Hip-hoppers are hot in Hollywood, but are they trading their cred for coin?

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.”