Directed by Tamra Davis
Written by Nelson George, Robert LoCash and Chris Rock
Back in 1993, two low-budget mockumentary-style comedies based on Gangsta Rap were released. The better of the two is Rusty Cundieff’s Canadian indie gem Fear of a Black Hat, chronicling the rise and fall of NWH, a not particularly talented but always controversial hip-hop group. The second was CB4, about the rise to fame of MC Gusto, Stab Master Arson, and Dead Mike, members of the rap group Cell Block 4. The similarities between the two are uncanny, so much so that one would think someone got their greedy hands on the other script and decided to shamefully steal the idea.
Written by music critic Nelson George and Saturday Night Live’s Chris Rock (who also plays the lead role of Albert, a k a MC Gusto), this spoof on gangsta rap targets controversial rap groups (specifically N.W.A.) and deliberately provocative, racially charged rap lyrics. It’s best described as an inside-baseball rapumentary on hip-hop culture, and even features cameos from the likes of Ice-T, Ice Cube, Shaquille O’Neal, Eazy E, and Flavor Flav. There are plenty of digs at the whole hip-hop nation and almost everyone in the business is made fun of, from MC Hammer to Run-D.M.C. to Heavy D.
If you’re a fan of Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap, you might like CB4. As co-creator Rock has stated, it’s basically the same movie, only about a different genre of music. Unlike Spinal Tap, CB4 is an under-appreciated comedy, and like Spinal Tap, CB4 never lacks for funny gags, even if they sometimes come cheap. It’s sharp and hysterical and it’s made by people who know the biz inside out. And the more you know about hip-hop culture, the more you’ll appreciate CB4.
Struggling for years to try and find a marketable image, young aspiring rappers Albert (Rock), Euripides (Allen Payne), and Otis (Deezer D) get their big break. When a local gangster (Charlie Murphy) is arrested by undercover cops, Albert steals his identity to become “MC Gusto”, and renames his friends Euripides and Otis as “Dead Mike” and “Stab Master Arson”. Together they form the hardcore gangsta rap group CB4 and successfully sign with Trustus Jones, a local music mogul. The lyrics on their No. 1 album, “Straight Out of Locash” (a parody of N.W.A.’s “Straight Outta Compton”) not only claim they’re real gangsters but also straight out of jail. CB4 becomes the hottest band on the charts with controversial and downright filthy hits like “Sweat From My Balls”, and their rise to fame catches the interest of an aspiring documentary filmmaker (Chris Elliott) and an ambitious politician (Phil Hartman) who does everything in his power to shut them down. Tensions arise within the group, and the strain of the phony act takes its toll on everyone involved. To compound this, the real Gusto escapes from prison and sets out to get revenge.
The hook for CB4 isn’t that these artists are mimicking the gangster style, it’s about how, to some extent, the entire business was becoming phony. Otis just wants to play music and meet some girls and will change his image at a drop of a hat if he thinks it will help him get laid. Euripides eventually becomes a convert to radical Africanism, only the more he preaches the more you realize he has nothing monumental to say. And despite fondling themselves onstage, offending women at any opportunity, and glorifying guns and violence, CB4 are really just a bunch of pushovers. And they’re not the only ones putting on a show: Elliott’s funny, nerdy, amateur documentarian is painfully trying to fit in and selling himself like a big-shot Hollywood player. Meanwhile, the record company and sleazy manager Willard E. Pugh has no issue in stabbing people in the back. Everyone, from the white suburban fans who begin to dress and cuss like CB4 to the groupies who hang around and do nothing but create drama, are nothing but fakes. Even Hartman’s character, who throws CB4 in prison after they perform “Sweat of My Balls” at their big show in Sacramento, is only pretending to care in hopes it will help him win an election. The plot isn’t exactly the film’s strongest point, but CB4 still manages to succeed as a good-hearted parody of rap, stringing together enough amusing situations to carry it along. And as far as parodies go, CB4 actually has something to say.
Hip-hop was first and foremost a socio-political movement. It was created at a time when neighborhoods in New York City were engulfed in drugs, poverty, and unemployment. Hip-hop culture provided a form of escapism from that harsh reality. It became a tool for expression and a way to spread messages of hope, anger, and despair. CB4 was released in 1993, just when the golden age of hip-hop was slowly ending, and hip-hop started breaking off into very distinct forms. 1993 is arguably the greatest year for Hip Hop music. Dr. Dre released The Chronic, one of the most popular rap albums of all time, Wu Tang Clan released their game-changing debut 36 chambers, and Tupac Shakur, only 21 years old at the time, was about to drop his second album, which would launch him to superstardom. The list of hip-hop talent emerging was brighter than ever. The hit single “Slam” from Onyx became an unlikely hit on MTV and pop radio, and Cypress Hill’s first album Black Sunday debuted at number one on the Billboard charts. Meanwhile, Outcast, Nas, Snoop Dogg, House of Pain, and Black Sheep (to name but a few), were about to be introduced to the world. Hip-hop was everywhere, and as hip-hop broke into distinct groups, so did the fans. After that, nothing was the same. CB4 somehow tapped into this change, and unwillingly predicted what the future of Hip Hop would eventually become. For a film that came out in 1993, CB4 foreshadowed many real-world rap-related events. It recognized the ongoing reality that some of rap’s biggest purported criminals were nothing but frauds, and that the slow but steady shift to mainstream would change hip-hop forever.
Directed by Tamra Davis (Gun Crazy, Half Baked), the low-budget film doesn’t have much of a visual style, but Davis uses her experience working on music videos to give the movie the appropriate look and feel it needs. Music obviously plays an important role, and the music supervision and its accompanying soundtrack are vital to the entire project’s success. Fortunately, neither disappoint.
The film’s silly sense of humor keeps things light and quick, unspooling gag after gag and joke after joke, and poking fun at everything from rap music to blaxploitation films and other forms of popular culture. It’s a love letter to hip-hop and it perfectly captures the transition that hip-hop made from its early stages to the gangsta rap of the late 1980s and early 90s. CB4 is not in the Spinal Tap league, but it will surely entertain anyone with an interest in hip-hop.
– Ricky D
Fun fact: Tamara Davis went on to marry Mike D of the Beastie Boys. She has directed several music videos for her husband’s band, as well as legendary music videos for NWA.