Take your seats, class: We’re on week 2 of EW University, with our third and final class on gangster movies in pop culture. Check out yesterday’s class, featuring; White Heat and Prizzi’s Honor, or click through our 12 Killer Gangster Movies gallery with Ken’s top picks, or skip ahead and see how you score on our final exam. Stick around all summer long for future EW University courses on Lost, Harry Potter, and more.
Gangster Movies: The Hip-Hop Connection
Def Jam Records founder Russell Simmons will tell you what the gangster film has meant to him: “Scarface was about empowerment at all costs [and so is] hip-hop.” In the 1980s, the gangster film was mostly something studied in film school, and it was commonly thought that its masterpiece era — the first two Godfather movies — had been reached, and the genre could have fallen into obscurity. Instead, it found a whole new life and a whole new audience among a certain group of hip-hop musicians who latched on to gangster movies as metaphors for tough life out on the streets. The first hardcore “gangsta” record — possibly the first to use that phrase on a hit song, at any rate — may well have been “Park Side Killers,” by the Philadelphia rapper Schoolly D in 1985. That same year, LL Cool J spoke, on the album Radio, of being “a hip-hop gangsta.”
And in California, NWA was about to make the West Coast the new main headquarters of cutting-edge gangsta rap with the 1986 release of Straight Outta Compton, tales of nightmarish violence that required being met by force, and Scarface-like stoicism, and loyalty to one’s allies in all its songs, most notoriously “F— Tha Police.”
After the jump: Why gangster movies appeal to hip-hop artists
Those hip-hop artists who chose to go the “hard” musical route, using the music as means of social commentary and, less seriously, as a celebration of conspicuous capitalism, took the Al Pacino Scarface as their touchstone. In the 20-minute mini-documentary Def Jam Presents: Origins of a Hip-hop Classic that appears on the 20th-anniversary DVD of Scarface, Sean Combs claims that he’s watched that movie “63 times” as of the day of taping that interview. Combs describes Tony Montana as “an upstanding gangsta, which is rare; he played by rules and morals.” The Geto Boys’ Bradley Jordan, took the stage-name Scarface. A more mainstream artist, Mariah Carey, used the video for her 1999 song “Heartbreaker” as a full-on Scarface salute to one particular scene, with Jay-Z in a sunken bathtub and Carey dressed as Michelle Pfeiffer’s Elvira.
The Godfather and other Italian Mafia movies appealed to many rappers for their portrayals of the Mob as “family.” For others in hip-hop, it was the code of behavior laid down in Scarface (“Don’t get high on your own supply”; “Never underestimate the greed of the other guy”) that was appealing. You picked your favorite template: gangster as lone operator, or gangster life as a substitute for your blood relations. For years, various hip-hop producers have approached the Scarface producers to let them record a new soundtrack that could be laid onto a DVD to replace Giorgio Morodor’s vintage disco soundtrack, a plan that director Brian De Palma has always strenuously resisted. The admiration and study that hip-hop artists brought to the gangster movie — not just Scarface and The Godfather, but many others, including Menace II Society and King of New York — gave the film genre a new commercial potential. From the samples of Scarface dialogue in hip-hop songs to the 1930s gangster attire (the fedoras and wide-lapel pinstripe suits) favored by some rappers in the 1990s and early part of this century, hip-hop helped bring the gangster film into a new era of prominence, in their own manner contributing to a pop culture that still has an appetite for the gangster myth and new films such as Public Enemies.
Extra credit viewing: King of New York; Menace II Society
For discussion: 1. Why do you think hip-hop artists were/are attracted to the themes in gangster movies?
2. What other gangster movies have influenced other hip-hop or pop music artists?
More on gangster films in EW University:
Gangster films: An Enduring Genre
Guys and Molls: Women in Gangster Films
Gallery: 12 gangster movies to die for
Final exam: Test your knowledge of gangster flicks