You’ve come a long way, homie.
That’s the message the entertainment industry is sending to hip-hop culture these days. While it’s still largely a youth phenomenon, hip-hop has roots dating back nearly 30 years. And increasingly, Hollywood and others are looking to hip-hop’s beginnings for inspiration — and big profits.
Case in point: the urban romance “Brown Sugar,” which made $11.1 million over the weekend, coming in at No. 3 at the box office. (It cost a reported $8 million to make.) The movie traces the relationship between two people — Dre (Taye Diggs) and Sidney (Sanaa Lathan) — who met as teenagers in the early ’80s at the same time they discovered the sharp rhythms, crafty wordplay and vibrant street style of hip-hop.
Early in the film, the youngsters are in a graffiti-laden New York City park, watching in awe as break dancers spin around on their heads and early rappers Slick Rick and Dana Dane battle each other for lyrical dominance. As Dre and Sidney grow older, their relationship with hip-hop and each other deepens. Dre becomes a music executive. Sidney works as editor of a hip-hop magazine.
At one point, Sidney expresses amazement at how rap has grown, from music made in parks and on street corners to a billion dollar industry; from, she says, “red Kool-Aid parties in the Bronx” to “champagne parties in Soho.”
“I didn’t think it was a fad,” Sidney says about the music of her youth. “But I never knew it could grow and mature.”
Dre and Sidney represent onscreen what is going on in life: The hip-hop generation is growing up. Folks who were in their teens during the late ’70s and early ’80s, when hip-hop culture was born, are now in their 30s with jobs, families and disposable income. And the entertainment industry is increasingly trying to capitalize on memories of rap’s early days. “[Hip-hop] is so big now, and it’s permeated so many aspects of popular culture that you can’t help but recognize the old school,” says Michael Elliot, who wrote the “Brown Sugar” screenplay with Rick Famuyiwa.
Hip-hop culture — which refers to a range of expression, including rapping, various styles of dancing and graffiti art — was born in the economically ravaged South Bronx of the 1970s. While the first major rap hit was the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rappers Delight” in 1979, most hip-hop tunes of the day were regional hits or confined to the R&B charts.
Rap had a creative growth spurt in the ’80s with the complex rhyme schemes of rapper Rakim, the surrealism of De La Soul, the homegirl feminism of MC Lyte and Queen Latifah, and the black power politics of Public Enemy. But it wasn’t until the ’90s that hip-hop began scoring major multimillion-selling crossover successes with West Coast gangsta rappers Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre, the fiery poet Tupac Shakur, and Puff Daddy’s New York-based Bad Boy camp, including the late, lamented Notorious B.I.G.
Now the pop charts are routinely ruled by rappers like Ja Rule, Jay-Z, Nelly, and Eve. Hip-hop has gone from neighborhood pastime to become the most important form of youth culture since the advent of rock ‘n’ roll, influencing Hollywood and Madison Avenue and generating billions for the music industry.
Perhaps because of this, there’s a longing for the innocence of rap’s early days. In Missy Elliott’s new video “Work It,” the singer/rapper spins on her head and dons a furry Kangol hat, a thick gold rope chain, and a sweat suit, all part of the uniform of the day. Her new album, “Under Construction,” due Nov. 12, even includes an 80s rap tribute, “Back in the Day.”
N’ Sync-er Justin Timberlake rose from an oversized, spray-painted boom box during his debut solo bow at the MTV Music Video Awards in August. It’s significant that in the former teen popster’s bid to be taken seriously as a adult artist, he nods to early hip hop.
Jennifer Lopez’s “Jenny from the Block” samples bits from ’80s rap oldies: KRS-One’s “South Bronx,” and the Stop The Violence All-Stars’ “Self Destruction.” The song’s backing track functions like sonic autobiography, as Bronx-born Lopez sings “No matter where I go/ I know where I came from.”
Sugarhill Gang-era styles are also influencing fashion. Anna Sui’s recent New York show featured supermodel Naomi Campbell strutting down the runway in a name-plate belt, sneakers and knee-high socks.
And the trend has even break-danced into the stodgy publishing world. Last year’s “Back in the Days” — a coffee-table book of ’80s-era street-style photos by Jamel Shabazz — continues to be a steady seller and a must have for fashionistas. And later this month, two new retro-rap tomes hit the shelves: “Yes Yes Y’All: The Experience Music Project’s Oral History of Hip-Hop’s First Decade” by Jim Fricke and Charlie Ahearn, and “Who Shot YA?: Three Decades of Hiphop Photography” by Ernie Paniccioli.
This mix of films, videos, songs, clothes and books heralds the first full-scale wave of hip-hop nostalgia. “You get the older generation that can relate to it and say, ‘Yeah that was my time,’ ” says Sara Rosen, an executive at Powerhouse Books, the company behind “Back in the Days.” “And you have all these young kids who are like, ‘I missed it. I’ve got to catch up.’ “
To some extent, interest in rap’s salad days results from a disillusionment with contemporary hip-hop. “It’s a reaction to all the excess that we [have] and the bling-bling [flashy jewelry] and the Bentleys,” says Emil Wilbekin, editor-in-chief of Vibe magazine. “It really got to be too much.”
The throwback trend, especially as it has spawned major studio films, high-end clothes and pricey coffee-table books, also indicates that for the first time the hip-hop generation is being recognized as an adult market. In the past, hip-hop films have been targeted to teenagers. But “Brown Sugar” suggests a change in the film industry’s thinking.
“[It’s] the beginning of Hollywood looking at an adult audience for a hip-hop movie,” screenwriter Elliot says. “And hopefully we’re going to see more hip-hop-influenced movies for adults 30 and over. I’m 35 and I’ve been a lover of hip-hop since I was a teenager. It feels good to be a part of this music that has now been around for so long.”