Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Hip-Hop's Cinematic Heritage

      Hip-hop has celluloid in its blood, from the countless song lyrics that reference movies and iconic film characters to the widespread sampling and interpolation of movie dialogue, film scores and soundtracks. It stretches from rap-video homages (Busta Rhymes' nods to Coming to America in his video for "Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See" and to The Last Dragon in his "Dangerous" clip are two high-water marks) to the baby-daddy status of movie gangsters in relation to hip-hop gangstas. Then there's hip-hop's impact on the movies, which includes both the influence of its "urban aesthetics" on film style and the number of rappers who have ridden the beat to crossover dreams and forged acting careers. (The Negro caucus of SAG might still be a little salty about the latter.)

      Cinefamily's monthlong hip-hop film retrospective "Word Is Born: Hip-Hop at the Movies, 1979-1984" places certified b-boy classics (Wild Style, Beat Street, Style Wars, Breakin') alongside cool and illuminating rarities that are the true jewels in the series. As an added bonus, there will be postscreening DJ sets from the likes of West Coast cult legend Arabian Prince and L.A.'s own international b-boy (and co-owner of Stones Throw Records), Peanut Butter Wolf.

      If there is one "don't miss" title in this smart, ambitious survey (curated by programmer Gabriele Caroti), it's the 1984 documentary Beat This! A Hip-Hop History(screening on September 25). Made by director Dick Fontaine for the BBC with the intention of introducing hip-hop culture to British audiences, the film is narrated in rhyme, has thick sci-fi overtones in the camp-but-cool appearances of the legendary Afrika Bambaataa, is filled with insightful cameos from a who's who of hip-hop (Kool Herc, Sha Rock, Arthur Baker), comes loaded with film clips and news footage that would cost a small fortune in clearance fees today and, while wildly entertaining, doesn't fail to make salient political points. "Hip-hop doesn't belong to New York, L.A. or London. It comes from devastation," Herc remarks as he drives through an early '80s Bronx that looks like a bombed-out war zone. Another highlight — or lowlight, depending on your point of view — is an interview with British cultural impresario/opportunist Malcolm McLaren, whom Fontaine was reportedly forced to include in the documentary against his wishes. He makes his feelings on the matter crystal clear by introducing McLaren to the viewer right after the film's narrator observes that hip-hop's popularity quickly made it a prime target for "culture vultures." McLaren then opens his mouth and immediately lives down to the scornful tag.

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