Long before rappers were gracing the screens of multiplexes and scoring executive producer credits in big-budget Hollywood comedies and thrillers, the primary way for Black people to see themselves on the big screen was as the villains or the victims. Occasionally, there’d be a mammy or a chauffeur or a stereotypical sidekick and that was pretty much it.
Then, in 1971, came two movies, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and the original Shaft, flipping the script (sorry) and inventing the Blaxploitation (Black exploitation) genre from whole cloth. For the first time, Black folks could see themselves as the heroes and drivers of the narratives playing in their local cinemas, and it wasn’t long before Hollywood realized the profit in giving them exactly what they wanted to see. These days, moviegoers can get that experience practically anytime they want, especially with the release of a new Shaft film this weekend featuring three generations of the titular heroes.
By the ‘80s though, the genre had sputtered out as a commercially viable theater resource, only living on through tributes, parodies, and its influence on popular culture. The modern-day image of a pimp, the bulletproof Marvel superhero Luke Cage, and the funk-washed persona of rap godfather Snoop Dogg are all examples of the genre’s lasting impact — but the genre itself largely disappeared.
But recently, Blaxploitation has been making a comeback in cinemas via reboots and sequels of popular classics like Superfly and Shaft, spurred on the popularity of the hip-hop artists who took their influence from the movies themselves. Not only have rappers used the tropes and imagery from the films to fuel their own music videos and flashy public personas, but they’re also now contributing to the films themselves through soundtracks and cameos that pay homage to the films that inspired them.
The most prominent recent example of this is 2018’s Superfly remake, which moved the action to the booming hip-hop city Atlanta and traded in the orchestral funk of Curtis Mayfield’s original soundtrack for a trap-laden affair helmed by Future. Big name Atlanta rappers make cameo appearances throughout the film as well, with Big Boi, Kia Shine, Lecrae, and frequent Future collaborator Zaytoven all popping up as characters in Youngblood Priest’s bid for freedom from the drug game.
In the wake of that film, numerous rappers have adopted the sounds and topics of ‘70s-era films, either directly in their music, like Anderson .Paak, or in their music videos, like 2 Chainz, Megan Thee Stallion, and Noname. .Paak’s Oxnard and Ventura albums clearly take plenty of inspiration from 1970s funk and soul with swelling strings and references to pimping throughout.