For decades, hip hop culture has had a symbiotic relationship with fashion and film. Born in the Bronx in 1973, hip hop has long risen from the underground. In the early nineties, hip hop was still a growing genre, but film would cement its status in mainstream America. One of the first films to usher in this new era was Mario van Peebles‘ “New Jack City.”
In 1991, “New Jack City” was the year’s highest grossing independent film. Following its success, a wave of similar films hit theaters. Films such as “Boyz N the Hood,” “Juice,” and “South Central” all highlight the struggles of black men growing up in cities such as Los Angeles and New York. While their struggles aren’t universal, the films of the nineties brought in a multicultural audience that hadn’t been seen before. “New Jack City” tipped off a time where black cinema was the most visible to mainstream audiences. Over the next decade, rappers would crossover as actors, watering a genre thirsty for talent. Ice Cube, Ice-T, Tupac, Queen Latifah and other actors would make their big screen debuts.
“New Jack City” is based on Barry Michael Cooper’s 1987 investigative piece in the Village Voice entitled, “Kids Killing Kids: New Jack City Eats Its Young.” The longform entry discusses the crack cocaine epidemic that swept the nation’s urban centers. It also talks on how hip hop style influenced gangsters of the eighties.
“Not only do clothes make the new jack, they reinforce his being. The get-over CLASS in New JAck City understands that style is both form and function.”
Set in 1986, “New Jack City” exists during the early years of hip hop, a time where rappers such as RUN-D.M.C., LL Cool J, and the Beastie Boys ruled the airwaves. During the release of “New Jack City,” acts such as Public Enemy and N.W.A. had infiltrated hip hop, creating a firestorm. The earliest hip hip was feel-good and fun, yet the late eighties ushered in an aggressive, socially conscious version of the genre. It was the kind of music that struck fear into the hearts of suburban America.
While hip hop started as an underground phenomenon, it evolved into a cultural movement, and more. Much of the hip hop in the nineties lamented the issues plaguing black urban communities. However, hip hop also praised a culture of excess, drugs, and violence. As hip hop was embraced by the masses, the worship of brands and material goods followed. Surely enough, simple streetwear items evolved into status symbols.
The majority of the characters in “New Jack City” mimic the popular styles of the time. Set in New York, the birthplace of hip hop, the film capitalizes on the streetwear phenomenon. At some points, the film is a giant advertisement, especially for Adidas and Kangol.
In 1986, RUN-D.M.C. was responsible for hip hop’s first brand collaboration. Their song “My Adidas” catapulted the brand to stratospheric heights. Shortly after the rise of RUN-D.M.C., hip hop’s sneaker culture took off. Along with Adidas sneakers, and tracksuits, Kangol hats, dookie chains, and starter jackets all became symbols of status.
Mario Van Peebles’ “New Jack City” follows the Shakespearian rise and fall of drug lord Nino Brown (Wesley Snipes). Nino and his gang, the Cash Money Brothers embark on a journey to capitalize on a relatively new drug, cocaine. The gang evicts an apartment building in Harlem and establishes their headquarters. Nino is the typical drug lord villain, inspired by the likes of “Scarface“. Thinking himself to be invincible, he doesn’t realize that his lifestyle will lead him to a bitter end. In one scene, a projection of “Scarface” cascades over Nino. Nino himself dresses like a mob boss does, with brightly colored tailored suits, and accents of gold jewelry.
The imagery of “New Jack City” promotes the vision of Nino’s “new American Dream.” His dream, like so many others, is tied with material possessions, and realized through the oppression of his own people. Midway through the film, Pookie (Chris Rock) sits in agonizing contemplation, wearing an American flag button-up. Nino contributes to the destruction of his own, yet he exhibits a social awareness of the system at the same time.
Although “New Jack City” is set in the eighties, its style quietly radiates the trends of the early nineties. Costume designer Bernard Johnson blend the two decades discreetly. “New Jack City” represents not only a shift in New York City, but also a shift in hip hop and fashion. Towards the end of the eighties, afrocentric, militaristic style was growing in popularity. Even though hip hip wasn’t even two decades old, it had made a huge cultural impact.
The year 1991 ushered in a black entertainment renaissance in film. In rare time in history, (up to that point) black films had reached mainstream audiences, and were accepted by most viewers. With the chance to display black stories on screen, many creatives took the opportunity to showcase black pride. An ongoing cycle, hip hop influenced film, and film influenced hip hop. In turn, both changed society and how everyday people dressed.
As “New Jack City” nears its 30 year anniversary, it shows no sign of fading away. Its legacy lives on in today’s rap music. It inspired the label Cash Money Records (Founded by Bryan “Bird Man” Williams and Ronald “Slim” Williams), Lil Wayne’s album The Carter, and has spurned hundreds of song references over the years. It has even inspired some fashion lines along the way. Not bad.