Type the words “thug life tattoo” into Google images and you’ll get a sense of how influential the rapper and actor Tupac Shakur continues to be. Some of the images are very recent, even though the owner of the ink job on which they are based has been dead for 20 years. On 7th September 1996 Tupac was shot in Las Vegas. He died from his injuries six days later. Six months on the Notorious B.I.G., another rapper, was shot and killed in circumstances very similar to those which cost Tupac his life. To this day nobody has ever been arrested for either murder. I was 21 when Tupac was killed. Had he lived he would have turned 45 this week. Who knows what his contribution to music and film might have been. As I am currently in LA I drove over to South Central earlier this week to relive some childhood film memories.
What follows is a brief list of how rappers and rap music have helped to shape the film industry.
- Boyz n The Hood – A 1991 film from John Singleton starring Laurence Fishburne (or Larry as he was then), Cuba Gooding Jr. and former N.W.A. rapper Ice Cube. The film is a classic and tells the story of teenagers growing up in South Central, LA. It was nominated for Best Picture and Best Director at the Academy Awards in 1992. Singleton was 24 and is still the youngest person ever to receive an Oscar nomination for a directing role. As a 16 year old from the North West of England the film blew me away. The sequence with Ricky in the back alley right through to Brenda opening his SAT results has stayed with me ever since. I was expecting the film to be a flop. How could a rapper possibly headline a film? How wrong I was.
- New Jack City – To be honest I don’t know why I expected Boyz n The Hood to flop because a few months before I watched it I saw New Jack City starring Judd Nelson, Chris Rock, Wesley Snipes and rapper Ice-T. For a while I thought it was obligatory for rappers to be called Ice so when Tupac exploded onto the scene I was reassured. The film is about a New York undercover detective (Ice-T) trying to bring down a drug operation. It takes less than a second for you to forget what Ice-T does for a day job. He is totally believable as Detective Scotty Appleton.
- Poetic Justice – Flushed with the success of his acting debut in Juice Tupac Shakur went on to star opposite Janet Jackson in John Singleton’s follow up film to Boyz n The Hood. Poetic Justice was inevitably compared to its predecessor and it fell short with many critics. I’ve included it here because Tupac Shakur’s performance as Lucky is incredible. In 1993 Tupac was never out of the news, whether it be for this film or the release of yet another album. From the provincial distance of early 1990s England it was an astonishing thing to observe. Before Boyz n The Hood I thought rap music meant Vanilla Ice and Ice, Ice Baby. Poetic Justice was when I finally realised that rappers were box office gold.
- Straight Outta Compton – This was the name of N.W.A.’s debut album released in 1988 and it catapulted the band into the stratosphere. Produced by Dr. Dre (not a real doctor) and DJ Yella it put Gangsta Rap on the map and it also shifted the power base of rap music from the East Coast to the West. This rivalry would ultimately lead to the deaths of Tupac and Notorious B.I.G. In 2015 director F. Gary Gray released a biographical film about the band. Gray cut his teeth making music videos for major stars like Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and Queen Latifah. His were the perfect hands then in which to place a film like this. N.W.A. broke new ground with their album and the film recalls this extraordinary period in rap music history. Every major figure of the rap scene as it was at this time is present. The film cost $50 million to make and has thus far made $200 million at the box office. It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.
I am fascinated by rappers and rap music. The crossover from music to film is a common one but none seemingly more so than for rap. It’s one of the reasons that my Christmas jumper says “Gangsta Wrapper”. So here’s to Tupac. He’d have been 45 this week. As it is he’s forever Thug Life.