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Revisiting The 'Boyz n The Hood' Soundtrack

By Stereo Williams

John Singleton's magnum opus, Boyz n the Hood, celebrates its 30th anniversary this week. In celebration of the film, we're dedicating an entire week to aspects ofBoyz... you may have never considered before. 

The 1990s were the golden age of the movie soundtrack. 

That's no diss to artistic triumphs like Curtis Mayfield's Superfly or Prince's Purple Rain; and with full recognition of the impact of A Hard Day's Night, Grease and Saturday Night Fever. But the 1990s saw what seemed like an endless wave of movie soundtracks that both amplified the movies themselves and burned the soundtrack into our collective consciousness. This was especially true of Black films; as "urban cinema" became trendy and Hollywood realized that marrying urban movies to urban music could yield big dollars. And John Singleton's epochal coming-of-age drama Boyz n The Hood was one of the first to use the approach. 

It should be noted that Boyz n The Hood's seismic impact wasn't totally without precedent; just as 1988s Colors was arguably the first major Hollywood film to take the audience into South Central Los Angeles (albeit from the police's perspective), that movie also had a noteworthy theme song from West Coast rap icon Ice-T. Also worth mentioning is 1990s House Party, which had a popular soundtrack peppered with songs by recognized names like Kid 'n Play, Full Force and Public Enemy. 

But 1991 is the year that the urban soundtrack phenomenon really took hold. It was the year of both New Jack City and Boyz N the Hood; with New Jack...'s soundtrack delivering hits by Queen Latifah, LeVert, Christopher Williams and Color Me Badd; with Boyz n The Hood following suit just a few months later. 

The Boyz n The Hood soundtrack offers an interesting cross-section of artists and sounds; from West Coast gangsta rap to new jack swing to contemporary jazz fusion; the sonic backdrop for John Singleton's heartfelt story about growing up in the hood showcases the breadth of Black popular music at the dawn of the 1990s. 

The movie itself was a paradigm shifting moment in urban cinema; the emergence of John Singleton heralded a new generation of post-Spike Lee filmmakers telling Black stories that were specific to the Hip-Hop generation. Alongside films like Matty Rich's Straight Out of Brooklyn and the Hughes Bros' Menace II SocietyBoyz N the Hood helped set the table for a new kind of Black cinema in the 1990s. 

The music anchors the movie.

The Stanley Clarke-penned instrumental theme "Black On Black Crime," became the musical soul and spirit of the film. With it's foreboding melody and evocative combination of bass prowess and impending doom, it ripples throughout Boyz n The Hood and serves as both warning and rallying cry. It remains one of the most distinct musical themes of the 1990s.  

Ice Cube's "How To Survive In South Central" is one of his best. The Compton native's storytelling prowess has rarely ever been in better form than here; delivering an on-the-ground account of the streets with his trademark perceptiveness and black humor intact. Over Zapp's "More Bounce To The Ounce," it announces Cube's and producer Sir Jinx's more West-leaning stylings after the NYC aggression of The Bomb Squad-produced AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted, Cube's 1990 solo debut.

The DJ Jazzy Jeff-produced "Work It Out" is a radio-friendly hit from Monie Love, the perfect showcase for the British-born emcee who'd broken big a year earlier with her single "Monie In the Middle." The follow-up to that hit, "It's A Shame ( My Sister)" proved that Monie has always known her way around a catchy hook, and "Work It Out," with it's S.O.S. Band sample and chant-ready chorus, added to her hot streak. 

Main Source's classic debut album Breaking Atoms would be released just a week after Boyz... hit theaters, and "Just A Friendly Game Of Baseball," rapper/producer Large Professor's commentary on police brutality, is remixed here in a fitting addition to a movie that so memorably highlights the tensions between Black communities and the police. In an early scene, when Furious Styles calls the cops after a shooting at an intruder in his home, it's the Black cop who antagonizes him. That same cop would harass Furious' teenage son years later.

Quincy Jones' sumptuous "Setembro" is the romantic theme of the movie and as a full song, it's one of the iconic producer/arranger's more lush 90s arrangements. It's a breezy counterpoint to Clarke's darkly cynical "...Crime," featuring Take 6 harmonies backed by elegant keys and some of the best strings of the era. 

Bay Area sons Tony! Toni! Toné! deliver the gorgeous "Me & You." One of the early 90s best R&B ballads, the song is heard in the movie during one of the film's most endearingly adolescent segments: a montage of Ricky grinding through football practice as Tre and Brandi argue over their relationship. With it's sweetly romantic lyrics and gliding melody, "Me & You" still stands as one of Raphael Saadiq's finest moments with the group. "Too Young" is another teenaged showcase from R&B group Hi-Five (just a few months prior to their hit breakthrough "The Kissing Game") that features a young Prodigy (soon to be of Mobb Deep) on the rhymes. 

"Now I come from the Oakland town/Task force rollin' while the coke crack down," Too $hort raps on "It's Your Life" as he recounts the hustler lifestyle and the desire to pull yourself out of poverty. An artist whose social commentary has often been overshadowed by raunchy party raps, $hort Dog's brand of street wisdom is on fine display here. Another rap act notorious for sex rhymes, 2 Live Crew offers "Hangin' Out," dropping their trademark Miami bass sound for something that sounds more like East Coast mainstays the Bomb Squad or even Prince Paul--albeit with the explicit lyrics the Crew was always known for.

An excellent slice of nostalgic storytelling, Yo-Yo's "Mama Don't Take No Mess" might be one of the soundtrack's most underrated tracks. The song could be the de facto theme song for Tyra Ferrell's Brenda Baker, the no-nonsense mother of Ricky and Doughboy in the movie. MC Eiht was still frontman of Compton's Most Wanted in 1991, and CMW landed one of the soundtrack's standouts. With the gripping "Growing Up In the Hood," Eiht lays out much of the film's themes, a trick he would return to on 1993s "Streiht Up Menace" from the Watts-set drama Menace II Society, a film to which Boyz... is often compared.

There are of course non-original songs that appear in the movie that never show up on the soundtrack.

Ice Cube's classic "A Bird In the Hand" is blaring from the red Hyundai Excel when hoodlums point a sawed-off at Tre (Cuba Gooding, Jr); early in the movie, Run-D.M.C.'s Sucker MC's" is heard when the kids are walking through the neighborhood after viewing a dead body. And it's hard to forgot how effectively the innocently hopeful "Ooh Child" by The Five Stairsteps soars over the scene as Tre and Furious watch young Doughboy as he's led away in handcuffs for shoplifting. There could have easily been a stellar companion release for these songs, but alas. 

In the Nineties, the movie soundtrack went a long towards mainstreaming Hip-Hop and R&B singularly influenced by Hip-Hop. Boyz n The Hood wasn't the first major Black soundtrack, but it helped usher in the era. Soon,  hit soundtracks for movies like Boomerang, Above the Rim and more would further amplify both the melding of Hip-Hop and R&B's audience, and the elevation of Hip-Hop in visibility. Boyz n the Hood helped set that example and cement a standard. And, most importantly, it was stuffed with great songs. A classic movie elevated by a sublime sonic backdrop.