The Simpsons Decade: Fear of a Black Hat
Hip hop was still a relatively young genre from when a hungry young writer, director and actor with credits like School Daze and Hollywood Shuffle on his resume named Rusty Cundieff debuted his beloved rap mockumentary Fear of a Black Hat at the 1993 Sundance Film Festival. The art form had been growing and evolving in the projects and ghettoes of New York for much of the 1970s but it wasn’t put on wax and disseminated widely until the cultural big bang that was the Sugar Hill Gang’s 1979 hit “Rapper’s Delight.”
The art form was new enough that it seemed possible for a single parody to cover seemingly the entirety of hip hop until that point. Just as Jake Kasdan’s casually audacious Walk Hard suggested it was possible for one over-achieving, overstuffed musical comedy extravaganza to cover five decades of pop music mythology satisfyingly, Fear Of A Black Hat managed to cover just about every hip hop development from Run DMC’s explosion into the mainstream in the early 1980s to whatever was happening in rap the day the movie stopped shooting.
Borrowing liberally from This is Spinal Tap, (the trio at the film’s core even loses managers at the alarming rate Spinal Tap lost drummers), Fear of a Black Hat takes the form of a mockumentary from Nina Blackburn (Kasi Lemmons), a politically conscious academic who began the film as a thesis exploring the political elements of incendiary political/gangsta rap group N.W.H. (In a case of life imitating art, Lemmons would later segue from acting to filmmaking as the acclaimed writer-director of films like Eve’s Bayou, which I imagine her character here would be proud to call her own).
Cundieff, who also directed, wrote the script and co-wrote the songs, plays N.W.H frontman Ice Cold, a towering, light-skinned hustler and actor in the Ice-T mold. Larry B. Scott plays Tasty Taste, Ice-Cold’s group mate and foil, a dark-skinned, short, hyper-violent former drug dealer and assault weapons enthusiast like Eazy E. Mark Christopher Lawrence completes the trio as Tone Def, the DJ and resident beat smith of the crew, a cuddly, vaguely bohemian teddy bear hippie earth child type like De La Soul or PM Dawn.
The film follows N.W.H on their ascent to superstardom and infamy as they make a rocky, dramatic, and death-and-violent-assault-laden journey from struggling up and comers billed as “Also Special Guests” on a multi-act tour to controversial superstars loved and hated for the incendiary nature of their music. N.W.H may or may not be sincere in their political posturing, but judging from the many people they beat up over the course of the film, they at least seem to be honest and sincere about their love of violence.
Fear of a Black Hat is primarily fixated on the posturing and pretension of hip hop at its most militant and Afrocentric, and consequently at its most ripe for hypocrisy. It derives endless biting comedy from the cognitive dissonance engendered by a nascent art form that relentlessly promoted fuzzy, impossible concepts of “realness” and “authenticity” while not only encouraging but demanding that artists play one of a series of broad caricature and archetypes, from the glaring, glowering drug dealer to the glaring, glowering, rage-filled political revolutionary.
In Fear of a Black Hat, Ice Cold is forever pontificating windily on the overlooked political and social connotations of songs like “Booty Juice” and “Come on Pet the P.U.S.S.Y”, often while employing acronyms with a frequency, eccentricity and intensity not seen outside the work of Gary Busey, but it’s evident from the first frame that all he cares about is money, power and women. For N.W.H, rap is just another hustle, albeit one with certain ideological and political dimensions.
The outsized nature of Hip Hop in the late eighties and early 1990s poses a challenge for parodists. How do you comically exaggerate something that’s already such a Day-Glo cartoon of itself? How do you parody something that’s already enmeshed in self-parody? Fear of a Black Hat is up to the challenge, however. It ratchets the violence, profanity, posturing and misogyny of Hip Hop to giddy, ridiculous extremes.
Fear of a Black Hat is true to its milieu in its wall-to-wall profanity. Let’s just say that if this was a CD it would be festooned with a whole bunch of “Parental Advisory” stickers on the front cover. Cundieff’s hilarious hip hop comedy is full of swearing and epithets but it never feels gratuitous. Fear of a Black Hat is strategic in its deployment of curse words and ingenious in its double entendres. It’s hard to do justice to the film’s ribald humor without going blue, but a lot of the movie’s double entendres manage to be funny without being obscene, like the album titles P.U.S.S Why, Garden Ho’s and the N.W.H Christmas album Ho Ho Hos, which features a song about how Santa Claus is “coming”, albeit not necessarily to town.
N.W.H’s discography also contains such tellingly titles explosions of anger as “Kill Whitey” but the movie depicts the trio’s brand of timely agitprop as nothing but marketing. They’re peddling anger and rebellion because it sells and when P.M Dawn’s trippy Hip Hop for hippies and C+C Music Factory’s pop-rap-by committee starts selling, they start chasing those trends instead.
Ice Cold and his group mates are cynical opportunists masquerading unconvincingly as politically engaged idealists. But if Fear of a Black Hat is fundamentally cynical about the Afrocentric posturing of Golden Age hip hop, it’s gloriously uncynical about the visceral pleasure afforded by hip hop at its best.
Fear of a Black Hat is a masterpiece of pastiche. "Weird Al" Yanovic is rightly hailed as the king of pop parody but I would argue passionately that his gift for pastiches is even greater than his talent for spoofery. So it is high praise to state that Fear of a Black Hat’s pastiches of hits from everyone from second-tier Public Enemy knock-off Paris to C+C Music Factory measure up to the pastiches created by Al and his creative heirs The Lonely Island.
Cundieff’s labor of love cares enough about what he’s lovingly lampooning to get the details right. The group doesn’t just reference an iconic hip hop smash like Cypress Hill’s “I Could Just Kill a Man”—they create a pastiche that sounds unnervingly like what it’s referencing and rocks nearly as hard.
The songs here work beautifully as vessels for jokes but they also work perfectly on their own. That’s the film’s glory: it’s not only funny, it’s also insanely catchy. The songs are so good and the jokes are so solid that you don’t even need to be familiar with what’s being referenced to enjoy it.
For example, you don’t need to know that R.A.V, for “Rappers Against Violence” is a reference to the real-life supergroup West Coast Rap All-Star’s adorably misguided charity single “We’re All in the Same Gang” to find the incongruity of glowering gangsta rappers professing to be sternly anti-violent while simultaneously making their living from violent fantasies funny.
Similarly, when N.W.H parties in a hot tub with champagne and naked women for “A Gangsta’s Life Ain’t Fun” in a music video that actually suggests that a gangsta’s life is a whole lot of fun, and maybe something worth emulating, you don’t need to get its pitch-perfect recreation of Ice-T’s “New Jack Hustler (Nino’s Theme)” music video for the gag to work.
Watching Fear of a Black Hat I experienced a kind of explosive double-nostalgia. I was nostalgic for the era of Hip Hop it chronicled, when the art form was evolving and mutating and cross-pollinating in all sorts of exciting and unexpected ways, but I was also nostalgic for the film itself, which I saw countless times when I was video store clerk in college.
Fear of a Black Hat hit me in a generational sweet spot. It lovingly spoofs and deconstructs my era of rap, when I was most passionately engaged with the genre. It’s dated in the best possible way, like an unusually satisfying episode of Yo MTV Raps! re-conceived as a sublime hip hop comedy (which is weird, in that 1993’s Who’s the Man is literally Yo MTV Raps! re-conceived as a hip hop comedy, but was nowhere near as successful or well-liked).
Unfortunately, Fear of a Black Hat is true to both its time period and its cultural milieu in its casual and not-so-casual misogyny. Fear of a Black Hat is the rare mockumentary that actually seems to have learned all the right lessons from This is Spinal Tap, but it dips back into Beatles lore by having Tasty Taste’s ambitious and conniving girlfriend come break up the group, Yoko Ono-style.
But if Fear of a Black Hat is predictably problematic in terms of gender and sexuality given the time of its release, it engages in the realities of black life in the early 1990s in ways that are surprising for a broad comedy. The Rodney King riots cast a long shadow over the proceedings and inspired some of the movie’s darkest, funniest jokes. And though the movie depicts the political dimension of gangsta rap as something of a cynical farce, it deals extensively with hip hop both as a commercial enterprise and a genuine expression of underclass rage.
Fear of a Black Hat would be worth watching for its hats alone. Ice Cold has a typically ridiculous, convoluted rationale for the central place hats play in N.W.H’s ideology rooted in the discomfort and despair hat-less slaves experienced and the incongruity of men wearing increasingly ridiculous Cat in the Hat-style raver headgear while angrily making political statements is always funny. The hats are brilliant sight gags in a movie overflowing with jokes and gags and ideas, that is comedically dense in a way that both rewards and demands re-watching.
But Fear of a Black Hat has a whole lot more to offer than 1990s nostalgia and a stunning array of colorful hats. Fear is as satisfying as a hip hop musical as it is a comedy. It’s a cult classic comedy with a beat, a loving yet irreverent take-down of rap posturing made with love and a deceptive level of craft, both musically and comedically.
It’s maddeningly difficult to track down Fear of a Black Hat these days. Hopefully that will change once Criterion honors its 25th anniversary with a Blu-Ray double disc bundled with a copy of its soundtrack. A full-on reunion tour would also be great, but hip hop fans know from experience not to expect too much from their heroes, even of the fictional variety.
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