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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

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Stop Fronting: ‘Return of the Mac’ and ‘Blood Money’

I only half-understood the uproar when Mobb Deep signed to G-Unit. They were pretty much done already. I wasn’t expecting anymore interesting music from Mobb Deep for the rest of my life. There would always be ‘The Infamous’ and to a lesser extent, ‘Hell on Earth’ and ‘Murda Muzik’. Signing to G-Unit was a depressing but obvious economic choice for a group that probably needed to do something if they were going to stick around. Not to mention, any accusations of selling-out were pointless because Mobb Deep were totally honest about how it made them richer; they didn’t try to justify it at all. They got G-Unit tattoos on their hands and started telling everyone how much more money they were making. I mean, they called the album ‘Blood Money’. That says more about their choice to sign than any of us fans crying “sell-out” could say. If it took ‘Blood Money’ to make ‘Return of the Mac’ well I’m not complaining. I get a good album and these guys have a lot of money. Everybody wins, right?

Well, not everybody. Somehow, even after making a pretty great album Prodigy is getting backhanded compliments because many see ‘Return of the Mac’ as an “apology” for ‘Blood Money’. This is fan projection more than anything else. This is probably the album Prodigy has wanted to make for a couple years now but label bullshit and the very-scary and very-real need to stay “relevant” pushed him away from those goals and towards mediocrity. Signing to G-Unit guaranteed him money and I assume, a level of comfort, giving him the freedom, time, and a renewed confidence to make something like ‘Return of the Mac’. I don’t think one could exist without the other. Prodigy even makes this clear, incorporating a few references to 50 and G-Unit throughout the album.

Often, these references feel out of place, stuck in there just to antagonize hatin-ass fans like myself, making it harder to separate Prodigy from G-Unit. When I first heard ‘Mac 10 Handle’ a few months ago, the line “I’m so impulsive/I start gunnin’ right in front of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph” made me think of the bowdlerized verse from ‘Pearly Gates’. I willfully interpreted it as some kind of subtle fuck you to 50 or something. The reality is probably more complex. Indeed, that line is on ‘Return of the Mac’ because he can say it, it is a declaration of “freedom” but I don’t think that means it is in any way in opposition to ‘Blood Money’. ‘Rotten Apple’, one of the discs best tracks, shares its name with Lloyd Banks’ last album and on ‘Take it to the Top’ among a verse that at least content-wise, recalls the angry depression we expect from Prodigy, he says “You got some stomach on your Nikes/I got blood on my G-Units”. Just as we get into the kind of “gully” stuff we expect from Prodigy, he still tosses in a reference to G-Unit, not allowing the listener to totally distance ‘Blood Money’ Mobb Deep from the Mobb Deep we know and love and sort of hear on ‘Return of the Mac’. In that way at least, this is as uncompromising as ‘The Infamous’.

On ‘Stop Fronting’, the obvious fuck-you song to haters, P brags: “I’m on tour with Mobb Deep/We out in Japan, Australia then we doing Madison Square/Then it’s right back on the road with 50 and Em/Rappers upset we last more longer than them.” While P’s logic is a bit off, I think most people aren’t jealous of Mobb Deep but sort of feel sorry for them, it still continues his uncompromising take on signing to G-Unit even as he makes the music that defines pre-G-Unit Mobb Deep. If you loved Prodigy for rapping about robbing and people and not giving a fuck, well then you can’t be too pissed when they really didn’t give a fuck and signed to G-Unit. What makes ‘Return of the Mac’ striking is that it even exists that, just as it seemed like everything was over for Mobb Deep, Prodigy comes back and show he doesn’t give a fuck by singing to G-Unit and that he really, really gives a fuck by making something as good as ‘Return of the Mac’. Artists almost never come back from “selling-out” and make something good. Granted, signing to G-Unit didn’t do wonders for their career but from what I’ve gathered, they are pretty comfortable and it is when someone is comfortable that you can assume they’ll stop making interesting shit or take chances. It seems as though Prodigy has found a way to give and take, making money and making something with integrity. Fuck a ‘Kingdom Come’, ‘Return of the Mac’ is grown-man rap because Prodigy has totally accepted the reality that art and commerce are mixed. When Jay-Z tells you “30 is the new 20″ he doesn’t believe it as much as he thinks by making it a single he can will it to be true. Prodigy has no interest in justification or explanation because he doesn’t need to, the same personality that brought you ‘The Infamous’ and ‘Return of the Mac’ is also hanging out with 50 Cent and not being okay but at least, accepting shit like his ‘Pearly Gates’ verse being changed. That’s just how it goes.

Even those that want to connect this “mixtape” with independence, be it the uncensored nature of Prodigy’s content or the literal independence of KOCH Records cannot completely do so because there’s currently a ‘Best Buy Exclusive’ version of ‘Return of the Mac’ featuring three bonus tracks (‘My Priorities’, ‘That’s That’, and ‘Last Words’). A mixtape, on a non-major label, that allows an exclusive version of that mixtape with additional tracks to be sold at a chain-store. That is the weird world of the music industry, where the porous borders between independence and major labels, integrity and selling-out, exist. Good for Prodigy for taking advantage of it rather than simply bemoaning its existence or hating on the South or plenty of other bullshit moves. It’s not 1995 anymore. As I type this, I’m watching BET’s ‘Rip the Runway’ and I just saw 50 Cent introduce Rakim who rapped a bunch of classics while models presented the new G-Unit Clothing line. The show’s ending now and over credits, an Eric B and Rakim medley plays. Who cares about the context! That just happened (no Ricky Bobby)!

Written by Brandon

March 30th, 2007 at 3:15 am

Posted in G-unit, Mobb Deep, mixtapes