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Friday, November 5, 1999 Published at 18:07 GMT

Rappers move into the movies

Ice Cube: Sizing up Hollywood

By BBC News Online Entertainment Correspondent Tom Brook

In the US, hip-hop is moving out of the ghetto and onto the silver screen as Hollywood casts more and more rap stars in mainstream movies.

Ice Cube has a major role opposite George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg in the forthcoming Gulf War drama Three Kings.

[ image: LL Cool J's shark encounter in Deep Blue Sea]
LL Cool J's shark encounter in Deep Blue Sea
Later this year, Queen Latifah can be seen in The Bone Collector, a detective drama opposite Denzel Washington.

Other rappers soon to appear in big screen roles include Master P, Busta Rhymes and Snoop Doggy Dogg.

It wasn't so long ago that Hollywood ran away from rap stars, fearing they were too controversial, but that was in the days before hip-hop invaded pop culture.

Now rap stars have developed strong crossover appeal. They sell CDs by the millions and routinely dominate the music charts.

Stacey Spikes, President of Urbanworld Films, argues it was only a matter of time before Hollywood cashed in.

"What it is, is one medium stealing from another to take advantage of an already existing fan base," says Spikes, who distributes films for African-American audiences.

For many hip-hop artists the transition to the big screen is often a logical career progression.

[ image: Will Smith: Blockbuster king]
Will Smith: Blockbuster king
Will Smith, probably the most successful rapper-turned-Hollywood star, says "rap has always been the voice of black inner-city kids", and that "rappers are reporters who are essentially reporting on the state of the ghetto".

Ice Cube believes it is this reportorial tradition that makes it relatively easy for rappers to move into cinema.

He says: "We've had a lot of practice at it. Most rap videos try to be mini-movies.

I think you have to be very talented to rap and take on these different stories and characters. I think studios and directors and producers are just seeing our talent."

Film industry executives definitely view Will Smith's growing stardom as pivotal in paving the way for other rappers who've made the move into movies.

Stacey Spikes believes "he laid the groundwork of where a rapper can go". But Smith, in common with other rap musicians, didn't make the transition straight from music to the big screen.

He spent several years honing his acting skills in a TV sitcom, in his case The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, before Hollywood would look at him.

[ image: Queen Latifah is back]
Queen Latifah is back
Queen Latifah, LL Cool J and other rappers also appeared in a TV series prior to landing movie roles.

In the hard-core rap community hip-hop artists who move into movies are routinely berated for losing their edge.

Will Smith and LL Cool J were both criticised for becoming too bland and dubbed "vanilla" as they journeyed into the Hollywood mainstream.

In fact, LL Cool J now seems to have made a deliberate effort to recapture his street credentials, because his latest film role is as a disturbingly sadistic, inner-city drug warlord.

From Hollywood's point of view all that's important is that these rap stars deliver an audience.

It would be nice to think the increased presence of rappers in movies indicates a more enlightened attitude towards casting black actors in major roles.

Unfortunately it's business as usual, as Hollywood merely shapes its product to cash in on the legions of moviegoers who now embrace rap.

But as long as hip-hop's hold on pop culture remains strong, the number of rappers crossing-over into the movies is expected to grow.

As Stacey Spikes puts it, rap has now become so huge that if you're a Hollywood studio executive "you can't deny it, you have to deal with it, or you're making very uncool movies. And if you don't make them, your competitor will."

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