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It's hard to believe that just a couple of decades ago, rap music was such a fringe element in society that only a handful of kids on the streets lent it any real creedence. Considering that in the new milennium, hip-hop has become the most popular genre of music in America, it's interesting to see how it also invades other aspects of our culture. One indication of this is in the way that rap music has crossed over into the film industry. Over the course of the last couple decades, rap music stars have made their way into actual acting roles, ranging from token bit parts and cameos to full-fledged Oscar-caliber dramatic performances. Here, we'll take a look at the top ten performances by rappers in film history. I'm sure this list will make a few people cringe, but it's designed to encompass the broad scale that the genre has taken in mixing with film. So sit back, cue up an old GrandMaster Flash album, and let's see where this thing ends up.
Many years ago, rappers starring in major motion pictures wasn't exactly an everyday occurrence. In the mid-80's, however, one of the (literally!) biggest groups in rap music were given their own starring vehicle! Yes, Prince Markie D, Cool Rock, and the late Human Beat Box, collectively known as The Fat Boys, served up this slapstick masterpiece about a group of overweight orderlies hired to take care of a rich old guy, played by the once-respected Ralph Bellamy. The premise of the film is basically that fat people are funny, predating the work of Chris Farley by a good 5-6 years.
In 1990, a pair of fun-loving rappers were set to star in their first motion picture together. However, the plan fell through, and DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince were relegated to a television series instead. But another pair of rappers benefitted by that duo's loss, as Kid N' Play stepped in to fill their roles in the comedy classic HOUSE PARTY. The movie was a surprise hit, and led to the duo not only landing their own Saturday Morning cartoon series, but also spawned two sequels (one being responsible for bringing the phrase 'Pajama jammy jam' into the lexicon.) Martin Lawrence and Tisha Campbell also enjoyed earlier success here, later reteaming on TV's Martin. Kid N' Play also teamed up again in 1992's CLASS ACT, to less-than-stellar results.
In the early '90s, rapper Ice-T took a bold step by becoming one of the first men in rap music to attach himself to a dramatic role in a film. Ice had previously made small cameos in the seminal urban flicks BREAKIN' and BREAKIN' 2: ELECTRIC BOOGALOO, but this was his moment to shine. Ice starred in Mario Van Peebles' crime drama NEW JACK CITY as detective Scotty Appleton, who is responsible for uttering the immortal line, "I want to shoot you so bad my dick is hard." Costarring with Judd Nelson, Chris Rock, and Wesley Snipes, Ice actually turned in what would probably be his finest performance. Since then, Ice-T has gone on to make almost fifty films, but most of them are the kind of things that you find shoved to the bottom of the bargain bin.
One of the more successful players in the rap industry before his death in 1996 at the age of 25, Tupac was working on quite the movie resume as well, earning kudos for his work in the gritty urban dramas JUICE and ABOVE THE RIM. Even after his death, he was earning positive marks with turns in GRIDLOCK'D and GANG RELATED. But Tupac showed his best side in John Singleton's 1993 film POETIC JUSTICE, where he proved that he could do more than play a street thug; he could also carry a romantic lead. Sure, the film hasn't aged well and seems pretty pretentious and melodramatic in hindsight, but All Eyez were defintiely on Shakur's groundbreaking performance here.
It's sometimes hard to remember that Will Smith was once a comedy rapper known as The Fresh Prince, cutting rhymes about how his parents don't understand and then getting in some hot water rapping about Freddy Kreuger. Smith got into the acting game a couple years later, appearing in small roles in films like MADE IN AMERICA, WHERE THE DAY TAKES YOU, and this film, where he wowed a ton of folks as a con artist posing as the son of Sidney Poitier. Soon after, Smith was starring in his own Television series, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. The movie offers started rolling in, and he starred in high-profile stuff like INDEPENDENCE DAY, BAD BOYS, and MEN IN BLACK. His dramatic work in SIX DEGREES OF SEPERATION (which has nothing to do with actor Kevin Bacon) was a precursor to his eventual Oscar nomination for ALI.
In the mid-'90s, a memo apparently went through the rap community stating that everyone involved in the industry was no longer allowed to display any trace of a sense of humor, especially when performing in movies. Folks like Ice-T and Tupac turned to gritty dramatic roles, and the Kid N' Play / Fat Boys element were long forgotten. However, one maverick rapper turned actor broke away from this edict by writing and starring in 1995's FRIDAY, an underrated comedy about a typical day in the ghettos of South Central Los Angeles. Cube had already tackled the darker side in BOYZ N THE HOOD, but showed his finest performance in this comedy.
Another one of those actors whose career as a rapper is generally glossed over by the general public, but this time it's for good reason. "Marky" Mark led his group The Funky Bunch onto the pop charts with one of the worst singles of 1991 in "Good Vibrations", then followed it up with a heinous reworking of Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wildside." But fortunately, Mark's musical career (fueled undoubtedly by his tendency to drop his pants a lot) was cut short, and he focused on acting. After some smaller roles in THE BASKETBALL DIARIES and RENAISSANCE MAN, he broke out as a leading man in the awful FEAR. But it was 1997's BOOGIE NIGHTS, in which Wahlberg starred as well-endowed porn star Dirk Diggler, that he truly hit his stride. Since then, he's put in a few more respectable performances, but his forte will always stand in the role where he sang an off-key rendition of Stan Bush's "The Touch."
Sean "Puffy" Combs holds the title for the most annoying person to ever enter the music industry. For the last 6-7 years, the man known as Puff Daddy and P. Diddy has been omnipresent, responsible for approximately 87% of all music found on pop radio. He's even made rock music legends such as Jimmy Page and Sting bend to his will. But, surprisingly, Puffy did an amazing job in his acting debut, playing a small role in Jon Favreau's 2001 crime comedy MADE. Combs was actually one of the film's brighter spots, turning in a subdued, honest performance as a gangster named Ruiz. His performance surely outshone the bumbling self-parody that Vince Vaughn stumbled through in the same film.
The most prolific woman in rap music history, this full-figured songstress enjoyed success at the young age of 18, when her debut album was released. But Latifah, like many others, eased her way into the movie industry as well, appearing in such films as JUICE, HOUSE PARTY 2, and JUNGLE FEVER before landing a role on the long-running sitcom Living Single. The Queen's acting career overshadowed her musical one, as she appeared in several other films and even got her own talk show. But her crowning achievement will always be as 'Mama' Morton in 2002's CHICAGO, a role that earned her an Academy Award nomination (only to be beaten by her own castmate, Catherine Zeta-Jones.) Latifah has proven to be a hot commodity in Hollywood, and her star continues to rise.
I'm one of only seven people in America who has not yet seen Eminem's acting debut, 8 MILE, but it's too high-profile of a performance to leave off this list. Maybe one day soon I'll actually see this film, which shocked many people by winning an Oscar for best original song at the 75th Academy Awards, but for now I'm just going to take up space here for the sake of taking up space. Besides, who else did you want me to include here? I could have always included Vanilla Ice for his performance in COOL AS ICE or TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES 2, but I chose not to do that for obvious reasons. I guess Snoop Dogg's casting as Huggy Bear in STARSKY AND HUTCH is about as genius as it comes, but I still haven't seen that one either. Other rappers who might otherwise occupy this spot would be Eve from BARBERSHOP, Busta Rhymes for HALLOWEEN: RESURRECTION, or Everlast from JUDGMENT NIGHT. I could have even included one of the approximately 23,074 rappers that made cameos in WHO'S THE MAN, but none of them were all that memorable. So yeah, Eminem will indeed stay in this spot, because if I didn't include him, regardless of whether or not I'd seen the film, I'd surely catch hell. Besides, he earns credit for challenging Triumph the Insult Comic Dog to a fight at the MTV Video Music Awards.
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