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Cover Story: Hip Hop Danger Unleashed

Rappers emerge as a Hollywood force

By TT Clinkscales · June 1st, 2005 · Cover Story
Oliver Meinerding

Back in the summer of 1989, Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing harnessed the unbridled passion of Hip Hop to bring the heat and noise of the streets to audiences. And while the righteous fury of Public Enemy exploded on the soundtrack, the dangerous nature of Hip Hop performance surely frightened studio executives.

It wasn't long, however, before this phantom menace to society would be tamed and contained in a package deemed suitable for mainstream sensibilities. Enter Mr. Fourth of July, Will Smith.

Suburban parents and their impressionable children understood the charms of Hip Hop's Pied Piper from the moment he KO'd an alien invader in Independence Day and then returned in the Men in Black films. With his position as a summer superhero firmly established, Smith has joked that his children are now less than impressed with their father's world-saving turns, which has led him to make forays into out-of-season drama (Ali) and romantic comedy (Hitch).

With Hip Hop's crowned movie prince taking a bit of a sabbatical, a number of pretenders have stepped up to grab the spotlight. But a shift has taken place on the cultural landscape.

Gangstas and thugs are peddling their wares freely, slinging their product openly across the divide. Pimps are taking over the country clubs and rubbing elbows with high society. Hip Hop danger is suddenly summer cool.

I am the most beautiful boogie man, the most beautiful boogie man/ Let me be your favorite nightmare/ Close your eyes and I'll be right there/ Wide open/ All over again.

That verse appeared earlier this year on rapper/actor Mos Def's sophomore CD, The New Danger, which might be the perfect title and soundtrack for summer 2005. On the disc, he plays cultural critic in Ralph Ellison mold.

Due to the high premium placed on Hip Hop in society, black artists -- and by extension black folks -- are no longer invisible. More importantly, white America is no longer so willfully blind. American heroes like boxer Jack Johnson and guitar legend Shuggie Otis abound, and Hip Hop fully embraces Rock and the Blues.

In addition to mixing this lethal injection, Mos Def is staking his claim as one of Smith's rightful heirs on the screen. Two years ago he displayed a sly, understated wit in The Italian Job, a remake that found a nice niche in a crowded summer season. His self-deprecating humor made him the perfect buddy in the Taye Diggs/Sanaa Lathan romantic comedy Brown Sugar. He's also proven to be adept at drama in both Monster's Ball and The Woodsman.

Mos currently plays against type as Ford Prefect in the adaptation of the Douglas Adams' classic Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. But, once again, low-key charm is his weapon of choice, allowing him to survive to fight another day.

The Rap game is full of tagging and bragging, but Mos Def sets that aside when he steps before the cameras. Oddly enough, he might end up being the most likely to step into Sidney Poitier's shoes. There's quiet dignity in his screen presence and righteousness in his flow on the mic -- just wait until the role comes along that unites these two elements.

Ice Cube would seem to be on the path to replace Smith as the mainstream Hip Hop icon. His diverse filmography includes high pedigree projects like David O. Russell's Three Kings as well as family fare like Are We There Yet? He even has multi-hyphenate credentials (co-writer of the Friday series and director of The Player's Club) and, thanks to his membership in NWA, dangerous street cred.

But taking over the XXX franchise has proven to be too difficult a task at this stage in his career. XXX: State of the Union was definitely a walk on the wild side -- too bad it's a literal journey in an action ghetto. The bombed-out Capitol Building looks more like a crack house after a raid than the hallowed ruins of the cradle of liberty Hollywood-styled, post-terrorist coup attempt. Obviously, the movie suffered from an extreme case of Hip Hop overdose.

Another Hip Hop head with crossover potential on display this summer is the outsized Ludacris. His music videos have always cast him as a high-energy mighty mouth, but after his serious turn in the Paul Haggis drama, Crash, expectations are decidedly raised for his appearance later this summer in Craig Brewer's much talked-about Hustle & Flow opposite Terrence Howard.

Hustle & Flow posits Hip Hop aspirations at the heart of its narrative, and Ludacris will surely help to keep it real. His rise as a movie performer, while not totally improbable, couldn't have been anticipated after his obligatory cameo in 2 Fast, 2 Furious.

Maybe there's hope for Xzibit, who crashed and burned along with Cube in XXX, and even Nelly and his band-aid in the Adam Sandler remake of The Longest Yard, which will increase the profile only of Sandler and possibly sidekick Chris Rock.

Summer is supposed to be about the allure of danger. While audiences flock in record numbers to watch Anakin succumb to the dark side of the Force like a petulant little twit, a new hope exists on the horizon. Maybe Hip Hop can take us there. ©



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