In preparation for this months gangsta rap biopic, Straight Outta Compton, we’re celebrating a month long look at hip hop in film. Our first entry is Chris Rock’s rap-u-mentary: CB4, a comedy spoof and MTV Behind the Music style expose of a fictional group of gangsta rappers named Cell Block 4, led by M.C. Gusto (played by Chris Rock himself.) Through an extensive cast of stars, comedians and hip hop artists, the film manages to feel like a time capsule of the late 80’s and early 90’s when rap was differentiating itself into a whole new kind of animal. As a retrospective of that era, CB4 is a delight. As a solid comedy, the movie falls short, especially as the wheels come off towards the end.
Albert (Rock) is a young man with dreams of making it big on the hip hop scene. While he and his friends are mainly influenced by classic acts like Run DMC and The Sugarhill Gang, Albert is fascinated by the glamour and prestige of the red-hot gangsta rap movement. When a real local gansta, Gusto (Charlie Murphy) is sent away for drug dealing, Albert adopts his name, adds some jerry curls and gold teeth to his image, and remakes his rapping trio into the infamous CB4, a hard spitting and raunchy gangsta act from Cell Block 4. The group becomes instant celebrities, drawing admiration from other rappers, confusion from Albert’s family, and anger from the real Gusto, who vows to break out of jail in order to get his revenge on the upstarts.
CB4 starts with a montage of hip hop memorabilia from the early masters of the form: Grandmaster Flash, Run DMC, The Fat Boys and more. The film quickly establishes a keen eye for celebrating and riffing on the whole of hip hop. Several early scenes has Albert and his friends trying to break into the music biz by aping former artists (even dressing up in padding to do a Fat Boys routine) before finally settling on gangsta rap personas. Despite the majority of the film being spent on “documenting” the rise and fall of the thuggish CB4, Rock clearly is interested in telling the story of hip hop’s history and development, and he has both praise and mockery for all involved. It helps that the film has a very deep roster to cover such a wide collection of influences.
The film features a posse of 90’s comedy stars such as fellow SNL alums Chris Elliot and Phil Hartman, In Living Color’s Tommy Davidson, and has tons of cameos from stars such as Shaquille O’Neil, Halle Berry, Eazy E, Flava Flav, Ice Cube and even The Butthole Surfers. Now I don’t know about you, but if The Butthole Surfers are down with a project, then I’m down with it. The “interviews” with rap stars and notable personalities from the era give the piece authenticity while simultaneously pocking fun at the MTV style celebrity worship and sound-bite driven documentaries of the time. The comedic star power helps the film over some of it’s plot holes, as Phil Hartman is engaging as an opportunistic politician looking to make a name for himself by crusading against CB4’s vulgarity, and Charlie Murphy helps to make the cartoon-ish Gusto into a violent but humorous villain.
The major fault of the CB4 is that it ends up with nowhere to go. After doing a deft drive by on both celebrity and rap culture, the plot runs out of steam. The real climax of the film should have been CB4 overcoming (and mocking) the hand-wringing politicization of Phil Hartman’s moral crusade against rap. Indeed, Rock gets off some great barbs comparing the furor with which rap is treated while similarly disturbing acts from white rock and roll bands are given a free pass. Instead, the film tries to get away with one more message, that of being authentic, and falls flat. The break up and reunion of CB4, this time without the pretense of being gangstas feels pat and unrealistic. You may love the oldies, but if you paid for tickets to NWA and instead got The Sugarhill Gang back in 1988, I’m pretty sure the audience would have rioted. Hip hop had moved on, and sentimentality was not going to bring the good old days back.
Right Place at the Right Time
Despite the flat finale, CB4 is entertaining and worth viewing. It manages to capture a musical genre in transition, from the inside, and is able to use that position to comment, compliment, and critique the new status quo. The bands videos and stage performances are a ton of fun, and I wish that more of the band’s songs (which fill a full length soundtrack) had been featured. The film also is a great look back at a culture in flux, similar to Eddie Murphy’s Coming to America. It examines the good, the bad, and the silly aspects of black culture during a pivotal time when things as somber as Afro-centric Black Power movements had to vie with fads like MC Hammer and mix tapes in a battle to shape the minds of a new generation. While it doesn’t always put its best foot forward, CB4 is a fun and frantic cultural touchstone that still has relevance today.