Cinophile: CB4

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Hip hop does not get a whole lot of attention in movies. Even with the NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton arriving soon, the list of films that cover hip hop as a topic is a pretty anaemic one. The last movie of real significance about the genre – that wasn’t a documentory – was probably 8 Mile, which is thirteen years old!

Maybe the issue is a lack of crossover between film and hip-hop culture. Other than rappers making a go out of acting careers, the two scenes don’t seem to touch base very often. But CB4 is almost unique in that sense: both a love letter and send-off of hip hop, this parody remains one of the best hip hop-related movies ever made.

Many have referred to CB4 as Chris Rock’s This Is Spinal Tap for hip hop. It’s a very apt description: like Spinal Tap the movie is a fictitious mockumentory about a musical group, in this case CB4 or Cell Block 4. The trio explode onto the scene with furious lyrics, laden with misogyny, violence, profanity and everything else you can expect from a gangsta rap group. But it is fitting – the biggest inspiration for the fictional group is NWA itself and the main song is a parody of NWA’s hit Straight Outta Compton (though the film does not mirror NWA’s own story).

CB4 delves into the history of the band, which proclaims to be from tough neighborhoods, but actually rose in middle class suburbs. It follows the trio as they try to become famous and eventually settle on a hardened gangster theme – egged on by their zealous promoter. Soon CB4 explodes onto the scene, then attracts the wrong attention because it stole the identity of a real gangster.

This is a funny movie, but what else could we expect from a script co-written by Chris Rock? He had just come to the end of his Saturday Night Live career and CB4 would serve as the breakout hit that eventually makes the comedian a movie star. The story loosely follows its threads – including a right-wing politician who stokes up anti-CB4 sentiment for his own gain – but most of the movie is comedy.

But you don’t need to know – or even like – hip hop to get this movie. If anything, it resonates so well with the absurdities of the culture that you’d have to have lived under a cultural rock – or be older than 50 – to not get at least some of the gags. The whole thing puts a farcical side to the music genre and in years since many have commented on how the culture started to copy the movie. Point in case: both 50 Cent (look up Kelvin Martin) and Rick Ross stole the identities of actual criminals – Ross was even attacked because of it.

That said, CB4 isn’t perfect. Some of the jokes are a bit flat and sometimes it feels like it could have taken things even further. But that is not really fair, as there has not been anything like it before and very little since. The real pity about CB4 is that it wasn’t made a bit later – when it came out the modern hip-hop scene was still in its early years and yet to explode into the pop culture juggernaut it has become in the last two decades. There would have been so much more to work with.

But for what it was and still is, CB4 is a unique send-off to the music world and a classic in its own right. The subject of a sequel has come up many times, but Rock has said it can’t be done: Life has imitated art too much. How often can a movie lay claim to such a statement?

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The group NWA was used to model CB4's look and attitude on. Suitably two of NWA's members - Ice Cube and Eazy E - appear in the movie as themselves. There are also mock interviews with Halle Berry, Ice T, Shaquille O'Neal and the Butthole Surfers.
The group NWA was used to model CB4’s look and attitude on. Suitably two of NWA’s members – Ice Cube and Eazy E – appear in the movie as themselves. There are also mock interviews with Halle Berry, Ice T, Shaquille O’Neal and the Butthole Surfers.
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CB4 parodies several popular rap songs, including NWA’s Straight Outta Compton, now called Straight Outta Locash (the surbame of one of the screenwriters). Two other songs parodied for the movie are Talk Like Sex by Kool G. Rap & D.J. Polo and Rapper’s Delight by the Sugar Hill Gang. In the movie a pop rapper called Wacky Dee is also shown – a parody of MC Hammer and the general explosion of dance hip-hop in the late eighties and early nineties.
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Chris Rock fans will notice several hat tips to some of his previous roles. A scene with Isaac Hayes is a parody of their interaction on the 1988 film I’m Gonna Git You Sucka. The movie New Jack City is also referenced twice: when Rock’s character smokes crack it parodies his character from that movie. At one point CB4‘s villain Gusto is compared to Nino Brown, Wesley Snipes’ mean druglord from New Jack City.
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The people who made CB4 really do enjoy hip hop. Chris Rock has openly stated how much he loves the genre, though he does have problems with some of its attitudes towards things like women and violence – critical themes that come up in CB4. The movie was also directed by Tamra Davis, who not only directed several music videos for bans like NWA, but is also married to Mike D of the Beastie Boys.

Cinophile is a weekly feature showcasing films that are strange, brilliant, bizarre and explains why we love the movies.

Last Updated: March 2, 2015

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