Hip-hop at the Movies

Rappers produce reel profits on the silver screen

The Three Stooges. Those films, however, were mostly targeted to African American audiences. And at that point, hip-hop’s impact on mainstream films had been limited to rap music featured on motion picture sound tracks.

Then in 1990 House Party, which starred the high-spirited and lively Kid ‘n Play, demonstrated the mass appeal and cinematic reach of the hip-hop community. Released by New Line Cinema, the teen film grossed more than $26 million on a $2.5 million budget. Not bad considering director Reginald Hudlin had to persuade rap-shy executives to cast the hip-hop duo.

Movies such as House Party and a string of films set in the hood, including Juice, New Jack City, and Boyz N the Hood, turned into a profitable market. House Party 2 and 3 made more than $19 million each. The series still lives on in the direct-to-video market with House Party 4, in which the now-geriatric Kid ‘n Play have been replaced by the youthful r&b act IMX.

Over the last decade, studio executives have not only become more comfortable with casting rappers, they’ve become downright insistent. Hip-hop artists give films a built-in audience, as did former football stars Fred Williamson and Jim Brown for ’70s “blaxploitation” films, and comedians Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, and Whoopi Goldberg for comedies during the late ’70s and early ’80s. Rappers, however, bring the Hip-Hop economy–a worldwide multicultural youth segment. And it is the audience that movie studios live and die by.

For filmmakers, the added bonus of using hip-hop acts is that, as a result of creating personas through music videos, a number of rappers have developed substantial acting chops. “In the case of Kid ‘n Play, they had what I think rap tends to have an abundance of–natural actors,” says Hudlin. “Rapping [requires] a lot of the same talents that you look for in a good actor.”

Today hip-hop is having such an impact on the movie industry that inclusion of a rap artist may mean the difference between a studio executive green lighting a film or shelving a project. This summer, for example, Screen Gems is releasing the crime drama Love and a Bullet as a vehicle for Treach, who co-starred in the 1994 film Jason’s Lyric. “Having Treach absolutely helped to get Screen Gems to pick up the movie,” says Ramsey, co-director of the independent project.

Some hip-hop performers are such hot commodities, they’ve become mainstream stars in their own right. Take Will Smith, the artist formerly known as The Fresh Prince. Since starring in the 1996 sci-fi blockbuster Independence Day, his films have grossed close to $1 billion. Smith’s success has put him among black acting’s elite alongside the likes of Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Samuel L. Jackson, and Halle Berry. His star power has also made him a member of the $20 million club–a cadre of actors like Mel Gibson, Harrison Ford, and Julia Roberts who receive that sum per film. To top it off, Smith recently received an Academy Award nomination for his

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