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Blaxploitation Films Shaped The Image Of Hip-Hop (And Still Do)

This year, I’ve been celebrating Black History Month with a Blaxploitation movie marathon. So far, I’ve hit plenty of the classics: Shaft, Foxy Brown, Cleopatra Jones, Superfly, and Dolemite.

Although these movies were all released a good decade before I was born, there’s a comforting familiarity to them. What I realized is that many of the aesthetics, characters, references, and tropes are so recognizable because I indirectly grew up on them through hip-hop.

For the past 50 years, hip-hop has been largely associated with a certain kind of villainy or anti-heroic spirit. It seems as though rap fans love to root for the bad guys: from Eazy-E to 50 Cent to 21 Savage, many of rap’s most prominent protagonists have been the kinds of dudes you’d hesitate to bring home to your mom.

But that image didn’t spring up overnight, nor was it the wholesale invention of the artists who embraced it. There’s a connection between the way rap – an indisputably Black art form – presents its world of crime, sex, and violence and some of the first modern representations of Black people in mass media and entertainment: Those Blaxploitation films.

Now, the history and context of these films are as rich and complex as any other Black American history you’ll learn about in February. It’s been covered extensively in documentaries like Netflix’s Is That Black Enough For You?!?! and in books like Josiah Howard’s Blaxploitation Cinema, so instead, I’ll just give a primer here.

Although Black actors and filmmakers are indelible to the history of cinema, reaching back all the way to the medium’s origins, it’s fair to say that in the 1970s, opportunities for Black folks in Hollywood were few, far between, and undesirable even if you could get them.

For the most part, the roles Black actors could secure were those of two-bit crooks and villains. If you saw us on-screen at all, we were antagonists, comedic sidekicks, or hapless victims, easily and quickly dispatched to serve the white stars – and audiences.

But with the advent of self-financed films like Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, and action films like Cotton Comes To Harlem and Shaft, Black audiences finally got to see themselves reflected on the screen as the drivers of the plot. In these films, the heroes were bigger than life, backtalked “the Man,” and took no sh*t from anybody. Most importantly, the Black characters won at the end, right or wrong.

In a clever inversion of the typecasting that had defined Black roles for the past five decades, the protagonists of these films were often criminals: drug dealers, pimps, or hustlers just trying to get over. The difference was that by viewing the narratives from their point of view, audiences were invited to sympathize with them and see the circumstances that led them to these “careers.”

While watching Superfly, I found myself reciting Eddie’s monologue to Priest word-for-word, despite only having seen the film one other time in my life. “You’ve got this fantasy in your head about gettin’ outta the life and setting that other world on its ear. What the F*CK are you gonna do except hustle? Besides pimpin’? And you really ain’t got the stomach for that.” I realized, though, that I’d heard that line dozens of times already… just in a different medium.

That excerpt is one of the hundreds that have been sampled in rap records since at least the early ‘90s (in this case, it appears on Jay-Z’s Kingdom Come intro “Prelude” ahead of one of Jay’s most masterful lyrical performances to date). The parallels between Blaxploitation and rap are manifold – and no accident, since Blaxploitation was one of the early influences on the genre.

For the Black teens growing up in the ‘70s, Blaxploitation would have held a lurid allure: In addition to the draw of seeing Black faces on the screen, the films were full of more titillating material like gunplay, martial arts, and of course, gratuitous nudity. So it makes perfect sense that when they were creating hip-hop from the ground up, that soil would have already been seeded with images from these larger-than-life examples of Black anti-heroism.

That’s why early rappers like the Cold Crush Brothers, the Furious Five, and Slick Rick presented themselves with badder than badass superhero personas. They were taking inspiration from TNT Jackson, Youngblood Priest, and Black Belt Jones – characters they’d seen on the screen who represented aspirational qualities, both good and bad, for kids surrounded by urban blight and constantly confronted with institutional and interpersonal racism.

As hip-hop evolved, so too did rappers’ relationships with Blaxploitation films. One of the more obvious examples is Snoop Dogg, whose fascination with these movies persists to this day (the hallways of his Los Angeles compound are adorned with posters from these films, which he references often in his music, marketing, and presentation).

And the one that comes up the most is Dolemite. Snoop references the Rudy Ray Moore film in his final verse on Dr. Dre’s 1992 single “Nuthin’ But A ‘G’ Thang” and numerous rappers have name-dropped him in their own music. Ol’ Dirty Bastard even used clips from the film in his video for “Got Your Money” in 1999.

As a role model, Dolemite probably couldn’t be worse. The film’s obvious technical flaws aside, it’s pretty clear throughout the film that Dolemite is a disreputable sort of character. But, it makes sense, in a certain way, that rappers relate to him. In the film, he’s framed for committing crimes that are outside of his criminal wheelhouse. Meanwhile, rappers were often accused of criminal activity and blamed for pretty much any sensational crime in America throughout the first 40 years of hip-hop’s existence.

Like Blaxploitation filmmakers, many decided to lean into their typecasting. If the only roles Black folks could get in movies were of pimps and hustlers, why not turn them into heroes? By the same token, rappers – who often did have criminal pasts or at least connections – seem to have decided that, if they’re going to be cast as bad guys, then they’ll be the bad guys while making all the more money from doing so.

This is how you get rap “heroes” like Future, whose music espouses substance use he himself admitted to giving up ages ago. It’s how 21 Savage, in the midst of a deportation battle with the US government, can still find time for some “Knife Talk.” It’s why 50 Cent and Snoop Dogg teamed up for a player’s ball – a common theme in rap videos – in their “P.I.M.P.” video. It’s why, 50 years into hip-hop’s official history, we still see young rappers tying themselves to gangster imagery, even when it couldn’t be more obvious how far removed they are from those situations in real life.

Most of the time, rap, like Blaxploitation, is a performance. Artists embrace these roles – oftentimes, with obvious, tongue-in-cheek homage (see: Camp Lo, Anderson .Paak) – as a way of honoring the past, whether intentionally or unintentionally. All are just aping the conventions that they looked up to as kids; contemporary or future generations just may not be aware that they themselves are just giving modern takes on old favorites.

The legacy of Blaxploitation is more than just bell bottoms and platform shoes, butterfly collars and perfectly-coiffed afros, or Black anti-heroes slapping down “jive turkeys” and fighting the Man. It’s the resiliency of people who were often denied opportunities making their own. It’s the creativity to reverse society’s expectations of villainy and turn themselves into heroes. It’s their ability to craft a new mythology when theirs was torn away. And that legacy lives on in hip-hop, even 50 years later.