Hip-Hop Lost a Fervent Ally in John Singleton
“Either they don’t know, don’t show or don’t care about what’s going on in the ’hood.” —Doughboy, Boyz n the Hood
You want poetic justice? How’s this?
When a 23-year-old John Singleton wrote his first screenplay, Boyz n the Hood, during his senior year at the University of Southern California’s School of Film-Television, the burgeoning director named his breakout smash after an early N.W.A anthem, Eazy-E’s “Boyz-n-the Hood,” ghostwritten by a young O’Shea Jackson.
Singleton then cast Jackson, a rapper, to play Doughboy as one of the film’s stars, launching the enduring Hollywood career of that crazy mutha named Ice Cube.
“I was discovered by a master filmmaker by the name of John Singleton,” Ice Cube tweeted Monday evening (April 29). “He not only made me a movie star but made me a filmmaker. There are no words to express how sad I am to lose my brother, friend & mentor. He loved bring[ing] the black experience to the world.”
Singleton suffered a stroke and was admitted to the hospital on April 17. He died Monday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, where he was taken off life support. Singleton was 51 years young.
A death too soon, to be certain, but the Black experience, the theater experience and the hip-hop experience are all that much richer and more informed thanks to his life—and his life’s work.
“The great thing for me was, I lived in the time when hip-hop was coming to prominence. You had a burgeoning youth movement via hip-hop going into the mainstream,” Singleton told The Daily Beast in February. “We worked hand in hand to see that become pop culture.”
Raised in inner-city Los Angeles on a steady diet of Star Wars possibility and reality-driven rap racket, Singleton was at the forefront of the exciting early-1990s wave of African-American filmmakers inspired by Spike Lee. Singleton once recalled the impact Lee’s 1986 breakthrough, She’s Gotta Have It, had on him as an 18-year-old: “The movie was so powerful to me, as a young Black teen who grew up seeing movies with not a lot of people who looked like me.”
Just as Lee had brought a hip-hop icon from his era, Fab Five Freddy, to the silver screen in She's Gotta Have It, a young Singleton was persistent in casting rappers in major film roles, despite backlash at the time that MCs were stealing food off the plates of properly schooled actors.
So, Ice Cube used Boyz to launch his Friday series, and Singleton rode Cube’s raw performance—not to mention star-boosting turns from Cuba Gooding Jr., Angela Bassett, Morris Chestnut, Nia Long and Regina King—to 1992 Academy Award nominations for Best Original Screenplay and Best Director, the first for an African-American. (Singleton also leaves the world as the youngest Oscar-nominated director, period.)
The portrait of current Cali rappers YG (as the wild Doughboy) and Kendrick Lamar (as Gooding Jr.’s drug-dodging Tre) has been well-drawn (K. Dot notes the parallel in the back half of "Sing About Me, I'm Dying of Thirst"), and Lamar has been explicit in how Singleton’s movies both reflected and informed in his own South Central childhood. The video for Lamar’s “Poetic Justice” single ushers Singleton’s Crenshaw into 2013.
Like the music he loved and slapped on his soundtracks, there was a rawness to Singleton’s early flicks. He was still coming of age and finding his way, too. That rough-around-the-edges aesthetic comes from throwing yourself into your dream first and figuring it out by taking chances along the way. It wasn’t until after Boyz was a hit that Singleton conceded he was learning how to direct as the camera rolled.
For his softer, less-heralded follow-up, 1993’s Poetic Justice, Singleton casted Janet Jackson and Tupac Shakur as his romantic leads. He had the gull to urge 'Pac to quit rap in favor of acting full-time.
“I’m the stupidest person in the world to be telling Pac [that],” Singleton told The Daily Beast. “When we were working initially, he wasn’t that good a rapper. I was like, ‘You aight, but you a better actor.’"
Singleton continued: "He was like, ‘Fuck you, man. Hip-hop is my voice.’ Hip-hop, being a rapper—that’s like being a gunslinger, that’s your manhood. Can’t nobody take that from you. If you can spit 16 bars and take somebody down, that’s like having a multiple weapon.' I’m telling him, ‘That’s not your weapon—your weapon is the fact that you’re going to be a major star.’ He couldn’t see it. I’m stupid for saying it, but also, he couldn’t see it. He couldn’t see how one thing could begat the other.”
Curb-stomping the pigeonhole, seeing the mega star in the rapper—that was a Singleton signature. He gave Q-Tip a role in Justice. He went back to show a different side of Cube in 1995’s Higher Learning, a role in which he railed against the whitewashing of the education system. Busta Rhymes was featured in that flick, too, as well as Singleton’s 2000 reboot of Shaft.
Prior to his death, Shakur was intended to star in 2001’s Baby Boy, but that role went to musical artist Tyrese Gibson, and Singleton gave the charismatic Snoop Dogg his most significant film role to date.
Chance The Rapper noted the groundbreaking visual effects Singleton used in his nine-minute, The Pharcyde–featuring music video for Michael Jackson’s “Remember the Time” in 1992 “changed my life.”
Singleton worked with Ludacris in 2 Fast 2 Furious, the first of the franchise’s billion-dollar sequels, and André 3000 in 2005’s overlooked Four Brothers. When financing was scarce for Craig Brewer’s Hustle & Flow (2005), the tale of a Memphis pimp’s ambitions as a rapper, Singleton stepped up to produce, and the flick won an Oscar for best original song, Three 6 Mafia’s “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp.”
Monday, Juicy J—who owes Singleton an assist for the gold trophy on his shelf—revealed he and the director had been texting about Singleton’s overseeing a Three 6 biopic. “If this would had happened, we would have won another Oscar for Best Picture,” Juicy posted on social media.
Singleton’s hip-hop connections wheeled beyond networking and job offers, though. It was the feeling his screenplays conveyed, the language he chose, the societal issues he tackled. Take the dispute between Justice and Lucky, Jackson and Shakur’s respective characters, after Lucky casually lobs the word "bitch" during shared a drive in Justice. The scene perfectly encapsulates a common hip-hop debate of the time (one that persists today). “If I’m a bitch, your momma’s a bitch, bitch,” Justice fires at Lucky.
Cinema, Singleton believed, saved him from becoming a delinquent, and it would be easy to see him paying that effort forward.
His most recent venture, Snowfall, was an FX series that tackled the crack epidemic in Los Angeles in the Ronald Reagan–ravaged 1980s. For a creative mind, it marked a return to familiar ground and reminded us that the type of film that dropped jaws in Cannes in 1991 is now network commonplace.
Biz Markie was spot-on when he wrote on Twitter that Singleton’s “films poignantly depicted, humanized & articulated the beauty & struggle of S. Central & L.A. life as well as anyone. The best filmmaker of the hip hop generation, a creator of vivid 3-dimensional characters whose work eternally defined a place & time.”
Sadly, beautifully, the last item Singleton retweeted from his own account was an XXL-pushed video clip of fellow L.A. icon Nipsey Hussle’s mother, from April 10, to which Singleton captioned, “Wise words… take heed!”
“When God dwells inside of you, there is no fear,” says Nipsey's mother, sturdy in the face of grief. “Please, do not stay down. Do not stay stuck. Do not mourn.” —Luke Fox
Rappers We Lost in 2018