‘CB4’ follows the rise to fame of a fictional NWA-inspired rap group headed by Chris Rock, who adopt phoney gangsta personas to make up for their middle-class upbringing. The film itself is a mixed bag, but its clued-in references to late 80s and early 90s hip hop reveals a lot about the attitude of the naïve young fans who were responsible for popularising rap.
‘Hip Hop Cinema’ is the first in a series of columns delving into the history of hip hop culture in cinema and television.
‘CB4′ (1993) follows the rise to fame of a fictional NWA-inspired rap group headed by Chris Rock, who adopt phoney gangsta personas to make up for their middle-class upbringing. The film itself is a mixed bag, but its clued-in references to late 80s and early 90s hip hop reveals a lot about the attitude of the naïve young fans who were responsible for popularising rap.
At the time, Universal Studios had been fishing for a project to capitalise on the mainstream rap phenomenon on MTV and radio, so they turned to Chris Rock who had been pitching a ‘Spinal Tap‘ style project since about 1990. Due to the recent film successes of fellow SNL alumni Mike Meyers, Rock was given a surprising amount of freedom on the film. In an interview given around the time, Rock confirmed his intent to be as accurate about rap as possible: “No one who [doesn’t play] a rapper will rap in this movie. [The studio] wanted everyone rapping. ‘Hey, wouldn’t it be fun if your father rapped at the breakfast table?’ ‘No. Fuck you.’ In the long run, if you have any brain you realize that a 26-year-old black kid knows a lot more about rap than a 52-year-old white guy.”
Appropriately, the film’s opening scene introduces us to the teenage MC Gusto (Chris Rock) through a slow-pan of his bedroom, an obsessive shrine to rap with carefully labelled merchandise and framed records from Grand Master Flash, Kurtis Blow, Parliament, SugarHill Gang, Fat Boys, Biz Markee, Run DMC, Jam Master Jay and other greats, all a great sign that the film takes hiphop seriously. Early on, we are treated to some generally effective cameos, including a jealous Ice T (“What the FUCK I’m supposed to do NOW? I can’t dance! Shit’s fucked up”), Halle Berry (fresh from Spike Lee’s ‘Jungle Fever‘), Ice Cube, Flavor Flav, Shaquille O’Neal, and Eazy E.
The promise of these early ‘mockumentary’ scenes is quickly jettisoned in favour of a typical 90s comedy, a mostly nonsensical plot involving Chris Rock and his friends stealing the Gangsta name and reputation of a known felon to promote their group, CB4 (Cell block 4). Of course, the villain (Eddie Murphy’s brother, Charlie Murphy) breaks out of jail to seek revenge on the newly famous rap crew. Although the script writers (music journalist Nelson George, writer of “Naked Gun 33 1/3” Robert Locash, and Chris Rock himself) pretty accurately lampoon the smoke and mirrors of popular 90s Gangsta rap and New Jack Swing, the story is aimless, and the jokes only land some of the time.
The three leads (MC Gusto, Stab Master Arson, and Dead Mike) are three ‘Cosby kids’ from reasonably well-off but hard-working families. Pretty far removed ‘from the street’, like many teens they respond to the rebellious attitude, the masculine swagger, the foul language, the colourful fashions and energy of rap music. MC Gusto honestly proclaims, “I like this music. I like what its about. I like the way it sound”. In the scene when their amateur posse mime Run DMC’s ‘King of Rock’ in their car, complete with glasses and Stetson hats (watch above), they’re no different to the 10-year-old white boy who naively emulates CB4 later in the film. As MC Gusto’s father points out, “You ain’t from the street, I’m from the street. And only somebody who wasn’t would think it was something to glorify.”
CB4 are a pastiche of other rap groups, mimicking NWA in their signature track ‘Straight outta Locash’. Just like the flurry of copycats who flooded the scene in the early 90s, these enterprising kids, fuelled by opportunistic promoters, realise very early on that talent is secondary to image, and their art secondary to fame, something which has plagued mainstream hiphop consistently since. Even Dead Mike’s fascination with the black-pride movement is more of a choice of image and commerce than ideology. As he learns, “The revolution must be marketed”, and Dead Mike’s black-power rap is all righteous anger and no substance.
The soundtrack talent in CB4 is highly respectable, including Public Enemy, KRS-One, Dr. Dre, Doug E. Fresh, The Pharcyde, Ice Cube, Mary J. Blige, Eric B. and Rakim, Run DMC, Slick Rick, Fu-Shnickens, P.M. Dawn, Beastie Boys, and MC Ren. There are only two original tracks by CB4 in the film, ‘Straight Outta Locash‘ and the goofy controversy-baiting ‘Sweat from my balls’, both of which are surprisingly slick and pretty well written, but the film would have benefited from more.
CB4 may not be that great a comedy, but I admire its spirit, its fairly accurate depiction of the music and style, and as a film its a telling piece of hip hop film history during the early years of rap commercialisation.
Mladen will be writing more hip hop film essays over the coming weeks. If you have any comments, or requests for films, please leave a comment below.