When trying to cull together a list of the best hip-hop movies of all time, the first task is actually identifying what qualifies and what is simply lumped in with the rest and subsequently parroted by others for fear of leaving out a classic that doesn’t actually belong.
Many insist that important films like Boyz n the Hood or Menace II Society belong in the genre – as the former stars rap icon, Ice Cube, and draws its name from an Eazy-E song – while the latter boasted a soundtrack that rose to the top of Billboard‘s rap/hip-hop charts in 1993.
However, neither film is actually about hip-hop music; leading us to reevaluate what actually constitutes being included on a best hip-hop movie viewing guide.
For the sake of clarity and transparency, all of our selections have been based upon a criteria where hip-hop/rap is integral to the plot or main character.
Presented in alphabetical order, these are the 20 best hip-hop movies of all time.
Telling a semi-autobiographical story derived from the life of Eminem (who is installed as the lead), 8 Mile is a shining example of how a music-fueled narrative could be ripe with dramatic tension.
What makes the film work so well is that the Eminem’s “B Rabbit” character had an easily understandable goal; he wants to be respected for his music. Thus, each roadblock and obstacle – from monetary woes to issues with his ex-girlfriend and mother – threaten to push him down a path where he will be forced to reckon with a wasted talent fate which has plagued countless musicians throughout time.
Eminem’s performance was probably the most surprising. Although he’s essentially playing himself, he was unafraid to reveal a vulnerable side which was in stark contrast to the playful antagonist he had become known for in the public eye.
There was a string of hip-hop-focused films released in the early 1980s which looked to capitalize off the relatively new art form which had been birthed by DJ Kool Herc in the South Bronx a decade earlier.
With Beat Street, many people Stateside and abroad got their first look at the various elements of hip-hop – which had been first chronicled in earlier films like Wild Style and Style Wars – by exploring characters embedded in the world of DJing, graffiti and breakdancing.
While the film may seem a tad grandiose – and with sensibilities more in line with Lin Manuel Miranda’s version of hip-hop – the film’s climax is particularly effective because it details what it means to die for one’s passions.
Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest
After watching Michael Rapaport’s 2011 documentary on A Tribe Called Quest, fans had little hope that the legendary group would ever reconcile their differences and record a final album together.
While most people had been aware of Phife Dawg’s failing health as a result of his ongoing battle with diabetes, many couldn’t comprehend that his battle with sugar was something he likened to a drug habit.
In one of the most pivotal moments in the documentary, Phife prepares to get a new kidney from his wife, and receives a “good luck” message from Q-Tip. On the surface, it may have been simply a cordial gesture. However, it seemed to really have an impact.
Although Phife’s passing will always cast a shadow over their final project, We got it from Here…Thank You 4 Your Service, the fact that the album even came together and landed at number one is truly a testament to how any relationship can be mended.
Breakin’ solidified hip-hop as a certifiable movie genre after it was released in 1984 and outperformed Sixteen Candles to become the number one film at the box office.
Eschewing multiple elements in favor of breakdancing’s intoxicating effects on youth culture, the film also showcased that hip-hop wasn’t simply a New York-based art form – utilizing a Los Angeles backdrop to great effect.
The film is decidedly melodramatic and predictable at times. As Roger Ebert put it in his original review, “You like street dancing? This is a great movie, if you can manage to ignore about two-thirds of it.”
Proving that the love of music informs physical attraction, Brown Sugar asks the age old question; can men and women just be friends?
The theme of selling out is of utmost importance in the film. Not only are we given all the reasons why people choose the wrong spouses, but we also come to understand why certain hip-hop acts blow up while others remain underappreciated and overlooked.
And as we all know… the heart wants what the heart wants.
Amongst the many criticisms that the hip-hop genre has had to endure throughout the years, is that it is both misogynistic and that it takes itself too seriously.
Chris Rock’s wickedly funny spoof, CB4, addresses both issues head on by using self-awareness as its greatest weapon – while also adding to the conversation with a strong theme about authenticity.
Directed by Tamra Davis – who notably crafted early music videos for N.W.A, The D.O.C., Young M.C. and the Beastie Boys (she was also married to Mike D), she certainly mined her intimate experiences working with the acts to deliver the rare hip-hop comedy that actually works.
Dave Chappelle’s Block Party
One of the most underrated aspects of Chappelle’s Show was his wide variety of music acts which included Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Busta Rhymes, Fat Joe, Killer Mike, Slum Village, The Roots, Wyclef, De La Soul, Black Star, DMX, CeeLo, Ludacris, Common, Kanye West, Snoop Dogg and Big Boi.
Nestled between the final full season of his Comedy Central brilliance and the truncated third season which was hosted by Charlie Murphy and Donnell Rawlings, Chappelle gave us his version of a block party featuring many of the same guests who appeared on his show.
Directed by Michel Gondry – who had only recently released his critically acclaimed film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – Dave Chappelle’s Block Party is the perfect blend of music and humor. It also turned out to be one of the last major projects we’d get from the comedian until he returned to the limelight in 2014 for a string of shows at Radio City Music Hall.
After having steered the ship on Brown Sugar, Rick Famuyiwa returned to the genre with his teenage-focused Dope.
Trading a predictable point of view audiences had come to expect when presented a South Central backdrop, Famuyiwa instead decided to hone in on a diverse group of friends who had bonded over a so-called “Golden Age” of hip-hop from the likes of A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul and the Native Tongues.
However, when more sinister elements from the neighborhood find their way into their lives, a heroes journey unfolds that perfectly embodies a generation of teens who feel like outcasts, but don’t necessarily want to assimilate into other peer groups.
Do the Right Thing
With a scalding hot heat wave as that perfect storm element, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing prominently uses a Public Enemy-aided soundtrack – which serves the plot effectively through Radio Raheem – to address issues of institutional racism and gentrification in Brooklyn.
Both literally and figuratively, we the audience are left to ponder if cooler heads will prevail.
Fade to Black
When JAY-Z’s concert experience, Fade to Black, was released back in 2004, many believed his performance at Madison Square Garden would be his last – having announced his retirement from rap music following his eighth project, The Black Album.
Pulling together footage from the concert with guests like Beyoncé, Mary J. Blige, Missy Elliott, R. Kelly, Foxy Brown and Pharrell – as well as behind-the-scenes magic that went into crafting his so-called final album – one can’t help but wonder what JAY-Z’s legacy would look like if he had in fact followed through on his intentions.
Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme
From the same Academy Award-nominated producers who introduced the world to Murderball, Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme focuses on the improvisational skills that separates the titans of hip-hop from the mere mortals.
The film excels on multiple levels. It’s informative, never preachy, and seems to have no agenda other than to explore the spontaneity in hip-hop and its connections to past traditions reflected in jazz music and church.
Get Rich or Die Tryin’
Starring Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson in his acting debut, Get Rich or Die Tryin’ shares a similar narrative quality as Eminem’s 8 Mile – packing many harrowing autobiographical elements like getting shot and subsequently transitioning into music – alongside fictional elements which lends itself to the traditional Hollywood template.
Along with Jackson’s admirable portrayal of “Marcus,” the film notably boasted six-time Academy Award nominee, Jim Sheridan, as director, and was written by Terrence Winter who at the time was a producer on The Sopranos, would later create Boardwalk Empire, and go on to pen the well-received film, The Wolf of Wall Street.
Hustle and Flow
Hustle and Flow is a story ripe with underdog qualities thanks to an ensemble of characters who ran the gamut from sex trade workers to unlikely architects of the now signature Southern bounce of rap music.
Terrance Howard’s character, DJay, is both sympathetic and despicable – thus making him both the hero and villain in many instances. Despite his shortcomings, we still root for him to make something better for himself and those around him.
Juice tells the story of a tight-knit group of teenagers – who dubbed themselves “The Wrecking Crew” – who saw their lives and subsequent motivations influenced by a fateful decision to rob a corner bodega.
The film’s pivotal moment is in stark contrast to the more mundane type of hijinks the crew found themselves getting involved in early on – like stealing records to fuel the DJing passion for Omar Epps’s character, Q – who struggled to strike a balance between his commitment to his best friend, Bishop (Tupac Shakur), and pursuing music as a vessel toward a better life.
Inspired by the early days of Def Jam, Krush Groove finds Blair Underwood in the “Russell Simmons” role as he attempts to navigate both the business and personal side of managing acts like Run-D.M.C. and Kurtis Blow.
While Krush Groove has a decidedly antiquated feel in a contemporary context, the film’s origins recall a time when Hollywood producers were sure that hip-hop was a fad and should be mined for all that it was worth before it faded away.
Directed by Doug Pray – who recently earned a writing/executive producer credit on HBO’s documentary about Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre, The Defiant Ones – Scratch is an ode to the origins of turntablism and how it evolved as hip-hop matured.
Equal parts a history lesson as it’s folksy and anecdotal thanks to vivid recollections by prominent DJs like Mix Master Mike, Qbert, Babu, DJ Shadow, Cut Chemist, DJ Premier and more, it remains the gold standard for an often underrepresented element of hip-hop.
Straight Outta Compton
As the newest addition to the canon of hip-hop films, Straight Outta Compton tracks the meteoric rise of N.W.A from humble origins at Skateland in Compton, to sold out shows across the globe.
But whereas other rap movies rely heavily on fictionalized accounts, N.W.A’s true story is so packed with hard-to-believe truths that it is informative as it is entertaining – allowing us to fully understand how a brotherhood built upon shared experiences in Compton could dissolve into bitter hatred for one another.
As hip-hop culture took hold on impressionable New York City teenagers, Tony Silver and Henry Chalfant were johnny-on-the-spot with their cameras to capture the reasoning behind an artistic movement that for some had traces of the Harlem Renaissance, and to others, was as bad as a medieval plague.
Awarded the Grand Prize for Documentaries at the 1983 Sundance Film Festival, Style Wars remains one of the most important hip-hop movies ever because cameras captured luminaries in music, art and dancing as it was tangibly happening.
Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature at the 77th Academy Awards, Tupac: Resurrection is one of the most complete examinations of the life of Tupac Shakur.
The film is particularly harrowing because the film is narrated by Shakur himself – giving the entire narrative an eerie quality – while also eschewing any outside voices who tend to exaggerate or make themselves more central to his success as an artist than is factually accurate.
Widely regarded as the first hip-hop movie, Wild Style draws its name from the evolution of graffiti pieces which went from the single hit era, to more elaborate styles which challenged color palettes and letter structures.
Although fictionalized, the film features prominent fixtures of the early days of Nee York City hip-hop culture in prominent roles – including Lee Quiñones, Fab Five Freddy, Lady Pink, the Rock Steady Crew, The Cold Crush Brothers, Queen Lisa Lee of Zulu Nation, and Grandmaster Flash.