No Trivia

Archive for the ‘films’ Category

Beyond ‘The Wackness’: Hip-Hop & Whiteness At the Movies

leave a comment

Armond White’s review of Adam Yauch’s ‘Gunnin’ for that #1 Spot’ and Jonathan Levine’s ‘The Wackness’ focuses on each film’s rap fueled soundtrack and how it connects to each film’s “human dimension[s]” and “artful expression”. What’s interesting is how neither movie uses rap music as a “hood” signifier (characters enter the city=play rap) or a big dumb joke (see the work of Judd Apatow, or ‘Bringing Down the House’ and all that falls between), but for emotional and visceral pull. Especially interesting is ‘The Wackness’, which scores the white main character’s life to the sounds of classic, 1994 hip-hop without irony.

Rap music is hard to pull-off in a movie because it’s very distracting music that demands attention; it rarely blends into the background. Additionally, most of the viewing public’s stuck in incredibly out-dated (or never made sense) concepts of what rap music is, what it means, and how it can be used. So, when a rap song comes-in at a point that’s emotionally powerful well, it just doesn’t resonate, it’s just distracting. The music’s ability to work or resonate in films is further complicated by the sheer lack of black films that even get made each year. Still stuck in a conventional sense of who does and doesn’t look absurd listening to rap, it’s hard for films made by whites about whites to engage hip-hop in a way that doesn’t come-off as one big joke or incredibly cloying. Given the obsession with irony and juxtaposition in everything from Hollywood to high-minded indies, even when a movie does use rap seriously, it’s still often taken as a joke.
2003’s ‘Malibu’s Most Wanted’ didn’t exactly light-up the box office but it’s the kind of movie that everyone around my age has seen, pretended to dislike, and then ended up laughing their asses off for it’s blissfully short running time. Bakari Kitwana’s book ‘Why White Kids Love Hip-Hop’ devotes ten whole pages to the Jamie Kennedy vehicle/debacle and sets it up as yes, a smarter, more complex film than other more “serious” rap and race-baiting movies like James Toback’s ‘Black & White’ and Warren Beatty’s ‘Bulworth’. The movie’s a big, willfully retarded comedy that’s also really smart and complicated. For those wanting to laugh at white kids “acting black” it’s there, but anyone watching–or listening to the fairly eclectic soundtrack– will get much more out of the movie.

The casting of Ryan O’Neal as the father of Jamie Kennedy’s Brad character (or B-Rad, his rap name) is Kubrickian in the sense of playing-off past roles. Recontextualizing the sad-bastard WASP of ‘Love Story’ as a schlockmeister politician with a son he’s embarrassed by, is smart and you know, probably exactly what would’ve happened if Ali McGraw hadn’t kicked the bucket (spoiler alert!), and the two got married and lived “happily” ever after. Other clever casting is B-Rad’s mother played by Bo Derek and the use of Blair Underwood–best known to hip-hop fans as Russell in ‘Krush Groove’–as O’Neal’s square, hip-hop-phobic political advisor. Although hardly groundbreaking, this type of casting with movie history in mind undeniably proves intentionality in ‘Malibu’s Most Wanted’.

‘Malibu’ is basically a movie about hip-hop’s complexity and universal appeal masquerading as one big “wigger” joke. B-Rad’s rap “origin” is not shown to be a trend-hopping interest in hip-hop but something that’s been a part of his life almost since he was born. He’s shown as a child reaching for his maid’s headphones, putting them on, and being engulfed by the sounds of RUN DMC. His affected hip-hop mannerisms and attempts to remake ‘Boyz N the Hood’ in his honky suburbs are as much the result of the corporate misrepresentation of hip-hop and forced lowered expectations as they are B-Rad’s whiteboy idiocy. The movie destroys the under-the-breath chuckles of people over forty about white kids “acting black”. Underwood hires two black actors to play the roles of “thugs” that scare B-Rad out of his rap-love and into the real world, but their forays into actual gang life take them out of their comfort zone as well. B-Rad ends up being significantly more “hip-hop” than many of the black characters in the movie.

At the same time, the movie wisely avoids that weird sense of “I’m white and I’m persecuted for my love of rap” tone that a lot of white rappers and well, just white people stumble into. By making B-Rad incredibly rich, the “class not race” or “we’re all in the struggle” arguments that hold weight but get simplified by too many people are also avoided and the only thing left is sincere interest or disinterest, not separated from racial and social politics, but a degree removed.
Austin, Texas based writer/director Mike Judge sets his corporate satire ‘Office Space’ to an all hip-hip soundtrack, most famously, the Geto Boys’ ‘Still’ during a now-classic printer destruction scene. ‘No Tears’ by Scarface shows-up as does ‘Damn It Feels Good To Be a Gangsta’, which scores Peter and friends’ computer virus-based money skim. Judge clearly knows the Geto Boys and their politics and rises above simple-minded concepts of race or movie-music convention when choosing to score his movie with rap and set key scenes to arguably the biggest and most important rap group from the state he calls home.

This could easily have devolved into some unfortunate appropriation or good-intentioned but downright wrong way of relating to rap, but Judge finds a good mix of sincere use and ironic juxtaposition. Like ‘Malibu’, ‘Office Space’ couches some complicated comments on rap and culture through comedy but sells the comedy and the politics way better. Indeed, it’s funny to see a bunch of office nerds driving around to rap, but it’s a reality of the world–office nerds do listen to rap– and by the movie’s end, Judge taps into early 90s gangsta rap’s subversive and at times, almost anarchist politics and connects it to everybody’s overwhelming feeling of powerlessness and anger and general sense of being forever fucked over.
‘Boiler Room’ is another movie that sends hip-hop the the world of corporate culture and comes out looking pretty good. The movie begins with a narration from Giovanni Ribisi’s Seth, quoting Biggie (“Either you’re slingin crack rock or you got a wicked jump shot.”) and reading Biggie’s cry of frustration as an application to his own life (Seth hard-sells stock on the phone, opens a gambling ring in his apartment, etc.). That sense of “get money by any means” put in the hands of a well-to-do Jewish kid. Oh yeah, and the soundtrack’s maybe the best hip-hop soundtrack out-there. If I remember correctly, all the hip-hop in the music plays more like “score” than “source” music making it more like Biggie’s ‘hood platitudes continually echoing in the background.

Ultimately, Seth realizes that the company he’s working for is doing some fucked-up shit and goes along with the FBI to bring them down. Seth grows up and realizes the difference between himself and Biggie and when, where, and how this “get money by any means” concept should be applied. ‘Boiler Room’ ends-up as something of a comment on “Stop Snitching” before “Stop Snitching” was turned into everything from not ratting on your friends if you all commit a crime to you know, not telling the police you saw the dude who mugged that grandma. In a corporate world that grows even more problematic and a generation of corporate fucks raised on Young Jeezy and not Biggie, the “Stop Snitching” concept’s applied to everything including whistle-blowing. It’s fundamentally a movie about misinterpretation. Seth misreads Biggie at first (but figures it out by the end) and his fuckface co-workers quote anti-greed movies like ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’ and ‘Wall Street’ like their message is to be taken literally.Rap and crime movies are inextricably tied. Most rappers weave cinematic or pseudo-cinematic tales of crime, albums are littered with samples and references to ‘Scarface’ or Scorsese movies, and there’s the oft-quoted comparison between realistic crime movies and hip-hop, made in defense of reality rap. Still, most directors for reasons outlined at the beginning of this post, won’t score their movies to rap. Instead, they continue to swipe the Kenneth-Anger by way of Scorsese sense of old rock and pop.

Abel Ferrara is one of the few exceptions. His film ‘King of New York’ is the source of Biggie’s claim to be “the black Frank White”–Frank White is Christopher Walken’s character in the film–and Lawrence Fishburne plays Walken’s right-hand man, Jimmy Jump, highly-influenced by rapper Schooly D. Some Schooly songs show up on the soundtrack, but Walken’s character is a sort of philanthropist drug-dealer who employs only black guys for his crew and so, a party scene set to ‘Am I Black Enough?’ is “explained”. Working with Schooly D and tossing hip-hop into his movie did seem to rub-off on Ferrara and give him the confidence to use rap in his movies in slightly less conventional ways.His next film ‘The Bad Lieutenant’, originally used Schooly’s ‘Signifying Rapper’ throughout–a lawsuit by Jimmy Page forced the song out of DVD versions, so pick up a VHS–to emotional effect and something of a comment on how rap is seen in movies. Each time we hear ‘Signifying Rapper’, it’s context changes. It first plays early in the movie as the Lieutenant hops out of his car and walks into a sketchy apartment. We hear that Led Zeppelin riff and it sounds like some post-Scorsese use of rock music to show how bad-ass these white guys can be but then, Schooly starts rapping and the scene plays like something out of every early 90s movie that uses rap for short-hand that we’re in the “ghetto”. The Lt. chases a black kid into the apartment building and doesn’t yell at him, he buys and smokes crack with him instead. It’s the merging of “ghetto” signifier and hard-ass Scorses-style scoring in one song and scene.

The next time the song is heard, it plays over the film’s inciting incident: the rape of a Nun. Again, we’re back to “rap music plays over something bad” logic but the scene’s immediacy and violence do match the song quite well. From there, the riff and Schooly’s voice echo in the background of a few other scenes, slowly turning the song into the Lt.’s theme song. It plays one last time over the end credits, after the Lt’s been shot in his car. The return of of ‘Signifying Rapper’ temporarily resurrects the Lieutenant or seems to pay final homage to him. The song’s forward lurch, along with Schooly’s swagger just feels like it would be the theme of a coked-out, fuck-crazy, crooked-cop Harvey Keitel.Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Departed’ is more of the same from the director and the soundtrack is the now-predictable mix of 60s and 70s rock, except for a scene set to ‘Thief’s Theme’ by Nas. The song plays during a scene in which Leonardo DiCaprio’s Costigan drives around with his drug-dealing cousin. It’s simple source music, the kind of thing a dopey drug dealer from Boston would be listening to, but it conceptually fits within the movie, and could be read as Scorsese re-paying homage to the many rappers in love with his films.

‘Thief’s Theme’ makes sense as something that DiCaprio’s character would be listening to and becomes an interesting comment on the background of his character. Early on, we learn that the father’s side of Costigan’s family were all mob-affiliated, while his mother’s side was a bit more upper-class. He’s both in and out of the world of crime, in it enough to have experience but out of it enough that he has a distance. He is like a rapper in this sense, connected to the world of crime but with something of an outsider’s perspective on it because like a rapper, they have chosen to analyze “the life” in addition to live in it. Costigan is not quite a criminal and not quite a cop, navigating somewhere in the middle, pulling from both experiences and observing them all. Think of Nas or Mobb Depp, rappers whose “street cred” has been questioned but who are arguably better able to articulate the life of crime than those who directly live it: next to the hood. This is also true of Costigan, who is a better cop and more of a hard-ass than Sullivan (Matt Damon) because of his connection and distance from “the life”. I also chuckled at the scene where Nicholson breaks Costigan’s cast open to look for a wire, using the ultimate signifier of 90s New-York rap: a Timberland workboot!

While the focus on rap-centric movies and movie soundtracks is interesting, often the best uses of rap fall into a single scene or event. Julian Goldberger’s low-budget ‘Trans’ is the story of a trouble white kid named Ryan who escapes from a juvenile detention center and wanders around the Everglades. In one scene, after being beat-up by some beer-drinking rednecks, he comes-to as the voices of some black peers (presumably friends from high-school) yell his name and try to awake him.

He hangs out with them, sits in on a freestyling session by the guys, dances around, and then goes on his way. It’s one of the few scenes where someone’s nice to Ryan and it’s hardly a coincidence that it’s from a bunch of hip-hop kids. The scene represents the inclusive nature of hip-hop culture and in certain ways, black culture, which as a whole, is a great deal more inviting and familial to all than the white, middle-class culture from which Ryan comes. He is immediately brought along with them, they recognize his dire situation, and it’s even suggested that this isn’t the first time Ryan’s been found like this.

The kids are generally kind, offering Ryan help, but they also mock him, in part because of the hilarious situation of getting his ass beat and also, because well, I bet he’s the goofy white boy they know that’s always getting in trouble. Their looking for girls and their freestyles (or attempts) about weed and pussy are realistic and used to complicate their character. For a rap outsider, the contradictory nature of being so kind and rapping about weed and girls would be hard to resolve but Goldberg wisely moves beyond racial or cultural presentation and just lets all of the character be themselves. The failed attempts at freestyling are particularly good because often in movies, scenes of battles are often used as shorthand for authenticity or being hip to the culture. Here, it’s more like the freestyle competitions you see in your high school science class or at a party, where it’s just a bunch of people fucking around. No one sitting there thinks they are the next Nassir Jones, they’re just having fun.In Goldberger’s follow-up, ‘The Hawk Is Dying’–one of most underrated movies of this decade by the way– there’s less of a connection to rap, but the sense of communty transcending race is all through the movie. Most interesting however, is the scene where we meet Michelle Williams’ Betty, “a doctor’s daughter” who chooses to live in a shitty squat-house, smoke pot out of a Confederate flag bong, and dress like a fat lady with a black eye that you’d see at Wal-Mart. When we first see her, she’s in her bed in her room in this flop-house listening to Splack Pack’s ‘Shake That Ass Bitch’ as some fuck-up in another room listens to bass-heavy electro. The two songs mix around in the background until finally she turns Splack Pack off. Goldberger attended school in Florida–where this movie, like ‘Trans’ is set– and just as he deals with race is a way that’s attuned to the complexity of our interactions, he does the same to the music. To him and to anyone with hip-hop knowledge, Miami Bass and hipster electro have a whole lot in common but that’s not as much of a given to outsiders and he subtly makes the connection. Gus Van Sant’s experimental, skate-boarding murder anti-mystery ‘Paranoid Park’ is ostensibly about a kid who may have accidentally killed a security guard, but it’s more of a realistically drab dive into the head of the average, vaguely hip fifteen year-old. It’s clear a great deal of research and understanding of 2008 youth-culture was employed and Van Sant applies it on all fronts. One of the most interesting aspects of the movie is an all-over-the-place soundtrack: ambient electronics, Elliot Smith, fifties rock, Nino Rota’s score for ‘Juliet of the Spirits’ etc.

In one scene, the main character Alex takes his Mom’s car and drives around Portland before stopping at infamous skate-park “Paranoid Park”. Camera mounted on the hood, through a series of cuts, we see Alex driving around listening to an eclectic mix of music from the radio-his mood changing depending on the music. At one point, ‘I Heard That’ by Portland rapper Cool Nutz plays. Alex leans further into his seat, grips the wheel from an angle, and bobs his head back and forth. It lasts about ten seconds, but it says a great deal about how ill-informed white teenagers respond to hip-hop, the porous borders between genre and style for any kid growing up in the iPod/internet age, and something about regional music as well.

Pre-internet, it would seem absurd for a teenager to listen to such an out-there variety of music and Van Sant maybe takes it a little too far, but one can easily imagine Alex going over some hipster Portland-ian’s house, seeing ‘Juliet of the Spirits’ and doing a GOOGLE blog-search for the score. An iPod on Super-Shuffle creates all kinds of weird transitions from classical to hip-hop and back again or whatever. As for Cool Nutz, a fairly-obscure rapper to most of the world, he’s probably known by most or everyone in Portland. It makes an interesting comment on regional music, especially rap. Now, it’s accepted, but think of a crazy amount of people in Houston buying screw tapes–the rap equal for doom music–or how kids of any age or race in Baltimore simply grow up with the spastic, A.D.D insanity of Baltimore club. The use of rap is also a brief nod to the ways that hip-hop and skateboarding culture continue to mix. There are plenty of black skateboarders in many of the skateboarding scenes in ‘Paranoid Park’ and the issue’s not acknowledged, just taken as a simple reality of the world.

And finally, Rip Torn in ‘Freddie Got Fingered’ shaking his bare-ass to ‘Microphone Fiend’?

Written by Brandon

July 8th, 2008 at 7:53 pm

Posted in films, movies, the South

Some Ol’ Terminator Shit

one comment

“This is my baby. This is one of those joints I’ve heard in my head from time to time, (crazy right?), but could never duplicate. Until now. Done with hi-hat from a 909, an oscillator, a metronome click for a kick drum and the magnificent Triton keyboard and there u have it. Reminds me of some ol’ Terminator shit.”-J Dilla on ‘B.B.E (Big Booty Express)’

Brad Fiedel’s score for ‘The Terminator’ is one of the most identifiable scores in modern movies, which is really weird when you think about it, because it’s a sorta super-minimal electronic score that if not accompanied by great action scenes, normal people would never give a second thought. This is one of the most interesting things about movie scores; because they act as “background music”, they can do some really weird and experimental stuff and totally get away with it. In that way, it is similar to rap music which to so many, is still either only pop music or silly party music and as a result, Timbaland can drop baby sounds and blah blah blah and they get away with it because no one is listening for it to be “weird” or whatever. If you call it “minimalist electronic”, people won’t listen; if you call it “the score to ‘The Terminator”, it’s a modern Hollywood classic!

I’ve picked my two favorite tracks from ‘The Terminator’ score, the highly-identifiable ‘Main Theme’ and ‘Tunnel Chase’, which has this sounds-like-ass percussion, this super-cheesy but great ‘Owner of Lonely Heart’-ish synth stabs, and gurgling synths…they seemed to have a big influence on Dilla…

-‘Main Theme’ by Brad Fiedel off ‘Terminator OST’
-‘Tunnel Chase’ by Brad Fiedel off ‘Terminator OST’.

-‘Go Hard’ by Q-Tip off ‘Amplified’ (Produced by Dilla): When I recently re-discovered this album, I was struck by how weird it is and how my perception of it when it came out, as some kind of sell-out album was really knee-jerk. Just the prevalance of electronics probably made me blow it off- just as now the same is done to so many Southern producers- but I feel even dumber about myself because this album is kinda overtly bizarre and electronic. On the first track, you get about 18 seconds of electronic pulse (the same length sustained on ‘Go Hard’) and a couple of other tracks go pretty deep into this style. It’s great the way ‘Go Hard’ begins with these very ‘Terminator’ pulses and then the beat drops and Q Tip starts rapping and it sounds like every other track on ‘Amplified’ but Dilla does a cool thing of bringing the pulses back for the chorus and you begin to hear them hiding in the background of the rest of the beat…really great.

-‘B.B.E (Big Booty Express)’ by J Dilla off ‘Welcome 2 Detroit’: This song is presented as a kind of rework of Kraftwerk’s ‘Trans Europe Express’ but ‘B.B.E’, like Dungeon Family’s ‘Trans DF Express’ (I never understood why it wasn’t Trans Dungeon Express, but oh well), is a slight homage to the Electronic classic turned early hip-hop sampling staple but more just an excuse to do some serious electronic shit on a hip-hop album. It also touches on Dilla’s Detroit influences, especially 80s Detroit techno, which has some of its roots in Kraftwerk and like that subgenre, Dilla grabs electronic throbs and robotic rhythms but makes them a little warmer and danceable. Kraftwerk were purposefully calculated and intellectual, in part as a parody of Germanic coldness, but they really did seem to occupy a weird contempt/love of dance music (see: ‘Showroom Dummies’) that Americans who gleaned their influence don’t have. It’s interesting that while ‘B.B.E’ is Kraftwerk “in spirit”, the only part it outright swipes is the delivery of the chorus…those brief pauses between words. In that sense, it’s right in-line with most rap sampling, grabbing the melody from a past classic and taking it somewhere newer and weirder…It’s telling that in Dilla’s discussion of the song (quoted earlier in the post) he doesn’t reference Kraftwerk but does mention its connections to ‘The Terminator’ theme; Maybe because the ‘Trans Europe Express’ connection is super-obvious but also because the song has the tangible menace and arpeggiated lines of the music from ‘The Terminator’.

-‘Black Terminator’ by Cyrus tha Great off ‘A Kite to Dilla’: This indie producer crafted a pretty nice beat-tape in the style of Dilla and manages an appropriate homage. ‘Black Terminator’ has less to do with the side of Dilla that conjures up images of head-wraps and poetry readings than the side that made stuff that sounded like “that ol’ Terminator shit”. The title ‘Black Terminator’, conjures up images of some kind of bizarro world, lower-budget exploitation version of ‘Terminator’, starring like Carl Weathers or something, in the vein of 70s blaxploitation stuff like ‘Black Caesar’, ‘Blackenstein’, or ‘Dr. Black & Mr. Hyde.’ and that sort of works, as the song is a little less rigid and rhythmic than the Terminator theme. Cyrus’ sorta off-beat beat and some really simple synth-lines that play over and over and manage to capture some of the hypnotic qualities of Dilla’s sparer beats and still resemble the Fiedel score.

Written by Brandon

November 12th, 2007 at 5:04 am

Posted in J-Dilla, films


Schooly D’s ‘Signifying Rapper’

-Click here to download ‘Signifying Rapper’.

A decade before Puffy got Jimmy Page to recreate his own riff for the ‘Godzilla’ soundtrack, Schooly D got some guitar player named Mike Tyler and some drummer named Andy Kravitz to recreate Jimmy Page’s ‘Kashmir’ riff for ‘Signifying Rapper’. Movie director and friend of Schooly D Abel Ferrara, says here that ‘Signifying Rapper’ is “50 million times better than ‘Kashmir” and I uh, sort of agree (the best Zep song is ‘Fool In the Rain’ but you already know that…).

The replayed riff is as bad-ass as Zep’s proto-Metal but it lacks the pretension and adds some funk that makes it sound like the Bad Brains covering Zeppelin, which fits Schooly’s sound and rage more appropriately than if he were to have sampled the actual song. The repetition overwhelms you in a way that the original, because it breaks out or changes due to its adherence to musicality, cannot. There’s nothing elegant about ‘Signifying Rapper’s “beat” and Schooly D’s not really rapping, he’s just shouting (it’s ordered shouting, which is rapping but you get my point) a tale of a “little rapper” who stands-up to a “bad-ass pimp”.

The sort of catch of the song (and the reason David Foster Wallace named a book after the song) is that it addresss “signifying” which is referred to with frequency in the African-American tradition but also the sort of shit Roland Barthes and other literary types talked about. Real quick because it’s not that interesting and sort of obvious- the rapper who insults the pimp is insulting the pimp through another rapper (who will later actually kick the pimp’s ass). The rapper confronting the pimp is “signifying” what “this big bad, faggot” rapper is going to say to him when he confronts him. There’s also the double-signifying of the signifying rapper using the pimp’s insult of “faggot” to describe the big bad rapper. It’s not interesting that a rapper would know about “signifying” but it is interesting that he would openly refer to it. Rap often shies away from being so overtly intellectual but Schooly pulls it off because the song itself is about the signifying rapper; you don’t need to get what that means or entails to enjoy the song…

But I said that wasn’t that interesting, right? And it’s not because the real thing about this song is that it fucking rules. As I said, the “beat” is heavy like Zeppelin but tougher and scarier due to repetition and the rawness of the recording. It just starts and goes and goes for almost five minutes only letting up for the final line: “I shoulda kicked your ass/My motherfuckin’ self”. Schooly is technically rapping, you can break the lines down and everything- but the storytelling aspect of his delivery takes over. He moves in and out of emotions, performing different voices, and he shifts his cadence to match the tone of the story rather than the beat. It’s just fucking awesome. Drive around to it, you’ll see.

I mentioned this book above and I talked about it here and I do recommend the book even though its intellectualism can be grating and it often feels more bemused by rap than appreciative (the original wigsters?). Nevertheless, it also bursts with enthusiasm, even if it’s the kind of enthusiasm that makes one spout out postmodern theory. Wallace really gets the song and sums up its point well:
“a person, even if small, marginal, and oppressed, can still say pretty much whatever he likes to whomever he wishes, and do it with impunity, so long as he has enough ball to present what’s said as a message…a delivery from the heart and mouth of some Other”(78)

What troubles me about Wallace’s intellectual interest in rap is that it sucks the life out of the song. Can’t you just imagine, even today, a Professor being incredibly “intriqued” (my god, they’re always fucking intriqued) by a rap song that makes the signs and signifiers of rap so explicit as when Schooly says “Remember that law?/When you had to put your shades on to be cool?”. This intellectualism too, permits Schooly to say stuff like “She so low/She suck the dick of a little maggot…”. It is excused because Schooly knows what “signifying” is but also because the signifying even extends to Schooly and sensitive, intellectual types can see Schooly as only the deliverer of these insults (which he is and isn’t and is and isn’t and is again); he’s not gasp- actually saying faggot. Well, fuck that, that’s why the song is good and why rap is better than anything else ever made (pretty much). It can be really “smart” and actually smart and dumb all at the same time! Wrap your head around that Bill O’Reilly…

Last week, I watched Abel Ferrara’s ‘The Bad Lieutenant’ which originally featured ‘Signifying Rapper’ in three different scenes. I say originally because at some point after the theatrical release and home video release, Jimmy Page heard his riff on ‘Signifying Rapper’ and sued. Subsequently, the song was removed. I could explain it but Abel Ferrrara does a much better job in this interview:

“Oh, yeah. I’ll strangle that cocksucker Jimmy Page. As if every fucking lick that guy ever played didn’t come off a Robert Johnson album. “Signifying Rapper” was out for five years, and there wasn’t a problem. Then the film had already been out for two years and they start bitching about it. And these pricks, when their attorneys are on the job, our guys are afraid to come out of their office. You’re not gonna fight their fucking warriors, you know what I mean? Can you imagine, this was down at a federal court in New York, with a 70-year-old judge, and they’re playing Schoolly D and Led Zeppelin to the guy? It cost Schoolly like $50,000. It was a nightmare. And meanwhile, “Signifying Rapper” is 50 million times better than “Kashmir” ever thought of being. And then, this prick [Page] turns around with Puff Daddy and redoes it for the Godzilla soundtrack. Here’s Puff Daddy, where every other song this boy sang was King Of New York this and King Of New York that. And I would never even fucking think of suing these guys. Why sue? You should be happy that somebody is paying homage to your work.”

Lots of good points there. First, there’s the whole aspect of what “sampling” really means? Wasn’t Page “sampling” Willie Dixon and Robert Johnson and others? Yes, Willie Dixon sued his ass at some point, making Page’s suit even more retarded. Schooly D was certainly commenting on this when he decided to base a song around ‘Kashmir’; He’s smart like that, remember? I’m also confused as to how it is illegal to re-play something on a record like that? Isn’t that how sample laws are avoided? Maybe a reader can explain it to me?

Second, it’s messed-up because it seems directly related to Page playing on ‘Come With Me’. To me, it seems as if ‘Signifying Rapper’ was wiped away as not to somehow compete or co-exist with Puffy’s ‘Kashmir’-sampling track. It becomes particularly egregious as if someone really had a grudge against Ferrara because of course, Biggie called himself “Black Frank White” in reference to Ferrara’s hip-hop classic ‘King of New York’.

Third, the absence of ‘Signifying Rapper’ in ‘The Bad Lieutenant’ is felt. I rented the DVD and only reading about the movie later, did I find out about the Schooly D music. I was lucky enough to grab an old VHS copy from a local video store that still has ‘Signifying Rapper’ in the scene. It doesn’t totally change the movie or anything but it certainly shifts the context of certain scenes and broadens some of the movie’s points.

Scene One: “Get Back, Police Activity”

As the Lieutenant runs down the street, the Zep rip-off riffs of ‘Signifying Rapper’ play. A group of young black kids, one of which just handed off drugs to a moving car, run away from the Lieutenant. He chases one into an apartment and at the top of the steps, the chase stops. It was a ruse; the Lieutenant is a customer (and occasional supplier). The scene also shows the movie’s dark humor as the Lieutenant shuts up a complaining neighbor between hits from a crack pipe.

At first, you hear the super-identifiable ‘Kashmir’ riff and it maybe reads like some bad-ass theme for the white cop. Then, Schooly comes in and the song becomes a typical, Hollywood “ghetto” atmosphere-setting song (play rap when white characters go to a black area). Then…once the Lieutenant is shown to be pretty much the same (only way worse of a person) than the dealer, the song sort of becomes the Lieutenant’s theme. This would be missed or ignored for most viewers then because even today, rap music is rarely used in relation to white characters for anything other than irony (exceptions: ‘Boiler Room’ & ‘Office Space’).

Below is the scene without the Schooly D (presumably ripped from a DVD)…

Scene Two: The Rape of the Nun
One of the best thing about the movie is that it is essentially plotless, structured around a couple of days in the life of this self-destructive Lieutenant. Yet, it has some threads that hold it together and one of them is the investigation by the Lieutenant of the rape of a nun.

Ferrara plays the rape out fairly respectfully. Although it is explicit, it is not gratuitous and it has an over-stylized feeling to it. A Virgin Mary falls in slow-motion. The entire scene is bathed in red light. It’s sort of surreal and kind of reminded me of Alex’s biblical sex fantasies from ‘A Clockwork Orange’. Originally, this scene was accompanied by ‘Signifying Rapper’ but in the DVD, it is replaced with classical music. This is a real shame because the super-obvious visuals are moved into pretension by the music. In the original version, ‘Signifying Rapper’ acts as counterpoint to the super-serious religious imagery and was meant to complicate the scene and give it one additional shock (besides a nun being raped!).

Scene Three: End Credits
The DVD version ends with a Dylan-esque song called ‘The Bad Lieutenant’ played by Abel Ferrara which gives a very different feeling than ‘Signifying Rapper’. For me, ‘Signifying Rapper’ just kind of feels like the Lieutenant and I think that ending the movie with the song really does sort of solidify it as the Lieutenant’s theme. Imagine leaving the theater to ‘Signifying Rapper’! It becomes a final reminder of the Lieutenant which makes sense because the movie has, while not exactly sympathetic, a non-judgemental perspective on his actions.

The camera is often hand-held bouncing right behind him, nearly subjective. It also captures his explosions of anger as well as his explosions of guilt and regret, so he isn’t just a horrible, remorseless person.

Harvey Keitel gives a really amazing performance, especially when he kind of grimaces and scream-grunts in frustration (see the clip below) like a little kid. You don’t like the Lieutenant in the movie (okay, I did, but there’s something wrong with me) but you’re so close to him for just about every minute in the movie that you can’t help but feel something for him. Ending on ‘Signifying Rapper’ nearly resurrects him one last time as you’re leaving the theater.
-Costello, Mark and David Foster Wallace. ‘Signifying Rappers’. Ecco Press: New York, 1990.

Written by Brandon

August 29th, 2007 at 3:34 am

Posted in Schooly D, film, films

leave a comment

Charles Burnett’s ‘Killer of Sheep’
Charles Burnett’s ‘Killer of Sheep’, completed in 1973, sort-of released in 1977, has since then, been an unavailable film-dork rarity. The movie’s legend grew as it won a few awards and was declared a “national treasure” by the Library of Congress, yet there were still major obstacles preventing a commercial release. A black-made film about working-class blacks and absent of guns, gangs, and violence and equally absent of overt politicizing is not very marketable. Furthermore, because Burnett made the movie for film school and not for public consumption, he developed an idiosyncratic soundtrack without the consideration of legal music rights issues.

A few years ago, Milestone Films stepped-in and began the campaign to for ‘Killer of Sheep’s official release. They obtained most of the music rights and restored the movie. A few weeks ago, I was able to see ‘Killer of Sheep’ at the Maryland Film Festival, with the heads of Milestone presenting along with the lead actor Henry Saunders.

‘Killer of Sheep’ takes the rawness of the era’s blaxploitation films but leaves behind their violent stereotypes. The movie is without plot, instead providing loosely connected vignettes and scenes in early 70s Compton/Watts. It is framed around Stan, who works at a slaughterhouse, and his wife and children. Nothing big happens, no one dies, no big secrets revealed. As a lazy writer, I want to drop a grotesque cliché about how the film is about “regular people” and move on, but that’s not accurate. Burnett’s movie is about people one might actually meet but the implication of “regular people” is a romanticization or idealization of the regular, which it is not.

Nothing is idealized in Burnett’s movie. Children do not play peacefully or even, wildly organized as they do in other movies, they run around and kick up dust and throw rocks and yell things that you can barely understand. One of my favorite moments is one where Burnett, during a scene of children playing, holds on a little boy standing on a roof, hit by a rock, just standing there crying. Burnett holds on the boy, who grips his arm as he tears up but we do not hear his crying or the continued playing of the indifferent children we only hear the soundtrack playing (I think) Faye Adams’ ‘Shake a Hand’. Another scene shows Stan’s daughter singing along to Earth, Wind, and Fire’s ‘Reasons’, her voice mixed as high as the song’s.

I fear that even these scenes denote sentimentality that isn’t present in the film. Maybe it’s the black and white film, and Burnett’s tentative hand-held camera, and the naturalistic acting, and the perfect mix of irony, sympathy, and empathy but ‘Killer of Sheep’ never feels cheap or sentimental. A scene early in the movie presents two characters approaching Stan in front of his house, asking if he would like to help them kill somebody for money. He angrily dismisses them and they respond first to him and then to Stan’s wife with the “I’m just getting’ mine” speech that stands in contrast to everything Stan works for and believes. The interaction is played-out in a realistic manner and so, the thugs’ speech is never too articulate or overtly evil and Stan is both proudly proclaiming his not being a criminal and growing angry/insecure because he sees why it would be easier to be a pimp or hired gun. The movie is a series of reversals and then re-reversals like this, confounding and frustrating viewers.

When I saw the movie, the inevitably uncomfortable after-movie discussion briefly devolved into a white woman suggesting that the movie enforced certain stereotypes and generally dismal “ghetto” living. She cited a scene where Stan and a friend purchase a car engine for Stan’s truck from a Pimp. He barters with the Pimp, eventually buying it for 15 dollars. Stan and friend carry the engine to the truck and as they place the engine on the bed of the truck, it smashes Stan’s friend’s finger. Stan is left humorously trying to balance it on the edge of the bed as his friend shakes his hand, bouncing up and down in pain. The friend, having just dropped an engine on his finger, is sort of done with carrying and tries to tell Stan it will be okay on the end of the bed which it obviously will not. Against his better judgment Stan does not argue, and they jump into the truck. A wide-shot reveals the engine teetering off the edge of the truck-bed and just as the truck begins moving, the engine falls and smashes in the street.

This woman cited this as portraying the stereotypical lack of intelligence of black people, which is what she wanted the scene to be about. A “knowing” viewer will find what looks like stereotypes all through the film. What the scene is really about is Stan’s kindness, his sympathy for his hurt-fingered friend extending so far that he doesn’t want to force the friend to move the engine even though he risks breaking the engine. Burnett plays with the audience as the scene is set-up like those unfortunate Little Rascals ‘Our Gang’ episodes (something like Stymie continually throwing a rock in a tree and it hitting him in the head), echoing these racist comedies but ultimately, having nothing to do with them. This outraged woman can only perceived black movies in terms of their supporting or negating a stereotype; she refuses to see the humanity and psychology of black characters.

The title ‘Killer of Sheep’ explicitly refers to Stan’s occupation in a slaughterhouse but I believe it also points towards Stan’s opposition to a sheep-like mentality. The first scene of the movie is Stan yelling at his older son for misbehaving. The son is something of a specter of trouble in the movie, fooling around, harassing his sister, not coming when his mother calls him; there’s a sense that this child, when he grows older, might become one of the unsavory pimps we see in the movie. Often those pimp characters are given startling close-ups and we see their eyes, eyes disinterested in care or hard work; dead eyes. After the movie Henry Saunders, who played Stan, discussed the visual parallels between the sheep’s eyes in the slaughterhouse scenes and the eyes of certain characters throughout the film. The pimps and criminals of the movie are the sheep, blind followers of a code, believing they are individuals because they don’t work a conventional job.

Of course, Burnett is also a killer of sheep, destroying the audience’s sheep-like gravitation towards simple answers and interpretations in regards to black movie-making. As I was watching, I thought about what I’ve read about the movie, the way it is said to be one of the most well-wrought portrayals of black people on film but about halfway through, it occurred to me that I don’t think there’s a movie about “average” white people this well-rendered either.

For theaters in your area showing ‘Killer of Sheep’:

Written by Brandon

May 29th, 2007 at 5:14 am

leave a comment

Some Movies Rappers Should Reference Instead of ‘Scarface’.
SOHH listed a news item about a new Deniro/Pacino movie, inexplicably asking Styles P what he thought about this new, exciting movie. The item smacks of forced marketing; hyping a movie that isn’t overtly rap-related in content, using a rapper for a quote, etc. but nevertheless, Styles P’s comments were pretty interesting.

Styles discusses both actors’ appeal to “young impoverished people in the ghetto” citing their roles as “characters who came from nothing to become something” and suggesting that this shows they “understand the mentality of the poor”. You’re thinking ‘Goodfellas’ or ‘Scarface’ (or I was), but instead, Styles cites ‘Taxi Driver’ and a relatively obscure Pacino movie ‘The Panic in Needle Park’. These comments reminded me of my OhWord entry about Prodigy and blaxploitation. In it, I said Prodigy’s invocation of the Fred Williamson vehicle ‘Black Caesar’ makes more sense than the constant references to ‘Scarface,’ a quality but over-the-top cartoon of a movie. Most rap songs are not wish fulfillment but blow-by-blow descriptions, reflecting the minor victories of movies like ‘Superfly’ or ‘Black Caesar’ rather than the million dollars success of Tony Montana.

As a continuation of my post and a complement to Styles P’s comments, here’s a list of movies that rappers should probably start referencing…

Born To Win (1971).

Rap Album Equivalent: ‘Just Tryin Ta Live’ by Devin the Dude.

A former hairdresser now heroin addict named simply “J” putts around New York with his black friend Billy Dynamite, in search of drugs. More a series of scenes than a cohesive plot, ‘Born to Win’ is held together only by J, a hyper-charming piece of shit who always ends up on top. The movie can go from being deadly serious to ‘Benny Hill’ comedy and it all sort of works. At different points you feel like you’re watching different movies. When I first read that Styles P quote, this was the first movie I thought to add to this list. Although it doesn’t star Deniro or Pacino, Deniro has a very small part as an undercover cop. Available in a crappy but affordable discount DVD.

If you liked this try… Christiane F. (1981) – Teenage drug addicts in Berlin run around to David Bowie music!

Mean Streets (1973)

Rap Album Equivalent: ‘Return to 36 Chambers’ by Ol’ Dirty Bastard

You probably know about this one and maybe you even turned it off because you were expecting something closer to ‘Goodfellas’ well…give it another try. Deniro’s Johnny Boy is perhaps his most well-rendered “psycho” character, at least on par with ‘Taxi Driver’ as the acting never grows cartoonish or dependent upon indicating. When you see him blow up a mailbox with firecrackers all the way to the scene where he calls the bookie a “jerkoff”, kind of sealing his fate, there’s nothing like this wild performance. The movie is also full of really funny scenes that counter the menace that underscores it all: One of the neighborhood thugs shows everyone the tiger (?!) he bought and the scene grows even more absurd when the thug kisses the tiger like a puppy. Also the “mook” debate is pretty classic.

If you liked this try…Hi Mom! (1969) – One of the first movies by ‘Scarface’ director Brian DePalma and also starring Deniro.

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974)

Rap Album Equivalent: ‘What’s On My Mind’ by Dayton Family

Still derided as excessively violent and misogynistic (sound familiar?), Sam Peckinpah’s movie feels as stumbling drunk and fucked-up as the main character. Loser bar owner Benny (Warren Oates) needs money and takes up a reward for the titular head of Alfredo. Much of the movie is Benny driving around, in an increasingly bloodied/dirtied white suit, in shades, talking to the decapitated head of Alfredo and shooting everybody. Completely hopeless and fully aware of it, Benny comes off as a sort of brave, devoted, unfuckwithable loser. Maybe the best movie ever made?

If you liked this try…Cockfighter (1974) – Also starring Warren Oates, this time as a cockfighter who has taken a vow of silence until he wins ‘Cockfighter of the Year’.
Fingers (1978)

Rap Album Equivalent: ‘Resurrection’ by Common

Harvey Keitel plays the son of a pianist mother and a loan shark father (played by the dude who plays Pentangeli in ‘Godfather II’), unsure of which parent to follow. Sex-obsessed and conflicted beyond hope, Keitel’s Jimmy Fingers fucks girls, listens to doo-wop and classical music, auditions for piano recitals, and kicks the asses of deadbeats. Also interesting for quick appearances by a couple of dudes later to be on ‘The Sopranos’ and Jim Brown…rent it if only for the scene where Brown forces two girls to kiss and bangs their heads together!

If you liked this try… Five Easy Pieces (1970) – Another, earlier movie about a rogue male who is good at the piano.

Straight Time (1978)

Rap Album Equivalent: ‘Ain’t a Damn Thing Changed’ by Nice & Smooth.

Based on the book ‘No Beast So Fierce’ written by Edward Bunker (Mr. Blue in ‘Reservoir Dogs’), starring Dustin Hoffman as Max as a guy out of prison trying to go straight. At the mercy of his corrupt, asshole Parole Officer, Max ends up back in jail. When he gets back out, he steals his P.O’s car, handcuffs the P.O to a sign on the side of the road with his pants down (no really, he does!) and goes back to doing what he knows best: robbing jewelry stores.. Shot in realistic L.A locations with a bunch of good characters actors like Harry Dean Stanton and Gary Busey, ‘Straight Time’ glides along scene-by-scene, primarily concerned with detail and psychology over likeability and moral judgment.

If you liked this try…Straw Dogs (1971)– also starring Hoffman and from the same director as ‘Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia’; basically a movie about how sometimes violence is necessary.

Thief (1981)

Rap Album Equivalent: ‘Murda Muzik’ by Mobb Deep

The first feature by Michael Mann, who later made ‘Heat’ and ‘Miami Vice’ among others. ‘Thief’ stars James Caan as Frank, a professional thief with vague hopes of going straight. Caan is in full Sonny Corleone acting mode, speaking in contraction-less blurts of anger and just generally seeming awesome. An atmospheric electronic score by Tangerine Dream and a slow pace punctuated by scenes of violence and Caan rants, ‘Thief’ is what ‘Scarface’ should be.

If you liked this try…The Gambler (1974) – from the writer of ‘Fingers’ and also starring James Caan.

Written by Brandon

May 24th, 2007 at 3:32 am