Last week on September 10, Vox Media posed the question, "What Happened to the Golden Age of Black Sitcoms?" In a video essay that explored what has changed in the habits of consumers and producers of black television comedies, content producer Imaeyen Ibanga flashed us back to a time when black actors acted out scripts about schools, families and jobs that were all relatable to the black experience. Even now, 20 years removed from the period in entertainment, many of us can rattle off even some of the most obscure, low-tier black sitcoms on networks like UPN, The WB, Fox, and even the big three (NBC, CBS, ABC), on occasion (here's looking at you, "The Hughleys").
But, when considering entertainment in the late '90s and early 2000s, there's a ton of black entertainment experiences that have fallen by the wayside, due in large part to the advent of the internet and the digital media outlets that dominate it. Not unlike the wave of interest in black-centric topics on the small screen, the big screen was home to many more comedic stars near the turn of the millennium. For every blockbuster such as "Rush Hour" or "Blue Streak" that prominently featured one high-profile black actor or comedian in a sea of white characters, there were several smaller budget hits like "The Cookout", "Johnson's Family Vacation" and "Love Don't Cost A Thing" that catered directly to blacks. This all was going down in a time where going to the movies was a much more integral thread in the social fabric of being an American. And just as movies targeted audiences via age, separating small children's interests from the kind of flicks teens go see when they need a dark place to make out, and films for the older, more refined movie buff, movies during this age were very upfront when they wanted a black audience.
What often came with these films were soundtracks. And, as many of these films targeted young adults and, later on, those young adult's families, many of them utilized the popular sounds of urban radio to help promote their films. So, a studio has a film with either an entirely black cast or a prominent black lead. All it takes is pairing that film with a young, street wise label or executive producer. That label or producer negotiates with an established artist here, an up-and-comer there, then before you know it, there's a compilation album in the works that can compete on store shelves and the radio, alike.
Even better, that studio or that label might pay all the money to shoot the video for an artist's song, giving that artist free promotion on music video countdowns, so long as clips from the movie are set to the music. Heck, why not even get some of the movie stars to show up to the video shoot? We'll even send the artist out on the promotional run with the actors marketing the film. What could be sweeter for a rapper, singer or group looking to keep momentum moving forward in an off-year between albums?
Sometimes even, the artist chosen to perform a lead single for a soundtrack had a role in the film. At that point, it's a no-brainer!
Of course, these soundtracks became a playground for some cautionary collaborations. For instance, there's "I Gotta Get Paid", a tragedy of a song featuring Lil' Flip, Ghostface Killah and Raekwon on the "Blade Trinity" soundtrack. But, most movies tried to get it right when it came to throwing a single out to TV and radio.
But, after a matter of time, things changed. Much like black storytelling on television, the decline of black film soundtracks is as much about attitudes in the industry as it is a matter of technology and how we interact with entertainment.
Either way, we miss the way things used to be. And, although, I doubt a soundtrack for a film could sell in-stores for black audiences or otherwise, I'd be curious to see how one might perform on the streaming platforms we enjoy today.
You're probably pretty familiar of some of the more successful hip-hop and R&B singles that accompanied movies. R. Kelly's "I Believe I Can Fly" from "Space Jam" and Jay-Z's "Can I Get A..." from "Rush Hour" come to mind. But here are some of the illest, forgotten singles from soundtracks that make me miss the days when the urban music industry and the movie industry played nice.
1) "The World I Know (Country Livin')" - Goodie Mob ft. Esthero
"Slam" is a film that stars poet Saul Williams as he uses his gift to navigate the ghetto. Fittingly, these Georgia wordsmiths float along with trip-hop princess Esthero on this calming real-rap track. Cee-Lo, ever the ringmaster, loses his damn mind rapping on this one.
2) "Freedom" - Various
With all the black '90s nostalgia prevalent on the internet today and the overabundance of "woke" culture in social media, it's nearly criminal that this song isn't the #BlackTwitter National Anthem by now. Its message is as powerful as its funky, driving beat. Some of the women in this all-star chorus aren't notable any longer in the culture, but enough of them are icons of blackness in the era. Peep the list of performers in its entirety below, or just watch the video and try your hardest to pick out the familiar faces.
"Freedom" features vocals from:
Aaliyah, Billy Lawrence, Blackgirl, Brenda Russell, Cindy Mizelle, Crystal Waters, Emage, En Vogue, Female, Jade, MC Lyte, Mary J. Blige, Me'Shell NdegéOcello, N'Dea Davenport, Nefertiti, Patra, Queen Latifah, SWV, Salt 'N' Pepa, TLC, Yo-Yo, Zhané
3) "Set it Off" - Organized Noize ft. Queen Latifah
Soundtrack: "Set it Off"
Here's the best example of an actor singing the lead single from a film he or she starred in from this list. In most other instances, the person who starred in the movie had quite a bit of success with the accompanying single. I thought I'd try to shy away from those tracks you likely already know, like Aaliyah and DMX's "Back in One Piece' from the soundtrack "Romeo Must Die", which they both had roles in.
Here, we see Queen Latifah rap partly from the perspective of her character Cleo from the film "Set it Off". In her verse, she exemplifies and amplifies some of the notes of black female badassery that make up the film's plot.
On the song, she's joined by Atlanta funk-rap production crew Organized Noize for their only true credit as a group until their recent full-length digital LP release.
4) "Don't Ask My Neighbor" - Tisha Campbell &Tichina Arnold
Here's another example of an actor taking the heavy lifting when promoting music from a movie soundtrack. This time, however, it is less an instance of a well-known musician trying their hand at acting than it is the opposite. Tisha Campbell, most known for her role as Gina Waters on Fox's "Martin", has enjoyed a bit of infamy for her latest vocal exploits to hit social media timelines. But, when she starred in 1997 raunchy romantic comedy "Sprung", she stepped out into the singing game to perform this rendition of The Emotions' 1977 hit, "Don't Ask My Neighbor".
Even better, she performs the song with her "Martin" co-star Tichina Arnold.
Although, we know this wasn't the last time Campbell (now Campbell-Martin) sang in public, this single wasn't her first time, either. She released the album "Tisha" on Capitol in 1993, which sparked her single, "Love Me Down".
(For whatever reason the user who uploaded "Don't Ask My Neighbor disabled the ability to embed. Watch the video here.)
5) "If You Think You're Lonely Now" - K-Ci Hailey (of Jodeci)
Soundtrack: "Jason's Lyric"
It feels like K-Ci was doing a Bobby Womack impression here. The cover is good enough to remain a staple in the K-Ci & JoJo song revue, even today, though. So, much love to him. He handled his business. Similarly, K-Ci & JoJo's "Life" from the R. Kelly-produced soundtrack to the Martin Lawrence and Eddie Murphy film of the same name remains one of my soundtrack favorites.
6) "Ain't Nobody" - LL Cool J
Soundtrack: "Beavis and Butt-head Do America"
It's astounding to imagine, sometimes, that the LL of the '90s is the same Kangol-brimmed wunderkind draped in Troop from his albums in the 1980s. After having to "call it a comeback" in the early part of the 1990s, LL Cool J eventually emerged as an elder statesman by the middle part of the decade. This is around the time his acting career got started and he was every hip kid's favorite landlord on Quincy Jones' second NBC sitcom starring a rapper.
Here, he steps away from his post at Def Jam to support Beavis and Butt-head in their feature-length debut over a beat built from Chaka Khan's hit "Ain't Nobody".
7) "Benz or Beamer" - Outkast
Label: Tommy Boy
Soundtrack: "New Jersey Drive"
Oh, early Outkast, how rough around the edges you were. If you thought slagnin' drugs and pimpin' on Christmas was the most savage the original ATLiens could get, you might have a jaw-dropping moment listening to them lament about boosting luxury vehicles around Atlanta. "Beamer, Benz or Bentley?" Lloyd Banks would ask more than a decade later. When you're stealing them, I guess it just depends on the easiest take.
Also: Peep how real these Bankhead bounces are.
8) "In Due Time" - Outkast ft. Cee-Lo
Soundtrack: "Soul Food"
L.A. Reid and Babyface headed up the "Boomerang" soundtrack for in 1992, back when LaFace was still a bit of a new idea, as an imprint. When time came for them to release "Soul Food", most of the label's roster were bonafide stars. Here, Dungeon Family's first-generation MVPs get a showcase on their label's film-associated compilation.
9) "Can't Be Wasting My Time" - Mona Lisa ft. Lost Boyz
Soundtrack: "Don't Be a Menace to Society While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood"
Nothing says hip-hop soul better than lonely, light-skinned girls singing over recycled hardcore hip-hop breaks. Look no further than this R&B remix of KRS-One's "MC's Act Like They Don't Know".
10) "All About My Fetti" (Young Lay featuring Mac Mall and Ray Luv)
Label: Tommy Boy
Soundtrack: "New Jersey Drive"
For all my player's in the Bay Area, here's a track to stack money to.
11) "Trigga Gots No Heart" - Spice 1
Soundtrack: "Menace II Society"
Here's a sentimental one for me from the "Menace II Society" cassette my father kept on repeat. This album is known widely for MC Eiht's "Streiht Up Menace", which is nothing short of perfect (even the remix that appears briefly in the film's famous drive-thru car jacking scene). The whole album slaps, too. It helped put Jive signees UGK on the map outside their native Texas with "Pocket Full of Stones". My favorite track is the slow-burning funk of "Top of the World" by Kenya Gruv.
12) "Feel the Funk" - Immature
Soundtrack: "Dangerous Minds"
You surely remember the "Dangerous Minds" soundtrack for Coolio's "Gangster's Paradise". Although, I won't hold that against you, per se, I will scold you for singing it at bar karaoke.
The second single, with a video which regrettably features less sexy-serious staring from Michelle Pfeiffer, is "Feel the Funk", arguably the best song from teeny-bopper trio Immature.
If the funky licks that make up the song feel particularly authentic, it'd be because they are replayed in the fashion of Atlanta funk powerhouse Mother's Finest's "Love Changes".
13) "Neck uv da Woods" - Mystikal ft. Outkast
Soundtrack: "The Wood"
Yep...more Dungeon Family music. Outkast and their affiliates may just be the champions of squeezing extra single appearances out of soundtracks in this era.
Mystikal does what he does best here, create utter chaos. It's a mixture made in Southern hip-hop heaven.
14) "Take it Off" - UGK
Soundtrack: "The Corruptor"
Chow Yun-fat and Mark Wahlberg's "The Corruptor" didn't deserve UGK's "Take it Off". But, Jive was notorious for not knowing how to handle the down-home underground artists they had in their stable at the time, which includes Too $hort and E-40. It's all good, though. Because I bet you didn't know the one thing you needed today was a music video with Pimp C and Bun B caught up in a thrilling plot that mixes Southern rap elite with Chinese-American organized crime.
15) "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)" - Ideal
Label: Noo Trybe
Soundtrack: "Original Gangstas"
It's no match for the Marvin Gaye original, but it is worthy of a quick listen.
16) "Rowdy, Rowdy" - 50 Cent
Soundtrack: "In Too Deep"
Before 50 Cent was 50 CENT, he was a bottom-feeder New York emcee with a penchant for punching outside his weight class. "Rowdy, Rowdy", is much lesser known than the other side of the dual-single 50 released for the "In Too Deep" soundtrack, "How to Rob".
I love it for its beautiful use of Johnny Harris' grandiose version of The Doors' "Light My Fire".
17) "The World Is a Ghetto" – Geto Boys & Flaj
Label: Rap-A-Lot/Noo Trybe
Soundtrack: "Original Gangstas"
Keeping in line with the theme of War's 1972 song of the same name, this song stands out in Geto Boys' catalog, but many don't remember it came to be on the "Original Gangstas" OST.
18) "How Deep is Your Love" - Dru Hill ft. Redman
Label: Def Jam
Soundtrack: "Rush Hour"
Def Jam threw a ton of resources at making the most of their soundtrack opportunities. Often, they allowed these albums to play out as showcases for the best-of-the-best on their roster. Here, the marquee group from their Def Soul subsidiary makes a high-energy plea for love. Redman's verse appears on radio and album versions of the track, but he doesn't make the video.
19) "Big Bad Mamma" - Foxy Brown ft. Dru Hill
Label: Def Jam/Violator
Soundtrack: "Def Jam's How to be a Player"
Outside of simply providing films with dope hip-hop and R&B sounds, the house that Russell Simmons built stepped into the arena of producing a couple of their own features for theaters. So, of course, they set their in-house artists up with minor hits to accompany their project with Bill Bellamy, "How to Be a Player".
20) "Can We" - SWV
Soundtrack: "Booty Call"
"Can We" smooths out the freaky-deeky vibes that dominate 1997's "Booty Call". These sistas can sing, we all know that. Paired with Missy, though, they don't have to do much more than cool-out on the vocals, sinking into the atmospheric, spacey sound. It's a relaxing and refreshing take on the Virgina-hop sound that would come to dominate urban radio for the next several years.
21) "Zoom" - Dr. Dre ft. LL Cool J
This was Dr. Dre's awkward adolescence between labels, sounds and blockbuster albums. The heat from Death Row release "The Chronic" had cooled and "Dr. Dre Presents The Aftermath", although platinum, was considered a critical failure. Dre sprinkled quite a bit of his remaining magic on the Interscope-released "Bulworth" soundtrack with this song, representative of his bombastic late-90s sound. The soundtrack even marks the official introduction of Dre's then-protege, a female rapper from Philadelphia named Eve, who he'd later give up to Ruff Ryders for her Interscope debut.
22) "How High" - Method Man & Redman
Label: Def Jam
Soundtrack: "The Show"
No. This isn't from the soundtrack of the film of the same name that stars both these rappers. In fact, the famous rap duo got their start together here. Def Jam documentary "The Show" featured this song that paired Wu-Tang's Method Man and Def Squad's Redman, both Def Jam artists, at the time. The two would go on to record two albums together, star in a stoner buddy comedy and a short-lived Fox sitcom. Today, they are often more notable for their association with each other than they are with the original groups from which their careers were born.
23) "I'd Die Without You" - P.M. Dawn
Label: LaFace Records
Hip-hop's resident softies do their signature soft stuff here for one of the funniest romantic comedies of the decade. But, everyone knows the real single from this album should have been "Hot Sex" by A Tribe Called Quest.
24) "Ain't Nobody" - Monica ft. Treach
Label: Def Jam
Soundtrack: "The Nutty Professor"
On loan from Dallas Austin's Rowdy Records imprint, Monica lends a little hip-hop soul love to Def Jam's "The Nutty Professor" soundtrack. Austin takes special gratitude and care incorporating 24-Carat Black's 1973 Stax soul opus "Poverty's Paradise".
25) "What About Us" - Total ft. Missy Elliott & Timbaland
Soundtrack: "Soul Food"
It really isn't a soundtrack in the late '90s if Timbaland and Missy's Bassment Cru aren't involved.
26) "Money" - Charli Baltimore
Label: Epic, Untertainment
After Biggie's passing, his former manager Lance "Un" Rivera kept many of his promises, handling business in the rap world. One of those, was setting up Big's girl Charli Baltimore, who devoid of much rap skill, was still a cornerstone within Un's Untertainment imprint on Epic. Another promise was signing Harlem rapper and Ma$e affiliate Cam'ron to a deal on the label.
Those two promises must've conflated with one another at some point, as it seems a little obvious with lines like "Feels So Good like Ma$e, to pull over - anywhere I want, Diplomats on the Rover", that Cam'ron wrote the lyrics to this song for Charli to perform.
27) "Grand Finale" - DMX ft. Method Man, Ja Rule & Nas
Label: Def Jam
When was the last posse cut with this kind of star power? "One Train"? "Swagga Like Us"? I don't know. These kinds of chaotic rap relay races aren't my favorite. Typically that's because the huge rapper egos suck all any possible chemistry out of the song. There has to usually be some dynamic that acts as a glue to bring all the rappers to the room. Here, it feels like the core of the song could be looked at two ways.
1) DMX, Nas and Method Man all star in 1998 hip-hop crime drama "Belly". Then Ja Rule was tacked on.
2) DMX, Ja Rule, Method Man were all signed to Def Jam, at the time. Then Nas was tacked on.
I tend to go with the second one, simply because Nas flirted with signing to Def Jam by way of Murder Inc. in 2002 before finally getting onto the label in 2006.
28) "Wouldn't You Like to Ride" - Malik Yusef ft. KanYe West & Common
Soundtrack: "Coach Carter"
Here's a posse record dripping with chemistry. Almost concurrent with the success from KanYe West's debut album "The College Dropout", came "Coach Carter", one of those feel-good, black sports films that came in the wake of "Remember the Titans". The movie was set in Chicago, so it's only right that these Chicagoans got a look on the album (Twista did, too).
The album was released on Capitol, a label heavy in the "bidding war" that lead to West's signing at Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam. At the time, West was putting the pieces together to launch his G.O.O.D. Music imprint, with longtime Windy City underdog Common at the crux of operations. The real star, here, is spoken word poet and West's spiritual advisor, of sorts, Malik Yusef, who turns in a breezy half-rapped, half-spoken verse.
29) "Who You Wit" - Jay-Z
Label: Qwest, Warner Bros.
At the time, this was probably a huge look for Jay-Z, who was gearing up for the release of his sophomore album and major-label debut "In My Lifetime, Vol. 1" in 1997's fourth quarter. The year earlier, he turned in "Ain't No" for Def Jam's "Nutty Professor" soundtrack, and Hov would continue heating up summers with the help of films such as "Girl's Best Friend" from "Blue Streak" and "Hey Papi" from "Nutty Professor II: The Klumps".
30) "Back At You" - Mobb Deep
Soundtrack: "Sunset Park"
"Sunset Park"'s soundtrack is one of the few that really moved the needle on impact in the culture (special kudos are reserved to "Menace II Society"'s OST, too). It peaked at no. 4 on the Billboard 200 list in 1996. It featured the super sexy "Liberian Girl"-sampling MC Lyte and Xscape slammer "Keep On Keeping On." Here, things get down and grimy with East Coast hardcore poster children Mobb Deep.
31) "Street Life" - Scarface
Label: Hollywood Basic
Soundtrack: "South Central"
Hopping out on his own, Scarface is equally as potent as his group Geto Boys. You get a glimpse of that here, as he re-interprets jazz fusion group The Crusader's "Street Life" into a wicked tale.
32) "It's for You" - Shanice
Soundtrack: "Meteor Man"
I'll be honest, I love and respect Robert Townsend for the doors he's opened up, but I don't really have fond memories of "Meteor Man". I mean, I simply don't really remember whether it was good or not, although I do remember the early '90s being a time in which black kids needed a black hero to believe in. Hell, those same black kids are now adults and they STILL desperately need a hero.
I'll admit even further that I'd never heard this song before researching for this list. And it is officially my new favorite song.
33) "Told Y'all" - Trina ft. Rick Ross
Label: New Line Records/Slip-N-Slide
Soundtrack: "All About the Benjamins"
Signature Slip-N-Side sound: Check!
Rick Ross without a beard: Check!
Trina looking good as hell: Now do you even have to ask?
34) "The Points" - Various
Here's another song from "Panther" with a ridiculous amount of artists on one track. This time, the fellas are up. What I love most is, even though the beat, provided by Easy Mo Bee, is very East Coast, the performers represent the West, Midwest and South. All of them catch wreck, giving you the sense they all wanted to show and prove. The video version doesn't feature them all, but here's a complete list of performers:
The Notorious B.I.G., Coolio, Doodlebug, Big Mike, Buckshot, Redman, Ill Al Skratch, Rock, Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, Busta Rhymes, Menace Clan, 5th Ward Boyz & Jamal
35) "Hoodlum" - Mobb Deep ft. Rakim & Big Noyd
The teacher, Rakim, joins the young bulls from Queensbridge in a slick and measured way that shows why he's THE TEACHER.
36) "Get Your Groove On" - Gyrl
Label: Milan/New Line
Soundtrack: "B*A*P*S* (Black American Princesses)"
Gyrl was brought to the urban music market from Chris Stokes, the same mind who gave the world Immature and B2K. Along with Quindon, MC Smooth, TG4 and Wataz, Gyrl didn't exactly lasting impression. But, we know many of the stars who emerged from this stable of teenage talent, as acts like Marques Houston, Omarion, Jhene Aiko and Sevyn Streeter kept things rolling while performing solo.
Here, you can see Aiko's older sister Mila J fronting Gyrl, and keeping a steady bop on this beat.
37) "It's Alright" - Queen Latifah
Label: Tommy Boy
Soundtrack: "Nothing to Lose"
"Nothing to Lose" is the soundtrack home of Lil' Kim's "Ladies Night" with Angie Martinez, Da Brat and Left Eye, of course. That smash hit likely overshadowed this flavorful R&B cut from the Flava Unit Queen, Miss Latifah, herself.
Did I miss your favorite soundtrack slam? Let me know in the comments below.