Hip-hop and cinema have always had a tight relationship. Of course, the scale has grown larger with artists like Kendrick Lamar and Future recently being appointed to take care of entire movie soundtracks. But the genre has been used to bolster iconic movie scenes for decades.
Though the songs used often have a blissful life of their own outside the theaters, for some, hearing a rap song in a good movie has a lasting effect. The records used to accompany a movie scene has the ability to take a viewer right back to the exact moment in which they heard it, giving both components a timeless impression.
The best example of this comes from the cult classic movie Belly, which stars Nas and DMX. In the opening sequence, Soul II Soul’s “Back to Life” is used to score a that went on to become one of the dopest openings in Black cinema history. While “Back to Life” isn't a hip-hop song, it's use as the soundtrack to this pivotal time in the film centered on Nas and DMX makes it connect like it is.
A similar moment happens when you hear Nas’ “Rule” featuring Amerie, which takes you right back to that scene in Like Mike where Bow Wow and Morris Chestnut are having an all-out paint war in the backyard of a multimillion dollar mansion. The last reference we can look at before we dive into things comes with Timbaland, Magoo and Fatman Scoop’s “Drop,” serving as a transporter back to the introductory dance scene of the 2004 film You Got Served.
When placed properly, there are plenty of hip-hop songs that you’ve come to naturally associate with great movie scenes. So today, for the fun of it, XXL highlights 10 well-known examples. Peep them below.
Movie: You Got Served (2004)
It’s impractical to remain seated while Timbaland, Magoo and Fatman Scoop’s “Drop” rings in the background. Hence why everyone in the opening scene of the 2004 dance-drama You Got Served, starring Marques Houston and Omarion, was on their feet battling when the track sounded off. The commanding lyrics of the song provide an invigorating inclination to move every muscle in one’s body, in the form of crunking and pop-locking, which are innate moves when it comes to dance-offs. As the respective crews take turns battling against one another, the song helps capture the competitive essence of dance battles in general and the seriousness that comes with showing and proving with a reputation and thousands of dollars on the line. Competition aside though, you can’t front like this song doesn’t take you back to the first scene in this iconic movie.
Movie: Set It Off (1996)
It’s only right that a movie about a genius string of robberies is composed with guttural songs to depict the moment. In the 1996 film Set It Off, starring Jada Pinkett (Stoney), Queen Latifah (Cleo), Vivica A. Fox (Frankie) and Kimberly Elise (T.T), four women solve their financial burdens by sticking up a few suburban banks. After successfully getting away with the first one, Da 5 Footaz’s “The Heist" plays in the background as the camera pans to Cleo’s newly copped gold rims that sit on her decked-out low rider (sponsored by the bank of course.) As the hydraulics in her whip are pumped up and a grin is shown on her face, the music in the background is perfect for the crime they just committed and the suspenseful plot of the entire film. Go plug up the song right now. We guarantee you reminisce on this scene so hard that you might start cooking up a plot of your own.
Movie: Hitch (2005)
Hitch is a gem in Will Smith’s rich filmography and so are a lot of the songs used in it. The comedy film, based on the life of a love doctor who ends up falling into love himself, is filled with realistic dating moments that you can remember as you read this. But there is one scene in particular that’s become a fan favorite. The movie’s soundtrack spans past multiple decades, from Earth, Wind & Fire to Omarion. But the most notable usage of music comes at the end where Kevin James’ character Albert gets married to the girl of his dreams. Following the official tying of the knot, the party busts out in a Soul Train line, jigging to Heavy D & the Boyz’s "Now That We Found Love.” The track’s cheering tone gives everyone the stern basis to turn up and let loose on. And considering how this song is a party anthem, they couldn’t have chosen a record more fitting. For those too young to have actually partied to it, they’ll remember this scene at least.
Nas Featuring Amerie
Movie: Like Mike (2002)
You remember how the story goes in Like Mike: An orphan named Calvin Cambridge, played by Lil Bow Wow, scores a spot on the city’s NBA team with the help of some magic Nike Blazers. Though his name is inked onto a professional basketball contract, he still has geometry to defeat in school. So his teammate Tracy Reynolds, played by Morris Chestnut, helps by painting shapes over the back walls of his multimillion dollar mansion. With the arrival of Calvin’s friend Murph, who pulls up to learn as well, the school lesson turns into an all-out paint fight in which Nas and Amerie’s “Rule” serves as the perfect uplifting soundtrack for the moment. The song’s message of freedom and sprightly instrumentation match the youthful cackles and spontaneity in the scene. Every time “Rule” plays now, you probably wish you learned geometry that same way as you envision one of the coolest parts of the movie.
Movie: Rush Hour (1998)
Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan’s faces will forever be etched to the memory of watching Rush Hour for the first time back in the late 1990s. The two stars, who play Detective James Carter (Tucker) and Detective Inspector Yang Naing Lee (Chan), are linked together to rescue a Chinese diplomat's daughter. But in order to work together successfully, they must find out how to get along and learn to accept each other’s cultural differences. Along the way, in one of the funniest scenes in the movie, Detective James Carter cuts off the Beach Boys in his whip to play something a little more turnt, which turns out to be Jay-Z, Ja Rule and Amil’s “Can I Get A…". To the beat of the record, Detective Carter hits a few shoulder rolls as his partner looks at him exhausted and unmoved. The difference in energy is hilarious and makes this scene one of the best in the movie. But it’s impossible to think of without Jigga’s voice floating in the background.
Movie: 8 Mile (2002)
Eminem’s hit song “Lose Yourself” has roots that can be traced back to the box-office success of the film 8 Mile. To give some context, the autobiographical film traces back Em’s journey of launching a career in hip-hop. Going by B-Rabbit in the movie, the White rapper has to prove himself in a gritty battle environment surrounded by Black people who are far from accepting of his paleness and desire to be included in the culture. He knows that his pen game has to be sharper than ever in order to compete, so before he steps up to bat, he channels his inner talent and pulls out the notepad as the instrumental of “Lose Yourself” hums in the background as his daughter paints a picture alongside him. Upon arriving to the make-or-break battle, B-Rabbit eventually travails past the unsupported rounds.The song is fitting because it details how he was able to get through it all, literally losing himself in the moment and tapping into a zone that showed off his real potential to become one of Detroit’s best rappers. You can’t hear this song and not get taken back to these cinematic flashes.
“Fight the Power”
Movie: Do the Right Thing (1989)
Spike Lee’s 1989 classic Do the Right Thing analyzes the racial tension in Brooklyn during that time. The ill feelings eventually led to violence, depicted in one of the movie's most memorable scenes. The main characters Buggin' Out (Giancarlo Esposito), Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) and Smiley, (Roger Guenveur Smith) have enough, and walk into a restaurant owned Sal—a local restaurant owner and racist. Blasting “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy, the boys make the claim that they aren’t leaving until they see someone Black on the restaurants wall of fame. Frustrated, Sal hurls racial slurs and smashes the boombox that the music is playing out of, leading to a brawl that ends with a casualty at the hands of the police. The song, in the moment and throughout the film, is a direct combatant to racial inequality and injustice. As dark as things get in this moment, the powerful track is also a vivid transporter to this very scene that shows the reason why this movie was made in the first place.
Movie: Big Momma's House (2000)
Before Lil Bow Wow touched the big screen himself, his voice was already heard in major motion pictures. In the 2000 release of Big Momma’s House, starring legendary comedian Martin Lawrence, Lil Bow Wow’s Xscape-assisted “Bounce With Me” is used to soundtrack a scene where the cross-dressing nanny’s basketball skills are showcased alongside Trent (Jascha Washington)—the boy she spends the movie babysitting and protecting. In a two on two pick up game against two sharp-mouthed teengaers, Big Momma puts on an NBA Combine level performance, using her body to bounce defenders off her chest as the ball ricochets on the ground. If you close your eyes and hear this song right now, her comedic display of b-ball greatness will play like a SportsCenter highlight in your head. Bet it.
“Pass the Courvoisier”
Movie: Love Don't Cost a Thing (2003)
Whenever the VHS classic Love Don’t Cost a Thing is brought up, the first thing you’ll probably think of is Nick Cannon, who plays science nerd Alvin Johnson, hitting that wildly corny yet infectious dance on the beach. And it actually worked as everyone chimed in to mimic the madness. In the movie, Alvin strikes a deal with Paris Morgan, who’s played by Christina Millian, to fix her car in exchange for being his temporary girlfriend. As Alvin becomes “cool” due to the association, he attempts to learn how to dance via an old workout movie he has at the crib, combining those techniques with his own wacky creations. He eventually gets the opportunity to debut what he practiced in the mirror on senior skip day. Accompanying his stale, unorthodox moves, Busta Rhymes’ “Pass the Courvoisier” blasts in the background and makes everyone walk over to join the fun. If that song came on in the club right now, pandemic aside, you’ll probably feel the slight inclination to reenact the funniest scene in the movie. It’s only natural after seeing this.
Movie: Space Jam (1996)
We have to pop open the childhood time capsule for this one. The 1996 classic Space Jam is one of the best sports movies to ever come out, no cap. Starring Michael Jordan, the film is all about finding his game, no matter what the unforeseeable circumstances are. With such an emphasis on the sport of basketball and the hype behind one of the greatest players to step on the floor, the movie starts off with Quad City DJ’s' "Space Jam,” creating a pep rally atmosphere through the audio. As OG white and grey photos of Jordan’s childhood and clips of his time being the human highlight reel play in the background, “Space Jam” is the ideal theme song to get your energy up for the animated journey both Mike and viewers go on during the movie. Watch how quickly you start singing the song and bobbing your head once it begins.
Movie: Belly (1998)
The intro scene to Belly has become a classic in its own right. The opening sequence, backed by an a cappella version of Soul II Soul’s “Back to Life,” features the movie’s protagonists Nas (Sincere), DMX (Buns) and their crew entering a club that is coated in a blue fluorescent light. While Soul II Soul’s “Back to Life” isn't a hip-hop song, it's moment as a pivotal moment in this film with two of rap's lauded artists makes it hip-hop. Things are slow in pace, like the song’s tempo, but with the vision of bodies rolling on each other and money floating in the background, you can see the club is actually pretty active in real time. Like all party scenes, things eventually turn up. Once the gun shots erupt, the beat drops, creating an even more undeniable synchrony between the visuals and the audio. The entire Hype Williams-directed scene could easily be a music video of its own, one that you subconsciously play in your head every time you see this movie title or hear this song.