Amherstburg, Ontario is a small Canadian border town about 30 km southeast of Detroit. Once a military outpost during the War of 1812, it’s now primarily a commuter town for auto and industrial workers employed in neighbouring Windsor. It’s one of those quiet, uneventful communities, where everyone knows everyone’s face if not their name, the sort of place that’s great to raise a kid, though not necessarily to be one. Ennui was the order of the day in the pre-Web 1990’s, and my friends and I would spend our high school summers sipping comically large slurpees in the Navy Yard Park, riding our Huffys to the local video store on Richmond St. to search the shelves for something we hadn’t seen before, and watching a lot of cable.
Rap was already a part of our lives by the time it entered its widely recognized “Golden Age.” We were nestled within the reach of Detroit’s broadcast airspace, plus the national cable music station, Muchmusic, had embraced the genre earlier than MTV, so even in a town of 10,000 people, we had unbelievable access to the songs rocking parties in New York and Los Angeles. But music was only one form of the culture that began punching its way through. We celebrate the music of that era now for its advances in production innovation and lyrical complexity, but the strides made by young filmmakers during that time are no less important. For the first time we saw the stories we heard about, in unflinching detail, and it completely altered how we comprehended them. We might have had some vague conceptual idea of what N.W.A. was talking about in “Gangsta, Gangsta,” but until we saw Doughboy, Tre and Ricky fleeing from gunshots ringing out along Crenshaw Blvd., we couldn’t understand the environments and social circumstances that birthed the music we loved.
It’s not that there weren’t “hip-hop” movies before 1990: films like Krush Groove, Wild Style, and Breakin’ exposed the culture to a wider audience the previous decade, but they served more as archival snapshots of the culture itself. The films made from 1990-1996 were more interested in documenting the lives the culture emerged from, not just the hustlers and gangbangers, but the building stoop hangouts and bullshitting sessions at backyard BBQs. What’s notable is that so many of them came out in such quick succession, from the indisputable classics like Boyz N The Hood, Menace II Society and Juice, to less-discussed but no less important works like House Party, Above the Rim and Set It Off.
What do we attribute this to? What was in the water back then that encouraged this kind of innovation across artistic disciplines?
Timing certainly played a part. Hip-hop in 1990 had come of age, and the kids who grew up inspired by the music sought to bring what energized them about the culture into their own work, and not everyone wanted to be an MC. The first nationally distributed magazines like The Source and RapPages emerged by 1991, and Keenan Ivory Wayans struck comedic gold on network television with In Living Color the year before. Why would feature films be any different? Young screenwriters and directors wanted to make work that reflected the lives they came from as much as the rappers they admired, using a camera instead of a microphone.
Boyz N The Hood writer/director John Singleton told an interviewer in 2012, “When I was talking about going to film school to my friends in the neighbourhood, it was the kind of film that we always said we wanted to see, that we never saw at the movies…nobody was making movies about what we were going through in Los Angeles.”
Prior to Boyz, the closest thing you could find to a movie about life in LA was Colors, Dennis Hopper’s 1988 drama about two cops in the CRASH unit of the LAPD. Singleton sought to bring the lives of the people he knew and grew up with to an international audience, because they deserved to be represented and their stories deserved telling.
“Colors is one thing. This ain’t it,” said Ice Cube, who played Doughboy in Boyz N the Hood, in an interview from 2012. “This is a movie that’s not telling you how bad it is to be a fucking cop. This is telling you how bad it is to be in the hood and to be innocent and try to survive.” Movies like Boyz and The Hughes Brothers’ Menace II Society told the same type of stories found on records, but the runtime of a feature film allowed for a chance to present a wider cast of characters, not just those given over to the cycle of violence in the hood, but those who get away from it, and those who seek to escape but can’t. They were people audiences hadn’t seen before, and their struggles resonated across demographic lines.
In other cases, the presence of hip-hop was simply a matter of the artist wanting his work to accurately reflect the experience of the characters. Juice director Ernest Dickerson told The Guardian in 2009, “We really considered Juice a film noir with teenagers. The hip-hop came from the fact that that was the cultural context of their lives. Personally, I’m more of a jazz man, but we wanted the milieu of our film noir to be correct and that was hip-hop.” Ironically, Juice is perhaps the film where the hip-hop plays a role most overtly, with GQ’s quest to make his name as a DJ a major subplot, never mind the neckbreaking Eric B. and Rakim cut that plays over the opening credits, which in some circles is better remembered than the movie itself.
Music and movies fed into each other in a complimentary, never predatory fashion. The musicians gave their work to the soundtracks, making them must-buys for fans, and filmmakers recognized the natural charisma of performers like Ice Cube, Ice T, Queen Latifah and Tupac Shakur and cast them in their films. Half the time, scouring those small town video store shelves for something we’d never seen, my friends and I would base our viewing selections purely because our favourite rappers were on the box art.
Perhaps most importantly, that early half of the nineties was the last time both filmmakers and musicians were free to create without the interference of the larger studio and label machines. By 1991, hip-hop had graduated from “fad,” to “niche.” It had an audience, but it was still somewhat invisible to the cultural mainstream. It wasn’t until Soundscan began to accurately track music sales and these movies started making back their budgets and then some on opening weekend that the people with clout began paying attention. And with attention comes opportunity, and with opportunity comes cash, and with cash comes ambition. The success of those early films meant producers would try to make more movies to appeal to that audience, faster and cheaper. Greater return on investment, it’s just how these things are done. By the time Keenan Ivory Wayans and his brothers Shawn and Marlon tore down the conventions established by these movies in 1996’s unfortunately titled Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood, the page had fully turned.
Change is not inherently bad, but as the decade rolled over into the new millennium the next wave of up and coming artists saw the type of money that could be made, and they ran with it. Soon every rapper with a hot song thought they were made for movie stardom, resulting in by-the-numbers, straight-to-DVD, dollar-bin fillers like Beanie Segal in State Property, or Mack 10 and Fat Joe co-starring in Thicker Than Water. Profit became the primary motivator at the expense of story, as it so often does, no matter how trite it might be to mention. But for six beautiful years circumstances perfectly aligned, with directors, screenwriters, MCs and DJs across the country taking inspiration from each other and their stories while no one was looking, giving the culture a sense of unity it, frankly, hasn’t had since. Joan Didion once wrote that we tell ourselves stories in order to live. From Watts to the Bronx, to Amherstburg, Ontario, we shared the same stories, and the same “lives”: Tre, Caine, Bishop; we saw new worlds through the prisms of their experience, and hopefully learned to understand each other better in the process.
From Issue 10 of Bonafide Magazine.