Soundtrack Studies: ‘Above The Rim’

Tuesday, July 1 by
This brought us "Regulate."  

Finally, we get to a rap soundtrack. On my initial list of three or four soundtracks, I hadn’t included one. Following those, my need and desire to became more pressing, but as the pressure mounted, so did my indecision as to which one to include. Many of my favorite picks from the golden era of rap soundtracks (at least in terms of proliferation) were from just God-awful films like Mo’ Money and Boomerang. I didn’t want to talk about those films, nor did I want people knowing that I liked any aspect of them. Oh well. I think I found one for this effort that seems to endure as a film and an album: Above the Rim

I was torn between Above the Rim and Juice, both because they had phenomenal soundtracks, well-told stories, and killer performances by Tupac Shakur. To say he was a better actor than a rapper is a bit far-fetched, but based on those two films, along with him being the only decent thing about Gridlock’d, it’s not ridiculous to say he was trending towards greatness as an actor.

And Tupac surrounded himself with other good actors. Leon, who played a washed-up ball player-turned-security guard in Above the Rim carried more with his expressions than he did with his words. And Marlon Wayans was a little more erratic, but we would eventually see that there was a mastery and talent underlying that in films like Requiem for a Dream, but probably not in films like Little Man.

For those too young to have seen it or too old to remember, Above the Rim follows a high school hoops phenom hoping to get a full ride to Georgetown who is faced with a tough decision about whose team to play for in a streetball tournament. His coach, or successful local thug Birdie, who’s played by Tupac.

That premise is so simple it’s endearing, like one of those episodes from a 1950’s TV show in which a character agonizes who they’re taking to the sockhop for 24 minutes. But to everyone’s credit, and the character developments, the stakes feel pretty damn high. And the stakes would have remained high if the producers had cobbled together a terrible, thoughtless soundtrack like so many films did in the 1990’s.

But they didn’t. They put together a terrific soundtrack that featured, Tupac, Nate Dogg and Warren G’s “Regulate” (read that last one again), Tha Dogg Pound, Lady of Rage, Snoop Dogg and SWV. While none of those entries but Snoop Dogg remain standing 20 years later, these were good artists and good songs.

Here’s the rundown:

While soundtracks are rarely structured in the vein of studio albums, this one features one conceit of a successful album: a strong opening track with SWV’s “Anything.” Seriously. Listen to it. It’s about as strong a product of early 90’s R&B(ish) as you will find. Marry the sensibility of En Vogue with the attitude of a earlier-era Salt-n-Pepa and you’ll be at SWV.

On a standalone note: Oddly enough, a song on the soundtrack called “Doggie Style” is performed by D. J. Rogers by himself and doesn’t feature Snoop Doggie Dogg, Nate Dogg, or Tha Dogg Pound. In 2014, you would be drug out in the street and shot if you had a song called “Doggie Style” and didn’t have Snoop Dogg on it. No trial. No jail. Just shot.

I don’t know what to say about “Regulate”s inclusion on the album. It’s important. I’m certain (but offer no evidence or substantiation) that it did more to market the film (using clips in its music video) than the movie did to market the song. I still have a vivid image of a basketball player in the film swatting a shot against the backboard in the music video. I also remember Nate Dogg being smooth as hell singing his hook. “Regulate” is one of the better pop songs ever written, and that’s all I’m really going to say about that.

This album, somewhat sadly, served as the death rattle of the union, or even tolerance between east and west coast rap studios. The soundtrack was largely collaborative between Def Jam (east coast from Russell Simmons, Rick Rubin, and Lyor Cohen) and Death Row (west coast from Suge Knight). Wikipedia is claiming that Nate Dogg didn’t appear in the video because the two labels had begun feuding between completion of the song and the video, but I know he was because where else would I have ever seen Nate Dogg? It’s not like he had a parade of hits after this one. Wikipedia is wrong. Or I am. One of us is DEFINITELY wrong.

So, that’s Above the Rim. The film stands on its own not as a great work, but either as a low-stakes drama, or a high-stakes basketball film, and it’s probably better to view it through the lens of the latter, as it’s always nice when a film can exceed expectations, even if that doesn’t make it any better.

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