Hip Hop and film have gone together almost since the birth of the culture in the late 70s and early 80s. Rappers like Ice Cube, Ice-T, 50 Cent, Tupac, Nas, Eminem, and countless others made huge contributions on film. Hip hop has been pervasive in every genre of film and in every decade since the mid-80s, with no signs of anything changing anytime soon.
Recently we’ve seen a bunch of biopics like Straight Out Of Compton (very good) and All Eyes On Me (not so good), so we’ve curated down a list of the 9 best hip hop films over the last three and a half decades. We've taken into account how influential they were not just with the music, but within hip hop culture more generally too. We’ve left off movies like Friday, and New Jack City, because they aren’t really hip hop movies, despite starring hip hop artists.
We also left off some of the amazing documentaries, like the sort of hybrid documentary/loosely-scripted early hip hop masterpiece, Wild Style, as it’s really more of a document of a time and place more than a proper film – but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t check it out, because If you’re a hip hop fan that hasn’t seen it, your life is not complete. So without any more fanfare, let’s get down to it.
Straight Out Of Compton (2015)
You could argue that the success of Straight Out Of Compton ushered in the latest string of rock and pop music bio pics like Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman when it turned into a big hit in 2015. The film, of course, lays out the early days of N.W.A., one of the most important and influential hip hop groups of all time.
Two members of N.W.A., Dr. Dre and Ice Cube are enormous stars on their own and both served as producers and supervisors on the film. It even stars Cube’s son, O’Shea Jackson II, as Ice Cube himself. Like most biographies, even when the subject of the film is involved – or maybe especially because they are – there are some questions about just how accurate and committed to the truth the final product is. There are also some very controversial things that the film avoids, like Dr. Dre’s history of alleged violence against women. Nevertheless, it was a huge hit and audiences loved it.
8 Mile (2002)
It’s hard to say that the character B-Rabbit in 8 Mile is based exactly on the actor that plays him, rapper Eminem. Even if he's not, the character certainly isn’t too far from what it must have been like for Eminem growing up in Detroit and breaking into the hip hop world as a white dude at a time when there had only been a handful of serious white hip hop artists.
It’s a powerful movie that holds up surprisingly well almost 17 years later. It follows the story of B-Rabbit as he struggles to make ends meet in the down on its luck suburb of Detroit, Warren, MI, and finally manages to make it out when he wins an epic rap battle against a local rap group, The Leaders. Eminem’s lead role only served to increase his star power and he went on to win an Academy Award for best song for “Lose Yourself.”
Okay, so Breakin’ isn’t EXACTLY about hip hop music, but its impact on the spread and mainstreaming of hip hop culture was so profound, it warrants making this list. And that’s kinda the only reason it’s on the list, because, frankly, the plot is silly and the acting is average at best. Breakin’ is the story of a “serious” dancer that becomes obsessed with breakdancing, leaves her training for the streets, and eventually leads herself and her two friends in a routine that wins a dance competition. But none of that is important.
To understand how important it was, you have to put yourself back in 1984. Run-DMC’s first album had just been released a couple months before Breakin’ came out. Hip Hop still wasn’t anywhere near the mainstream, but Breakin’ turned into a surprise hit, especially with middle school white kids in the suburbs. For many in Generation X, it was their first exposure to the genre and it had a huge impact on them. Breakin’ is a major reason hip hop exploded out of the cities and into mainstream culture.
Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ (2005)
Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ is more or less the same movie as 8 Mile but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. Like 8 Mile, Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ is loosely based on a rapper’s life, instead of Eminem, it’s 50 Cent’s life and like 8 Mile, it stars Fiddy more or less as a fictionalized version of himself. The story is also remarkably similar to another hip hop bio pic, Nortorious from 2009, about the late, great Biggie Smalls.
Instead of toiling away at a car factor though, Fiddy’s character, Marcus, gets caught up in the drug trade in his neighborhood before finally escaping that life for one in hip hop. It’s a fantastic movie, chock full of great acting performances from the likes of Viola Davis, Adewle Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Terrence Howard and more.
In 1993, a young Chris Rock wrote what would become hip hop’s answer to This Is Spinal Tap. CB4 is a comedic masterpiece, despite what any critic might say about it. Sure, it pulled some punches and didn’t hit as hard as it could have at times and maybe hit too close to home for some hip hop stars liking, but there is no doubt that with this satirical take on the whole genre, hip hop was a part of mainstream pop culture and would be forever.
CB4, like it’s rock n roll cousin This Is Spinal Tap, is shot mockumentary-style and follows the up and coming rappers Albert, Euripides, and Otis as they seize on the gangsta drug culture that plagues their neighborhood, stealing the identity of a local hustler and criminal and “inventing” gangsta rap, right down to Eazy-E’s iconic style. It helped launched Chris Rock’s career and stars a great cast that includes a ton of cameos from big hip hop stars like Ice-T, Ice Cube, Eazy-E, and Flavor Flav.
There are a ton more movies that are worth any hip hop and movie fan's time. Movies like Hustle And Flow, Juice, Belly and all the early Spike Lee joints, especially Do The Right Thing, which, like Breakin’, was a huge influencer in the early days of hip hop culture that didn't make it on to this list and easily could have been included. So, what do you think, what is the best hip hop movie out there?