The definition of "hip hop movies" is pretty darn wide as it covers a broad range of types and styles of films - not to mention differing levels of quality since, let's face it, some have been downright low-budget jenky (bad meaning bad). The hip hop movie genre as a whole encompasses such varieties as concerts films (EG 1995's The Show or 2005's Dave Chappelle's Block Party); documentaries about specific parts of the genre or individual artists (e.g. Scratch or Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme or Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest); bio-pics like Notorious or the semi-biographical Eminem acting vehicle 8-Mile; and straight up pure celebratory flicks that show love for some or all of hip hop's four elements (EG Wild Style, Juice, Beat Street, and Breakin').
Then there are films with hip hop themes, hip hop stars as actors, films made by hip hoppers (EG Master P's I'm Bout It and all the other ones he made) or movies with hip hop heavy soundtracks. One of my favorite styles is comedy/satire films that poke fun at either hip hop/rap itself or hip hop movies such as the '90s comedy classics CB4 and especially Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking your Juice in the Hood (which references many of the movies included in the list below). Add to that the DVD-only releases that have been categorized as video/DVD releases but could also qualify to be alongside others on this list, including Mac Dre's Treal TV from Thizz Ent. Also not included on this list were films with hip hop soundtracks that were really just a vehicle to try and sell the artists on the "soundtrack" even though you didn't hear most of the songs in the actual film.
I suppose, technically, one should really draw up different lists for each sub-category of films: documentaries, dramas, comedies, gangsta themed, etc. etc. But this is a subjective list, based on my own personal opinions on this day in July 2014 and could change by next week. Given the vast amount of hip hop films out there from over the decades it is challenging to include all of them (I've already thought of a bunch I should have included), so please feel free to add in the comments any omissions that should have made the list. Thank you!
1) Wild Style (1983)
I have friends who can recite every line from this film, they've watched it that many times. I may not know every line by heart but I sure have watched my (25 year anniversary) DVD copy of Wild Style countless times. Like a good wine, this pioneering film which encompasses all elements of hip hop only gets better with age. The Charlie Ahearn directed film is not just an excellent authentic portrayal but also a rare one to truly capture that early era. Everything about this film delivers, including the music which, along with endless spoken soundbites from the film, has been sampled to death over the years. Wild Style is full of great scenes like what I call the "this is it" scene where you see the young subway car aerosol writers in the daylight standing on the side of the train tracks above ground anxiously waiting for the train they'd sprayed up the night before to slowly roll by with their fresh piece majestically displayed. As it rumbles past them they do an impromptu critique of the art with that shout of excitement, "This is it!" Wild Style has it all: writers/graf artists, DJs, MCs, b-boys, and beatboxers and features such legends as Fab 5 Freddy, Grandmaster Flash, and more. Although from a technical standpoint Wild Style was very primitive in its production (often only one camera shooting scenes) that only adds to its raw genuine authenticity. In short Wild Style is the best damn all round historical document of the art form born in the South Bronx.
Wild Style Trailer
2) Style Wars (1992)
Technically not a film since it was made for TV as a 1982 PBS documentary, Style Wars, like Wild Style, is another rare authentic early document of the then burgeoning hip hop culture. In addition to being an historical look at hip hop it is also a snapshot of New York City from a bygone era - a time when the NYC subway transit cops were at war with these seemingly uncontrollable army of roaming artists spray-painting their trains. What perhaps most appeals to fans of hip hop and aerosol art is that the film is made from a fan's perspective and shows the lengths to which artists go to pursue their art. Also has breaking and great music. A must have for any writer and any fan of hip hop history. The special edition Style Wars DVD (highly recommended) includes follow up interviews with the surviving artists, as well as tributes to those no longer with us and tons of great stills of street art shot by film producer Henry Chalfant and Martha Cooper.
Style Wars Trailer
3) Do The Right Thing (1989)
Spike Lee's five-star Do the Right Thing (his best film) - a film about one hot summer day in Brooklyn when race tensions fly - may not technically be an all encompassing hip hop film in that it does not rigidly focus on each of the genre's elements. But it is pure hip hop of the time - the Afro-Centric movement of hip hop - with the leaders of the genre at the end of the '80s. Public Enemy drove the film in the famous scene featuring their song "Fight The Power" (the song of that summer the film came out). Both PE and Spike Lee were at their career peaks in this film.
Do The Right Thing Trailer
4) Boyz N The Hood (1991)
A true early '90s West Coast classic that showcased Ice Cube's acting skills early on, the John Singleton directed Boyz N The Hood is the story of four friends in South Central Los Angeles and the craziness they encounter. This film set the template for a whole slew of inner-city gangsta themed, hip hop driven, flicks of the '90s. Honorable mention also to John Singleton's 2001 coming of age movie, Baby Boy (2001), which took place ten years later in this South Central Los Angeles location.
Boyz N The Hood Trailer
5) Friday (1995)
This Gary F. Gray directed film would go on to be a classic - another film that people quote lines from ad infinitum. A ridiculously funny comedy starring Chris Tucker and Ice Cube, who also co-wrote the script, and a cast of characters in a simple but hilarious day-in-the-life in the hood of LA movie. Great soundtrack too.
6) Dave Chappelle’s Block Party (2006)
Inspired by Wattstax, this Michel Gondry directed film is so much better than your typical live concert film fare. It captures Dave Chappelle's deep love for hip hop and shows a Brooklyn neighborhood and an amazing concert that included The Roots, Kanye West, the reunited Fugees, and the Central State University Marching Band, among others.
Dave Chappelle's Block Party Trailer
The controversial Michael Rapaport directed documentary about A Tribe Called Quest a decade after their breakup is brutally honest as the cameras roll during ATCQ's 2008 reunion tour with lots of drama from behind the scenes footage.
Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest Trailer
8) Menace II Society (1993)
The directorial debut of the Hughes Brothers - the twin brothers Allen and Albert Hughes. This is another West Coast gangsta rap/hood classic with lots of violence, drugs, and explicit material, plus a killer soundtrack. Menace ties with another great film, the 1992 film South Central, which was an adaptation of the 1987 novel Crips by former South Central LA high school teacher Donald Bakeer.
Menace II Society Trailer
9) Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap (2012)
I loved this film (reviewed back when it was released two years ago) and think that director Ice-T did an excellent job at portraying the MC aspect of the art. Sure, he didn't include every rapper ever but he did an excellent job at what/who he did including Grandmaster Caz, Eminem, Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg, and Kanye West. Great soundtrack that features the freestyles from the film.
Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap Trailer
10) Scratch movie (2001)
Yes, I am biased as I'm among the many interviewed in this Doug Pray feature-length documentary film on the art of scratch/turntablism/hip hop DJing, but I love the topic and think that Pray did an excellent job capturing it and all its glory with a distinct focus on the Bay Area.
11) Wave Twisters (2001)
Like Scratch, which featured DJ Qbert more than any other subject, the animated film Wave Twisters is set exclusively to the music of DJ Qbert. With animation by Syd Garon and Eric Henry based on the graphics of Doug Cunningham (aka Dug-One), Wave Twisters is all about hip hop's four elements - especially turntablism - as the animated characters in this sci fi themed movie set about saving the lost arts (elements) of hip hop.
Wave Twisters Trailer
12) Hustle & Flow (2005)
Directed by Craig Brewer and produced by John Singleton Hustle & Flow tells the tale of Memphis pimp-turned-rapper DJay who is excellently played by Terrence Howard. You might remember when the film, which was released during the Dirty South's heyday, made news by winning an Oscar for Best Original Song with Three 6 Mafia's "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" off the soundtrack. Also features Isaac Hayes playing club owner Arnel. Great movie for hip hop and non hip hop fans alike.
Hustle & Flow Trailer
Krush Groove Trailer
14) 8 Mile (2002)
Eminem at his best in this semi-autobiographical film that draws its name from that area of the Detroit rapper's hometown. A great hip hop film that expertly captures the struggles of a rising rapper and all the obstacles he faces. The film also shows that Eminem is a talented actor. For fans of Detroit and hip hop.
8 Mile Trailer
15) Juice (1992)
Showcasing a young Tupac Shakur's excellent acting skills alongside Omar Epps (who plays a DJ and steals records from local record store as part of arsenal for his DJ battle - good club scene) and a strong supporting cast, this is a great movie set in NYC that follows four Harlem teenagers ("The Wrecking Crew" they dub themselves) in a day of hood drama and hip hop. Lots of cameos too, including Queen Latifah, Yo-Yo, Special Ed, and EPMD.
16) Breakin' (1984)
Directed by Joel Silberg and starring a young Ice T in his film debut many years before his Law & Order: SVU role, Breakin' focuses on the dance element of hip hop. Sure, like Beat Street it was commercialized but it's still a good film and an influential one in that it inspired many later b-boys. Note that the Breakin' Collection DVD found at Amoeba also features the sequel Breakin 2: Electric Boogaloo.
17) Notorious (2009)
Really good film on the tumultuous life-and-death story of the Notorious B.I.G. (a.k.a. Biggie or the artist born Christopher Wallace) - excellently played by Jamal Woolard. A really good movie and not just for fans of Biggie.
18) CB4 (1993)
Spoof/satire comedy starring Chris Rock as the middle class turned gangsta rap figure MC Gusto, CB4 is a faux documentary (a la This Is Spinal Tap) with Chris Elliot playing the earnest documentary filmmaker following the NWA-like rap crew through their daily routines - all the while poking fun at every stereotype in rap music at the time, from wannabe gangsta to shallow Afro-Centric rappers. The faux documentary style is enhanced by real life figures playing themselves including Ice-T. CB4 is in a tie here with the silly but hella fun 1995 comedy Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood which pokes fun as much at the '90s hood film genre as rap itself.
19) Beat Street (1984)
Although another film that, unlike Wild Style, was more about tapping into the commercial potential of this still new genre, director Stan Lathan's Beat Street (with Harry Belafonte as producer) is still a great film well worth seeing with cameos from such pioneering figures as hip hop's godfather himself DJ Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. Beat Street tells the story of an aspiring DJ from the South Bronx and showcases a lot of breakin' and aerosol art - hence introducing many viewers to it for the first time. Highlights include the battle scene between the New York City Breakers and the Rock Steady Crew.
Beat Street Trailer
20) House Party (1990)
Sure, it is a teen comedy but House Party is a highly entertaining and very funny film starring Kid 'N Play in trademark hi-top fades along with then rising star Martin Lawrence and the late great Robin Harris (Be-Be's Kids) who would tragically die of a heart attack that same year at age 36. Note that the House Party Collection DVD comes with this movie and its three sequels.
House Party Trailer
21) Treal T.V. (2003)
First in a series? Thizz Entertainment Treal T.V. by the late great Mac Dre featuring "dare devil stunts....street brawls....side shows.....concert footage" as well as such "special features" as a Mac Dre biography, and "extensive coverage of the Northern California hip-hop scene." Technically not a movie but a DVD release - this still qualifies as a documentary-meets-concert type film. For fans of Bay rap, especially the hyphy movement and, of course, Mac Dre.
Get Rich Or Die Tryin' Trailer
23) Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)
With epic soundtrack music by RZA (who is also in the film) Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, which is directed by Jim Jarmusch and stars Forest Whitaker as the title character, this martial arts in the hood (Brooklyn) qualifies under the hip hop movie category (truly Wu-Tang themed flavor) in my opinion and, more importantly, is an excellent film.
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai Trailer
24) New Jack City (1991)
Starring Wesley Snipes as drug lord Nino Brown this Mario Van Peebles directed film (he also co-stars) portrays the crack industry/epidemic at its peak. Has a good soundtrack too. New Jack City ties for position #24 with the underrated 2002 film Paid In Full about another cocaine drug lord, Harlem's Isaiah San Diego played by Wood Harris.
New Jack City Trailer
25) I'm Bout It (1997)
Directed by Moon Jones and produced by Master P, who stars alongside many fellow soldiers from his then reigning No Limit empire, including Silkk the Shocker, C-Murder, and Mr. Serv-On, I'm Bout It is a drama comedy set in Master P's hometown of New Orleans and is about his late real life slain older brother Kevin Miller who was played by Anthony Boswell in the film. Like all of Master P's other films it tied in closely with its soundtrack, also released on No Limit.
I'm Bout It