Hip-hop at the Movies

Rappers produce reel profits on the silver screen

Fade in: the exterior of a movie theater at a suburban mall. Scores of young black and white moviegoers stand in a block-long line, anxiously waiting to see the latest action-adventure flick. The movie is Exit Wounds, a cops-and-drug-dealers shoot ‘em up. Not surprisingly, the film features martial artist Steven Seagal. But this time the audience is not buying tickets to see the action icon. They’ve come for the star who shares top billing: DMX, the craggy-voiced, chart-busting rapper who possesses much attitude–and fans to boot.

When the film was released last year, DMX had produced more action off screen. Exit Wounds, budgeted at $25 million, grossed $52 million in domestic box office receipts and another $34.2 million in video rentals. As a result, DMX, a platinum-selling hip-hop artist, emerged as a bona fide action hero, which is clear by his recent movie offers and $4 million asking price.

DMX represents the latest wave of hip-hop artists who have taken Hollywood by storm. This summer, and in months to come, expect a repeat of Exit Wounds’ success as long lines of young fans wait to see the next film spotlighting rappers who moonlight as actors. Hip-hop artists such as Ja Rule, Naughty By Nature’s Treach, Busta Rhymes, Queen Latifah, Lil’ Bow Wow, and LL Cool J will be coming to a theater near you in everything from thrillers to romantic comedies. Why are these performers getting so much screen time? They sell tickets–loads of them.

As part of BLACK ENTERPRISE’S series on the Hip-Hop Economy, this second installment explores the culture’s expanding influence on the $8.4 billion movie industry. In a business where studio execs covet a sure thing, hip-hop artists bring hordes of young black, white, and Latino moviegoers to urban and suburban theaters. In fact, hip-hop artists have appeared in some of the highest grossing and most profitable films in Hollywood (see chart). “Studios are finding out that rappers have a persona and a built-in following,” says Ben Ramsey, a movie director who uses hip-hop artists in his films.

Moreover, rappers usually appear on a film’s sound track, enabling producers to use hip-hop music to market the movie as well as generate hefty ancillary revenues through CD sales (see chart). Asserts filmmaker Michael McCants about the tie-in between marketing and casting: “[Studios] get to knock off two birds with one stone.”

Lights! Camera! Rappers!
Hip-hop’s influence on film can be traced as far back as 1982 when the rap classic Wild Style, starring Fab Five Freddy and the Rock Steady Crew, was released. But movies didn’t become a commercial vehicle for hip-hop artists until 1985 with the release of Krush Groove. Loosely based on the genesis of rap mogul Russell Simmons’ Def Jam Records, the movie was designed, in part, to promote then-fledgling acts LL Cool J and Run-DMC. The movie’s smash success was quickly followed by such fare as Beat Street, which featured Doug E. Fresh and DJ Kool Herc, and Disorderlies, which starred the Fat Boys in a hip-hop equivalent of

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