Streiht Up Menace
Lately I've been sharing some of my favourite songs from favourite albums as "Music Mondays" on Twitter, in an effort to kick off the week with some good vibes. This week, I decided to share something from an absolutely perfect album which I've loved from the very first time I heard it back in the day, Ice Cube's Lethal Injection (1993). While my initial thought was to share "Really Doe," which is probably my favourite, I realized that there's a song on the album that means more to me: "Ghetto Bird." The reason it's so important to me is because it instantly makes me think of one of my favourite movies of all time, Menace II Society. Funny thing is, the song isn't even in the film.
Menace II Society features an aerial shot of Watts, paired with one of producer QD3's iconic pieces of music, "Ghetto Bird" (instrumental). The piece samples Ohio Players' "Funky Worm." This song has been sampled by literally hundreds of rappers, including N.W.A., Kris Kross, De La Soul, Beastie Boys and Kendrick Lamar. Basically, if you've listened to rap music at all, you've heard "Funky Worm." Of all the songs sampling Funky Worm that I've heard, I must say that "Ghetto Bird" is my favourite. Not only does it have the sickest beats, but also some of my favourite rap lyrics of all time. "All that night, I heard the bird circle/while I was eating fish and watching Urkle/She said I could sleep on the couch/by 2A.M. I was digging her out." I mean, come on! The story behind the song seems to be that QD3 was riding around South Central with Ice Cube, playing some of his beats, in hopes of producing a song for Cube's upcoming album. That car ride lead to a collaboration on "You Know How We Do It," "Make It Ruff, Make It Smooth, "Bop Gun (One Nation)" and, of course, "Ghetto Bird." To this day, I consider QD3's beat in that song to be one of the best of all time. It's the first that comes to mind when I think of West Coast rap. It also helps set the tone for Menace II Society.
Menace is an unrelenting tale of racism, poverty, drug addiction and violence that begins and ends with a literal bang. If you haven't seen this movie, you should probably watch it immediately (it's currently on Netflix in Canada). And you should probably stop reading as some spoilers lie ahead. I truly feel that the movie, while critically acclaimed, never really got the accolades it deserved. Funny, I feel the same way about Lethal Injection.
Menace does an incredible job of telling a tragic story with tremendous heart, without shying away from the brutality. It is raw, it is mean and it is heartbreaking as hell. The message that "being a black man in America isn't easy" is evident from the jump. Even though O-Dog kills the couple in the convenience store, you still feel for what he's going through. You're still on his side. At least I am. The first time I watched it on The Showcase Revue (Shout out to my fellow Canadian film geeks out there) I was devastated by the ending. I mean, of course. The character we're all pulling for dies in an all-out bloodbath. But what really took me aback was the fact that you realize the film's narrator is dead. It was a dead guy telling his story. As a young teen, I hadn't even considered the possibility that Caine would die, because, duh, he was telling the story. I was duped. But it was awesome. What a powerful way to get the message across. When he finally realizes he wants to live, it's too late.
On the topic of Caine, good God is Tyrin Turner ever outstanding in that role. A perfectly nuanced performance, from the sensitive emotional side to the tough guy G to the scared child that never got to grow up. Plus, that scene where he rolls up in his car with the freshly stolen rims and macks on that chick while "Computer Love" plays is the best. Interestingly enough, that cute, seemingly innocent scene is what ultimately leads to his demise. Every actor in this film deserves serious cred. Jada Pinkett as Ronnie, Larenz Tate as O-Dog, MC Eiht as A-Wax. The list goes on. All great. That's another thing I love. The film features two of my favourite rappers: MC Eiht and Too $hort. I suppose that this is the perfect segue into another favourite film that also features one of my favourite rappers.
It's near impossible to discuss Menace II Society without bringing up Boyz N The Hood. And I love that. Two outstanding films that deserve more praise than they will ever receive.
I believe that Boyz was made before the Rodney King beating/ L.A. Riots whereas Menace was made after. It makes a lot of sense if you watch these two films with that in mind. While both hit heavy on the same issues, there's something a little more edgy about Menace. I think it had to be. Not to take anything away from Boyz. There are some brutally violent scenes in that one, too, but there's a different vibe about it. I mean, it ends with the message "Increase the Peace" whereas the last line in Menace is "Now it's too late." Both films were directed by young black men in their early twenties. John Singleton was only 24 (and nominated for an Oscar) and the Hughes brothers were only 21. That's crazy when you think about it. To be that talented when you're that young?!
One of my favourite things about Boyz N The Hood is that it's Stand By Me in the hood. If you've ever met me, you're probably aware that Stand By Me is my favourite movie of all time. I have a feeling that John Singleton felt just as strongly about it. There are the obvious ways that Boyz gives a nod to Stand By Me, such as the scene on the railroad tracks followed by the dead body and the way that Doughboy (Ice Cube) fades away at the end, just as Chris Chambers (River Phoenix) does, but it goes beyond that. I would argue that not only is Doughboy the film's Chris Chambers, but also Gordie Lachance. Look at the relationship with his family; his mother puts his brother Ricky (Morris Chestnut) on a pedestal and constantly emphasizes the potential in him while knocking Doughboy down. It's really sad. In both cases, the "good son" dies. Well, in this case, Gordie (Doughboy) dies, too.
Ice Cube's portrayal of Doughboy hits all the notes for me. Truly impressive. But among the incredible actors and performances in this film, the standout has to be Cuba Gooding Jr. This is his best role. I feel like every scene with Tre and Furious Styles (one of the best character names ever) looks like an Oscar clip. I hate using the Academy Awards as an example, because I happen to think they're bullshit, but I think it gets the point across. If you're acting in a scene with Laurence (Larry) Fishburne and you're the standout, you pretty much hit it out of the park.
When it comes to Menace II Society and Boyz N The Hood, I don't necessarily believe that one is better than the other, but I think everyone who loves these films has a favourite. For me, I want to say it's a tie but I think it's Menace. By a nose. Both excellent films with great soundtracks, and both pack a punch in a short amount of time. I'm pretty sure both films are under an hour and a half. Brilliant storytelling. I highly recommend watching them as a double feature: Boyz followed by Menace.
Now I will leave you with what I think is one of the best songs ever written for a film, "Streiht Up Menace" by MC Eiht and Compton's Most Wanted. Yes, that's how it's spelled. I'm not sure why most people spell it wrong. Even in the YouTube video. It's a damn shame.
This Cavebitch is gonna keep listening to Lethal Injection and hope that it motivates me to get through this week with a smile and a booty shake. I hope it does the same for you.
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I'm finally doing it--pulling my insides out and splattering them around for all to see. Here we go!