In Rick Famuyiwa’s Dope, which opened in theaters on Friday, a modern-day teenage boy named Malcolm, the film’s protagonist, has become obsessed with the fashion and the hip-hop music of the early 1990s. Famuyiwa is himself 40 years old, which means he was about Malcolm’s age in the early 1990s, and, no doubt, has a rather intense affection for the music in question. Famuyiwa isn’t the only one to call the 1990s “The Golden Age of Hip-Hop.” Sure, N.W.A. and Public Enemy were making waves in the ’80s, but the ’90s were such a diverse time for music that all kinds of hip-hop acts could become enormous. Yes, even toothless for-white-kids rap like The Fresh Prince and M.C. Hammer.
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The soundtrack record to Dope, which is available for download only, is a good mix of classic hip-hop and a few modern tracks produced by Pharrell that comment on the characters of the film. Dope tries to be very aware of how modern teens operate, and tries to capture the online-only, fame-hungry DIY ethos of a Millennial, while still paying solid homage to the music that Famuyiwa grew up listening to.
CraveOnline‘s SoundTreks – your weekly guide to the world’s soundtrack albums (and we’ll think of a catchier catchphrase eventually) – consumed the OST record for Dope, and made the following observations:
Track 1. “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)” – Digable Planets
This was an excellent track to lead off with. It’s one of those early ’90s jamz that you kind of forgot you knew well. Looking at the title, I was a little clueless, but as soon as I heard that repeating trumpet groove, I remembered everything.
Since we’ll be listening to a lot of them, I have to ask: What is it about ’90s hip-hop that’s so appealing? I think it was two things: One, the purity of the production. While beat boxes, drum machines, and sampling were perfectly common, they weren’t overrun with electronic effects, layered voices, and other studio trickery now commonly used to hide the voices. Two, the subject matter. Hip-hop has always been rife with self-aggrandizement (“King of Rock” anyone?), but the early ’90s ego seemed more inspired by confidence than cockiness. Modern rap songs have become about acquisition and conspicuous consumption. ’90s rap was about how cool you were.
Track 2. “Can’t Bring Me Down” – Awreeoh
Awreeoh (pronounced like “Oreo”) is the fictional band that Malcolm and his friends form within the film. It is so named because Malcolm, being interested in clothing and academic achievement, is mocked for “acting white” by his black peers. Yes, achievement in school is considered a “white” thing by some people. As such, he is black on the outside and white on the inside like an Oreo cookie.
In the film, Awreeoh is a punk band, which is a little odd, seeing as Malcolm is supposed to be obsessed with hip-hop. You’d think he’d be more about busting mad rhymes. The Awreeoh tracks on the Dope OST, however, are clearly all pet projects by Pharrell. This is a fun track. It’s actually really good. But it sounds nothing like what a bunch of high school kids would come up with. It’s actually just an awesome, driving song with a nice retro buzz guitar groove mixed in.
Track 3. “The World Is Yours” – Nas
This is a nice nostalgic sound as well. If asked to put together a six-volume set of the best old-school jamz (which I have done, it turns out), I would regrettably leave Nas off of it. Not out of any sort of hatred, but out of pure neglect. But “The World is Yours” is actually a great song about living on the street, and lends to an impoverished urban milieu perfectly. I want it known that I use the word “urban” to mean “urban” and not “black.” Dope is about the streets of Inglewood, CA, and while Nas is from Brooklyn, you can picture this sound coming from any city.
Track 4. “Go Head” – Awreeoh
Of the Awreeoh tracks on this record, this one sounds the most like a punk song put together by a bunch of 16-year-olds. Here’s the fun thing about “Go Head”: It has the sound of something anti-establishment and anti-authoritarian, but it’s actually about doing well in school and not becoming a criminal. I used to hear songs like this in between cartoon shows on Saturday morning television. Positive, helpful messages for impressionable kids. These songs often sounded cool, but were markedly uncool in their “behave” ethos.
Pharrell is clearly playing with that in “Go Head.” It’s a fun, positive song that still contains the phrase “fuck this shit.”
Track 5. “Rebel Without a Pause” – Public Enemy
This is where ’90s history gets a little muddled. “Rebel Without a Pause” comes from Public Enemy’s landmark record “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back,” which was released in 1988. Public Enemy is, for the uninitiated, one of the more significant rap groups to ever formed, and “Rebel Without a Pause” is one of their better known tracks (behind 1989’s “Fight the Power,” which opened Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing). Public Enemy lack playfulness and levity. They are angry, and they’ll let you know it. I love this track, but tonally, it doesn’t quite fit with the fun tone of the rest of the album.
Track 6. “Don’t Get Deleted” – Awreeoh
This is the hit single of the record. Rick Famuyiwa clearly wanted to tap into the social media-obsessed teen, and comment – positively, mostly – about how living online is has now supplanted living offline. “Don’t Get Deleted” is a double-edged sword that heavily criticizes the “stay indoors” mentality of online life. Although Dope also praises young people’s ability to reach many people with social media. So the message is a little mixed. “Don’t Get Deleted” sounds nothing like the other Awreeoh tracks. I’m wondering why these were credited to the fictional band, and not to Shameik Moore, the film’s star who sings on them.
Track 7. “Scenario” (LP Mix) – A Tribe Called Quest
Here we go, yo. Here we go, yo. Bo knows this, and Bo knows that. Can I get a hit? Hit! Boom bit! You know it. It’s great. I have trouble looking past nostalgia on this one. This is one of the tentpoles of ’90s rap. Listen to it a couple of times.
Track 8. “Cocaina Shawty” – Kap G
Kap G started his career just a few years ago in Atlanta. His song doesn’t sound like the ’90s. It’s a jam about cocaine. It sounds like it was written to be played in the background of a drug den. It’s aggressive and unpleasant. In the context of a movie, this mood is great. Otherwise, I find it hard to listen to. I wouldn’t want to put this on in my car. It’s so weirdly haunting, it could almost play as a spoof or send-up of drug-themed rap.
Track 9. “Poppin’ Off” – Watch the Duck
“Watch the Duck” is a great band name. They’re also from Atlanta. I wonder why there wasn’t a lot of west coast rap on this record, seeing as how Inglewood, CA plays such a powerful role in the movie. This one has a nice lazy groove to it… until they get to that insufferable dubstep crap. I apologize to fans of the form, but I never took to dubstep, and I find the sound to be grating. Without the bass bwowmbing, this song would have been consumable. With it, it’s annoying.
Track 10. “The Humpty Dance” – Digital Underground
Step off, I’m doin’ the Hump.
Track 11. “New Money” – Buddy
I know we just came off of the “The Humpty Dance,” one of the best-known one-hot wonders of the 1990s, and also one of the funnest (“I once got busy in a Burger King bathroom,” tee hee), but it only makes me long for the more intense ’90s jamz. This dreamy, overproduced, ultra-modern track by Buddy is not where I want to be. It’s too intense and droning. I know this is my “old man” gene in full activation, but this OST would be improved by another ’90s deep cut. There were others used in the movie. Use one of those.
Track 12. “Hip Hop Hooray” (LP Version) – Naughty By Nature
Here we go. One of the hits again. You saved yourself, Dope OST.
An extra note: when this song was first released, I hated it. Indeed, in Jr. High School, I hated a lot of hip-hop (at the time, I suppose I was a proto-metalhead). I hated “Hip Hop Hooray.” I hated “Slam.” I hated “Jump Around.” Worry not, dear friends. I got over my prejudices. There is room for hip-hop in the heart of every metalhead.
Track 13. “Dirty Feeling” – Lolawolf
Lolawolf is Zoë Kravitz, the child of Lenny Kravitz and Lisa Bonet. She looks exactly like Lisa Bonet. Zoë appears in Dope as the unobtainable super-babe. This soundtrack record is well modulated from track to track, and I liked the come-down from “Hip Hop Hooray” into this dark, sexy, near-romantic bedroom beat from the film’s young ingenue. This track is more about mood than message, and this was just the mood we needed here. Sultry and slow.
Track 14. “Home Is Where the Hatred Is” – Gil Scott-Heron
Gil Scott-Heron (1949 – 2011) is a soul musician and poet who is perhaps the grandfather of a lot of rap music. He was one of the early “political” black musicians, and, even with my admittedly limited experience with his work (I only discovered him after his death; yes, I know I’m behind the times and very white), I can appreciate and recognize his power and his importance. Any film about race or race relations would do well to include a track or a poem by Scott-Heron, and I can only stand in awe of Dope‘s music supervisors for including this one.
Track 15. “It’s My Turn Now” – Awreeoh
Dope is a tonal mess. It starts out playful, and ends up too serious and too preachy. It decides late in the game that it’s a “message picture” about street life and being an at-risk teen. What is the message here? That the early ’90s were making violence and horror? The music talked about that stuff openly and frankly. The soundtrack record has the same problem. We’re left with a trio of darker, intense tracks about danger and violence. It leaves you feeling a little depressed, frankly.
And yes, this is the fourth distinct Awreeoh track. I admire Pharrell’s knack for diversity, but some tonal consistency would have been nice.
Which Is Better: The Soundtrack or the Film?
They’re both a bit scattered, but I think I like the soundtrack better. It’s a knowing soundtrack record that does more than pile up random singles. It has a flow and a purpose. The tone may fluctuate, but the soundtrack record actually coheres’ into something awesomely cool, and imminently listenable. Plus, those ’90s ringers keep it kind of glued together, and your eyes pointed in the right direction. Dope doesn’t quite cohere as a movie. It’s daring and ambitious, and I admire it for that – indeed I think I’d recommend it – but it doesn’t have the connective tissue of this record.
Something tells me that the record’s producers wanted to do more than what we hear here. Like they wanted to make a whole album’s worth of Awreeoh tracks, punctuated by a huge fistful of more ’90s hits (Onyx was featured in the movie, why not the soundtrack?). This is only 15 tracks, but it could have easily been 30. It feels like a small piece of a bigger musical project. Well, luckily, I have that handmade six CD set of old-school jamz that my wife and I constructed together. I’ll just go back to that for a bigger taste.