Songs on Screen Week: ‘New Jack Hustler’ from ‘New Jack City’

Songs On Screen: All week Hitfix will be featuring tributes by writers to their favorite musical moments from TV and film.  Check out the full series here.

Last month when we did our Best Year in Film History series, I picked second and, as a result, I was able to select the correct answer: The best year in American cinematic history, at least over the last 50 years, is 1974 and any disagreements sadden and bore me.

With that undeclared, but indisputable, victory in my back pocket, I was able to happily let colleagues choose many of my personal favorites for our Songs on Screen battle. You won't hear me say anything negative about “Fight the Power” and its centrality to “Do the Right Thing” or the evocative pull of “Nobody Does It Better” (or a slew of other James Bond themes) or the timelessness of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Nor will I quibble with something like “Johnny B. Goode,” which wasn't written for “Back to the Future,” but was used in a way that was utterly indelible. 

As of when I made my own selection, there were plenty of great movie-based songs remaining, including what likely would have been my instinctive top draft pic, Hal David and Burt Bacharach's “Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head,” performed in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” by B.J. Thomas.

I know some people criticize the “Raindrops” sequence, an interlude featuring  Butch and Etta noodling around on a bike and the most ridiculous complaint I've often heard is a variation on the “It doesn't fit with the rest of the movie,” as if its incongruousness were somehow unintentional and George Roy Hill totally missed that he was sticking a gauzy, halcyon scene built around a contemporary pop song — between the female lead and the character who *isn't* her love interest — in the early part of an increasingly dark buddy dramedy and had no awareness of how jarring — gloriously jarring — it is. 

It's a scene I love, driven by a song I love in a movie that I can never see too frequently.

And if what I wanted to do was “win” this theme week, “Raindrops” would be my selection.

But if my goal was to talk about a movie soundtrack moment that had particular meaning to me without getting hung up on “bests,” I had two choices: 

The Prince-driven “Batman” album was probably the first stand-alone soundtrack that I ever purchased and as great as “Batdance” may be, the populist anarchy of The Joker defacing the art gallery to the diagetic tones of “Partyman” would get my nod as finest blending of song and cinematic moment in that film.

And my actual pick:

It's 1991 and I was an eighth grader at a public school in Jackson, Mississippi. As the lore goes, I was one of a dozen white kids at my school, the only Jewish kid, and I was always trying to find any pop culture points of commonality with my classmates, who called me Bud Bundy because it was the early days of FOX, when the network was targeting African-American viewers and for my classmates, David Faustino was every less-than-cool white teen.

It was five or six years before I stopped being vaguely scared of Ice Cube and at least 10 years before I would grow to adore Big Daddy Kane's one-two punch of “Long Live the Kane” and “It's a Big Daddy Thing.” I got a kick out of “The Humpty Dance” and “Ice, Ice Baby,” but neither was a ticket to “coolness.”

But, from the first time I heard it, Ice-T's “New Jack Hustler (Nino's Theme)” was utterly gripping.

There's no doubt that the song's aspirational ethos spoke to me. No, I never wanted to be a hustler, h-u-s-t-l-e-r, hustler. But when the song pauses for the kid to beg for an entrée into this world, I didn't relate to the urge for fly cars, girls or jewels, but when he begs “Yo man, I just wanna roll with you, man. HOW CAN I BE DOWN?!?” that was the part I totally felt and still feel to this day.

The narrator of the song, be it Ice-T or Wesley Snipes' Nino Brown — a confusing point, since Ice-T had cultivated his own gangsta image and the song also appears on his album “O.G. Original Gangster,” even though Ice-T actually plays a cop in “New Jack City” — isn't receptive. 

“Out my face, fool I'm the illest,” he responds to the kid's plea, “Bulletproof, I die harder than Bruce Willis.”

Damn. Over 24 years later, that line is probably one of my favorites in the hip-hop pantheon, notable for the the graceful near-rhyme of “illest” and “Willis,” requiring an amusing conflation of actor and seminal role. [I like to pair it with Xzibit's reference to “Mr. Big Bad Insane, Black John McClane with liquor on the brain.”]

While Nino/Ice-T reject the wannabe's overtures, my classmates were much more receptive to my desire to prove my bonafides through “New Jack Hustler,” especially since I was smart enough not to echo any of the song's repeated uses of a certain verboten word starting with “n.” This affinity with Ice-T didn't forge lifelong friendships. My family actually moved away just a few months later. And it wasn't like I didn't have friends already. I was an outsider, not an outcast. I don't want to overplay this moment, but the search for common ground was a constant thing and I vividly remember the satisfaction of finding the common ground over relishing “New Jack Hustler.”

And how can you not? “New Jack Hustler” is tight. D.J. Aladdin's production is catchy and energetic. In the song, Nino/Ice-T refers to himself as being “raised like a pit bull, my heart pumps nitro” and Ice-T's precise flow works both with the propulsive beat, but sometimes stands aggressively and defiantly against the thudding bass. 

The line preceding that description claims “My education's low,” but that's disingenuous. The first words in “New Jack City” are NWA's “You are about toe witness the strength of street knowledge” and my favorite thing about “New Jack Hustler” is how deceptively and cutting smart its lyrics are. There are few harsher, more colorful indictments of the drug lifestyle than “Pregnant teens, children's screams/ Life is weighed on the scales of a triple beam” and the rapper's realization “Got me twisted, jammed into a paradox/
Every dollar I get, another brother drops,” nor deconstructions more concise than “Is this a nightmare? Or the American dream?” And it's difficult not to be chilled by the rationalization “Sleep on silk, lie like a politician/
My Uzi's my best friend, cold as a mortician.”

Ice-T was good at this stuff. 

While the song is dubbed “Nino's Theme,” its fullest use in Mario Van Peebles' dated, but still visceral-and-vital, box office smash is in a chase scene with Ice-T's character in pursuit of Chris Rock's Pookie as the young crackhead flees on a bike as the detective pursues him on foot across a park, down steps and through alleys. Although it's a song with a narrative that matched the movie, it's a scene that makes use of the beats and Ice-T's syncopated delivery rather than any of the specific words. Wesley Snipes is the best part of “New Jack City,” but this is the best scene of “New Jack City” that doesn't feature the future action star and tax evader. 

Unlike my knock-out 1974 victory, I don't expect to win this theme week debate. It's a song that helped me forge a kinship and community, that helped bring me together with other fans of both the movie and the track. 

I'm happy with my choice.

Also in the Hitfix Songs on Screen series:

Susanna Fogel on “The Heart Asks Pleasure First” from “The Piano