Ozark show runner Chris Mundy and music supervisor Gabe Hilfer spoke on Ruth’s relationship to ’90s rap and how the last season caps it off.
If there was any moment that left viewers’ mouths agape during the seventh episode of Ozark season four, it was surely the unexpected death of Wyatt Langmore, the cousin to beloved fan favorite Ruth Langmore. Before we can even process what has happened, Javi Navarro is already walking out of the door of Wyatt and Darlene’s home, leaving their bodies for Ruth to discover. It’s a tragic scene that brings out actor Julia Garner’s best performance from the series thus far, as Ruth wrestles with all of the emotions that come after seeing Wyatt become an innocent casualty of all that’s going on.
Part two of Ozark‘s season finale begins with Ruth on the warpath as she seeks revenge against Javi for murdering Wyatt. Now, for purposes of keeping this light on spoilers, it cannot be confirmed or denied that she actually gets what she wants (unless you believe that the trailer for part two really shows her killing him in broad daylight). However, what can be revealed is that a certain classic rap album soundtracks the Ruth-centered episode, helping her to process what has happened and what she may or may not do moving forward — Nas’ Illmatic.
Ruth is Ozark‘s resident ’90s hip-hop head. Whenever she’s onscreen it’s likely she’s accompanied by a ’90s rap staple, whether that’s The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Somebody’s Gotta Die” or Wu-Tang Clan’s “C.R.E.A.M.” However, that wasn’t always supposed to be the case. As show runner Chris Mundy said, it all began with a line from the series’ third episode “My Dripping Sleep,” where Ruth asks Tuck if he listens to “old-school hip-hop” like Tupac and Eazy-E. From there, Mundy and music supervisor Gabe Hilfer began to play with the idea of Ruth being a ’90s hip-hop fan, seeing how the character embodied the attitude of the music.
“Her specific taste in hip-hop, I feel, grew out of this authenticity, which was her whole honesty and her character. Her not ever taking shit, to me, that was a real hallmark of ’90s hip-hop, you know what I mean?” Hilfer said. “It was almost just attitude driven for the art form… it wasn’t big money hip-hop at that time. It was just authentic. It mirrored how Chris wrote Ruth.”
“And a lot of that music is aspirational too,” Mundy added. “And I think that matched up really well with her too, besides just being hard.”
Part two’s debut episode, “The Cousin of Death,” continues this bond between Ruth and ’90s hip-hop, most notably with Illmatic. There are four songs from Nas’ debut album that soundtrack the episode: “N.Y. State of Mind,” “Represent,” “Life’s a Bitch,” and “One Time 4 Your Mind.” Like previous episodes have shown, Ruth finds comfort in the raps of ’90s MCs, particularly East Coast rappers. The bond is emphasized in “The Cousin of Death,” as a connection is made between the young Ruth and the then 20-year-old Nas: two people trying to rise above the hard and harsh circumstances they face, trying to remain hopeful in the face of cruelty.
Initially, Mundy had written the episode with Biggie’s music in mind, which makes sense considering how his music has popped up in previous seasons. But it was music supervisor Gabe Hilfer who suggested Illmatic.
“I remember you called me. I remember this — you called me a week later and you were like, ‘Yep, that’s the one, that’s the album. I listened to Illmatic again and you’re right. That’s the one we should do,'” Hilfer recalled during a Zoom interview with Okayplayer alongside Mundy. “And so Illmatic became a part of it.”
A process that normally takes around four months, getting songs from Illmatic cleared took “a solid year” according to Hilfer, who explained how doing this during the middle of the pandemic presented other challenges alongside typical song clearance issues.
“Because everyone was working remote, Sony was throwing up their hands because they had to go into the office to physically open a file drawer to see what samples were in this and if it was available, and the offices were closed and everyone was working remote,” Hilfer said.
Although Hilfer was unable to get Illmatic in its entirety to use for the episode because of legal constraints, he was still able to get a handful of tracks from the album, with “N.Y. State of Mind” being the last one cleared. (The irony of this is that the track kicks off the episode’s Illmatic soundtrack, and is also the source of its title, too.)
In reusing those four Illmatic songs throughout “The Cousin of Death,” Mundy not only captures how Ruth is trying to process Wyatt’s death but how she wants to respond to it, stuck in a trance of anger, grief, and numbness.
“There’s just a groove in that record — it can create that trance that we wanted that felt like it could be deep in her head, but also score what was going on at the same time,” Mundy explained. “…There’s so much loss in that record and she’s going through loss, you know what I mean? It just fit.”
“And the angst and the vivid detail that he’s talking about is just a great soundtrack really for Ruth to be listening to at that time,” Hilfer added. “Because she is dealing with this trauma and she’s ingesting it.”
Ruth even has a brief conversation with Killer Mike (who portrays himself) about the album when she runs into him in a Chicago restaurant later in the episode, sharing with the rapper, “It always feels to me like he hates it and misses it all at once, and he’s only fucking 20.”
“You know, when I listen to that record — his projects are in Queens and you can kind of see Manhattan. And I’ve always thought it was so hopeful and fucking cruel at the same time,” he responds.
Killer Mike’s previously-reported cameo was the result of him being a fan of the series, as well as him and El-P having music placements in the series (Run The Jewels’ “Ooh La La” at the end of season three and DJ Shadow’s “Nobody Speak” — which features the rap duo — at the beginning of season three).
“We asked that before I wrote it,” Mundy said. “It was a year before and I’m like, ‘Would you even be interested in maybe before we even write?’ And so that was really cool.”
But don’t think that Illmatic serves as the final ’90s rap placement for Ruth. The final episode of the series includes a fitting song for the character’s last appearance on the show — Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth’s “They Reminisce Over You.”
A personal favorite of Mundy’s, the show runner always knew that the classic rap track would be Ruth’s last song, even when he graciously listened to other suggestions Hilfer had.
“It’s an important song in my life but also I wanted it to be — it’s a really good moment for her,” Mundy said. “…she’s just with the song and that song is about family and about looking back and forward at the same time. And it’s just upbeat. It’s just happy in its way, sonically.”
“It hits the right tone,” Hilfer added. “It’s not too celebratory. It’s not too nostalgic. It’s like landing the plane gently in the right vibe for Ruth after her whole story arc.”
Music overall has played an integral part in setting the mood and tone throughout Ozark‘s four seasons, but nothing is more indicative of that than Ruth’s relationship to ’90s hip-hop, which is a reflection of Mundy and Hilfer’s own music choices.
“It’s just like, the most personal music to me. My tape,” Hilfer said. “All other things being equal, if you looked at the music I grew up on and that I really have this place for, it is most represented by Ozark.”