How hip-hop helped reimagine Black presence in horror
Hip-hop artists were instrumental in flipping the script on our poor horror film treatment.
by Andrew Keahey
I can remember the exact moment that hip-hop and the horror genre intersected for me. I was spending the night with a friend. We had played some games and listened to the local chart-topper radio station, then he suggested we watch The Fly (1986).
I recall telling him that I wasn’t sure if I could watch it, because it was rated TV-MA. It was the first time I had seen the on-screen ratings and, at that young age, I actually thought it was illegal for me to be viewing the content behind it’s vague shield. I asked to borrow his phone; I needed to make sure it was okay with my folks. I was berated for the appropriate amount of time before we finally settled in and watched one of the scariest movies I had seen at that point in my short life.
This isn’t about The Fly. Sure, it’s a scary movie and Jeff Goldblum melts people’s limbs off with hyper-vomit, but it wasn’t the scariest thing I experienced that day. That moment came when we went to bed and my friend decided to put on a CD. In the dark, a small, childlike voice began to speak. The child sounded about my age and, in a matter of fact voice, they said the following words:
“When I was little, my father was famous. He was the greatest Samurai in the empire, and he was the Shogun’s decapitator. He cut off the heads of 131 lords for the Shogun. It was a bad time for the empire. The Shogun just stayed inside his castle and he never came out. People said his brain was infected by devils…”
It’s a sample from the 1980 Samurai film Shogun Assassin, and It’s also the intro to Liquid Swords, the 1995 sophomore album by GZA of The Wu-Tang Clan. My friend had asked if I liked Wu-Tang, and I had said “yes” despite never having listened to them before, because being cool was very, very important to me. Suffice to say, the words in that intro scared me half to death. Go ahead and put in on in a quiet, pitch black room right now, and tell me it doesn’t send a shiver down your spine.
Horror and hip-hop just seem like natural bedfellows. Both genres are often used by the Black creatives to convey experience, frustration, and insurmountable struggle. Hip-hop gives voice to the voiceless in a time when we need to scream to be heard, but ultimately, it’s for us. It’s about finding camaraderie in our various struggles and aspiring to something greater.
Black horror tackles those same issues, albeit in a different way. It highlights the violent obstacles that we face day in and day out. The things that seek to kill us, imprison us, or simply keep us in a subjugated place. There’s an entire force of people that can kill us without suffering any consequences. If that’s not a horror show, I don’t know what is.
The horror genre has been peppered with appearances by hip-hop artists for at least 20 years now, and most of the time, their presence defies the “Black characters always die” trope that has plagued us since horror’s beginnings. They bring levity to horrible situations in the story, usually because they have little to no fear of the monster.
Just go back and look! In Halloween: Ressurrection (2002), Busta Rhymes fights Michael Myers using Kung-Fu and kicks him out a freaking window. No really, that actually happens. Remember Deep Blue Sea (1999)? The movie we only saw because Samuel L Jackson was in it, but he died super early on, so then we were rooting for LL Cool J? The man killed a whole shark by himself. A super smart shark! In Leprechaun in the Hood (2000), no one is afraid of the titular tiny villain. They smoke weed with him, they hit him with chairs, and they trick him several times into smoking weed laced with 4-leaf clovers. Ice-T bamboozles him from the beginning to the very end. And let’s not forget about Rah Digga holding her own in Thir13en Ghosts (2001).
In movies like these, hip-hop artists represent a clear head and rational thinking, in addition to possessing the strength that typically makes Black characters targets. Black people in old horror have historically been dispatched quickly, precisely because they were an asset. Killing a Black person in a horror film felt equivalent to knocking out the phones or cutting the lights; it put the white characters at a disadvantage. Just look at the Black women in horror films, they’re always doing one of two things: 1) Advocating that everyone get the hell out of there, or 2) Advocating that everyone arm themselves to take on the villain head on.
Hip-hop artists were instrumental in flipping the script on our poor horror film treatment. They went into filming, sometimes armed with producer credits, and they said, “Why should we die? We’re right! All-American Brad over there should get it for suggesting we split up! Who’s even listening to that guy? What are his qualifications?” This integration of hip-hop into horror led to a Blaxploitation renaissance, with horror releases such as 1995’s Tales from the Hood, and the 2001 paranormal thriller Bones starring Snoop Dogg, not to mention more Black protagonists appearing in the horror movie mainstream in general.
Now it has been announced that RZA and Ghostface Killah are making a Wu-Tang horror film titled Angel of Dust. RZA will direct and score the film, which looks to be a paranormal thriller with inspiration stemming from the events that led to the actual formation of the Wu-Tang Clan. The leading character, Casey, will have to deal with “not only the gangs, corrupt cops, junkies, and bullies, but a serial killer with seemingly supernatural powers dubbed ‘Angel of Dust” while he navigates life on Staten Island.
With this film, the soon-to-be rebooted Scream TV series starring Mary J. Blige and produced by Queen Latifah’s production company, along with more general hip-hop integration into horror, like the classic Luniz song “I Got 5 On It” being used in the trailer for Jordan Peele’s highly anticipated new film Us (2019), hip-hop not only stands to remain a heavy part of the horrorscape, but also integrate itself in such a way that the genre becomes more colorful overall.
I, for one, am eager to see what horror will look like in a few years. I imagine a lot less splitting up, and a lot more fighting back, and I’m liking the message that sends.
Andrew Keahey is a horror enthusiast and writer currently based in Austin, Texas. He’s been watching horror movies since he was far too young, and primarily writes essays, short fiction, and poetry