Straight Outta Compton Hero Image
Straight Outta Compton (2015)

The 10 Best Films Essential To Rap Culture

The relationship between rap music and the silver screen is complex and important. These are 10 films that got rap culture right.  

by Daniel McIntosh

Since its genesis in the late 70s, rap music has become instrumental in other spheres of pop culture. Some rappers have trickled into ventures in fashion, while others collect paintings and garner art-world cred. From Jay-Z becoming a Basquiat-acquiring art mogul, to Kanye’s fashion ventures, rap has impacted the world in unexpected ways. Some on-screen rappers have even gone on to be fruitful entrepreneurs, if you count Ray J’s unbreakable sunglasses.

But you know what’s actually not breakable? The relationship between rap and film. The 90s saw audiences flocking to theatres to see biopics based on rappers’ lives, and even some rappers becoming respected thespians themselves. These 10 films celebrate that kinship between the sound and the screen. On this list you’ll find directors who made the leap from music videos to the silver screen, rappers moonlighting as actors, and the trials and tribulations of battle rap.

8 Mile

This list simply wouldn’t be right without the film that launched 1 million “mom’s spaghetti” memes. Featuring a stacked cast including the late Brittany Murphy, 8 Mile earns its place by having Eminem star in a loosely autobiographical biopic. The film, released in 2002, came off the heels of Eminem fever. Only two years earlier, The Marshall Mathers LP was the best selling album in Canada. And the awards kept rolling in after the film was released: “Lose Yourself” netted the real Slim Shady an Oscar for Best Original Song.

 

Set it Off

After releasing two albums and winning a Grammy for her song “U.N.I.T.Y.,” Queen Latifah decided that wasn’t the only court she wanted to conquer. She went on to take several roles in film and TV, including guest starring on the Fresh Prince of Bel Air. She got her big break as Cleo in Set it Off. In 1996, Latifah notably said she could never choose between music and acting, so I suppose her recent work doing TV musicals is a happy medium.

 

Hustle and Flow

Your brother started a Soundcloud rap career? I wish him luck! Get him to check out Hustle and Flow, though. This is one of the few movies on the list that is both about a rapper and not a biopic, and yet it captures the reality of being an artist who is just starting out.

During a chance recording session with a church piano player, a trio of artists stumble on the perfect hook. With some MPC magic, they find the menacing melody and the stuttering high hats that fit in perfectly with the sound of the South at the time. This film gets extra credit for being one of the few rap movies about the South. Even on the screen, the coasts hog the spotlight. 

 

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin

The early albums by all the Wu-Tang members heavily sample kung-fu and samurai flicks. But the 36th Chamber of Shaolin stands above all. It even earned an homage in the title of the Wu-Tang Clan’s first album as a collective. RZA, the exec. producer of Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) said in 2019, that he’s seen the film over 200 times, “and more to go.”

 

Belly

Belly is Hype Williams’ first feature film, but certainly not his first time behind the camera. By the film’s release in 1998, Williams had already directed music videos for basically everyone in rap, including Outkast, the Notorious BIG to Brandy and Wu-Tang Clan. So it makes sense that he tapped two rappers to play his protagonists, putting Nas and DMX in their first spotlight. Costume designer June Ambrose notably said that Williams wanted a shiny look, forecasting what hip-hop would look like in the new millennium. The result is a sleek, Y2K-ready affair and, according to the late DMX, the product of lots and lots of baby oil. Unfortunately slick visuals could not forgive a weak plot, and the film was panned. It won’t make any best-of lists but it will certainly be on visual mood boards until the end of time.

 

Paid in Full

This crime film covers the rise and fall of a trio of drug kingpins in Harlem. So who better to debut their acting chops as the reckless hothead Rico than East Harlem’s own, Cam’ron. The movie also gets brownie points for being named after a foundational 80s rap album by Eric B & Rakim.

 

Get Rich or Die Tryin’

Three years after releasing his seminal debut album, Get Rich or Die Tryin’ on Eminem’s Shady Records, 50 Cent followed in Em’s steps by starring in his own biopic. GRODT marks 50 Cent’s film debut in a role that is loosely based on his New York upbringing. Although critics didn’t think much of the film, that hasn’t stopped 50 from working on his acting cred, most notably creating and starring in Power.

 

Boyz n the Hood

Boyz n the Hood was Ice Cube’s first role in what would go on to be a long film career. John Singleton knew Ice Cube from college and wrote the role of Doughboy with him in mind. The late director told VICE in 2016, “We were just two dudes with dreams and a small jeep riding on the freeway in South Central, talking about what we wanted to do.

 

Straight Outta Compton

This movie retells the origin story of N.W.A., ostensibly the group that gave Los Angeles its early mainstream attention in rap. O’Shea Jackson Jr. plays his own father, Ice Cube. Cue “Cats in the Cradle.” Every living member of NWA signed on, with Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and Eazy-E’s widow, Tomika Woods-Wright, as producers and MC Ren and DJ Yella as creative consultants.

 

Juice

Tupac was known as a rapper first, but he was a brilliant actor as well. Juice, his first starring role, is a perfect reminder that he was as skilled on stage as he was in the studio. According to the film’s producer, Neal Moritz, the crew scoured New York City to find the perfect person to play Bishop, but came up empty as casting wore on. That was until Tupac entered, accompanying a friend to their audition. He practiced the lines, and nailed the audition in 15 minutes.

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