Calabasas is a company town, but, instead of a coal mine or steel mill, there’s just E!. The once-rustic outpost, 40 minutes up the 101 from Los Angeles proper, still feels rural in a number of ways—there are hayrides on offer and cowboy-themed bars and looming threats from vast, unstoppable wildfires. In recent years, housing prices have surged, and national recognition for the zip code has spiked due to its celebrity locals: Kardashian, Jenner, West, Graham. The price points at businesses (a mix of self-consciously charming local outfits and mid- to high-end chains) might have gone up, but they still pop up around the community’s thoroughfares in convenient, inelegant clumps. This isn’t the garish glam of Bel Air or Beverly Hills; it’s a weird, alchemic blend of Cheesecake Factory (the corporate headquarters are here) and the Wild West, with some sushi spots here and there. Utilitarian quasi-luxury.
I’m up here for a screening of Honor Up, a new movie executive produced by Kanye West. Kanye is hosting a screening in what looks, from the parking lot, like an impossibly drab office building, its exterior recognizable from paparazzi shots. But inside—past a rigorous security screening, complete with locked sleeves for your cellphones that make famous entertainment execs chuckle—is a gorgeous, cavernous hall that could host wedding receptions. The lights are dim, and mostly candles; there’s an open bar, but the assembled, among them Pusha T, A-Trak, and Kim herself, max out at a polite one or two drinks, if any. Kanye bounces happily from group to group of attendees, shaking hands and pounding fists. The music—Wu-Tang, Curtis Mayfield—is at a perfectly reasonable volume. It’s a far cry from the grim, serrated blocks we’re about to see on screen. That is to say: we’re a long way from Damon Dash’s Harlem.
“I’ve been all around the world and it does seem like the most important and most influential place on this planet is Harlem.” Given the source, this is hardly shocking. Dame, the co-founder of Roc-A-Fella Records and one of his borough’s most vocal living boosters, is not about to cede attention to any other locale. “Everyone in the city copies Harlem,” he says, “and everyone in the country copies the city, and everyone in the world copies the country.”
That Dame Dash wants to sell you something is nothing new. What’s shifted is role in its production. He has this new movie, Honor Up, which will be released in limited theaters and On Demand on February 16th. And unlike the mogul’s previous ventures into film, this time Dame steps into the spotlight himself. He’s the writer and director, and he’s hoping that that gleaming Harlem solipsism serves him well. To hear him tell it: “It’s been a long time coming.”
Kanye bounces happily from group to group of attendees, shaking hands and pounding fists.
Back up. When Roc-A-Fella became a commercial force in the late ‘90s, it was through the sheer, blunt force of Jay-Z’s celebrity, but also through careening expansions into rap-adjacent markets and furtive movements within the normal hip-hop bounds, many of which were engineered by Dame. Take State Property, the 2002 movie that Dash produced: creative concerns aside, it seemed smartly designed to package some of the Roc’s smaller acts together with the marquee players. It was simply practical.
All the while, Dame was eyeing a more active role behind the camera. “I’ve always regarded myself as a filmmaker,” he says. “For years.” He cites Martin Scorsese, Wes Anderson, and Guy Ritchie, among others, as his major influences. He borrows from each, and from crime movie tropes writ large. Honor Up’s script might rely too much on voiceover to drive the plot, but Dame shows a spark as a director, feeling intuitively when to push the pace and when to let a scene breathe.
There are prison visits and murders in alleys, card games and porous block congregations. Rather than transpose the action to unpredictable places, Dame focuses on the thematic elements. Where street ethics are often translated to the general public as a simple “Don’t snitch,” where the goal is to avoid becoming a rat out of self-preservation, Honor Up imagines silence and loyalty as high callings, something to aspire to.
The movie couldn’t come at a more interesting economic time. Straight Outta Compton, the N.W.A. biopic from 2015, was a runaway hit with critics and audiences, and has made more than $200 million at the box office. It was immediately—and correctly—seen as a watershed moment. Video veteran Benny Boom’s 2Pac movie from last year was poorly reviewed but is still closing in on $60 million. But that bull market might be a bit of misdirection: what industry observers have learned is that there’s high demand for movies about hip-hop legends, but not necessarily for hip-hop movies, the genre flicks that have flown out of the culture for decades now. It seems more likely that you could walk into a studio and get financing for a Cam’ron biopic than for a sequel to Paid in Full.
Honor Up was screened twice around Los Angeles this month, each time at private events that were tightly secured and took place under Kanye West’s exacting eye––a far cry from the photo-op (and nothing else) involvement of most famous EPs. (He also designed stark merchandise for the movie).
The first screening was attended by cast members, artists, and various members of the extended Yeezy orbit; the atmosphere was relentlessly supportive of Dame and the movie. Dame spoke quietly when he introduced the movie, and alluded to the risk he was taking by entering the arena as a creative. (Later, he would credit his partner, Raquel Horn, for giving him the courage to make the leap.) He said he was playing with house money, which was underscored by the fact that, each time a character on screen uttered the title phrase, a chorus of men in Calabasas shouted "honor up" back. There were scattered shouts when rappers like Smoke DZA or Murda Mook were introduced; there was a roar when Cam first appeared on screen. A French Bulldog, presumably Dame’s, tugged at its designer collar.