What The ’90s Hip-Hop Soundtrack Meant To A Young Fan
When I was little, I did every single thing my mother told me to do. Okay, maybe not EVERYTHING she told me to, but I was known amongst the family as the child who had the most sense: I tried to talk brothers, cousins and friends out of every wrong thing they wanted to do and may (or may not) have participated in the relaying of information to an adult when I saw just cause. The jury will remain out on that one, though. The point is, I was the definition of a goody-two shoes who never knew she was living in subsidized housing, never pitied herself for not having a father in her household, and never wanted for anything when it came down to the bare essentials of survival. It was only when I would watch movies that I realized just how uncommon my life was compared to these moviemakers. Films like Clueless and Little Giants held my attention fiercely and I watched them as often as cable networks would allow me to. Still, I knew something was off because I definitely wasn’t into football to the point where I wanted to be Icebox – though she was pretty bad ass – and from the looks of my tiny three-bedroom apartment in Richmond, VA that I shared with my two brothers, mother and whichever relative that needed “guidance” or a place to hide I knew that the chances of me having a closet like Cher Horowitz’s were slim to none. I liken most of my initial film choices to my affinity for MTV in its prime: I got what I fantasized about through fluffy movies and the predominately rock music channel, but I was fed my reality through black films and hip-hop music.
I can’t remember the first time I saw Juice, but I know I was young – way too young to see it, that’s for sure. Despite my age, the movie about four teens going through the motions life in New York City handed inner-city residents stood out to me. They dressed like people in my neighborhood, they talked like we talked (profanity included – sorry Mom), and went through situations I’d heard about from older relatives and neighbors. Besides the characters looking like people I actually knew and the predicaments seeming more likely than football legends coming to Bermuda Run to coach my brother and his friends in a pee-wee football game for respect, the music stood out to me most of all. Twenty years later, I still get chills when “Uptown Anthem” hits my eardrums because back then, it signified that something epic was about to go down – Kevin Hart voice. Treach’s voice just moved me and I think this was my first official brush with hip-hop, as others know it. My infatuation with hip-hop would only grow over time with the help of motion pictures.
Whenever my mom would clean, she’d play music – LOUDLY. At any given moment between the hours of 9AM and 2PM, a person could walk past the window of our downstairs apartment and hear some form of a track produced by Teddy Riley. She loved Full Force, any and everything they put out she owned proudly. I heard “Ain’t My Type Of Hype” way before I’d seen House Party and later, she told me that she owned the tape before the movie came out – my mom used to be on top of music like a true fan, which is where I get it from. The day I finally saw the inaugural Kid ‘N Play film was a great day indeed: to see these teenagers avert their energy into more productive things like partying, showcasing snazzy choreography in a houseful of their peers and gettin’ it in with the “def”-est chicks in school was refreshing and I needed more. The soundtrack was filled with party music that, had I been the kid that loved to party, would have inspired some exciting hijinks around the way. Again, I wasn’t that girl so I stuck with listening to the soundtrack repeatedly.
The epitome of my childhood experience with hip-hop’s influence on films was Above The Rim: I remember seeing commercials about it and I knew 2Pac was in it. Ah yes, 2Pac – the quintessential rapper-turned-actor to me by that time. Sure, he’d only been in two other movies by the basketball movie’s 1994 release but they were all dope to me and he made me believe with each role. Through this cinematic gem, I was introduced to Warren G, Nate Dogg and that almighty G-Funk. “Regulate” was the first hip-hop song I’d ever heard my mom jam consistently, so I knew it was okay. This also ignited my love for West Coast rap, being that the soundtrack was saturated in Death Row Records and their artists. That smooth beat with Warren rhyming effortlessly over it and Nate sealing the deal with those harmonies that will never be duplicated – oh, this was special to me. I’ve seen and heard several movies of this kind and the music that accompanied it – Boyz In The Hood, Menace II Society, Fresh, New Jersey Drive, South Central – but because of the soundtrack, Above The Rim is put right up there with Juice in my collection of classic “hood” movies.
Now it’s harder to find black films with soundtracks worthy of my purchase. For the most part the film industry is letting the art of the soundtrack fall to the wayside. We got a reprieve in Belly (thankfully) but it was because hip-hop MADE that movie: directed by the most heralded video director of our generation, Hype Williams, Belly put the typical drug dealer/stick-up kid plot to the music of most of Def Jam’s roster in their prime. Hearing DMX’s rough tone both in the background and throughout the film was something that you just can’t get in today’s films. He was fresh; the movie looked like one long music video, and a new hood classic was born. Who couldn’t relate to Sincere’s quest for progression not by the power of the sword but by the knowledge of the wise swordsman? Chew on that one for a second.
Soundtracks, for the independent film, were just as important as the script once upon a time. We don’t get that special treatment from production companies and studios now and it saddens me. I come from a musical generation where Toni Braxton was nobody until she was debuted on the Boomerang soundtrack and became this legendary songstress. We don’t have success stories like hers anymore – let’s not take into account the whole bankruptcy thing in this instance. In a time where hip-hop was still new and evolving, filmmakers saw fit to tell the story of the teenage son who wanted power over everything else and did what he felt he needed to get that; they dove in headfirst into stories about kids taking advantage of what they did have and had a good time doing so; directors jumped at the opportunity to combine the rappers who began telling their stories on wax with the screenplays that consisted of tales from hoods all over. Through the union of hip-hop and motion picture, a generation was able to see themselves in a light that mainstream Hollywood could never attempt to create. It was real but never cheesy; bold but not disrespectful; varied but never inaccurate.
Somewhere in there, I’d like to think that there’s a representative for the little girl who barely speaks and gets randomly mixed up in the misadventures of her brothers and cousins. She’s somewhere in these films; I wouldn’t be able to relate so much if she wasn’t.