The 4 Most Essential Gangster Movies For Understanding Rap Lyrics

By Ezra Stead 

More than any other type of songwriting, rap lyrics are peppered with pop culture references, from movies to cars to sports to fashion to other rap songs. Of the movie references, no genre is more popular than the gangster movie (the most popular non-gangster movie references are probably The MatrixStar Wars and, thanks mainly to the Wu-Tang Clan, various kung fu movies). The classic gangster movie narrative of rising to great power from humble means via violent crime and the drug trade has a special resonance with many of the great canonical rappers of Hip-Hop’s Golden Age who found a similar path via rapping about the violent crime and drug trade that they either witnessed in the streets or, in many cases, actively participated in. Beyond that, violent crime has an undeniable entertainment value, whether in movies or in music. Once you’ve seen these four movies, you’ll have a lot better understanding of the references in rap lyrics, though I can’t really help you with the sports, car, or fashion ones. 

Please note that I’ve excluded non-fictional gangster movies such as The Untouchables (which is arguably more of a cop movie, anyway) and Goodfellas on the technicality that references to real-life gangsters aren’t so easily pinned down to specific movies.

1. SCARFACE if this was a chronological list, The Godfather would come first, and it is undeniably one of the most influential, but nothing can hold a candle to Brian De Palma’s Scarface for sheer ubiquity in rap lyrics. One of the most respected rappers in the canon named himself after the movie, after all, and phrases such as “The world is yours” and “Say goodnight to the bad guy” pop up constantly in songs, including but not limited to Public Enemy’s Flavor Flav quoting the movie on “Welcome to the Terrordome,” N.W.A on “Dopeman,” Nas on “The World Is Yours,” and Jay-Z on the opening skit of his debut album, Reasonable Doubt. That barely scratches the surface, but if I were to dig up every single instance, this article would be at least 100 pages long.

2. THE GODFATHER – yes, of course this covers the whole trilogy and, no, Part III doesn’t necessarily count. This is the true O.G. of modern gangster films and its influence is huge, dwarfed only by the outsized adventures of one Tony Montana. Mafioso-rap pioneers like Raekwon and Jay-Z may have referenced Scarface an awful lot, but the actual aesthetic of that mid-’90s subgenre (the long coats and wide-brimmed fedoras, the big cigars and pinkie rings) all originated here. From references to Don Corleone and Luca Brasi to actual samples of the film’s score (some of the best of which are found on Raekwon’s Only Built for Cuban Linx… Pt. II, a decade-later Mafioso-rap throwback that arguably surpasses the original in quality), the influence of this one cannot be overstated. One of the most recent examples is Jay’s reflective rumination on the lessons he learned (or failed to learn) from it on last year’s “Family Feud.”

3. NEW JACK CITY – I was tempted to give this one the number two spot, but The Godfather can’t be refused. The head honcho gangster of this film, Nino Brown (Wesley Snipes), is a big fan of De Palma’s Scarface, and the aesthetic of the movie itself is indebted to the final entry on this list, but New Jack City has its own special place in the pantheon of rap-lyric-inspiring gangster movies, in part because it’s the only one featuring a gold chain-wearing, African-American crime boss, a figure even more relatable to the progenitors of Mafioso-rap when the movie came out. Beyond the many references to Nino and the Carter (the housing project that becomes his drug empire in the movie) in songs by The Notorious B.I.G., Jay-Z, and many others, you’ll also find numerous references to doomed crackhead Pookie (Chris Rock in a rare dramatic role) in songs by Big L, Tech N9ne, and Biggie again, and it seems unlikely that Lil Wayne’s Cash Money Billionaires collective wasn’t inspired by Nino’s Cash Money Brothas in the movie.

4. KING OF NEW YORK – though New Jack City captured something really special in its wake, this was the first major gangster movie to be fully immersed in Hip-Hop culture, paving the way not only for New Jack, but also later Hip-Hop crime films like Belly and Paid in Full. Though Christopher Walken’s Frank White is as Caucasian as his surname, his rise to power is facilitated in part by his embrace of the black gangster culture of New York City, much to the discontent of his Italian-American associates. Frank’s calm, charismatic ruthlessness (and, of course, the baller-ass title of the movie itself) has inspired plenty of rappers, but none more notable than the late, great Biggie, who frequently referred to himself as “the black Frank White.”

Ezra Stead is the Head Editor for MoviesIDidn’ Ezra is also a screenwriter, actor, filmmaker, rapper, and occasional stand-up comic who has been previously published in print and online, as well as writing, directing and acting in numerous short films and two features. A Minneapolis native, Ezra currently lives in New York City, where he is working on his first novel.

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    class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-116348">

    Yes Scarface is the best, that is why I chose that movie to do my acting scene (the restaurant scene) in my acting class. Here’s my channel please subscribe for more.

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