From the great Roc-A-Fella Records to the obscure Dell Glover, we rounded the 10 great hip-hop biopics we would like to see made.
Hip-hop being the most popular genre of music means the culture is perceived as valuable enough to be mined for movie adaptations. There have been big-budget biopics in the past, but primarily of hip hop megastars that somewhat transcended the genre. This included figures like Eminem, Tupac, Notorious B.I.G., and N.W.A. The latter’s biopic, 2015’s Straight Outta Compton, grossed over $200 million, received rave reviews, and proved to Hollywood that hip-hop stories can sell. Now, it’s time to tell more stories.
Docuseries like Netflix’s Hip Hop Evolution on and AMC’s Songs That Shook America have begun expanding the scope of hip-hop subjects, telling the stories of Goodie Mob, De La Soul, MC Shan, KRS One, Queen Latifah, and more that have seldom had their story committed to the screen. Hip-hop fashion pioneer Dapper Dan has a biopic in the works produced by Jerrod Carmichael; a Master P biopic is in the works at Paramount; and the world may one day see 2 Live Crew in all of their explicit glory in a rumored biopic. It’s safe to say more of hip hop’s history will be put on film this decade.
From the great Roc-A-Fella Records to the obscure Dell Glover, we rounded the 10 great hip-hop subjects that should get a biopic. Check out the list below.
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Roc-A-Fella is the record label where JAY-Z cemented himself as the greatest rapper of all time, the home of Kanye West’s first five albums, where Cam’ron had his commercial success, and where the name Dame Dash became synonymous with aggressive marketing. We’ve occasionally been given peeks inside the fortified paradise. But what the hip hop world needs is an epic, 210-minute feature film that turns all these facts into scenes.
A Roc-A-Fella biopic could follow the individual stories of its founders and the unique circumstances that led to them finding each other. This is similar to the idea for a Roc-A-Fella biopic Biggs said he would work on in a 2019 interview. More than 15 years after JAY-Z, Dame Dash, and Kareem “Biggs” Burke, founders of the label, sold their stake in Roc-A-Fella Records to Island Def Jam, effectively ending the label, its importance hasn’t diminished with rappers like Meek Mill and Big Sean, who were teenagers during the label’s prime, donning the iconic Roc-A-Fella chain as a status symbol.
Moment To Explore Deeper: The dinner between JAY-Z and Dame Dash before the label’s dissolution when Dame asks Jay to not take the Roc-A-Fella name with him after Jay assumed the role as President at Def Jam. Seeing the conversation that likely finalized the end of an era, and the possible tectonic tension between two forces of nature like Dame and Jay, would be closure for millions of rap fans.
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What does it look like to put an entire region’s music scene on your back? It looks like a young Big Boi and André 3000, who announced Atlanta’s hip-hop independence by proclaiming “the south’s got something to say” after being awarded Best Rap Group at the tumultuous 1995 Source Awards in New York City. Now that Atlanta’s grown into the hitmaking hub of the most popular music genre in the world, exploring the story of Outkast would show how improbable something so obvious that’s so obvious now like Atlanta running hip-hop was in the past.
The biopic would work best if it started from present-day with the two of them on their separate paths but united by the memory of their rise. Yet, at some point in the biopic, the retelling of their story would split, representing Big Boi and André’s divergent views on the group’s future that led to no Outkast album being released in almost 15 years. Depending on his involvement, a biopic could be the best platform for André 3000 to explain in meticulous detail how his love for recording music dwindled with age and disillusionment.
Moment to Explore Deeper: The night of the 1995 Source Awards, after André’s declaration, when they were still in New York City and surrounded by nefarious New Yorkers they thought they may have offended.
Photo credit: Vickey Ford for Sneakshot/Okayplayer.com
If an honest and unfiltered biopic of the life of Too $hort was made, there would need to be two versions: the R-rated version and NC-17 version. $hort has never been shy about sharing tales of his exploits. His biopic would be akin to Wolf of Wall Street with $hort narrating us through his debauchery.
But, the biopic would be a great opportunity for generations of hip-hop fans who only associate $hort with his favorite word — bitch. He has spoken in the past about his former label Jive Records’ reluctance to tour the label’s rap artists together as Def Jam did with their artists for the Hard Knock Life Tour in 1999. “They literally would pay me a lot of money to make records and then, they wouldn’t promote them or do anything. I realized Jive quit the rap game. You can ask E-40,” $hort once said in an interview. This biopic would be able to show what Too $hort stood for outside of sex.
Moment to explore: Too $hort on the NWA Straight Outta Compton tour being taken off the bus to be given citations for obscene lyrics in Cincinnati in 1989. The scene would feature parents blocking kids from going to a show to the point where there was no one in the crowd, as he said in a REVOLT interview.
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In her first seven years in the music industry, Missy Elliott was the sound of popular music without putting out a single song. During that span, she wrote on 20 songs that became Billboard Top 10 hits for artists like Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. Her biopic would definitely give a fascinating look into the personalities and working habits of the myriad of artist Missy wrote and produced. Imagine seeing the version of Aaliyah that Missy remembers rather than the one-dimensional version Lifetime showed in Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B.
Even though Missy is often celebrated for her proclivity for bending barriers, we really don’t know Melissa Arnette Elliott. This biopic would give a rare look into the woman inside the blow-up suit. The world found out about Missy suffering from the incurable Graves disease when she announced it in 2011, three years after she was diagnosed. Missy said in 2012 that the disease caused her hair to fall out, her skin to change, she had to treat the disease with radiation pills and questioned if this would be the end of her life. Visualizing those moments would go a long way toward Missy’s everlasting legacy.
Moment To Explore: Missy in the studio with Monica working on the singer’s grammy nominated 2010 single “Everything To Me.” Missy said in a 2011 interview working on that record while suffering from Graves’s disease was difficult but also opened up a new layer to her and Monica’s relationship. “I couldn’t even write the words down because your nervous system breaks down, so you shake so bad. She was like, ‘Look, Miss, I got it. Let me write it for you,” she said.
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MF DOOM is arguably the most enigmatic hip-hop artist of the 21st century, a man who has not been photographed without his mask since the late 1990s when he was KMD group member Zev Love X. An MF DOOM biopic could mirror that of a complex supervillain’s origin story, exploring the aspects of society and hip-hop that turned him into the masked MC. After the death of his brother, and KMD member, Dingilizwe in 1993 along with the group’s label Elektra refusing to release their sophomore album Black Bastards, the barefaced Zev Love X was disillusioned with hip-hop and receded from the public eye for five years.
He returned in 1998 at an impromptu open mic poetry session at the Nuyorican Poets’ Cafe performing with a woman’s stocking over his face. The next year, he was donning a metallic mask and referring to himself as Metal Face Doom for the release of his debut album Operation: Doomsday. That piecemeal transformation of Daniel Dumile into MF Doom could be tantamount to the metamorphosis of Arthur Fleck into Joker, both catalyzed by adverse relationships with societal norms. The Joker won an Oscar, so maybe rap’s greatest supervillain can do the same for hip-hop.
Moment To Explore: The night of MF DOOM’s return at the poetry open mic.
$25 million in a year, sit atop the Billboard charts for six weeks, and win Golden Globes awards. With multi-faceted success among women who rap becoming the new normal, a Queen Latifah biopic would be a necessary reminder of the MC who made that possible.
When she was tired of gangster rappers demeaning women in lyrics she virulently asked them, “Who you calling a bitch?” on “U.N.I.T.Y.” When her first TV series, Living Single, became a runaway success, she had to battle reductions of her show to “‘The Facts of Life’ in blackface” from the executive editor of The Source and Bill Cosby complaints of the women of the show talking about men too much. A Queen Latifah biopic would follow her rise from Dana Elaine Owens from Newark to the mega mogul who hasn’t needed to rap for more than a decade.
Moment To Explore: The studio session for “Name Calling Pt II,” her response to Foxy Brown’s diss record “10% Dis” in which she questioned Latifah’s sexuality. Seeing as Latifah’s image has been particularly pristine for more than 20 years, seeing her thought process in attacking an artist would be enlightening.
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Pimp C’s story is one of duality. As one half of UGK, he made music while smoking PCP-laced blunts, denounced Atlanta as part of the south, insinuated that both Russell Simmons and Ne-Yo were gay, and no-showed a JAY-Z music video shoot. He was also a man who was singing in a choir at Carnegie Hall at 16, who suffered from bipolar disorder and sleep apnea. The latter condition was a central cause of his death in concert with an accidental overdose of promethazine/codeine.
The biopic would be centered on the final year of Pimp C’s life with certain moments triggering flashbacks and would be narrated by the actor that plays Pimp. The details of his final year would be provided by his living relatives, those close to him, the hotel workers who found the rapper dead in his hotel room and, of course, his UGK partner Bun B. With Juice WRLD’s death partly being due to a codeine overdose, Pimp C’s biopic could be a visceral cautionary tale to a generation of hip-hop artists that still glorifies lean.
Moment To Explore Deeper: UGK recording sessions in Chicago for the group’s third album. According to Pimp C’s biography, $Weet Jone$: Pimp C’s Trill Life Story, that was the first and last time UGK recorded outside of the south because when they returned home Pimp C’s mother called the music they recorded in Chicago “boo boo.” Visualizing this would reinforce how UGK was down south hip-hop to its core.
Photo Credit: Vickey Ford of Sneakshot for Okayplayer
They don’t make supergroups like the Soulquarians anymore. The Soulquarians were a movement instead of simply a collection of likeminded artists. It was first formed by Questlove, J. Dilla, James Poysner, and D’Angelo based on their shared Aquarius sign and a love for abstract music. From 1996 to 2002 they appeared on each other’s albums and birthed the neo-soul sound that has given careers to Ari Lennox, Anderson Paak, Frank Ocean, and The Internet.
This biopic would, in part, start off as six mini-biopics in one tracing the unique upbringings and journeys of Questlove, J. Dilla, Erykah Badu, D’ Angelo, Common, and James Poysner and how those divergent paths led them to form the neo-soul Avengers in Electric Lady Studios — the same recording studio Jimi Hendrix recorded in and bears the name of one of his most iconic albums ever. Once the biopic reaches Electric Lady Studios, that’s when it’ll really start. That’s the studio where D’Angelo’s Voodoo, The Roots’ Things Fall Apart, Erykah Badu’s Mama Gun, Common’s Like Water For Chocolate, and Bilal’s 1st Born Second.
There have been oral histories on the Soulquarians, but the written word is an unfit vessel for the history of one of the greatest movements of Black art of the last 30 years. Seeing how the beat battle between Questlove and J. Dilla resulted in the latter turning Rick James’ “Give It To Me Baby” into the beat for Common’s “Dooinit” would drive home the fact the song was made from youthful joy and not calculated marketing. Seeing a young Lauryn Hill, Q-Tip, Eric Clapton, Chris Rock, and Rick Rubin all rolling through Electric Lady Studios while the Soulquarians were running things in the late ’90s and early 2000s would accurately portray the once in a lifetime magnitude of what the Soulquarians represented.
Moments to Explore: The September 2000 Vibe cover photoshoot of all the major players in the Soulquarians. According to Questlove, this moment would later cause a rift amongst the group members.
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The man who broke the multi-billion dollar record business during the heights of its opulence did so using a computer, an internet connection, and a gaudily large belt buckle while working at a manufacturing plant. That man was Bennie Lydell “Dell” Glover, a worker at the Kings Mountain, North Carolina, at the CD manufacturing plant responsible for making the CDs for 50 Cent’s Get Rich Or Die Tryin’, 2Pac’s All Eyez On Me, Eminem’s The Eminem Show, Nelly’s Country Grammar, and dozens of other multi-platinum albums, all of which Dell smuggled out and uploaded to weeks before their official release.
The music industry was charging $14 for CDs that cost $2 to manufacture at the same time as Napster launching, making music the most accessible it had been in modern human history. Glover’s biopic would be a look into how valuable music once was with his recollections of albums by megastars like Nelly and Eminem arriving at the plant “in a limousine with tinted windows, carried from the production studio in a briefcase by a courier who never let the master tape out of his sight.” This biopic could also be a dual narrative of sorts split between following the record executives behind the industry’s rise and Dell working at the plant in order to show that while the music industry thought the good times would never stop rolling, a member of the working class was surreptitiously plotting its downfall.
Moment to explore: The tense moment when he was attempting to smuggle an album out of the plant in his pants and had to go through security. He ingeniously placed the CD jewel case behind his huge belt buckle, so when the metal detector went off, the security guard attributed it to the belt buckle.
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A look into the life of William Michael Griffith Jr would be a look into the evolution of the super MC blueprint that Eminem, Nas, and JAY-Z have built careers using. Rakim spent three years working with novelist and journalist Touré to turn decades of life into 236 pages for the lyricist’s 2019 biography Sweat The Technique. That could be great source material for the biopic.
Rakim’s genius and lyrical dexterity have always been the cruxes of his lore, yet relatively few have observed the machinations behind his art.
Seeing a young Rakim writing songs backward, as he admits to doing in the book, in order to deal with writer’s block could give extra context to the making of some of the best songs in hip-hop history. Could you imagine the shockwave that would be sent through hip-hop if we all saw Rakim slap boxing with LL Cool J and then untying his shoes in order to snatch his Kangol hat on the 1988 Dope Jam Tour; a story Rakim revealed in 2018 while promoting his biography? Or how seeing an adult Rakim purposefully abandoning his son and his son’s mother for four years because he “wanted her to suffer for a little while,” as he told MTV in 2004, could complicate his legacy.
In any event, a Rakim biopic is necessary because he’s one of the last forefathers of the modern MC who has yet to have his full story told.
Moment to Explore Deeper: The moment between Rakim and his son where he tells him “Have patience, man, this sh– is about to get real crazy right now. Stay strong. Understand what’s going on and understand what we got and don’t let nothing break it.”
Keith Nelson Jr. is a journalist who has covered hip-hop, technology, and movies/TV for VIBE, Revolt, Digital Trends, Flaunt Magazine, and more. Follow him @JusAire