The Inside Story Behind the Making of Hip-Hop Film 'Dope'
In Dope, actor Shameik Moore and his nerdy friends adorn themselves in Cross Colours hats and Run-D.M.C. tees, dig through crates for classic rap vinyl and write college admission essays on the importance of Ice Cube's "It Was a Good Day." But while shooting the buzzed-about movie (in theaters June 19), the 20-year-old actor was bedeviled by an archaic piece of audio equipment. Over and over, he struggled to pop a tape into a vintage Sony WM-F10 Walkman. "It made me feel really young because I didn't know how to work a...," says Moore, trailing off. "What do you call it? A tape player?"
Such is the generational schism in a film that is both a contemporary teen comedy and a love paean to '90s hip-hop. Dope tells the story of Malcolm (played by Moore), a retro-rap-obsessed straight-A student/musician from a rough neighborhood in present-day Los Angeles who gets pulled into a criminal life when he's inadvertently saddled with several kilos of a drug dealer's molly. The film was executive-produced by Pharrell Williams and Sean "Diddy" Combs, and music is inescapable in it. Along with Moore, a singer-rapper who put out the mixtape I Am Da Beat in 2012 and danced in several Soulja Boy videos, Dope features starring roles from A$AP Rocky and Zoe Kravitz (of the rock band Lolawolf). A legion of young rappers, including Vince Staples, Tyga, Kap G and Casey Veggies, make cameos. The score and soundtrack, assembled by Williams and available June 16 on Columbia, is heavy on classic records like Nas' 1994 "The World Is Yours" and A Tribe Called Quest's 1991 "Scenario."
For writer-director Rick Famuyiwa, whose previous offerings include The Wood (1999) and Brown Sugar (2002), the film's infatuation with early-'90s rap was personal. "I'm biased in that I think that's when hip-hop was firing on all cylinders, both commercially and artistically," the 41-year-old says, citing the diversity of acts like Geto Boys, Outkast, The Notorious B.I.G. and Hieroglyphics. "A lot of artists were being signed to major labels and creating interesting and cutting-edge art, but it hadn't gotten so successful that people knew what the formula was."
After debuting in January at the Sundance Film Festival to huge acclaim, Dope set off a bidding war between distributors that ended with a guaranteed $7 million deal from Open Road Films and Sony Pictures. In many ways, the charming coming-of-age comedy traffics in tropes found in mainstream films like American Pie and Superbad: a virginal high school outcast looks for love, bullies rumble toward a richly deserved comeuppance, madcap schemes face unforeseen complications. But when filtered through Los Angeles' Inglewood neighborhood, perils go beyond getting "swirlied" in the locker room by meathead jocks -- Bloods are on one corner, dealers lurk on the next, and college is regarded as an uncommon escape route, not an inevitability. Even though those threats are sometimes portrayed cartoonishly, Dope is a comedy with an undercurrent of sociopolitical awareness that rarely exists in popular teen romps.
"The movie gives a different perspective on the black community," says Moore. The Atlanta native is seated at a booth in a Mexican restaurant in the Clinton Hill section of Brooklyn, a neighborhood in which he has lived for just a week (he's currently shooting Baz Luhrmann's forthcoming hip-hop-inspired Netflix series The Get Down in the Bronx). "The characters aren't going out and shooting people and trying to act hard -- they just want to go to school. They're regular kids. Juice kind of makes you like Tupac more as the thug, but I don't want people to leave Dope liking me for pulling a gun."
Rocky -- who landed a supporting role in Dope after helping his then-girlfriend, model Chanel Iman, practice her lines -- does pull guns, however. "It's very cliched: I play a drug dealer, a thug with an elegant, intelligent side," says the rapper, 26. "He's one of those guys that's just a product of his own environment. I can connect to him in so many different ways, being a guy who once had that kind of lifestyle. I gravitated to [Dope] instantly. It's a hood classic -- we haven't had one of those in decades."
Indeed, Dope's recipe of violence, retro music and fashion, and a sun-baked inner-city Los Angeles landscape makes associations with "hood classics" like Boyz N the Hood and Menace II Society inevitable -- and intentional: Famuyiwa explains that he used such cinematic references as points of departure. "I wanted to use the common language and history that we have of those movies, but subvert them," he says. "I wanted to use that to put a mirror to our own expectations."
One way Dope does that is by filtering those old inner-city tropes through an extremely of-the-moment, 2015 lens. Drugs are sold through Snapchat, bitcoins and the "Dark Web"; dealers philosophically discuss the ethics of drone warfare; a macho OG laments his social media accounts. At one point, Justin Bieber is described as a "pretty n--a." Moore and his pals, one of whom is a lesbian tomboy, are undeniably Odd Future-esque: They skateboard, wear skinny jeans and play in a rock band named "Awreeoh" (pronounced "Oreo"; Williams wrote the songs they perform in the film). They may seem like outliers in their troubled neighborhood, but they're far from unrecognizable in a mainstream culture where Kanye West, Tyler, The Creator and Williams are stars -- and that was the whole point. "So many kids that we label as 'thugs' and 'criminals' are often those same kids that end up in circumstances that are out of their own control," says Famuyiwa. "They could be your friends."
Even if Dope's familiar faces and pop-culture references resonate with millennial moviegoers, its classic soundtrack may not necessarily reverberate in their headphones -- or at least, not in the way it used to. Songs that were edgy 20 years ago are now rap's golden oldies, the cherished vestiges of an aging generation's youth. "Honestly, it doesn't hit me like, 'Oh, man, that's the joint,' " says Moore of '90s hip-hop. "It hits me like, 'This is where we came from. I should study this, because there's knowledge in it.' "
This story originally appeared in the June 27 issue of Billboard.