this at your own peril.
“With certain movies of the past few years there has been an attempt to tap into the culture,” he said. ‘Boyz N the Hood’ and ‘New Jack City’ and ‘Juice’ were all financed with an eye toward the popularity and strength of rap culture, and ‘House Party’ was very important in the accounting of this genre.”
And street credibility is essential, Daniel believes. “You’ve gotta approach this with an understanding that if the movie appears invalid or manufactured, you are dead. Rap fans have a strict code about that.”
George (who previously co-wrote “Strictly Business”) is surprisingly unabashed in acknowledging that “CB4" is being marketed “mainly to the hip-hop audience. Because whatever else this movie is--and I think it is funny in a way that a lot of people will find funny--it still is a movie out of a certain cultural experience. And that is not necessarily a black cultural experience totally, but a hip-hop generation experience. There’s a chance there’s a 22-year-old white kid who grew up on hip-hop who will enjoy some parts of this movie a lot more than a 30-year-old black person, so it’s not a black/white thing totally.”
After all, says Rock, black audiences dug “Wayne’s World” and “Bill & Ted’s Big Adventure.” “I just remember being in ‘Bill & Ted’ and watching a lot of people laugh at something I had no idea of, like some Megadeth reference.”
“Fly by Night” director Steven Gomer remembers “Various people kept telling us all the way through this project, ‘Oh, you gotta do this right now, because if you don’t get this picture out in a week, then this is gonna go away.’ And we’d say, ‘What are you talking about?’ ”
Still, the shooting wasn’t without a sense of urgency. The styles of rap evolve and mutate so quickly that, rather than be outdated before filming even commenced, he had music supervisor KRS-1 of Boogie Down Productions writing on the set in lieu of having any of the movie’s material prepared in advance.
“They would record all night in the studio,” recalls screenwriter/actor Todd Graff (“Used People”). “Then at 7 a.m. there’d be a call, and we would shoot the thing that got recorded earlier that morning. You would like it to be easier, but (rap) changes too fast. It’s stupid to think that you could have it done nine months ahead of time and by the time the movie comes out have it have any relevance.”
Says Gomer, “Because there are so many movies about gangs that came out that had rap soundtracks, people think that a lot of rap movies came out. But virtually none have. This is actually about people who are rapping--which really hasn’t been explored since those bad cash-in attempts like ‘Beat Street'--and about the actual process, trying to set it up in people’s minds as creative and as involved a process as any other art form. It’s not just the soundtrack, it’s the content of the movie.”
But “Fly by Night” is no carefree recruitment poster for scratchers and rhymesmiths. What the drama has in common with the otherwise disparate satires “Fear of a Black Hat” and “CB4" is a certain dogged cynicism that could only be applied to a genre that’s been around as long as rap has now. Coincidentally, but tellingly, all three of these pictures have as their protagonists nice, middle-class, African-American kids who try to make themselves into hard-core gangsta-rappers and end up misguided posers. . . . Straight outta Compton, fish outta water.
“Fear of a Black Hat” writer/director/star Rusty Cundieff says his faux -gangsta theme did stem from a skepticism toward the exaggeration that characterizes certain rap: “There seems to be a lot of stuff in rap that is posturing as much as Bon Jovi would posture or Poison would posture. Instead of putting on eyeliner and 50 cans of hair spray, they talk about how many guns they have or how many people they shot. And not to say that a lot of them haven’t come from bad, depressed or rough childhoods, but there’s definitely a boastfulness that goes beyond what the reality is in a lot of cases.”
But Rock and George downplay any suggestion that they were really trying to target widespread hypocrisy among rappers in “CB4,” which, like “Fear of a Black Hat,” has as its central spoof a group that’s clearly a loose parody of L.A.'s now-defunct N.W.A.
“To do something like this, you have to have something that’s really identifiable to make fun of,” George says. “And the Jeri-curls, the dickies, the guns--that’s the image that people think of when they think about rap now. That kind of rap is almost like wrestling--it’s larger than life, it’s boasting. So once you have something that also attracts so much fire, you can make fun not just of the thing itself, but the people who are shooting at it, too. You’ve got the right-wing people who hate it who are ripe for parody . . . “
“And no one hates it more than old black people,” Rock says, laughing. “No one.”
“Exactly. You’ve got women who hate it, of course, too,” George says. “My favorite scene in the movie is the little kid who sees the record on the TV and runs downstairs and starts rapping to his daddy. To me, that’s like America’s worst nightmare, and such a funny fear, that their kids are watching this stuff and they’re gonna become miniature gangbangers in the suburbs.”
The fictional city of Locash in “CB4" is a takeoff on a certain L.A. County town--one that’s replaced the Hollis district of Queens, in New York, as the most mentioned burb in rap, and succeeded Harlem as the premiere rough place of contemporary mythology.
“When I go home,” says Rock (like George, a native New Yorker), “people don’t ask me did I see the walk of fame, or did I see the stars, or did I go to Eddie Murphy’s house. They say, ‘ What’s Compton like? Did you go? ' You know how Harlem’s a cliche bad place--like ‘Oh, it was rough there, it was like Harlem’? Well, Compton’s the new Harlem.” “
With such hard-core rappers as Ice Cube and Ice-T making cameo appearances in “CB4" (and others, such as Public Enemy, contributing non-satirical songs to the soundtrack LP), it doesn’t seem like there’s much risk of real-life rappers taking offense to their skewering in the spoof.
“No, I think the only quarter that is really totally ridiculed and maybe meant is the people in the dance-rap category, because they kind of get theirs, and there’s no redeeming them in the film,” George admits.
“But the whole thing about gangsta rap is that it’s funny . Most of the guys who write rap records have a sense of humor. Even the worst guys that say the worst things, there’s a certain level of humor in everything they do. It may not be funny to everybody, but it’s funny to some really ill kid.”
Cundieff (whose “Fear of a Black Hat” bases its title on the Public Enemy album “Fear of a Black Planet”) recalls writing the first draft of his script around the time of the 2 Live Crew obscenity prosecution controversy, and the realization that his satire-in-progress was being outwitted by the real deal.
“When I saw Penelope Spheeris’ documentary on 2 Live Crew, there were things those guys were saying that were identical to the things I had written. I was saying to myself ‘God, if we get to do this, parodying it is gonna be really tough, because it’s so crazy anyhow.’ I mean, how do you parody ‘Baby Got Back’? How many more asses can you have in a video? How do you parody Flavor Flav? We were gonna have a guy with a giant egg timer around his neck, but we decided against that.”
Besides movies about rappers, there are even more films coming up featuring rap stars in non-musical roles. Ice Cube--who, according to his agent, refuses to consider parts in which he would portray a rapper, not wanting to blur that line--has a production company and has co-written two screenplays in development with Universal. 2Pac co-stars with Janet Jackson in John Singleton’s upcoming drama “Poetic Justice.” And “Yo! MTV Raps” hosts Dr. Dre and Ed Lover headline the Harlem-set comedy “Who’s the Man?”
David Ehrenstein, co-author of the 1982 book “Rock on Film” and currently film critic for the Advocate, thinks the great American rap drama needs to and remains to be made.
“There hasn’t really been anything substantial yet about where this music is coming from, which is to say primarily middle-class black kids in the suburbs creating an aura outside their class and their concerns, and how it impacts on white suburban teen-agers who’ve never met a black person and don’t want to. This is something that remains largely unexamined, and it would be possible to make an enormous movie about that phenomenon.”
Judi McCreary--film columnist for the Source, one of the more-respected rap magazines--finds a different cliches explored in the new movies monotonous. “As far as I’m concerned, ‘CB4' and ‘Fear of a Black Hat’ still buy into that bitch-ho mentality. I know it’s supposed to be poking fun at everything the rap world represents, but it wasn’t obvious to me that it was supposed to be satirical. I’ll be honest and say I did laugh. But it seems like the same-old, same-old, a image of what the gangsta artists are talking about on record--bitches and money, or getting their props (proper respect) from their peers, or killing somebody.
“Rap may be a cash cow but I know for a fact that the rappers out there care more about different things, so hopefully the movies that are about them will start to catch up.”
Still, even McCreary admits the situation could be a lot worse. There could be a “Breakin’ 3: Gangsta Boogaloo.”