How Abel Ferrara’s brutal 1990 gangster flick captured the imagination of the hip hop community.
This essay series looks at how five films released during rap’s golden era – King of New York, New Jack City, Juice, CB4 and Menace II Society – helped to shape American hip hop culture. We speak to filmmakers, rappers and historians to find out why these iconic works continue to endure.
When Bronx-born director Abel Ferrara’s King of New York premiered at the 1990 New York Film Festival, the first reporter to ask a question after the screening barked: “This film is an abomination. Why aren’t you giving the proceeds to some drug rehab program?” Such was the outrage among the audience that night that screenwriter Nicholas St John was booed off the stage.
Yet while critics refused to embrace the brutal gangster film, which glamorises the rise of drug lord Frank White (played with Shakespearean swagger by Christopher Walken), the hip hop community welcomed it with open arms, enshrining it as a cult classic. In White, a character that spreads philanthropy and violence in equal measure, here was a figure who seemed to perfectly encapsulate gangster rap’s many contradictions. When The Notorious B.I.G. started referring to himself as the ‘Black Frank White’ in verses, the film gained a reverence in hip hop circles comparable to Brian De Palma’s Scarface.
King of New York’s connection to hip hop culture is evident from the get-go. The film opens with drug dealers Jimmy Jump (Laurence Fishburne, all animalistic rage) and Test Tube (Steve Buscemi, with a name that’s supposed to reference his ugliness), who are both on the White payroll, murdering a Columbian gang in a botched cocaine deal. The pair’s clothing, which includes homburg hats, black tracksuits and flashy gold chains, are an obvious nod to New York’s Run DMC – a rap group synonymous with hip hop fashion in the late 1980s.
Meanwhile, White’s crew is made up almost entirely of African-American men and women – a fact not lost on the mafia, who repeatedly refer to White as a “nigger lover.” When White later goes to Little Italy and murders a racist Italian mobster in cold blood, it’s an incredibly subversive act, which mirrored how the blackness of rap music had started to eliminate the white regime that had previously dominated the pop charts, according to Dylan Cave, part of the curatorial team at the BFI National Archive. “Frank White is replacing the old patriarchal regime with this new egalitarian way,” he notes.
Some of the film’s rap culture metaphors are intentional, according to Joe Delia, who created the music for the film. “Abel was completely in tune with how hip hop was impacting New York,” he explains. “He always loved Bob Dylan and was seeing the same kind of poetry and social commentary coming out of the mouths of rappers.” Subsequently, Ferrara, who has also directed gritty independent films such as Driller Killer and Bad Lieutenant, struck up a friendship with Philadelphia rapper Schoolly D, a man Ice-T once credited as being the first gangster rapper.
During the film’s climatic nightclub shootout, White nods his head to Schoolly D’s jazz-enthused street anthem ‘Am I Black Enough For You?’, a song which contains the defiant declaration, “All’s I need is my blackness, some others seem to lack this.” According to Delia, who reveals that Ferrara wanted natural sound throughout the film in order to capture the “griminess of New York,” Walken picked up a lot of mannerisms from Schoolly D, which in turn created an authenticity. “Chris already had this incredible movement and motion, but subtle things such as the hip hop dance he does early on in the film were possibly inspired by Schoolly visiting the set,” he reveals.
Frank White is a walking contradiction. On the one hand he wants to build a hospital in Harlem; on the other he unapologetically distributes cocaine directly to the city’s poorest citizens. However, Delia believes this is part of reason why White – who at one point tells the police, “I’m not your problem, I’m just a businessman” – resonated with rappers like The Notorious B.I.G. at the time. “He has both this hunger to be a Robin Hood kind of character and also to make a profit out of fear,” Delia says. “Frank tries to empower women yet also objectifies them; his contradictions mirror so many gangster rappers [such as Biggie].”
According to West Coast rap legend Ras Kass, the film’s portrayal of law enforcement is another reason for its appeal within the rap community. At one point David Caruso’s crooked cop hatches an audacious plan to murder White, with various NYPD officers behaving in an aggressive manner more typical of Fishburne’s unhinged street gangster. “If you had Walkie Talkies, guns and helicopters, you’d feel like a bully too,” Kass says. “The film showed us the police were the biggest gang of them all.”
According to urban legend, Walken once left a voicemail on The Notorious B.I.G.’s phone, joking: “I am the real King of New York!” And Kass believes his performance, which he calls “an ode to hip hop”, has allowed the actor to transcend race: “Yeah, he’s white, but Walken comes across as totally hip hop. Whenever I used to go to New York, I’d hear stories about him really being about that gangster life too. Walken’s performance just felt so authentic.”
The King of New York is acknowledged as one of the first examples of hood cinema, with its hip hop-heavy soundtrack and visual style setting the tone for subsequent genre touchstones like Boyz n the Hood. Yet the film’s legacy is perhaps best gauged in relation to its impact on hip hop culture’s competiveness. When The Notorious B.I.G. rapped, “Choppin rocks overnight / The nigga Biggie Smalls tryin’ ta turn into the black Frank White!” it created a situation where the portly rapper had to embrace the role of rap’s King of New York figure. And after Biggie’s death in March 1997, other New York rappers such as Jay-Z and Nas jostled for this title via a series of vicious battle raps.
Whether intentional or not, the character of Frank White became a beacon for lyrical supremacy among the east coast’s elite rappers. To them, the power, money and respect that came with becoming the ‘King of New York’ meant absolutely everything.
Published 6 Mar 2018
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