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Meet the Ice Cold King of Gagsta Rap : Rusty Cundieff’s ‘Fear of a Black Hat’ Was Inspired by ‘Spinal Tap’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rob Reiner’s 1984 rock-documentary parody film “This Is Spinal Tap” inspired many of those who saw it to retell some of its best bits, like its gags about exploding drummers, but for actor-screenwriter Rusty Cundieff, it did much more. It inspired him to make his own movie spoof.

“I was a big fan of ‘Spinal Tap,’ ” says Cundieff, 29, during a midmorning interview at a diner near his Los Feliz home, adding that he has seen the film at least 11 times. “It’s truly, truly awesome. It’s one of the best parodies--it’s so subtle.”

The movie Cundieff directed, wrote and starred in, “Fear of a Black Hat,” which opens Friday in selected theaters, spoofs rap the way “Spinal Tap” spoofs rock, and it’s often as funny as its inspiration. Much as Reiner’s film tracks the career of a hard-rock band, “Fear of a Black Hat” follows the exploits of the fictitious hard-core rap group N.W.H. (the “H” stands for hats) and its members, Tone Def, Tasty-Taste and Ice Cold, who is played by Cundieff.

Cundieff, an actor and stand-up comedian, decided he wanted to direct a rap parody movie in 1990 after members of 2 Live Crew were arrested in Florida for performing songs from “As Nasty as They Wanna Be.” They were later found not guilty.

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“It just seemed like a ridiculous thing,” Cundieff says. “The (First Amendment issue) was important, but it was ridiculous the way it came about. . . . The idea was to do a film like ‘Spinal Tap’ that had a group of rappers who were on death row for obscenity (charges).”

“Fear” eventually evolved into a broad parody of hip-hop culture that spares few rappers and few rap conventions. The pseudo-mystical Tone Def sounds suspiciously like Prince B. of PM Dawn; minor characters Vanilla Sherbet and MC Slammer have obvious real-life counterparts; and the more one knows about rap, the more inside jokes one can spot. In a nod to “Spinal Tap,” the group’s managers--rather than drummers--die under mysterious circumstances.

“The movie plays on a few different levels,” Cundieff says. “People who are really into rap and understand the business get one area of it. People who aren’t into rap laugh at it, but in an entirely different way. People who are really into rap, and seriously take it as real, don’t like the movie.

“One of the things that a lot of people don’t seem to realize is that rap is a performance, just like anything else. . . . It’s kind of scary when people take the lyric to a song and turn it into a political frame of mind: ‘OK, we are basing our dogma on this: “Fight the Power.” ’ The song is a great song . . . but you hope the people will go beyond that.”

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Making “Fear” not only gave Cundieff his first chance to direct, but it also gave the longtime rap fan his first chance to grab the microphone himself--he does some of the rapping on the movie’s soundtrack, a collection of N.W.H. songs that includes “My Peanuts,” a send-up of Run DMC’s song “My Adidas,” and the group’s controversial hit "(Expletive) the Security Guards.” About two weeks ago, he went into the studio to cut a new track for a soon-to-be-released video by Ice Cold’s newest persona--controversial gangsta rapper Ice Froggy Frog.

Though Cundieff pokes fun at hip-hop’s cliches, he seems to have a genuine love of the music, which he started listening to in the early 1980s while growing up in Pittsburgh. After graduating from USC, he started doing stand-up comedy and acting. After appearing in a small role in Spike Lee’s “School Daze,” Cundieff decided he wanted to write and direct.

“Spike was really influential,” Cundieff says. “Any time anyone had a problem with what he was doing, he’d say: ‘If you don’t like it, direct it yourself.’ It made total sense to me.”

Cundieff and “Fear” producer Darin Scott--a big “Spinal Tap” fan and a friend of Cundieff’s--used $600 they won gambling on a trip to Las Vegas to make a 20-minute video version of the movie they could shop around to production companies. Though none were immediately interested--partly because the rap-oriented comedy “CB4" was being shopped around at the same time--ITC picked up the movie in 1992.

The film premiered at the 1993 Sundance Film Festival and was well received, but internal changes at ITC delayed the film for a year.

Even if the delay affects how the film does at the box office, Scott still regards “Fear” as a success because it helped the two land other projects, including “Tales From the Hood,” an urban suspense anthology they co-wrote, which will be produced by Spike Lee. “No matter how well it does at the box office, it’s already (done well) for us,” Scott says of “Fear.” “We’re making more movies.”


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