Do you ever get that feeling where you’re just wanting to chill and bump classic hip-hop all day? Or do you ever get that urge where all you want to do is just kick it on the couch and watch entertaining and energetic movies? How about both of those feelings at the same time?
These 5 hip-hop biopics are not only engrossing, badass and informative (they’re all based on true stories) but they’re also brimming with hit tracks from some of the most talented hip-hop artists of all time.
These films are set during the ’90s and late ’80s. If you’ve got a day off work, then kick back with a drink (or 20) and let these sagas of hip-hop legends transport you back to a time when raw hip-hop culture reigned at its peak.
This list does contain some spoilers, yet these films are recollections of actual famous events and people, so there’s a pretty decent chance that you probably already know these spoilers.
8 Mile (2002)
8 Mile is loosely based on Eminem‘s (Marshall Mathers’s) early 20s, living in poverty in Detroit while struggling to begin his rap career. Although there are some exaggerated or fictionalized elements to this film, the settings, characters, plot, and theme of 8 Mile are all inspired by real places, people and events.
Compared to the other movies on this list, the plot of 8 Mile isn’t as significant or deeply meaningful. Most of the movie consists of Eminem freestyling with people, getting into shenanigans with his friends, dealing with problems related to his family, working a dead-end job and having a fast turbulent relationship with a slightly hoodrat-ish, beautiful girl (played by the late Brittany Murphy).
In my opinion, this film would’ve been a bit more interesting if it had focused more on music and less on Eminem’s family issues, but I guess that that’s a core part of his formative history that he felt was important to include.
However, the scenes where we do get to hear Em (and others) spit bars make it all worth it. Unlike the other films on this list, 8 Mile is more focused on freestyling than on producing music. We do get to hear Eminem slowly constructing a couple of songs throughout the movie though. The famous track “Lose Yourself“, a now-classic made solely for this film, hits as the credits roll.
Painting the setting is what really makes 8 Mile stand out. Fitting filming locations, as well as the movie’s soundtrack, contribute suitably to creating a convincing environment, making you feel like you’re immersed in ’95 Detroit.
8 Mile finishes with one of the sickest freestyles ever (ok, technically it’s not a real freestyle but it’s still super dope) to possibly the greatest beat of all time (Shook Ones Part II by Mobb Deep).
Get Rich or Die Tryin’ (2005)
Like 8 Mile, Get Rich or Die Tryin’ is not strictly 100% historically accurate. Rather, it’s based on real events and people from 50 Cent’s life. According to 50 Cent (Curtis Jackson) himself, Get Rich or Die Tryin’ is “75% accurate”.
Notably, the most significant people and events from this film are true. What happened to 50’s mother actually happened in real life. The antagonist of this film represents a real person (Kenneth McGriff). The famous shooting that left 50 Cent with 9 bullet wounds, a dimple on his cheek and a slight slur is in fact an actual incident that occurred in 2000.
What makes Get Rich or Die Tryin’ a great film is that it tells the perfect tale of a phoenix rising from the ashes. It’s motivating to watch 50 use his traumatic experiences as fuel for perseverance and dedication. It’s heartening and relateable to see him come to terms with what his true priorities are, and then make his next moves accordingly.
We witness 50 let his beef sizzle on the backburner while letting time pass, before eventually coming back more focused, composed, wiser and stronger than ever to tear down his opponent in righteous revenge. It’s a very satisfying plot.
Get Rich or Die Tryin’ initially focuses primarily on selling drugs and the accompanying violence that goes with that territory. Later on, the film pivots more toward centering on hip-hop.
The soundtrack is full of 50 Cent songs, as well as tracks by other members of the G-Unit hip-hop group and record label. Five different 50 Cent singles were made specifically for this movie.
All Eyez on Me (2017)
Although critics pretty much hated All Eyez on Me, I personally think that the content of this film alone makes it one of the greatest hip-hop movies ever made.
To be fair, All Eyez on Me had some issues and honestly isn’t what most people would call a particularly well-made movie. However, if you’re a massive 2Pac fan then you’ll probably still love this film, like an alcoholic will still be ecstatic over a two-four of just mediocre beer.
The Actor who Played 2Pac
Demetrius Shipp Jr., the actor who plays 2Pac, looks uncannily like the real Tupac Shakur. That definitely helps the film to feel more immersive and realistic.
Unfortunately, Demetrius Shipp Jr. comes across as almost childish at times, like he’s trying too hard. Although he did a fairly good job at a near-impossible task, Demetrius Shipp Jr. wasn’t quite able to capture the complexities, deep intelligence and pure pain of a man who changed the world with his legacy.
Tupac Shakur was a revolutionary originally influenced largely by the Black Panthers, who poetically rapped and told stories about heavy, painfully relevant topics such as poverty, teen pregnancy, the crack epidemic, institutionalized racism and police brutality. All Eyez on Me does stay partially true to 2Pac’s spirit by touching on (but not focusing on) issues such as these throughout the first half of the film.
However, Demetrius Shipp Jr. isn’t quite able to talk or act in a way that’s convincing of what you’d expect from someone as intense, stoic and wise-beyond-his-years as the real Tupac Shakur was.
He did his best; I’m not sure anybody else could have done it better. It wasn’t bad acting per se, it just feels a bit awkward and forced at times.
The Golden Age of Hip-Hop
The main reason why this is a movie that I’ve watched over 10 times is the strategic placement of the soundtrack. We get to hear over a dozen of Pac’s greatest songs chronologically laid down throughout the film, and they’re paired well with the vibe of each scene.
Although the beginning of the movie is lacking a little bit musically, we see multiple different energetic studio sessions and performances throughout the film, including a few verses from Shock G, Biggie Smalls, Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg.
Tupac’s mother (Afeni Shakur) receives a strong focus during the first half of the film, as does Death Row Record’s former CEO Suge Knight during the second half.
All Eyez on Me ventures into the dangerous inner workings of one of hip-hop’s largest meccas of all time, “Death Row Records“. This film allows us to briefly feel submerged in the time of hip-hop’s golden age, a period that largely comes to a halt around the end of All Eyez on Me.
Even though Tupac only had less than a year from the time he was bailed out of prison until his death, he still managed to knock out hip-hop’s first-ever double album (titled “All Eyes on Me”) with Death Row in that time. To reflect this, from the moment Pac is bailed out of jail in this film, there are tracks from this album dropping almost nonstop until the end of the movie.
All Eyez on Me doesn’t really allude too much as to who killed Tupac (if anything, it indirectly hints at the FBI), but it does seem to go out of its way to suggest that it wasn’t Suge or Biggie.
Perhaps one day a better film will be made about the life of this larger-than-life legend, until then, I’ll be happily rewatching All Eyez on Me.
Personally, I often like to watch Notorious & All Eyez on Me back to back, as there’s a decent amount of overlap. In fact, there are even a few events that are depicted in both movies.
Notorious follows the life of Christopher Wallace (AKA The Notorious B.I.G or Biggie Smalls), including during his youth, selling drugs in the streets of 1980s Brooklyn.
This film spends quite a bit of time focusing on Big’s romantic interests, including rapper Lil Kim and singer Faith Evans; we also hear a few songs from each of them too.
Although the beginning of this film is a tad dull, it’s interesting to watch Biggie go from being a fat broke kid to developing into that classic-Biggie boss image notorious for rockin’ fancy suits and old-school gangster hats.
Same as with All Eyez on Me, the lead actor (Jamal “Gravy” Woolard) does look and behave slightly less badass than you would expect from the real Biggie Smalls, but I guess modern-day actors are just softer individuals than ’90s hip-hop legends were.
Biggie drops some hard-hitting, incisive freestyles throughout Notorious, and we see him tearing up the booth and the stage a few times, often accompanied by P Diddy (Sean Combs).
As with All Eyez on Me, Notorious doesn’t go into too much detail as to who killed Biggie, but it does heavily imply that the murder was related to the East Coast-West Coast beef.
The inevitable ending of Notorious hits hard emotionally, as the few scenes before that show Big appreciating his peak. We watch him hit a point of self-actualization and deep-seated feelings of contentment. He basks in his accomplishments and makes peace with all of the important people in his life.
Straight Outta Compton (2015)
Straight Outta Compton is probably the most widely acclaimed hip-hop movie ever made, receiving 89% critic approval and 91% audience approval on Rotten Tomatoes.
This film delivered outstanding acting from its main leads, especially from Ice Cube’s son, O’Shea Jackson Jr., playing his father.
Most of this movie focuses more on the business side of N.W.A. than it does on the ghetto and crime side; this is probably partially why this film achieved such mainstream popularity. However, the first 5 minutes of Straight Outta Compton showcases Eazy-E in possibly the most gangster scene ever filmed.
Through the soundtrack and through constructing detailed settings, this film does justice at capturing the atmosphere of Los Angeles during the mid-’80s, including both in South Central and later on in the Hills.
N.W.A. Versus the Police Department
Straight Outta Compton spends much of its two and a half hours focusing on police brutality, especially by the LAPD, during that era. All three of the main characters (Eazy-E, Ice Cube and Dr. Dre) are harassed by police in different scenes throughout the film.
This ongoing conflict with the police eventually culminates with the creation of NWA’s most famous song, followed by another one of the most high-octane hip-hop scenes ever filmed:
Later on, Straight Outta Compton drops another heavy scene, depicting the Rodney King Riots. The 2020 George Floyd Riots are eerily reminiscent of the 1992 riots portrayed in this charged scene.
Like previous films on this list, Straight Outta Compton inevitably ends melancholily as we witness hip-hop lose another legend, “The Godfather of Gangsta Rap”.
Mid-’90s hip-hop tycoon and CEO of Death Row Records, Suge Knight, plays a decent-sized role in Notorious, All Eyez on Me and Straight Outta Compton. All 3 of these movies regard him as an extremely influential force during this time.
After founding Death Row Records alongside Dr. Dre in ’91, the record label went on to produce some of the most popular hip-hop albums of the ’90s, led by Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and Tupac.
In 2015, Suge Knight came to the Straight Outta Compton film while Dr. Dre and Ice Cube were shooting a scene. He was turned away from the set. After this, there was an altercation at a nearby burger stand, which resulted in Suge running over and killing a man in his truck. In 2018, Suge Knight was sentenced to 28 years in prison for this incident.
Hate it or love it, hip-hop has changed dramatically in the last 30 years; it will never again be how it was during the ’80s and ’90s. However, through these 5 motion picture time portals, we can briefly relive that epic time, through the eyes of some of hip-hop’s most influential figures.