Over the years, hip-hop has intertwined with movies in so many ways. It was always exciting to see some of our favorite emcees like Ice Cube or Tupac on the big screen. Sometimes we see them play characters that we fall in love with, or everyday actors portray their glamorous lives. We think of NWA’s Straight Outta Compton or Eight Mile. Even Gully Boy if you want to include a bit of Bollywood. There are incredible behind-the-scenes documentaries, like Michael Rapaport’s Beats, Rhymes, and Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest, or fictional stories of neighborhood kids like Dope. But occasionally, we’ll see hip-hop music being used in movies that we don’t typically expect it in. We see it in family-oriented movies or used to portray superheroes when society has taught us that hip-hop is the villain. The genre connotates one thing, but then filmmakers use it to mean another. Often times, hip-hop can create a new dimension to the story or its characters and contributes a beautiful feeling of nostalgia and personality.
Let’s first talk about Marvel a bit. I’ve always admired the diversity in Marvel comics. A lot of people don’t know this about me, but I’m a HUGE comic book geek. Or maybe they do, I don’t know. I’m a lot more transparent than I like to think I am. You can catch me at New York Comic-Con every year dressed up as some of my favorite South Asian beauties. In fact, one year, I went as Omega Sentinal, one of the only Indian born superheroes that I discovered through the X-Men universe. There are so many superheroes representing different cultures in a way that you can’t find in my beloved DC comics, mainly because they’re mostly aliens from made-up planets. Marvel often times has a degree of truth to their characters and stories. Look at Black Panther. Just the creation of such a character was extremely political, in a way that is still relevant today with all of the BLM protests. It’s incredible to think that the character first appeared in 1966, a time when racism was still very much present. And there were a lot of misconceptions surrounding the Black Panther movement. To portray it in such a light was revolutionary and bold. When they finally took this character to the big screen, I was SO excited to see how they would bring the story to life, and it did not disappoint. The costumes, the settings, the actors (come on now, how can you not salivate over Michael B. Jordan AND Chadwick Boseman?!), all incredible. But the music? That didn’t fall short one bit.
The movie’s director, Ryan Coogler, reached out to Kendrick Lamar, knowing that this would be an incredible match given Kendrick’s upbringing, political themes, and overall creativity. And while the album incorporated big names like Travis Scott, SZA, James Blake, Schoolboy Q, Vince Staples, and Anderson .Paak, it also included some lesser-known names such as Vallejo’s SOB x RBE, Mozzy, and Yugen Blakrok. The album included tribal drums and verses in Zulu to heighten the experience of the fictional land of Wakanda, while the lyrics addressed issues such as identity, poverty, and systematic oppression in a way that gave a sense of humanity to this fictional superhero, allowing the audience to connect with the characters in a much more real way. But the album was extremely versatile, showing numerous approaches to hip-hop music. You have those downright grimey songs like “King’s Dead,” which made it on the radio featuring Future, Jay Rock, and my favorite, James Black. “X,” “Paramedic!,” and “Big Shot” gave you that hefty reminder that this was in fact a rap album, and a fucking good one at that, using trap beats to show a different side of the movie. But then you hear songs like “Opps” which was one of the few songs that actually made it into the movie during a chase scene, and holy fuck, that production is intense. The bass, the percussion, the chorus!!! It is such a good song. You hear the influences of different cultures, and it’s beautiful. It’s raw. Both “Redemption” and “Bloody Waters” have similar vibes, and they are just so dope. It was really cool to see a family-oriented movie that was so highly grossing with a soundtrack like this; one that was rugged and hardcore and crazy fucking good. The movie was about a superhero, with rap music playing in the background. It’s so different from the usual fanfares but so current.
But Black Panther wasn’t the only effort Marvel made to show their contribution to a more inclusive Hollywood. It’s a hot take, but Tobey Maguire was always my favorite Spider-Man. So I was curious to see how they would introduce Miles Morales, a half black-half Puerto Rican Spider-Man in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. But it was honestly so amazing. Even if you aren’t a fan of animated films, I strongly suggest checking this out. Miles connected with his uncle through his love for graffiti, showing his creative and artistic mindset in a way that resonated throughout the movie. He was just a teenager in a fancy private school who loved Post Malone. It was pure and real, and so innocent, and I loved it. The opening scene with “Sunflower” was such a beautiful introduction, starting the movie on an upbeat note and taking on a similar tone as Amine’s “Invincible.” But Ty Dolla $ign, Lil Wayne, and XXXTENTACION’s “Scared of the Dark,” told a different story, with darker themes. It showed resilience and strength in a modern-day underdog story. They used young artists, including those who lost their lives at tragically early ages, to represent this teenager trying to figure out what it meant to be a superhero. DJ Khalil, Denzel Curry, YBN Cordae, Swavay, and Trevor Rich give you the powerhouse anthem you need to amp you up to Miles’ standards on “Elevate,” outlining his nightly prowls to fight crime. “Save The Day” has a similar theme with that ratchet party sound, reminding you once again that yes, this is a kids movie about a superhero with a sick soundtrack that adults could totally blast on their speakers. I loved the use of “Familia” featuring Nicki Minaj because it has that Spanish feel, relating you to Miles’ mixed heritage. It shows you an inclusive and diverse world that we don’t see in Hollywood often. I think that’s the beautiful thing about this album; it’s so real. It perfectly represents Miles and his story. You could envision him in real life, walking down the street with his headphones in, listening to these songs, or using them to fuel his creativity while doing graffiti. It helps to develop a relatable role model to kids everywhere that directly combats what society says about young Black boys.
However, before Black Panther was Blade (I could also mention Marvel’s Luke Cage but I’m keeping this post to movies only). The soundtrack to every single film was as wild as the movies themselves, with hard-hitting raps from artists like Gang Starr and RZA. Interestingly enough, some of the songs had a funky techno twist, representing the Blade movies perfectly. It was especially ahead of its time in terms of its dark themes when looking at it compared to other superhero movies, but the martial arts aspect of it really foreshadowed everything RZA created with kung-fu style movies. It’s no surprise that he’s a part of the soundtrack. But even the music perfectly matched the grit of the movie. It was raw. It wasn’t full of autotune, granted that wasn’t really a part of the hip-hop scene at the time. It was just rugged and rough. Listening to DJ Krush’s “Dig The Vibe” just felt like I could envision Blade walking on the streets, lurking in the shadows. The jazzy element made me think of the dark trench coats. It also contributed to this idea that Blade wasn’t the type of superhero who ran around in a cape with tights. I don’t even think he would think of himself as a hero. So it felt like a good match. The music was unappreciated and downplayed in a way that was very much Blade’s character.
The movie that actually inspired this post is called “Uncorked.” And no, it doesn’t have to do with superheroes. It’s about a young man who takes an interest in becoming a sommelier, a wine expert. In the movie, Elijah upsets his father who wants him to continue his legacy with their family barbecue business. Throughout the story, you see his character transform as he goes through rigorous classes at a prestigious school, even studying in France. Those scenes are some of my favorite because while Elijah is walking down Parisian streets in custom-tailored suits, heavy-hitting French rap like “La Vague” and “Grand Garcon” is playing in the background. Even the fancy restaurants and expensive wine bottles are offset by hip-hop music, symbolizing how unusual Elijah’s story is because of his upbringing. But it adds a level of depth and humility to his character.
The movie takes place in Memphis, which is also emphasized by its Southern-style hip-hop soundtrack. Artists like Yo Gotti rap about “juice,” a very informal parallel to the lavish wine he’s serving throughout the movie. The soundtrack also separates Elijah from the rest of his classmates. The others, who come from money and sophistication, contrast vastly with his close-knit family who had to be schooled on what being a sommelier meant. It showed that it was something new for his whole family, and it makes you root for him that much more. The odds were constantly stacked against him, and yet he prevailed. The soundtrack also used music to emphasize the generational differences, a reoccurring theme that contributed to the overall conflict. Hip-hop is used to portray Elijah while older styles such as Motown are used in more family-oriented settings, representing the father and his barbecue restaurant. One of the other things I noticed in the movie was the use of songs like “I’m Supposed to Be Here.” Despite the relevance of the title, it was also one of the songs that revolved around hustling. In my last post, “Do You Feel the Same Weed High That I Feel,” I discussed how the idea of hustling, especially in rap music, is often synonymous with drug dealing. So it’s really cool to see it in this context, where Elijah’s dream job is one that’s really hard to achieve and extremely admirable but is still seen as bad to his family because of their hopes that he’ll continue his father’s legacy. It’s an interesting dynamic.
When I think of hip-hop music in rom-coms, a lot of the times there’s a difference that’s trying to be reiterated, whether in the characters’ background, social class, hobbies, etc. There’s a cliche, where the good girl meets the sexy bad guy, like your Step Ups or your Save the Last Dances. Even A Bronx Tale if you really think about it, which has moved on to become Hip-Hop royalty, name-dropped in over thirty hip-hop songs. Then you also have movies like Just Wright, because when you have Common and Queen Latifa playing love interests, how are you not going to have a dope soundtrack? But one movie I saw that used music in a pretty different way was Always Be My Maybe. The movie, whose title is a play on Mariah Carrey’s “Always Be My Baby,” features two Asian American actors as the leads, which is awesome already. But I think what I loved about this movie was that despite their differences, hip-hop seemed to be what they agreed on. One of the first introductions is the main character Sasha sitting in the car with her best friend belting D’Angelo’s “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” and girl, do I get it. We’ve all been there. But the hip-hop songs used in the movie like “93 ‘Til Infinity” and Too $hort’s “Blow the Whistle” all served to do something special; it reminisced on their friendship. It was what her best friend Marcus held on to as he proves to be the more static character, showing that although he was older, he hadn’t changed a bit. In fact, it was Sasha who grew up to live a life of luxury and money, demonstrating that distinction through electronic and indie music. Hip-hop was the soundtrack to their youth and their friendship at a simpler time and even proved to be what reunited them when they got older. When they would argue, it was in upscale restaurants or red carpets with songs like AWOLNATION’s “Sail,” playing in the background. But throughout the movie, Marcus stayed true to his love for hip-hop as he was an emcee in a rap group. And despite everything, Sasha continued to support him, even during their altercations. Hell, it was what brought them back together in numerous instances. It was never looked down upon as a career choice. It was vibrant and youthful and helped to create an unconventional love interest.
As controversial as he is, Quentin Tarantino is known for his movie soundtracks, and both Django Unchained and The Man With the Iron Fists do exemplary jobs of utilizing hip-hop music to capture the tone of the film. Hell, even Pulp Fiction makes incredible use of Kool and the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie” and was organized by the legendary RZA. The song had the intensity and funk of the ’70s in a way that was perfect for the setting, while also setting up the characters’ introductions as they spoke over it. With the racial tension in Django Unchained, who better to use than Rick Ross, the unapologetic intense who will rhyme whatever is on his mind with no regard to consequences? In the song, Ross raps that he “needs a 100 black coffins for 100 bad men,” using solid imagery to express the violence in the movie while also playing on the racial dynamic. He also alludes to the reoccurring theme of chains, similarly to James Brown and 2Pac’s “Unchained (The Payback/Untouchable).” It has almost a wild west sound with the guitars at the beginning of the track, but as soon as the horns hit layered under 2Pac’s deep voice and the screams of James Brown, the song is full of energy in a way that perfectly replicates Tarantino’s fight scenes. His use of rap mirrors the racial tensions in both the film and the music. They both play with the idea of reversing roles to show Black people holding a place of power in a way that is mirrored in the rap industry.
It’s no surprise that The Man with the Iron Fists incorporates hip-hop music considering RZA created the film, but man, with everyone from Ghostface to Kweli to Pusha T, this soundtrack is INSANE. Although the movie is technically only presented by Tarantino, it was him who suggested that RZA score the whole film after they were unhappy with the original choice. The soundtrack, which featured all original music, beautifully morphs elements from the chaotic story, which has a lot of shit going on if I’m being honest. The production incorporates Western sounds with East Asian melodies along with some electronic elements, then on top of that features some pretty intense lyrics and rapping, creating a contrast that fits the movie really well. The songs also represent the characters in a really cool well, showing the diversity and originality in this crazy Martial Arts movie.
Living in Philadelphia, I have to mention Creed. The Rocky movies are full of funk and powerhouse anthems like “Eye of the Tiger,” reminding you just how stressful those fights are supposed to be. Those iconic horns in the theme song are identifiable anywhere, especially living in the city of brotherly love, and the new take on the series with the Creed movies show a more current lead character, as represented by Future’s remix of the track. The soundtrack is full of incredible Philly artists from The Roots with their legendary “The Fire” (hi Rick 🙂 ) and of course Meek Mill with half the fucking album. Unfortunately, they scrapped that loyalty a bit with the sequel, selling out and having Mike WiLL Made-It create the whole thing, but that’s just my take. Regardless, the soundtrack incorporates those percussive beats with drum machines and rapid-fire lyrics to really show you the young Philly kid taking over the boxing ring. I have to admit, seeing “The Fire” in just about any movie gets me really amped, because that’s what the song is supposed to do. It’s beautiful and motivational and strong, and creates such a moment of character development, whether in real life or on the big screen. Hip-Hop has become representative of a generational transition to the youth coming out on top, showing their strength and ability to overcome any challenge no matter where they come from or what they have.
There’s no shortage of hip-hop oriented movies. From biopics to documentaries to fictional stories, directors have been able to highlight the beauty of the culture on the big screen. But there are so many ways in which hip-hop has been used to tell a different story. One that transcends the script or the plot, and instead adds embellishment that couldn’t be accomplished through anything else. It’s been the voice of representation and diversity in an industry that needs it. It’s been the extra bit of dimension a character has needed for their personality to capture your soul. A strong soundtrack can make or break any movie, and hip-hop is just one way in which a movie can stick with you forever.
As always, make sure to enter your e-mail to follow my blog. I have a special giveaway announcement on my Instagram tomorrow, Friday July 31st at 6 PM so make sure to head over there tonight after you’ve read this! With that being said, the fight for Black Lives Matter has not stopped and Breonna Taylor’s murderers have STILL not been arrested. In an effort to keep the conversation alive, I’ve linked a bit of information about the Black Panther Party as well as a link to donate to the Huey P. Newton Foundation, whose mission is to preserve the legacy of the Black Panthers.