portrayal of former heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali–a feat never before achieved by a hip-hop artist. In addition, Smith creates marketing fodder for his film by producing songs tied to his movies. To promote Men In Black II, he is producing a new single, Black Suits Comin’ (Nod Ya Head). He took a similar approach when the first Men In Black movie and Wild Wild West were released, producing singles for both movie sound tracks.
Since Smith is a megastar, he can command top dollar in salary and budget on any project he wants. Other hip-hop artists may not have the same level of clout but have demonstrated the ability to flex their muscle in Hollywood. Rap veteran LL Cool J has developed an impressive celluloid track record over the last decade. In addition to a television series, In the House, he has appeared in some 19 films ranging from targeted fare such as In Too Deep and Kingdom Come to mainstream films like Any Given Sunday and Deep Blue Sea. Now, LL has entered into an exclusive group of performers who instill confidence in filmmakers and studio execs alike. Maintains Gary Hardwick, who directed LL in episodes of In the House and the new the romantic comedy Deliver Us From Eva: “When I brought the film to New Line, I already had [actress] Gabrielle Union, but they didn’t agree to take on the project until I got LL Cool J.”
What makes actors such as Smith, LL, and Queen Latifah so accessible isn’t just their music, but the fact that millions of viewers got to know them when they were beamed into homes week after week on sitcoms. “In the beginning, LL Cool J was a rapper who started acting,” says Hardwick. “Now, he’s an actor who used to rap.” The same is true for hip-hop’s royal highness Queen Latifah, who co-starred on the hit TV series Living Single and in the 1996 film Set it Off. Latifah, t
he lone female of this trend, later went on to host her own talk show but may have found her niche in films. She’s co-starring in In the Houze, a comedy with Steve Martin slated for release next year.
Asserts Toby Emmerich, president of production of New Line Cinema, which has probably released more movies featuring rap artists or focused on the hip-hop culture more than any major studio: “Hip-hop is more mainstream than ever before, and we are seeing studios spending more on these types of films.”
COOL RAPPER, HOT PROPERTY
New Line has developed an extremely profitable relationship with Ice Cube, the edgy Priority Records hip-hop artist who developed a solid reputation as a topflight screenwriter and actor. New Line signed a multi-picture deal with the former NWA front man. The first film, Friday, was a huge commercial success. Budgeted at a miniscule $3.5 million, Friday grossed an impressive $27 million when it was released in 1995. The sequel, Next Friday, budgeted at $9.5 million, produced even greater ticket sales, taking in $57 million