How It Began (Rappers turned Actors)
Rapper and Actor. Two careers that were the furthest thing from one another 20 years ago. But today, in 2011, seem almost synonymous. I’d say it began on September 10, 1990 when a young up-and-coming rapper from Philly took his skills from the studio to the television screen with his mega-hit, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. The rapper I am speaking of, is of course present day Hollywood superstar Will Smith, best known then as The Fresh Prince. The Fresh Prince of Bel Air went on to air 148 episodes over the course of its six year span, solidifying not just Will Smith as an actor, but Hip-Hop as a possible pool for leading sitcom roles. It’s high fan base and viewership quickly translated into dollar signs for Hollywood and an increase in roles for black actors. On April 10, 1995 a suave, future Hip-Hop icon by the name of James Todd Smith, took the moniker LL Cool J (Ladies Love Cool James) and made it a household name with his hit tv series In The House. The success of these shows took rappers from the radio to the small screen and eventually to the big screen. Will Smith went on to star in the box-office hit Independence Day (1996) which solidified his position in blockbuster films like Bad Boys (1995) , Men in Black (1997), Ali (2001), I Am Legend (2007), Hancock (2008) and most recently Seven Pounds (2008). Today he is Hollywood’s highest paid and most sought after actor. LL Cool J went on to star in blockbuster hits like Deep Blue Sea (1999), Any given Sunday(1999), Charlies Angels (2000), S.W.A.T. (2003), and now has a starring role in the television series N.C.I.S. Los Angeles alongside Chris O’ Donnell. Garnering monetary success for the movie industry, LL Cool J and Will Smith have proven that the inclusion of a Hip-Hop figure’s image in a project on the small and big screen can do big things for television and cinema. As a result, within the last ten years we have seen a huge increase in rappers appearing on t.v. shows (most of them are reality shows these days though) and movie screens across America.
What it is Now
Some famous rappers who have been in movies are:
50 Cent (Get Rich or Die Trying, Righteous Kill), Andre 3000 (Semi Pro, Four Brothers, Idlewild), Big Boi (Idlewild, ATL), Busta Rhymes (Higher Learning, Shaft, Halloween Resurrection), Common (Brown Sugar, Wanted, American Gangster, Street Kings, Smokin’ Aces, Terminator Salvation, Date Night, Just Wright), DMX (Belly, Exit Wounds, Cradle 2 The Grave, Romeo Must Die, Never Die Alone), Dr. Dre (The Wash, Training Day), Eminem (8 Mile, The Wash), Eve (Barbershop 1 & 2, Whip It), The Game (Street Kings), Ice Cube (Boyz n The Hood, Friday, Higher Learning, The Barbershop 1 & 2, All About The Benjamin’s, Torque, XXX: State of the Union, Are We There Yet?, Janky Promoters, Lottery Ticket & many more), Ice-T (Breakin’, New Jack City, Tank Girl, Johnny Mnemonic), Ja Rule (The Fast and The Furious, Half Past Dead, Assault on Precinct 13), Ludacris (2 Fast 2 Furious, Hustle & Flow, Crash, Max Payne, Fred Clause, RocknRolla, Gamer, Fast Five), Mark Wahlberg (The Happening, Three Kings, The Perfect Storm, The Big Hit, Shooter, Invincible, The Italian Bob, Four Brothers, The Fighter and many more), Master P (I Got The Hook Up), Method Man (How High), Mos Def (Bamboozled, Brown Sugar, 16 Blocks, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Be Kind Rewind, Cadillac Records, Next Day Air), Nas (Belly), Nelly (The Longest Yard), Queen Latifah (Set It Off, Sphere, Chicago, Brown Sugar, Bringing Down The House, BeautyShop, Last Holiday, just Wright & many more), Redman (How High), The RZA (American Gangster, Due Date , Ghost Dog, Repo Men), Snoop Dogg (The Wash, Baby Boy, Bones, Starsky & Hutch, Training Day, Soul Plane), T.I. (ATL, American Gangster, Takers), TuPac (Juice, Poetic Justice, Above The Rim, Gridlock’d, Gang Related), Tyrese, yes he raps too (Transformers 1 -3, Baby Boy, Waist Deep, 2 Fast 2 Furious, Four Brothers, Annapolis, Death Race, Legion, Fast Five), Will. I .Am (X-Men Origins: Wolverine), Xzibit (8 Mile, Gridiron Gang, Derailed, XXX: State of the Union), and many many more.
Role Reversal (Actors turned rappers)
With that said, it is no longer a surprise to see a rapper turned actor these days. But, it is however, a shift in conversation when actors take on the role of rappers. With Hip-Hop being one of the most dominant genres in music and one of the highest grossing, some familiar faces in television are beginning to cash in on the opportunity and translate their skills from the screen to the mic. Case in point, one of the biggest names in Hip-Hop right now: Aubrey Graham, best known as Drake. This budding actor went from his semi-popular role on Canadian television series Degrassi: The Next Generation as Jimmy Brooks or a character many of us refer to as “Wheelchair Jimmy” (he rolled around in a wheelchair in the series and even occasionally rapped on one or two episodes) to currently toasting it up with some of Hip-Hop’s elites on sold out tours and award shows everywhere. In an unprecedented event, his critically acclaimed third mixtape So Far Gone launched him from Hip-Hop nobody to having his voice heard every hour on the hour on all major Hip-Hop radio stations in the country. Garnering record deal offers from various top label execs, he eventually signed an alleged $1 million+ deal with his good friend Lil Wayne to become a member of Young Money and later released his now certified platinum album Thank Me Later. Since his introduction to the Hip-Hop scene, Drake has worked with music heavyweights like Young Jeezy, Lil Wayne, Mary J, Blige, Dr. Dre, Eminem, Kanye West, Trey Songz, Timbaland, Rihanna and Alicia Keys, to name a few. As a result of his success, other actors are starting to follow suit.
Case in Point, may I divert your attention to actor recently turned rapper Donald Glover, also known as Childish Gambino. This star of the NBC series Community and writer for the critically acclaimed NBC series 30 Rock is making waves in the Hip-Hop scene with his self titled EP. Although it only has 5 songs on it, the Childish Gambino EP is filled with great production and great lyrical content, proving that actors can rap as well. And while there are some similarities to Lil Wayne’s style of delivery and Drake’s lyrical content on the EP which may challenge the integrity of who he is as an artist, it is still a project to lookout for and it is gaining him a lot of buzz. With six music projects currently under his belt, an ever-growing fan base, a mini tour in progress, a Comedy Central special and countless appearances, Childish Gambino is setting himself up to be a breakthrough mainstream artist. So to answer my own question, “What happens when Hip-Hop moves to the big screen and vice versa?” Well, so far it seems to be: GREATNESS!!!