Total Recall

Total Recall: Rappers on the Big Screen

We celebrate hip hop's most prolific and successful thespians.

by | December 3, 2008 | Comments

This week Cadillac Records, starring Beyonce Knowles, Adrien Brody, and Mos Def, hits theaters. It’s a music-driven period piece about the great Chess Records label which recorded some of the finest blues and R&B ever captured on vinyl in the 1950s and 1960s. Hip-hop musician and actor Mos Def plays legendary rock ‘n roller Chuck Berry, which inspired us to take a look at other rappers who have successfully made the leap to the big screen.

Pop stars in the movies are nothing new; for a long time, it came with the territory. However, since the early 1990s, a number of hip hop artists have seamlessly made the transition from wax to celluloid, often delivering more compelling performances than their classically-trained co-stars. Without further ado, we run down some of the finest thespians in the hip hop game.

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West Coast rapper “X to the Z” Xzibit (born Alvin Joiner) released his first record in 1996, but got his real breakthrough a few years later when he joined producer Dr. Dre’s cadre of up-and-comers. Rhyming alongside the likes of Snoop Dogg and Eminem, Xzibit followed their lead with small roles in Snoop films The Eastsidaz (2000) and The Wash (2001), and made a memorable cameo as a free-styling factory worker in Eminem’s 8 Mile (2002). But another breakthrough was in order: a hosting gig on a new MTV show called Pimp My Ride. The auto makeover show became so successful it spawned spin-offs in countries including Canada, Europe, the Middle East, and New Zealand; more importantly, it helped Xzibit pursue meatier roles in Hollywood. Only a year after Pimp My Ride debuted, Xzibit went on to voice a character in the animated film Hoodwinked, land a supporting role opposite Ice Cube and Samuel L. Jackson in xXx: State of the Union, and appear alongside Jennifer Aniston and Clive Owen in Derailed — all in the same year. Since then, Xzibit has continued to build his acting resume with roles in Gridiron Gang and The X-Files: I Want to Believe, and will next appear in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans for director Werner Herzog.

Warning: Clip is NSFW — language.

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Some of us remember back when Common was still calling himself Common Sense and beefing with west coast rappers, but Chi-town’s finest (eat your heart out, Kanye) has come a long way since then. Common, otherwise known as Lonnie Rashid Lynn, Jr., worked his way up from the underground where he maintained a loyal following, eventually got himself a major label record deal, and ultimately landed in the mainstream consciousness with 2005’s “Be.” Next thing we knew, he was dancing his way through Gap commercials and appearing on Chappelle’s Show. Though his acting credits up to that point had only included a few TV show episodes and appearances as “himself,” he took the next major step by accepting a role in 2006’s Smokin’ Aces, a critical bomb that nevertheless featured a slew of big Hollywood names (Ray Liotta, Ben Affleck, Jeremy Piven, Andy Garcia). He continued to add to his resume with appearances in American Gangster, Street Kings, and this year’s Wanted, and despite his ongoing rap career (a new album is due in 2009), audiences can expect to see him in the upcoming Terminator Salvation with Christian Bale..

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LL Cool J

Unlike some of his fellow rapper-turned-actors, LL Cool J (born James Todd Smith) found consistent success with mainstream films while churning out hit records left and right; you’ll find nary a direct-to-video clunker in his filmography (with the exception of 2006’s Edison, which gets a pass for co-starring Morgan Freeman, Kevin Spacey, and Justin Timberlake). It all started in 1985, when the enigmatic LL appeared as himself in the hip-hop film Krush Groove at the tender age of 17; another stint rapping in the Goldie Hawn film Wildcats followed before he began taking actual acting gigs instead of mere cameos. After scoring his best-performing record to date (1990’s “Mama Said Knock You Out”), LL Cool J took on his first major film roles, appearing as a detective in 1991’s The Hard Way and as Robin Williams’ militaristic cousin in 1992’s Toys. As LL continued to find commercial success with albums like “Mr. Smith” (1995) and “Phenomenon” (1997), his acting career also took off; memorable roles in major films like Woo, Halloween: H20, Deep Blue Sea and Any Given Sunday followed, and the MC even starred in his own sitcom, In The House, which ran for five seasons and earned two Emmy nominations. More recently, LL Cool J starred opposite fellow rapper-turned-actor Queen Latifah in Last Holiday and the Sundance indie The Deal.

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Chris “Ludacris” Bridges may not have many film credits to his name, but he has quickly emerged as a promising screen presence. The King of the South’s hilariously ribald rhymes may have drawn the ire of Bill O’Reilly, but it’s his personality and charisma that have gotten him in the door in Hollywood. Ludacris played a key role as a politically savvy, thoughtful hood in the Acadamy Award-winning Crash, and in Hustle & Flow he had an electric turn as a rap star who’d grown too big for his britches. Lately, he’s been featured in action flicks like Max Payne and Guy Ritchie’s RockNRolla, but he also narrated the critically-acclaimed The Heart of the Game, a documentary about a girls’ high school basketball team in Washington State.

Warning: Clip is NSFW — language.

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Hip-hop heads remember rapper Ice-T (born Tracy Lauren Marrow) as one of the fathers of gangsta rap, thanks to controversial hits like “Cop Killer” that put him on the map in the early 1990s, but how many know that Ice’s acting career predated his reign as the definitive OG, thanks to his on-screen debut in the seminal 1984 films Breakin’ and Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo?

Although Ice-T did in fact appear in both Breakin’ films, he subsequently took a break from acting until 1991, when he decided to join the cast of 1991’s New Jack City, a gritty urban crime thriller with Wesley Snipes and Mario Van Peebles that put the now-famous Ice-T (playing a cop, of all things) back on Hollywood’s radar. (Two months later, his album “O.G. Original Gangster” dropped to critical acclaim.) Following the success of New Jack City, Ice-T continued to make movies at a rate that quickly outpaced his musical productivity, appearing in everything from Who’s the Man? to Tank Girl to Johnny Mnemonic to television’s New York Undercover, as well as countless direct-to-video films. Producing and starring in the short-lived crime series Players led to Ice-T’s longest and best-known acting role: Detective Odafin “Fin” Tutuola on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” which he’s been playing since 2000.

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In an interview with RT
last year, director Julien Temple lamented the fact that most pop singers have too much star baggage to be convincing as actors. However, Tupac Shakur, who starred in Temple’s Bullet, was different. “Tupac had quite an aura about him,” he said. Shakur was hardly a typical rapper-turned-thespian; as a child actor, he performed in A Raisin in the Sun as part of Harlem’s 127th Street Ensemble, and in high school, he appeared in Shakespeare plays and The Nutcracker. After a stint with the Digital Underground, 2Pac became one of the biggest MCs in the game, and some of his biggest hits, like “Brenda’s Got a Baby” and “Dear Mama,” contained a sense of cinematic observation and drama. Now a star, 2Pac turned to the big screen, and his air of desperate menace elevated such genre films as Juice and Above the Rim. However, he also displayed nuance as a sensitive mailman in Poetic Justice and as a down-on-his-luck jazz musician in Gridlock’d.

Warning: Clip is NSFW — language.

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Ice Cube

There was a time when Ice Cube was considered one of America’s most dangerous pop stars. Brutally honest, fiercely intelligent, politically contradictory, and lyrically scatological, Cube’s works, from N.W.A.’s landmark debut to his early-1990s solo albums, were among the most controversial of their time. Flash forward to 2008, and the man who was once steady mobbin’ is now one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars — in family comedies like Are We Done Yet?, no less. The former O’Shea Jackson made an audacious debut as a conflicted ex-con in Boyz N the Hood, and showed a warmhearted side in the stoner classic Friday (which he co-scripted). He held his own alongside George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg in the critically acclaimed Gulf War drama Three Kings, and drew big laughs with the ribald ensemble piece Barbershop. He even manned the director’s chair for The Player’s Club, and has a number of production credits to his name. Next up for the Predator? The title role in the big-screen adaptation of Welcome Back Kotter.

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Mark Wahlberg

Delinquent, rapper, underwear model, actor, Oscar nominee — the artist formerly known as Marky Mark (AKA Mark Wahlberg) has done it all. First came the hip-hop hit “Good Vibrations,” a 1991 dance single that went platinum thanks to Wahlberg’s semi-clothed gyrations and lyrics like “Yo! It’s about that time/To bring forth the rhythm and the rhyme” — an early success that led to his exclusive contract modeling in nothing but boxer briefs for Calvin Klein. But once Wahlberg’s Funky era ran its course, he turned to acting, putting his streetwise persona to good use in films like Renaissance Man (1994), The Basketball Diaries (1995), and Fear (1996). In only his fifth feature film, Wahlberg found his star-making role: high school drop-out Eddie Adams (AKA Dirk Diggler) in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1970s porn opus, Boogie Nights. A little over a decade later, Wahlberg has become one of Hollywood’s most reliable A-listers, with films like Three Kings, A Perfect Storm, Invincible, and most recently, Max Payne under his belt; he even received an Oscar nomination for his role in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed and somewhere along the way found time to executive produce HBO’s hit inside-Hollywood series Entourage, based on his own life — not bad for the little brother of a New Kid on the Block. In the immortal words of Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch, “Feel it, feel it!”

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Queen Latifah

Latifah (Dana Elaine Owens) released her debut album “All Hail the Queen” in 1989 at the tender age of 19, dropping hits like “Ladies First” and “Princess of the Posse” during a time when rap was primarily a man’s game. Working with hip hop heavyweights like KRS-One and De La Soul, she achieved instant appeal, and it wasn’t long before Hollywood came knocking. Two years to be precise, as 1991 brought her roles in both Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever and pop rappers Kid N Play’s House Party 2. From there, Latifah’s star would only rise, beginning with her first starring role in F. Gary Gray’s Set if Off, alongside a pre-Smith Jada Pinkett and Vivica Fox, and continuing on to award-winning roles in Chicago and this year’s Hairspray. Sure, she’s been the target of her fair share of tabloid rumors, but when you’ve made a career out of portraying strong, independent women, winning multiple awards for music, television, and movies in the process, you’re bound to attract that sort of attention. Still, no one can argue that she was one of rap’s pioneering ladies or that she is all the more remarkable for being able to transform that niche fame into a highly successful career in film. All hail the Queen!

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Will Smith

As the Fresh Prince, Will Smith was one of hip hop’s earliest mainstream stars, and it isn’t hard to see why. At a time when parents and the media were alarmed by the genre’s more explicit and political content, Smith spun playful yarns like “Parents Just Don’t Understand” and “Girls Ain’t Nothing But Trouble” that showcased his amiable personality. (It didn’t hurt that he was ably assisted by respected turntablist Jazzy Jeff). He brought his smarts and charm to the boob tube in the hit series The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air before graduating to the big screen, winning plaudits as a charming con man in Six Degrees of Separation. With Independence Day, Men in Black, and Enemy of the State, Smith graduated to the big leagues, becoming one of Hollywood’s most marketable stars, and despite some setbacks (Wild Wild West, anyone?) Smith has maintained a remarkably high level of consistency. He has even picked up some Academy Award nominations for Ali and The Pursuit of Happyness.

The number of MCs that have traded in their mics for a shot at big-screen glory by no means ends there. Eminem was a one-film wonder in 8 Mile. Bow Wow has turned in some respectable performances in a variety of films, from Like Mike to Roll Bounce. DMX starred in a series of action flicks. Master P directed and starred in numerous straight-to-DVD titles. Both members of OutKast have been featured in theatrical releases in recent years. Both Who’s the Man and Belly found nearly their entire casts from hip hop’s ranks. And the beat goes on.

Think you know your rapper-actors pretty well? Then have a go at our Rapper Filmography trivia game, which tests your knowledge of the acting careers for various hip hoppers. Additionally, for our list of cinema’s greatest fake bands, click here. For our examination of the Beatles’ movies, click here. Check out the rest of our Total Recall archives here.

Finally, we give you one of our favorite early examples of rappers making the transition to the big screen: the Fat Boys in Disorderlies:

Written by Jen Yamato, Ryan Fujitani, and Tim Ryan.

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