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Dope, Fresh Dressed and Straight Outta Compton: Why cinema is obsessed with '90s hip hop this summer

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Jaimie Trueblood

“Back in the day” is back with a vengeance. Hip-hop’s golden age—the period spanning the late ’80s to the mid-’90s, encompassing such rap acts as A Tribe Called Quest, Snoop Dogg, and the Beastie Boys—is having a cultural moment thanks to a suite of new films.

The boisterous biopic Straight Outta Compton (Aug. 14) tracks the rise of gangsta-rap rabble-rousers N.W.A through 1992’s Los Angeles riots. The documentary Fresh Dressed (June 26) traces hip-hop’s style evolution from cotton plantations through the boom-box ubiquity of Run-DMC’s “My Adidas” to high-fashion runways. And this week’s ‘hood-centric coming-of-age dramedy Dope (June 19) follows a threesome of high school “geeks” who obsess over Yo! MTV Raps-era cultural touchstones, including flat-top fades, 2 Live Crew records, and vintage Air Jordans, as a means of repudiating the gang violence and thug culture endemic to their hometown of Inglewood, Calif.

“For characters trying to define themselves against their environment, it’s the perfect way to show how different they are—to say, ‘We’re going to embrace this era instead of our own,'” says Dope writer-director Rick Famuyiwa. “These kids look to the ’90s for some sense of authenticity they were seeking out.”

All the films draw energy from a time before bling was a thing and when hip-hop was flourishing but had yet to conquer—and be co-opted by—the mainstream. According to Fresh Dressed director Sacha Jenkins, that integrity may explain the era’s continuing relevance. “Looking back on the ’90s, I don’t want to say hip-hop peaked, but it was an extremely strong period musically,” he says. “Because it still rings so true, a new generation is connecting with it and making it part of their lives.”

Straight Outta Compton director F. Gary Gray is quick to point out that the sonic template created by N.W.A during the time carried on through the music of Tupac Shakur and Eminem, and is even evident in the work of such of-the-moment stars as Kendrick Lamar. Moreover, the stark originality N.W.A conjured in the golden age continues to reverberate through the culture via entrepreneurial efforts by founding members Ice Cube, a successful multihyphenate rapper-actor-producer, and multiplatinum-selling producer Dr. Dre, whose Beats Electronics and Beats Music sold to Apple for $3 billion last year.

“Dre has been moving the crowd since the ’80s; he’s doing it on a much larger scale with Beats,” Gray says. “Cube is a mogul in Hollywood. These guys started in a garage and built empires. You can make connections from those origins to the pop culture of this day.”

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