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Hip-hoppers are trading their cred for coin

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Ice Cube, Sean P. Diddy Combs, ...
Monsters Ball: Jeanne Louise Bulliard; All About the Benjamins: Tracy Bennett

Decked out in a fitted Ozwald Boateng tux and shimmering gold tie, Will Smith makes his way down the red carpet at the Academy Awards, with Jada Pinkett in tow. Alternately receiving kudos for his nominated turn in ”Ali” and fielding fawning questions from reporters, the Fresh Prince-cum-Man in Black is the $20 million picture of Hollywood success. ”I’ve never thought about it, but I’m the first rapper to be nominated for an Oscar,” Smith announced to reporters a few weeks earlier. ”I’ve made history already!”

Hip-hoppers in Tinseltown have come a long way since Mario Van Peebles discovered Ice-T — yelling and making a scene in an L.A. nightclub — and cast him in the 1991 sleeper ”New Jack City.” Since then, human beatboxes from Nas to Method Man have made the cinematic jump. But it’s the new generation — both commercially viable (Ja Rule, who costarred with Paul Walker and Vin Diesel in the $144 million-grossing ”The Fast and the Furious”) and critically acclaimed (not only Smith, but also Sean ”P. Diddy” Combs and Mos Def in ”Monster’s Ball”) — that’s causing Hollywood to sidle up to rappers faster than a groupie to Jay-Z.

Nor is the trend going the way of Kid ‘N Play. Ice Cube’s comedy ”All About the Benjamins” has rustled up almost $23 million since its March 8 opening, while Eminem’s highly anticipated film debut, ”8 Mile” (costarring Kim Basinger and Brittany Murphy), bows this fall.

”Rappers are natural actors,” says helmer Rob Cohen, who directed Ja Rule in ”The Fast and the Furious” and Eve in Diesel’s upcoming action thriller ”XXX.” ”Between their videos and their own onstage theatricality, it’s very easy to direct them once you explain the language of film.”

For some hip-hoppers, their reasons for attempting the jump to movies is just good business; rappers can earn from $500,000 to $5 million for their first acting gigs, one prolific producer estimates. ”You gotta get it while the getting is good,” says Faith Evans, who appeared opposite Ja Rule and Pras in 2000’s ”Turn It Up.” ”Most of us don’t come from wealthy families. We’ve all had to struggle. We’re like, ‘Hey, I’m gonna try to do everything I can because I know what it’s like not to have anything.”’

Savvy filmmakers are also looking to cash in. Hip-hop stars have a built-in base of young fans — and as rap has gone more mainstream, the fan base has grown. It certainly worked for the 2001 thriller ”Exit Wounds,” which starred Steven Seagal and DMX and grossed an unexpected $51 million. (”Fire Down Below,” Seagal’s solo 1997 effort, made $16 million.) ”[Rappers] are a personification of the youth culture,” says ”8 Mile” producer Brian Grazer, who cast then-rapper Mark Wahlberg in 1996’s ”Fear.” ”If they’re cast right, you’re gonna be able to reach the kids pretty quickly — you go right into the bloodline.”

As a result of this demand, turning rappers into actors has become something of a cottage industry. ”I’ll actually accompany them to an audition just to make sure everything’s sweet,” says L.A. acting coach Aaron Speiser, who counts LL Cool J, Combs, Ja Rule, and Nas among his clients. ”They’ll say, ‘Here are words I don’t always use. How do I make this natural?”’ He teaches a style of acting Method Man should approve of: ”My job is to get them to the point where they’re not dealing with their lines in their mind anymore. They’re out of their minds, so to speak,” says Speiser. ”These are very sensitive people. They’re artists. There’s pain in their work. It’s very rare that you see tough rappers cry, but you’ll see them crying, weeping.”

Rappers also get some training in how to conduct themselves when the cameras aren’t rolling: ”The film industry is a different culture, and the director is the king,” says Speiser. ”[Rappers] are used to being the king in their own world.” ”Timing is probably the most critical issue,” adds Holly Davis-Carter, head of the eight-year-old Music Crossover division at L.A.’s Agency West Entertainment, who has helped Usher, Master P, and Lil’ Romeo go Hollywood. ”If something was set at 10, [musicians have] a tendency to get there at 11:30. And they need to learn the auditioning process — what it’s like in a room full of casting executives.”

It helps that many rappers are willing students. ”[Combs] is not a trained actor, and he knows that,” says ”Monster’s Ball” director Marc Forster. ”He’s very eager to learn…. He watched Halle [Berry], he watched Heath [Ledger], and every time I gave him direction he was just really listening and adjusting himself.”

Combs’ sensitive performance in the gritty ”Ball” was clearly a breakthrough for the rapper-actor set. But indie faves aside, Hollywood isn’t known for keeping it real. Roc-a-Fella Records CEO Damon Dash, who produced last January’s ”State Property,” starring Beanie Sigel and Jay-Z as gangsters, says hip-hop artists should be cautious as they attempt the transition to the screen: ”A lot of times you’re chasing Iowa, but you’ve gotta have Harlem,” he says. ”If you’re an urban person and you’re letting someone non-urban tell you how to act, then you end up looking stupid. It’s not real, and it’s not right.”

Of course, those at the top of the rapper-actor heap say such a debate about authenticity is academic. For anybody in Hollywood, it starts with the Benjamins. ”We gotta make money at the box office,” says Oscar-nominee Smith, when asked about the rise of black movie stars. ”That is the way to tear a hole in Hollywood. As Hollywood sees that you can make money at the box office, there will be residual effects of other acknowledgments. But first and foremost, you gotta put bucks in there.”

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