The Best Rappers In Movies Over The Years


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Aug 24, 2023

The Best Rappers In Movies Over The Years

A look at hip-hop’s greatest contributions to film, from 1981 to now. As Complex continues to celebrate hip-hop’s 50th anniversary, we would be remiss to gloss over the power of the moving image in

A look at hip-hop’s greatest contributions to film, from 1981 to now.

As Complex continues to celebrate hip-hop’s 50th anniversary, we would be remiss to gloss over the power of the moving image in cementing the genre as a global cultural phenomenon. Music videos were the first introduction to the ways hip-hop so beautifully tells stories. Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five's 1982 video for "The Message” comes to mind as one that could easily be seen as a short film exploring the ills of NYC in the '80s. This was also the same year that Wild Style was released, leading to four decades of hip-hop on the big screen.

From blockbusters to self-funded indie features, rappers like Queen Latifah and Tupac have proved it's not just pop stars who can be triple threats. Below, Complex highlights some of hip-hop’s greatest performances in film.

As Complex continues to celebrate hip-hop’s 50th anniversary, we would be remiss to gloss over the power of the moving image in cementing the genre as a global cultural phenomenon. Music videos were the first introduction to the ways hip-hop so beautifully tells stories. Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five's 1982 video for "The Message” comes to mind as one that could easily be seen as a short film exploring the ills of NYC in the '80s. This was also the same year that Wild Style was released, leading to four decades of hip-hop on the big screen.

From blockbusters to self-funded indie features, rappers like Queen Latifah and Tupac have proved it's not just pop stars who can be triple threats. Below, Complex highlights some of hip-hop’s greatest performances in film.

Shot in 1980, but going unreleased until the 2000 Cannes Film Festival, Downtown 81 is an extremely trippy 24 hours with downtown artist Jean Michel Basquiat playing...a downtown artist. Traipsing all over the city and running into the myriad of characters that populate NYC, it's possibly the first-time hip-hop culture was displayed onscreen. Walking down the block, he runs into Fab Five Freddy doing graffiti outside of a building. Inside, Jean finds rapper Kool Kyle rocking a mini dance party. Take a shot for every time he says "81" in his verse!

Credited as the first hip-hop film, Wild Style explores the collision between hip-hop in the Bronx and the downtown art scene. Fab Five Freddy who was a major bridge between those two worlds reprises a similar persona to the one of Downtown 81. This time, he leads us to an incredible scratch session from Grandmaster Flash. With the legendary rapper as its anchor, the scene showcases the five elements of hip-hop; emceeing, deejaying, breakin', graff and beatboxing.

The Sugarhill Gang is known for having the first hip-hop radio single with 1979's "Rappers Delight," so it’s only right to feature them in the doc, Style Wars.

With the success of Wild Style just the year before, Beat Street was released and continued to tell the stories of the people developing the new genre of hip-hop. Kool Herc stars as the owner of the Burning Spear who gives lead, Double K, the boost he needs for his career. Herc is considered the father of hip-hop culture, so his inclusion in the film as a vet even at the beginning of his own career set the stage for his role 50 years later. Cameos from artists like Doug E. Fresh, Treacherous Three, and Grandmaster Melle Mel & the Furious Five make for an authentic representation of 1980s Black and brown New York.

A loose telling of early days Def Jam, the record label hopped on the hip-hop film wave and rode it into the sunset with a star-packed film. Though its stars are Run DMC, Kurtis Blow, and music exec Andre Harrell as his rap persona Dr. Jeckyll, no one can forget LL Cool J's audition scene.

When you talk about the origins of hip-hop, you can't forget the ladies! Shouts to the Roxanne Shante feature in this Dutch doc.

The Fat Boys took their humor from the studio to the movie set in this slapstick comedy as home health aids to an older millionaire.

Run-DMC and Def Jam set the stage for the rap label cinema genre with this 1988 feature.

Though we didn't see members of Public Enemy in the film, their song "Fight The Power" (commissioned by director Spike Lee) surely serves as a supporting actor throughout.

Kid 'n Play built a dynasty with the House Party series! Their impact in solidifying the relevance of our stories and the purchase power of hip-hop fans can never go uncelebrated.

Younger generations know Ice-T as Fin Tutuola on Law & Order: SVU, but for older millennials and Gen X, he's forever Det. Scotty Appleton.

Sometimes it's hard to believe that Juice was Tupac's first starring role. However, the brief years he spent at a Baltimore performing arts high school alongside Jada Pinkett Smith, prepared him for the role of a lifetime. As Bishop, Tupac is the self-appointed captain of an uptown crew of knuckleheads. As Bishop's obsession with power begins to grow, he loses touch with reality and his friend circle. Even with so many funny moments and lines ("Just because you put syrup on shit, don’t make it pancakes"), Juice is an incredibly serious film and Tupac's portrayal honestly makes you wonder if he's just acting.Written and directed by film icon Ernest Dickerson, Tupac had a hearty script to bite into, but he eased in so effortlessly. Playing against Omar Epps, Jermaine Hopkins, Khalil Kain who already had strong starts to their careers, he did not at all feel like a rookie and honestly stole the show. The line delivery, intense eye contact, and silent, yet expressive moments are only something a skilled director and tapped in actor could create. Tupac went on to embody so many classic characters after this, but his haunting portrayal of Bishop will stick with you forever.

In a role originally for MC Ren, West Coast rapper MC Eiht shined as A-Wax in this Hughes Brothers classic.

Tone Loc flipped his rap career into an acting one, making him a legend for kids with C-Bear and Jamal and adults in Jim Carrey's iconic Ace Ventura.

With the iconic Friday also released in 1995, Ice Cube's role in John Singleton's Higher Learning is grossly underrated. Portraying Fudge, a senior and the unofficial leader of the Black student population at the very white Columbus University, it gave him something to really sink his teeth into. As the catalyst who sent the main character into a spiral of white nationalist extremism, Ice Cube was able to inject himself into a larger conversation about race in this country. Though Higher Learning is nearly 30 years old, its themes around school shootings, toxic campus culture, and racist radicalization are far from fiction. We also can't forget Busta Rhymes' incredible role as Fudge's right hand!

Queen La had already gotten her feet wet in films like House Party and Jungle Fever, but Set It Off offered her the opportunity to really show her chops. With a story following four best friends in LA trying to keep their heads above water, director F. Gary Gray disrupted the male-heavy storytelling of that time. Pushing the envelope even further, Queen portrayed Cleo, a masculine-identified lesbian. Released a year before Ellen DeGeneres' "coming out show" that sent shockwaves across the country, Cleo was a pioneer in LGBTQ representation in media. The role offered audiences the opportunity to see a Black queer woman be in love and share the sacred experience of sisterhood.

From underpaid janitorial staff to successful bank robbers, it was hard not to cheer for the bunch. Cleo reveled in it most, literally sleeping in cash after hitting every lick. Becoming bolder and bolder, she felt invincible. With her final scene in a standoff with police, Queen Latifah gave the strongest performance of her filmography. With all options exhausted, Cleo knew she was at the end of the rope, but wouldn't go down without asserting who she knew herself to be one last time. Trading bullets with police, Cleo went out blazing, cementing her as a hero and Queen Latifah as a true actor to be reckoned with.

Will Smith proved he was a star with the wildly popular, and now iconic, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. During its run, he starred in films like Bad Boys and Six Degrees of Separation, which showed his range as an actor. Ending in 1996, Smith walked off the sitcom set and strode right into a starring role in the blockbuster Independence Day. Not even letting us catch our breath, Smith then linked with Tommy Lee Jones for Men In Black. Later becoming a franchise, it asserted that rappers can not only be in the conversation with legends, but also carry a series that can lead to consistent box office success.

The world was wrapped up in Hype Williams videos, but could the brotha make a movie? Not only did Hype give us one of the most iconic films of all time, he also made a bona fide Hollywood star out of both DMX and Nas. The latter stars as Sincere, the woke family man that also just so happens to be co-captain of Queens' major drug enterprise. Where previous films chronicling drug dealers' lives focused on more hypermasculine notes of their personhood, Hype's pen gave Sincere the license to be a loving husband and doting father.

By the turn of the millennium, Lil' Kim had already snatched the crown as the queen bee of rap and the darling of the international fashion set. The only thing left to tackle was acting. In a role completely different from her Kimmy Blanco persona, she appears as Alex Sawyer, the super sweet BFF of the most popular girl in school.

Back in the day, before Baby Boy reigned supreme on BET, the world was introduced to Brooklyn Babylon. With the very Philly lead, Black Thought of The Roots, the film was a history lesson, bible study, and a love story all in one. In August 1991, tensions between the West Indian Rastafarians and the Jewish Chabad community of Crown Heights had reached their height. After the accidental killing of a Black child, all hell breaks loose, leading to days of rioting. Even with the film set almost a decade after the riots, the strain of cohabitation was the backdrop for this Romeo and Juliet-esque feature. As tempers rise in the neighborhood, so does the passion between the two. Kind of cliche for the woke, down brotha to get with the white girl, but Black Thought's portrayal is stunning and flew way too low under the radar.

The world knows Q-Tip as an incredible rapper and producer, but he got to flex his screenwriter muscle with indie film Prison Song. We meet a young Elijah, his mother (played by Mary J. Blige) and stepfather (played by Harold Perrineau) making their way in increasingly tough NYC. The ever-present threat of systemic racism swoops down and sends the family into a spiral that leaves mom in a mental institution, step-pops in jail, and Elijah in foster care and later on the corner. After getting into an altercation with Fat Joe’s character on the subway platform, Elijah is sent to prison with a 15-to-life sentence. Visual art helps Elijah cope with the conditions inside, but he soon leads a revolt after reaching his breaking point. With other cameos including Bobbito and NORE, Prison Song is a solid exploration of the ways this country tears apart families and railroads Black men into horrific outcomes.

There are few performances more memorable than Cam'ron in Paid In Full. Cam is comfortable in the role of a wildly charismatic Harlem drug dealer, but as loyal as we know him to be, he'd never go out as a snake and a rat like Rico.

Belly made the world take DMX seriously as a thespian. And Cradle 2 the Grave, opposite Jet Li, made him an action film star!

Yasiin Bey was having quite the run in the early 2000s. A successful music career, starring in films like Bamboozled, Carmen: A Hip Hopera, and Brown Sugar, all while hosting Def Poetry Jam. With such a hectic pace, his starring role in Something the Lord Made called for a more quiet, reflective, and sometimes solemn approach to this hidden history. Bey portrays Vivien Thomas, a surgical research assistant who in 1944 created treatment for the prevalent blue baby syndrome.

Saul Williams is a textbook multi-hyphenate. Poet, rapper, actor, filmmaker, style star, and so on, Broadway darling Ruben Santiago-Hudson took his life story to the stage and later adapted it into an HBO film capturing the rich community within a rooming house in Lackawanna, New York. Williams expertly took on the role of Lonnie, who did not live in the home, but was a constant orbiter who also saw it as a place of refuge. Recently returning home from the war, Lonnie was grappling with the aftereffects of combat that manifested into paranoia, peculiar self-soothing tactics, and sometimes violent fits. The care in which Williams provided at a time when Hollywood was not the kindest to characters battling mental health issues was nothing short of award-winning. An eternal snub!

T.I., the King of the South, decided it was time to take on the big screen in this cult classic showing what Atlanta's really bout. We'll still never forgive him for how he snatched New New's chain though!

Wu-Tang's RZA is the epitome of booked! With IMDB credits in both TV and film, and in front of and behind the camera, he kicked off his acting career as Officer Moses Jones in this Frank Lucas biopic.

Ludacris, also of the Fast & Furious dynasty, went international with this British star-studded film by Guy Ritchie.

Sticky Fingaz eased into the acting game seamlessly on the heels of group Onyx's multi-platinum success. With spots in Clockers and Dead Presidents in 1995, he launched a consistent career on both the small and big screen. A Day in the The Life hits different as it was written and directed by Sticky Fingaz. He also brought heavy hitters like Omar Epps, Mekhi Pfieffer, and Bokeem Woodbine to play opposite him in what is often described as a "hip-hop musical." So if you want to hear your favorite actors spit some bars, do we have the film for you!

Common went from the backpack rapper (first Jansport, then Louis V) to heartthrob starring opposite Queen Latifah in Just Wright. As basketball star Scott McKnight, he juggles a career that at one point, seems to be slipping through his fingers and love...between two family members. MESS!

Known mainly as an actor here in the States, Idris Elba got his start as a rapper and DJ in the UK. "Thor" was his entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, making for a global meteoric rise.

This Tuskegee Airmen film focused on the WWII fighter pilots referred to as Red Tails. The cast is beyond stacked with Method Man holding his own in a role that is a complete 180 from his famous How High.

In this unbelievably star-studded Black western, we see David Banner as the formerly enslaved cowboy Bose Ikard, who also served as a money manager of sorts for white frontiersmen.

In Imperial Dreams we find a young John Boyega as Bambi, who recently returned home from prison. With a son he has to take care of alone because his mother (played by Keke Palmer) is still incarcerated, Bambi struggles with the painful transition back to the environment that sent him to jail in the first place. He has dreams of becoming a writer, but the streets start calling. De'Aundre Bonds didn't have the most successful rap career, but he's surely the king of the hood movie genre and cements his place as an OG in the film.

The reviews were beyond mixed on this Rick Famuyiwa film, but we can all agree ASAP Rocky did his thing as the neighborhood drug dealer and walking encyclopedia of all things culture, politics, and linguistics.

Nicki Minaj stepped out of the booth and into the film dynasty that Ice Cube built as Draya, the new stylist in the now co-ed salon.

Who doesn't love an ensemble cast of women having a blast and wreaking havoc for two hours? Set to the sounds of Essence Fest weekend, Queen Latifah plays celeb gossip blogger Sasha Franklin. With so much of her personal life in the press against her will over the years, we can't help but to think Queen taking the role was a quiet finger wag to an industry that thinks nothing about the real life repercussions it causes.

Riding off the wave as the princess of NY's underground hip-hop scene, Junglepussy signed on for this girl gang film headed by vet Regina Hall. Playing Danyelle, she juggles motherhood, a shitty job at a Hooters-esque resto, and defining herself.

Instagram OGs met Cardi in the locker room at Sue's. Flash forward just a few short years later and she's sharing the room with Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu, and Keke Palmer in this feature packed with girl power.

When people think about Philly, a few things usually come to mind: cheesesteaks, Will Smith, Meek Mill, and dirt bikes. Ironically, the latter three are some of the integral ingredients that made the Baltimore-based film Charm City Kings. What folks don't know is that Philly and Baltimore are sister cities that share similar culture and swag, so the melding (that also includes Jada Pinkett Smith) isn't off by any means. As Blax, Meek revels in his real-life persona as a formerly incarcerated street biker, but we get to see him as businessman, and most importantly, mentor to lead character Mouse. Black Twitter is often calling for more vulnerable Black men onscreen and with Meek, the last person anyone would think could take on that challenge, he offers a brilliant and tender portrayal.

Pop Smoke's shocking passing left so many "what ifs?" At the time of his death, he was positioned as the "king of New York" and tasked with snatching hip-hop back from the South. Every single scaled the charts and held their position for weeks at a time. His dominance made the casual music listener forget that drill has its origins in Chicago, not Brooklyn. The next step in the takeover was movies. He found his break in restaurateur Eddie Huang's Boogie.

Set in Queens, the film follows high schooler Boogie who has hoop dreams, but parents who see college as the only option. Alas, Chinese tradition isn't the only thing standing in his way of the NBA. Boogie also has to get past his basketball court adversary Monk, played by Pop Smoke. With a similar energy as Tupac, Pop fits naturally into the role. Embodying the bravado required to be a rapper, Monk is confident and sly, with a slick mouth. Though the script can get a bit cliché and heavy-handed, Pop handled his scenes like a pro. With his music also playing throughout, this indie serves as a testament to Pop Smoke as a young renaissance man who was primed for stardom.

Kid Cudi leaned into his Blipster heartthrob persona in the animated musical Entergalactic. With an album of the same name, it provides the soundscape for the rom-com. Cudi plays Jabari, a graffiti artist turned comics author on the brink of his big break. The upgrade in cash means moving into a posh new apartment that just so happens to come with a cute neighbor named Meadow, voiced by Jessica Williams. Insert meet-cute here. Add some awkward moments. Is this a date or just hanging out? Oh, that was def a date. Messy ex pops up wreaking havoc, but in the end, Black love wins!

The self-proclaimed “regular basic bitch” has leveled up majorly since she stepped into the scene alongside groupmate JT in 2018. We got a taste of her insanely hilarious personality, thanks to covid lockdown induced IG Lives. One of the most popular lines from a Live, “Caresha Please”, soon bloomed into a brand. A clothing line, board game, and talk show later, the mogul was ready to become The Actress. Yung Miami opened the year in Kenya Barris’ Netflix film “You People” as Tiffany, besties to Lauren London’s starring role. Funny as ever, with her knack for memorable one-liners, this isn’t the last we’ll see of Caresha we’ll see on screen.


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