In the summer of 2000, Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg headlined the Up in Smoke Tour. The packed bill was bookended by Eminem (in what may have been one of the last times in his life that he opened up for anybody, anywhere), and a mini-reunion of the surviving members of NWA.
Right before Ice Cube’s solo set during the tour’s Boston-area show, the host of the night decided to hype up the crowd. “Do we have any Ice Cube fans in the house?” he asked. “How many people saw Boyz n the Hood?”
While introducing a rapper by mentioning a movie may seem odd at first, it’s a good bet that many of the people in that crowd knew Cube not as the firebrand MC on “Fuck tha Police,” “AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted,” or “Check Yo Self;” but rather as Doughboy or Friday’s Craig Jones. Even 18 years ago, Ice Cube had already largely transitioned from being just a rapper into an actor.
As time went on, the trend only increased. A 2017 study by Dr. Tia Tyree of Howard University showed that the number of rappers starring in movies went from a total of five throughout the entire back half of the 1980s to 36 in 2002 alone.
This is not unprecedented. Comparable rises have happened before with related professions. Singers, after all, historically have not been shy about being on camera in other situations. Whether it was Frank Sinatra’s golden arm, Diana Ross singing the blues, or Dolly Parton working 9 to 5, there’s a long list of vocalists on the silver screen.
“If you look back at the history of things, singers have made good transitions to acting,” The Hard Way director John Batham told Jet back in 1991. “There are emotional ties between singing and acting.”
For Ludacris, the answer is a lot simpler—he was comfortable around cameras.
Luda’s acting career began when John Singleton, impressed by the rapper’s music videos and personality, asked him to audition for 2003's 2 Fast 2 Furious after fellow rapper Ja Rule backed out of the film. When I reach Ludacris on the phone, the radio DJ-turned-rapper-turned-actor is very clear about how important his video experience was in his new career.
“Half of the battle is being comfortable in front of the cameras, in my opinion,” he says. “That can do a lot for someone when they're just starting to act. You have to get used to that before you can really focus on your crap in the first place. It makes it a little easier transitioning just because [musicians] are already very used to cameras being in our faces and being able to fully dive into our art.”
Fredro Starr of Onyx has been acting since before his group’s 1993 debut album came out. His career includes parts in everything from Save the Last Dance to Moesha to The Wire. To Fredro, the same qualities that made him a successful rapper helped as a thespian—timing, a knack for performing in front of live audiences, and, most importantly, being outgoing.
“To be a good rapper, you definitely don’t wanna be a shy person. That’s the first rule,” he explains. “You have to be ready for the spotlight.”
"HALF OF THE BATTLE IS BEING COMFORTABLE IN FRONT OF THE CAMERAS. YOU HAVE TO GET USED TO THAT BEFORE YOU CAN REALLY FOCUS." - LUDACRIS
But all of this doesn’t explain how rappers got to appear in so many films in the first place. The practice really took off in the early 1990s, with the rise in popularity of the “hood film.” As a way for projects like Menace II Society, Juice, and New Jack City to give the viewer a sense of veracity, moviemakers turned to casting rappers, either in bit parts or sometimes even as leads. This was, Dr. Tyree points out, similar to the way films of the Blaxploitation era used pro football players like Jim Brown and Fred Williamson to “authentically reflect the Black urban experience.” Tyree, whose interest in the intersection of rappers and film dates back to a middle school viewing of Krush Groove, says that both football players and rappers act as a kind of shorthand to the viewing audience.
“At that time, football players had a lot of credibility in the black community,” she explains. “They were looked up to in the black community. They’re powerful forces, not only in physical presence but in what they were doing outside of the football field. So it’s easy to say, ‘I want to utilize you as a tool. I have a movie role, and you can help me create a shortcut.’ Because movies are only a certain finite period of time. The quicker I can get my audience to understand my character, the faster I can get them engrossed into my story. When I see Ice-T on screen, from his lyrics I know that he is a bad, street guy, and that’s exactly who I’m trying to convince the moviegoer that this character is. So by putting Ice-T in that place, I create a shortcut for the moviegoers.”
The scholar says that you can see that kind of shortcut almost everywhere. With the exception of a handful of what she calls “elite rappers” like Ice Cube, Queen Latifah, and Will Smith, most MCs end up playing a version of their rap persona. The most commonly cast artists were what Tyree describes as either “hardcore” or “party” rappers—which she found corresponds to playing, respectively, bad guys and good guys in film.
“Unfortunately, black men who were rappers in this Hollywood system were stereotyped, really playing to these extremes,” she says. “Either they were good guys—the party rappers, the fun rappers; or they were the bad guys—the gangster rappers and the hardcore rappers. This dynamic is what made the rappers work in the Hollywood system.”
Xzibit, who has gone from rapping to hosting the successful TV show Pimp My Ride to acting in projects like Empire and an X-Files movie, says he was offered a bunch of “stereotypical shit” when he first started appearing in films, and turned it all down. “You could always be thug No. 1, thug No. 2. But give me something with some bones and some meat to it,” he says.
When Common decided to give acting a go (“I started trying to play piano and do other things and nothing felt natural, so I went to an acting class and it changed my life,” he remembers), he had a different experience. He says that he almost didn’t land his first role—one that remains a favorite of his to this day—as Sir Ivy in the 2006 film Smokin’ Aces specifically because he was a rapper. Writer/director Joe Carnahan didn’t want the MC’s rap personality to come through onscreen.
“He definitely was not looking for me to be the persona of Common that he already knows,” the Chicago rapper recalls. “I didn’t want to work with directors that thought, ‘I want to work with this dude because he’s a rap artist.’”
According to Common, honing his skill as a storyteller in songs like “Testify” is what got him ready to appear in front of the camera. And in turn, acting has made him a better writer.
“With what we do with storytelling as writers, it allows us to be able to dig into characters and what the story of a person's life may be,” he reveals. “I think acting took me deeper into the empathy and understanding of humanity. It was another angle to tackle it from as an actor. When you write, you use your imagination and your experiences, whether it be things you experienced or things around you. But in acting, you take a story that’s already there and a character that already has certain elements and pull from experience that you may or may not have had. The beauty of it is you do research, so it takes you even deeper in some instances in understanding empathy and what a person is.”
Krondon, a veteran MC who recently got his first major acting role as the villain in The CW’s Black Lightning, found that even more than writing his own material, it was penning songs for rappers like Snoop Dogg that prepared him for being onscreen.
“I've been able to write for some of the best and biggest names in music,” he says. “And in order to do that, I had to put myself in those shoes, empathize and sympathize completely, and role play, in order for them to actually take the songs and use them and stand behind them—and, in some cases, like Snoop Dogg, go publicly and say, ‘Yeah, this guy did that.’ It prepared me [for acting], and I didn't even know how much it would prepare me.”
And Krondon’s longtime friend Xzibit sees a very direct connection between writing rhymes and acting.
“It’s just an extension of what I was already doing in music,” Xzibit explains. “You’re telling stories. Some people take their environment, some people take other people’s experiences, and put them into rhyme. The same thing with acting. You have to pull from a place that’s not necessarily your everyday life, and that’s how you have to build your characters. [That’s] what every performer should do.”
Phonte Coleman, a rapper and singer best known for his time with the Durham, North Carolina rap group Little Brother, agrees. The rhymer, who lately has made the transition into voiceover and acting work, sees a huge overlap between the two art forms.
“The reason why I think so many rappers are able to make that transition into acting is because rapping pretty much is acting,” he says. “Every time you get behind a mic, you record a verse, you’re capturing a performance. It may not be, ‘To be or not to be,’ but it definitely does involve getting into a character of some sort. You’re playing some version of yourself, and that is acting. So I think that’s why so many rappers are able to make that jump. The transition is seamless.”
"Every time you get behind a mic, you record a verse, you’re capturing a performance. It may not be ‘To be or not to be,’ but it definitely does involve getting into a character." - Phonte
It is not automatic, however, that being a good rapper (or ghostwriter) means you will be a good actor onscreen. Dan Charnas was the co-creator of VH1's The Breaks, which chronicled a group of young people striving to succeed in the burgeoning hip-hop industry of 1990. Casting the central character, an aspiring rapper named Ahm (ultimately played by actor Antoine Harris), led to a disagreement with the show’s co-creator Seith Mann.
“When we first went into this, I was very sure of myself in the conviction that rappers tend to be very good actors because there was something endemic to the experience of being a hip-hop MC and doing videos,” he says of the show’s casting process. “Seith was of the conviction as a director that he'd rather have an actor first and a rapper second. And this was a point of contention between us at first because I'm like, it’s so much easier to teach a rapper to act than an actor to rap. What I discovered is that Seith was absolutely right, and I was wrong.”
Despite that, the show used a number of rappers in roles both central (Method Man, Afro) and peripheral (Phonte Coleman, Torae). The program’s auditioning experience, though, left Charnas with a tempered view of rappers’ potential to move into the acting world.
“MCing is a skill, and to do it well you have to be gifted or practiced. Acting is very much the same,” he sums up. “There's very few people who are gifted. Most people get to it via practice. Thinking that you can only go to rappers and get a good pool of actors is like trying to catch lightning in a bottle, to use a horrible cliche.”
Once Xzibit started acting, he quickly realized that, as long as he was popular, the people making the films he appeared in didn’t care whether he was a good actor or not. He learned the hard way by watching one of his early roles, alongside Ice Cube in the 2005 film XXX: State of the Union.
“I looked at that movie and I was like, Wow, that fucking sucks really bad—my performance, anyway,” he remembers. “So I was like, I gotta take this shit seriously. Because of the popularity I had at the time, I knew they were putting me in the movie because it was putting asses in the seats. They don’t care if I do well or not. They just fucking wanna get their bottom line.”
In her study, Tyree points out that in recent years, it is mostly those who already have plenty of practice onscreen who have been taking most of the movie roles. It's in marked contrast to the early 2000s, where dozens of rappers per year were ending up in films.
“The elite rappers have become staples in Hollywood,” she explains. “They are trusted now that they can be a little bit more versatile. When we need someone to be in this space between hip-hop culture and Hollywood, we know that these few rappers can do it well. So there’s no need to search for that one rapper that’s doing something great because we’ve achieved the few we need.”
But the trend of rappers acting will continue, she believes, for the same reason most things in America happen: the almighty dollar.
“This is about movie making and money making,” she closes. “Blackness and hip-hop culture have always been commodified in U.S. culture. When you can take blackness and hip-hop culture and translate into the big screen, you’re going to see and find success. Hollywood has proved that by consistently casting rappers in film over a 25-year period. It’s voyeurism and it’s a desire to see and understand blackness that allows rappers to find their place in Hollywood.”