Chris Rock recalls dutifully heading to the theaters in the mid-'80s each time a new movie falling under the burgeoning sub-genre of "rap film" would open. Each time, his teen-aged expectations were dashed by yet another formulaic bomb. "Beat Street"? Thud . "Krush Groove"? Crash . "Rappin' " and "Breakin' " (not to forget "Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo")? Kerplop . Even the action movie starring his heroes, Run-D.M.C., "Tougher Than Leather," was tough not to loathe.
"Most of those movies were made by individuals who thought rap was a fad," says Rock, now 26. "There wasn't a lot of development time there, to say the least. It was 'Let's get this movie done real quick before rap's over.' "
Rap music survived being co-opted by the Hollywood studio system, advertising execs and the other usual trend-killers. Hokey, "Fame"-influenced breakdancing extravaganzas featuring the Fat Boys faded from view, even as bona fide hip-hop became the stamp of authenticity on youth-picture soundtracks and the rappers themselves started taking dramatic movie roles. And now, for the first time since that forgettable spate of eight and nine years ago, the movies are ready to take on rap as a subject again.
At a time when even suburban Midwestern white kids think they know what Compton street life is like, don't expect any of the strained innocence of the early rap films, which at worst had the star-seeking naivete of a Garland 'n' Rooney musical--\o7 My uncle's got a turntable, let's put on a show\f7 --or the rock-exploitation pictures of the '50s, and at best came off like glossy anthropological projects. The new rap pictures, all marked by knowing cynicism, casual profanity and insiders' satire, assume you already get it. Pity the poor trailer-sufferer who doesn't.
Coming out of the gate this weekend: "CB4," a comedy starring Rock, the stand-up comic turned "Saturday Night Live" cast member, and co-written and co-produced by Rock with respected black-music journalist and filmmaker Nelson George. Its satire is obviously intended as the hip-hop equivalent of "This Is Spinal Tap," but with a slightly more affectionate, tributary tone that's obvious from the opening credit sequence montage of historic rap memorabilia.
"CB4" is a major studio release. ("We had our battles, but this was probably the easiest black movie to ever get sold," Rock says.) Most of the other upcoming rap-related pictures have circumvented studio haggling over mass-palatable aspects and gone the independent route. Two such indies expected to come out this summer recently premiered at the Sundance Film Festival to good response: "Fear of a Black Hat," like "CB4," is a raw, topical rap parody, and "Fly by Night," a more seriously intentioned picture, which won the festival's Filmmakers Trophy for best dramatic film.
George, who writes pop pieces for the Village Voice and Playboy and is between movie projects, says "CB4" "was made from the mentality of people who love the music. Chris' early references as a performer are Run DMC. The first two pieces I ever sold to the Voice, one was about DJ Starsky,H and the other was about Grandmaster Flash. So for both of us it's an integral part of our lives. We've tried to make a movie that's not just about rap but is \o7 like\f7 rap--kind of wild, dangerous and in-your-face, and funny too."
But it's still not to be assumed that every "suit" in one of the industry's black towers or bungalows is down with O.P.P. or subscribes to The Source now. The making of "CB4" entailed its share of debate over how specific--i.e., specifically African-American--its humor should be, though the filmmakers claim they came out on the winning end on most of the disagreements.
"I think Hollywood is waiting to see whether this increasingly popular and decidedly rebellious culture is going to kind of wash over them," says "CB4" executive producer Sean Daniels, who served as Universal's president of production for five years before going independent. "But I think you ignore this at your own peril.
"With certain movies of the past few years there has been an attempt to tap into the culture," he said. 'Boyz N the Hood' and 'New Jack City' and 'Juice' were all financed with an eye toward the popularity and strength of rap culture, and 'House Party' was very important in the accounting of this genre."
And street credibility is essential, Daniel believes. "You've gotta approach this with an understanding that if the movie appears invalid or manufactured, you are dead. Rap fans have a strict code about that."