Rappers Delight     

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8/9/2003 9:39:16 PM
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Today’s movie executives are scouring the hip hop charts for the next stars. And rappers like Fat Joe, Eve, Busta, Redman, Method Man, and Bow Wow, to name a few, are answering the casting call, repeatedly proving themselves as competent actors and comedians, as well as big box-office draws. As urban music becomes more mainstream and America more multicultural, are MCs becoming tomorrow’s screen idols?

"Burn, Hollywood, burn!” the hip hop community shouted along with Public Enemy, Ice Cube, and Big Daddy Kane in 1990 when they lyrically protested racism in the film industry. But oh, how things have changed. Thirteen years later, Cube is one of the most bankable movie stars around, having appeared in films that have grossed nearly $400 million at the box office. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that he had the song’s shortest verse.

“Hip hop has become the single greatest influence on the tonality of today’s Hollywood movies,” says Rob Cohen, 53, director of last year’s XXX (featuring Eve) and 2001’s The Fast and the Furious (with Ja Rule). “It’s not just the stars. It’s the whole vibe that emanates from that world, with the style, the clothes, and that sense of ego and presence.”

In the past two years, rappers played prominent roles in dozens of films of stunning variety: Mos Def and P. Diddy in the award-winning drama Monster’s Ball; Busta Rhymes in the gritty police flick Narc; Redman and Method Man in the slapstick How High; Cube and Eve in the urban comedy Barbershop; Bow Wow in the family-friendly Like Mike; Fat Joe in the drug caper Empire; Will Smith in the biopic Ali. This year brings another crop, including DMX in Cradle 2 the Grave, Mos Def in The Italian Job, LL Cool J in S.W.A.T., and Queen Latifah in Chicago. Suddenly, Hollywood has gone hip hop.

“It’s a statement of what America is today,” says Joseph Kahn, 30, a veteran music-video director who makes his feature directorial debut this year with Torque (starring Ice Cube and Fredro Starr). “If you watch films of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, they’re all rock-a-fied. The films of the future are going to have much more of an urban edge, because we are rapidly turning from an all-white into a Benetton nation.” The evolution represents more than just Hollywood’s interest in reflecting demographic changes. Profitability is the lure, especially given the statistic that African-Americans, who comprise only 12 percent of the U.S. population, flock to movie houses in disproportionate numbers; they represent 20 percent of the movie-going audience. It’s a lesson the industry has been slow to learn. The success of 1995’s Friday caught insiders by surprise: the low-key film, starring Ice Cube and Chris Tucker, grossed $27 million on only a $3.5 million investment, including marketing. No one was astonished last year when Cube’s Barbershop, budgeted at $12 million, pulled in $76 million. “As long as you have a draw, it doesn’t matter what you look like,” says Method Man, 32. “That’s just the way Hollywood works.”

Hip hop looks pretty good on celluloid right about now. Of course this is nothing new. Rappers have been giving drama since the mid-’80s, starting with Run-DMC and LL Cool J in Krush Groove. House Party with Kid ’N Play grossed $26 million in 1990, showing for the first time that MCs could attract movie audiences. Then Ice-T (New Jack City, 1991) and Tupac Shakur (Juice, 1992) pushed the genre with their compelling portrayals of complex characters. Now agents, producers, and directors are pursuing rappers as never before. “We would be stupid to not take the opportunity,” says Eve, 23, who didn’t even think about

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