New Jack Cinema: From The Block to the Big Screen

90s New Jack Cinema Flicks >>>>
By    October 1, 2013

Dean Van Nguyen was raised like O-Dog.

Shattering Hollywood conventions with the force of a double-barreled shotgun blast, Blaxploitation movies bottled post-civil rights anger and the steely resolve of the black power movement. The result was a visceral cinematic package that still lingers four decades later. Forged by talented African-American filmmakers hungry to frame a previously unseen side of the US for the big screen, the genre’s pioneers used any guerrilla techniques they could think of, keenly capturing the poverty and discontent that existed in the nation’s mean streets.

“This film is dedicated to all the brothers and sisters who’ve had enough of the Man,” writes maverick filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles to open his gritty classic Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song (1971). The tale of a male sex worker who goes on the run after saving a Black Panther from a couple of racist cops, the film opened the floodgates for righteous flicks led by fashionable but powerful black anti-heroes who battled repressive forces to the gangster boogie of a hot funk and soul soundtrack.

But while the flicks may have been created on shoe string budgets, there was no cutting corners when it came to the music. For example, Gordan Park’s Jr’s Superfly (1972), the story of a Harlem cocaine dealer trying to escape the underworld drug business, coaxed the best record of Curtis Mayfield’s brilliant career, while Isaac Hayes, James Brown and Earth Wind and Fire all excelled in providing blistering grooves for Shaft (1971), Black Caesar (1973) and Sweet Sweetback.

Set in the concrete ghettos of Newark, Brooklyn and Los Angeles,  the films pioneered by young black filmmakers almost two decades later are rarely given the same ceremonious praise — yet this set of hungry filmmakers shared the same steely resolve as their seventies counterparts.

In October 1990, John Singleton, a 22-year-old member of the Pasadena City College and USC School of Cinematic Arts alumni, began work on Boyz N The Hood, his depiction of life in Crenshaw, Los Angeles through the lens of three teenage boys. Less than six months later, the name Rodney King entered the public’s conscious, as the city felt the full force of the 56 baton blows and six kicks inflicted upon the helpless Altadena native by four LAPD officers. On April 29th 1992, the cops involved in the King beating were acquitted of all charges. Almost instantly, Los Angeles was gripped by rioting that would last six days and claim the lives of 53 people.

It was in this tense atmosphere of the late eighties and early nineties that West Coast rappers ushered in a new, rock-hard era of gangster rap, while filmmakers, buoyed by the success of Boyz N the Hood, quickly followed Singleton’s lead. Compton, Watts and Long Beach became the center of US pop culture and a hub of cinematic inventiveness. A new era of black cinema was formed, sparked by crumbling social and economic infrastructure, partially inspired by classic American gangster flicks, and fronted by rappers fawning over Hollywood opportunities. “Hood movies” is what they’d be called.

Like the blaxploitation genre, hood movies were rugged, gritty and fuelled by raw emotion. And also like blaxploitation joints, there was nothing slapdash about their soundtracks. But while the names Mayfield, Hayes, and Brown are eternally attached to the films they scored, artist’s contribution to the hood movie has largely gone unremembered. Two decades later, there’s a huge pool of tracks just waiting to be rediscovered – some as three dimensional as the films themselves.

One Upon a Time in the Projects

Hood movies aren’t the earliest examples of hip-hop cinema. First came the indie classic Wild Style (1983) – the culture’s first true on-screen depiction. Playing more like a documentary than Boyz n tha Hood, it blended graffiti, MCing, turntablism and B-boying into a coming of age story of a young graf artist (played by scene innovator Lee Quiñones) that exhibited hip-hop’s cinematic potential. It captures the movement’s early exuberance in the same way Boyz n the Hood depicted pre-LA riots menace. And with its extended musical interludes, the film demanded a hot soundtrack, which featured many pioneering hip-hop artists including The Cold Crush Brothers, Busy Bee Starski and Grandmaster Caz.

Hood movies never celebrated youth culture in the same fashion. Instead, they depicted the trappings young black kids were born into – the social injustices, lack of desirable employment opportunities and dangers of living in America’s forgotten neighborhoods. Among the first young filmmakers to step up and capture this world was Spike Lee, a Morehouse College graduate who contributed significantly to independent cinema in the late eighties with his taut black-and-white debut She’s Gotta Have It (1986), the tale of attractive young Brooklynite Nola Darling and her relationships with three very different suitors.

While She’s Gotta Have It offered up a cosmopolitan depiction of eighties Brooklyn, Lee’s viewpoint shifted somewhat by his third film Do The Right Thing (1989). Charting the escalating racial tension on a Bed-Stuy block one boiling hot summer day, hip-hop flows through the narrative like an extra character courtesy of Radio Raheem’s impossibly loud ghettoblaster that blares Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” on constant repeat. PE recorded the jam especially for Lee’s vision, and former Soul Train dancer turned movie star Rosie Perez shadow boxes her way through the track during the movie’s memorable opening credit sequence.

Lee’s fearlessness and themes inevitably inspired John Singleton. But Lee’s masterwork was missing one archetypal hood movie characteristic: guns. As much as Blaxploitation’s message was tied up in the fly suits, buxom girls and dope music, a large section of audiences turned on by early hood movies were captivated by the high powered fire arms — no matter how tragic the circumstances. If Boyz N The Hood was father to the genre, then Do The Right Thing was certainly godfather.

Boyz N The Hood was much more grounded than say New Jack City. In the film, Tre Styles (Cuba Gooding Jr) is an intelligent and motivated 17-year-old, transformed from a young troublemaker by his father Furious (Laurence Fishburne), with whom he was sent to live with at age 10. His best friends are maternal half-brothers Ricky (Morris Chestnut), a promising high-school football player, and Doughboy (Ice Cube), who does little besides loitering with friends on his mother’s porch between his frequent prison stints.

For the trio, there’s little chance to enjoy the closing days of adolescence. Singleton uses the them as a lens to glimpse the day-to-day realities of South Central living. Police brutality, sexual health, teenage parenthood and gun violence are themes that run throughout. And like the film laid down a benchmark for a flood of films just like it, so did the soundtrack. Released on the Quincy Jones-founded Warner Bros’ subsidiary label Qwest Records, the record hit gold – a solid result for a film not actually driven by its musical cues. For example, the playful satire of Ice Cube’s “How to Survive in South Central” defies the super-serious tone of the film. As such, it can only be heard during the closing credits.

Released a year after Cube’s seminal solo debut AmeriKKKaz Most Wanted, “How To Survive in South Central” is a tour through LA’s most notorious streets with chirpy tour guide Elaine. Cube lays out his tips for visitors to live through their trip: “Got to keep your gat at all times motherfuckers/Better keep one in the chamber and nine in the clip god dammit”.

Elsewhere, Compton’s Most Wanted offered up the more sombre “Growing Up In The Hood”, with MC Eiht offering up his own depiction of the influx of crack cocaine and the woes that followed: “Growing up in the hood, yea boy, 1984 was the year my peers didn’t know what was in store” and, later, the harrowing, “Niggas rolled by and try to blast, it didn’t work/I seen the bullets flying and fool, I hit the dirt/Bullets fly through the window/Hits my brother, down goes my mother”.

Boyz n da Hood was a pathfinder for similar films and also established a successful template for these movies’ soundtracks. Unlike the blaxploitation formula, no single artist was ever given license to produce an entire work inspired by the film. Instead each record was assembled using a variety of artists as labels often used them to promote their entire rosters. Conscious rap records sat alongside R&B ballads (Boyz also spawned two successful singles in Tevin Campbell’s “Just Ask Me To”, a new jack swing standard, and Tony! Toni! Toné!’s “Me and You”, a soulful jam that plays over the key montage in the film). Many songs were written and recorded for the films specifically, while others were likely plucked from artists’ body of work or upcoming projects. Jumbled together, most discs lacked cohesion, but they were undeniably satisfying.

While Boyz n the Hood represents a critical highpoint for South Central-focused movies, Menace II Society (1993) was rougher animal, with far more violence and far less remorse. Following his highschool graduation, Caine Lawson (Tyrin Turner) juggles thoughts of fleeing his neighbourhood while succumbing to the realities of situations he is presented with, like the underlying urge and pressure from friends to avenge the murder of his cousin Harold. Pulling the morally-torn Caine towards the mire is friend O-Dog (Larenz Tate), described by Caine as “America’s nightmare: young, black, and didn’t give a fuck”. Scenes in which O-Dog gleefully rewatches a videotape of him murdering a Korean grocery store owner have earned the baby-faced killer a spot on American cinema’s all-time list of most cold blooded villains.

Menace isn’t a perfect film. There’s some ropey acting, some overwrought writing and a voiceover that swans in and out to help tie the plot together. But its uncompromising, unfiltered glimpse into South Central living won it plenty of plaudits and the film’s reputation improves as time passes. Like Scarface before it, Menace has inspired a generation of hip-hop artists who grew up on the film and is referenced in the lyrics of Gucci Mane, A$AP Rocky and Lil Wayne, among others. The soundtrack itself hit number 1 on the Billboard Top R&B/Hip-Hop chart. Released on Jive, many of its tracks come from the label’s then impressive array of talent, including tracks from Too Short, Spice-1, UGK and that man MC Eiht, who co-starred in the film and dropped the song that most engaged with its themes, “Streiht Up Menace”.

Also worth a mention is Stephen Milburn Anderson’s South Central (1992). It’s less visceral, but it directly confronts manhood and the consequence of absent fathers. Unlike Boyz and Menace, music actually plays an important role in the narrative, as Anderson uses it as his primary device to distinguish two different time periods. Beginning in the early eighties, funk artists Ronnie Hudson, One Way and Cameo all blast from car radios and other sound systems before a time-jump is ushered in with nothing more than the sounds of Boo-Yaa T.R.I.B.E.’s “Rumour of a Dead Man”.

Uptown is Kickin’ It

Hood movies weren’t exclusive to the West Coast. The cold streets of New York offered a backdrop for some of the genre’s better films, offering a new slant on the city. Harlem, Brooklyn and The Bronx all became characters in their own right. Juice (1992) followed four Harlem youths through many of the same issues faced by their LA counterparts, and gave Tupac Shakur his first acting role proper as the brutal Roland Bishop.

Sticking with the east, New Jersey Drive (1995) is an incredibly well shot piece on Newark car thieves and police brutality. While his contemporaries often choose not to lean on their film’s music for cinematic punch, director Nick Gomez draws heavily from his soundtrack’s instrumentals to score his scenery. Despite the setting, the thick g-funk of Vallejo rapper Young Lay’s “All About the Fetti” (produced by Khayree) proves perfect orchestration as the young car jackers quietly cruise the Jersey streets as Manhattan’s skyscrapers peer down in the background. Elsewhere, Redman and Lords of the Underground bring some Newark flavor to the disc. Despite not sharing the reverence as other movies in the genre, New Jersey Drive went gold for Tommy Boy records, prompting them to release a follow up. The eight track New Jersey Drive, Vol. 2 had some worthy moments, but none of them actually appeared in the film.

New Jersey Drive featured some classic John Frankenheimer-esque car chases to help it stand out from its peers, but like Blaxploitation movies would eventually move beyond the shackles of the crime movie and expand into different genres, hood movies were not one note. Friday was a good time comedy and, as such, the soundtrack had more party jams and less message records, including the Dr Dre classic “Keep the Heads Ringing” – a one shot that notably linked Dre’s G-funk and Aftermath eras in its style. While back in New York, Mario Van Pebbles’s (son of original Badasssss Melvin) New Jack City provided a more stylised cops and robbers tale than the urban realism of Juice.

Fallin’, they applauding

By 1996, hood movies had creatively peaked. Such was their popularity that the Wayans Brothers parodied the genre with Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood (1996). There was nothing farcical about the soundtrack though, which opened with “Winter Warz”. Credited to Ghostface Killah, Masta Killa, U-God, Raekwon & Cappadonna, as opposed to just the Wu-Tang Clan (it would later appear on Ghost’s first solo joint Iron Man), the track itself was blockbuster, with a Hollywood closing verse by Cappadonna.

Big budget soundtracks for big budget movies were becoming increasingly popular in Hollywood by the mid-nineties, with tracks from movies like Batman Forever (1995) and Space Jam (1996) seriously cutting into radio air play. By the turn of the millennium, predominantly hip-hop labels were cutting soundtracks for mainstream movies. Jay Z recorded “Girl’s Best Friend” for the Martin Lawrence comedy Blue Streak in 2000, which also featured the Heavy D/Tyrese duet “Criminal Mind”, complete with a video where Tyrese plays a jewel thief and D, his fence. In 2001, Jermain Dupri assembled his So So Def crew at the height of their popularity to record the soundtrack to another Lawrence piece Big Momma’s House. And in 2003, Bad Boy Records made the logical step of providing the sound track for Bad Boys 2. Among the originals are lost gems from Beyonce, Jay and Justin Timberlake. There were even plans to capitalize on Scarface’s popularity with the hip-hop generation by re-releasing the film with a soundtrack of newly recorded rap music. Thankfully, the idea was scrapped.

Bad Boys 2 is the last event soundtrack I connected with. Since the formula has gone out of style, perhaps losing fiscal support as record sales have bottomed out. Consider that the B.I.G. biopic Notorious (2009) only included two original songs: “Brooklyn Go Hard” by Jay, and a tribute to the rapper by Jadakiss and widow Faith Evans called “Letter to B.I.G”.

Like their blaxploitation brethren, hood movies did not spark a lasting influx of talent into the Hollywood system. Boyz n the Hood fared better than most. After shaving off his jeri curl, and putting together a run of socially-charged classics, Ice Cube put together a varied filmography, starring in everything from Gulf War drama Three Kings (1999) to family friendly comedy Are We There Yet (2005) and its sequel. Cuba Gooding Jr won as Oscar in 1997 for Jerry Maguire (1997), but has followed it up with an endless string of duds including including Pearl Harbor (2001), Boat Trip (2002) and Norbit (2007).

Unlike most hood movie directors, John Singleton was given the opportunity to further explore the themes he’d previously looked it. Higher Learning (1995) was like a spiritual sequel to Boyz, examining race relations on a University Campus. Baby Boy (2000) was a respectable return to his roots (soundtrack featured new music from stars Tyrese and Snoop), while he’s filled in the time between pet projects as a director for higher on studio money makers like 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003). His last film was the Taylor Lautner vehicle Abduction, a Razzie-nominated dud.

Other directors managed worse. The Hughes Brothers followed up Menace with Dead Presidents (1995), an ambitious tale of a Vietnam veteran and his struggles to adjust to normal society upon his return (Larenz Tate took the leading role this time). Since then however, the only project to bear both brothers’ names have been horror From Hell (2001) and sci-fi The Book of Eli (2010), both of which have attracted mixed reviews. Juice director Ernest Dickerson became the go-to-guy for low budget, director-to-video flicks with rappers in the leading role (Bones was one, a Snoop Dogg movie released in 2001 about a gangster that comes back from the dead to avenge his murder). Having not made a feature since 2004, he’s since retreated to television where he’s directed episodes on several hit shows including Dexter, The Walking Dead, Weeds and The Wire.

Tyrin Turner’s post-Menace career choices have been notoriously bewildering, including attempting to launch a rap career on Rap-A-Lot under his character name Caine. He dropped a couple of horrible ghost-written verses on the Geto Boys album Da Good Da Bad & Da Ugly and Scarface’s My Homies, but an expected solo record never materialised. Grantland recently published a Thomas Golianopoulos-penned article on Turner’s exploits since, which include a falling out with the Hughes Brothers, a scuffle with Diddy and various attempts to re-launch his career.

As the success of hood flicks and gangster rap spiraled in the mid-nineties, blaxploitation icon Fred Williamson recruited fellow genre stalwarts Ron O’Neil, Jim Brown, Pam Grier, Richard Roundtree and director Larry Cohen to make Original Gangstas (1996), a love letter to the genre. The following year Quentin Tarentino cast Grier as the title character in Jackie Brown (1997), his ode to the films that had significantly shaped his own filmmaking style.

So perhaps a similar revival is in order, or at least some better opportunities for a talented pool of still young filmmakers and actors who no doubt have plenty to offer a modern audience. Having importantly captured their communities with such deftness two decades ago, America could always use their cinematic eye.

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