Wednesday, October 1, 2008

A decade in the Belly

I was a precocious 17-year-old.

That made for insolence, defiance and a general annoying nature; as it does for many 17-year-olds. But being as how my life was not yet my own, that insolence ended up pissing my father off to such a high degree (for what I don’t even remember), that I was dead to rights on Friday, November 4, 1998, when I wanted nothing more than to be in the movie theater for the opening night of Belly.

A couple weekends ago, I decided on an impulse to dust off the DVD (which I got for free a few years ago). It was my first time watching the film it in its entirety since the 1990s, and it forced me to put the movie in a present-day context.

It’s important to understand first that these two eras in hip-hop – the late ‘90s and the late ‘00s – are quite disparate. New York still ran hip-hop back then, and Def Jam was going through a renaissance period thanks to the popularity and album sales of then-newcomer DMX, Erick Sermon and the Def Squad, Onyx, Method Man, Redman and the whole “Survival of the Illest” movement.

Despite the ignoble, money-hungry intentions of cats like Ma$e and the erstwhile Puff Daddy during the much-maligned Shiny Suit Era, the grimy dark-clouds-and-hard-times, baggy-jeans-and-Timbs, run-yo’-jewels hip-hop was still embraced.

As such, Belly, a tale of two street hustlers, their descent into the dubious worlds of drugs and the underworld, followed by their respective redemptions, rang a bit more vivid in the pre-Y2K era.

DMX was a stellar breakout artist, having dropped two great albums in one year. Nas was my hero, and I think most of the hip-hop community felt the same way back then. So seeing Belly without getting an exact handle on what it was about beforehand was not even a question.

When my punishment was finally lifted, my first order of business was to see it alone on a weekend afternoon. A muddled, storyline, terrible dialogue (which, to be fair, is not too far off from how street niggas actually talk) and ridiculous cinematography from director and former music video maven Hype Williams (watch to see how many facial shots were cut off by any corner of the screen for "artistic effect") made for a resoundingly disappointing experience.

That was Nas’ first, and as far as I know, last acting experience. As it should be…stick with what you know, yo.

The dark and ominous era of the genre that allowed for Belly has largely passed in favor of a lighter, more emo-infused hip-hop culture: Big jeans and Timbs have been replaced with nut-groping jeans and extra-medium sweaters. The most popular rappers are barely old enough to buy an issue of Playboy. Horrible gun-clap rap has replaced well-executed gun-clap rap. The internet exposes cats for bullshitting. And New York’s contemporary hip-hop heroes are either so far gone from the street life or they just plain fucking suck.

I mean, who would star in a movie like Belly today? Lil’ Wayne and The Game?? And who would fill T-Boz’s role? Matter fact, where the fuck is T-Boz these days anyway?!?!?!?

As for me, I’ve become something of a cinema elitist in the past 10 years. Despite a guilty penchant for certain questionable film genres, I tend to gravitate toward movies that offer pretty much everything that Belly doesn’t: a coherent plot, an engaging storyline, true emotional resonance and actors whose only camera experience is not limited to lip-sync rapping in front of one, swinging a bottle of Moet while surrounded by video “models” and hype men.

Despite the movie’s mind-blowing ill opening sequence, over Soul II Soul’s, “Back to Life” acapella (linked below), Belly really is a shitfest of a movie. But while I couldn’t even appreciate the movie as a teenager, I appreciate the era from which it was born. Belly IS hip-hop. Watching it again made me reminisce on that simple and musically rich period of my life; not to mention it made me want to pull out the movie’s dope soundtrack from the stacks.

I think what bothers me most is that no movie of its ilk could come out in 2008 without starring Michael Jai White and making its way straight to the “Urban” DVD section of your movie rental joint. It’s not that hip-hop is dead…it’s that we don’t care about it like we used to.


Scuffy McGee said...
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Scuffy McGee said...

Dig the hip hop chat. Keep up the quality Dust.

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