The World is Yours: The Influence of “Scarface” on Hip-Hop Culture, and Def Jam Presents: Origin of a Hip-Hop Classic
By David Liao
Hip-hop, as with any other cultural and mass-media phenomena, exists not as a contained, static entity; rather, it is a fluid and dynamic force that draws its influences from and feeds off of other cultural mediums, while giving back and contributing to those cultural mediums as well. One prominent example of a media outlet that shares a unique, interactive relationship with hip-hop culture is film. Aside from the obvious commercial benefits of joint-promotion, cinema shares with hip-hop many common elements at its core – namely, a mastery of image-production and artistic expression to address and impact a wide audience. Over the years, the influence of hip-hop culture on film production can be seen in such movies as Michael Schultz’s “Krush Groove” (1985), John Singleton’s “Boyz n the Hood” (1991) and Hype Williams’ “Belly” (1998). Conversely, hip-hop culture has taken many cues from the movies, drawing its various credos, fashions and lyrics from the visions of Hollywood producers, directors, actors and characters.
Perhaps no movie has had as conspicuous an impact on hip-hop, and more specifically the genre’s gangsta variation, as “Scarface,” Brian De Palma’s 1983 crime saga about the rise-and-fall of a Cuban refugee who becomes a powerful Miami drug lord. Since its release, “Scarface” has lent its dialogue, music, fashion and imagery to countless rap artists and their songs, such as Notorious B.I.G’s “10 Crack Commandments” and Mobb Deep’s “It’s Mine.” One rapper has even gone so far as to adopt “Scarface” as a stage name, and build an entire career around references to the movie. Indeed, two decades later, it seems as if the very essence of De Palma’s film has been assimilated by the hip-hop community, or at least a highly prolific segment of it. Evidence of this can be seen in the 2003 album “Def Jam Recordings Present Music Inspired by Scarface,” a compilation of songs by artists including Jay-Z, N.W.A, Ice Cube and even Grandmaster Flash. The 20th Anniversary Special Edition DVD of “Scarface,” released in 2003, also includes a short documentary on how the film has influenced hip-hop culture and music, consisting mainly of interviews with many prominent hip-hop personalities and delving into the impact “Scarface” has had on their lives and careers. This twenty-minute feature, “Def Jam Presents:Origins of a Hip-Hop Classic ,” stands as a unique testament to the cultural interaction between hip-hop and cinema in it’s exploration of the “Scarface”/gangsta-rap relationship; however, the document is not without its limitations, as its short length and limited scope ultimately reveals the superficial and morally ambiguous sides of this relationship as well.
The plot of “Scarface” revolves around the young Cuban criminal Tony Montana (played by Al Pacino) who arrives in the United States via the 1980 Mariel Boatlift, in which Fidel Castro allowed some 125,000 refugees – including many violent prisoners – to leave from Cuba’s Mariel Harbor. Detained at first at a government refugee camp, Tony obtains his freedom when he is hired by Frank Lopez, a Miami drug dealer, to murder a fellow detainee in exchange for a green card. On the streets, Tony and his best friend Manolo at first find work at a Cuban food stand, only to be disenchanted with the life of a dead-end, low-income wage worker. Soon, Tony and Manolo find themselves in the employ of Frank Lopez’s drug operation, with Tony under Frank’s direct mentorship. Discovering a knack for the drug trade, and harboring grand ambitions for himself, Tony sets about climbing his way up through the ranks of the Miami underworld in ruthless and cunning fashion. He eventually aligns himself with a Bolivian cocaine baron and murders Frank, usurping his boss’ business as well as his mistress. Tony’s stay at the top – complete with lavish mansion, gaudy suits, sports car and trophy wife – are short lived, however, as he rapidly finds himself undone by delusions of omnipotence, a destructive, incestuous obsession with his sister Gina, and an addiction to his own product. The last act of the movie brings Tony’s violent and excessive lifestyle to its logical conclusion, with Tony betraying and making an enemy of his Bolivian partner, as well as killing best friend Manolo in a jealous, drug-induced rage. Alone and friendless, Tony Montana wallows in a cocaine-fueled delirium before savagely confronting a hit-squad sent to kill him, and dying in a hail of enemy gunfire.
Even from the most basic observations, one can easily see why a film like “Scarface” has seized the imagination of pop-culture in general and hip-hop culture in particular. On the surface, there is the celebration of indulgent wealth and conspicuous consumption that characterizes much of gangsta rap, as exemplified by Tony Montana’s garish chest medallions, designer outfits and Porsche coupe. In fact, Tony’s high-rolling lifestyle, an embodiment of the high-glamour and decadent materialism of the nineteen-eighties, seems to speak directly to the modern gangsta rap mentality, with rappers often flashing gold chains, brand-name suits and Porsche coupes in their music videos. However, just as important as its displays of consumerism, the characterization in “Scarface” also plays an important role in the film’s appeal to hip-hop audiences. Al Pacino’s portrayal of Tony Montana, infused with brazen and exaggerated machismo, is regarded as one of the more memorable performances in film history, and one of the most impersonated (“Say hello to my little friend!”). In his essay on the cinematic merits of the movie, film critic Roger Ebert notes that “Brian De Palma’s ‘Scarface’ rises and falls with Al Pacino’s performance, which is aggressive, over the top, teeth-gnashing, arm-waving, cocaine-snorting, scenery-chewing – and brilliant, some say, while others find it unforgivably flamboyant.” In some ways, this description can also be applied to gangsta rappers, who, as part of their craft, create public personas that can also range from “brilliant” to “unforgivably flamboyant” (artists such as Tupac Shakur and 50 Cent come to mind). Roger Ebert goes on to observe that “the Tony Montana character is above all a performance artist, a man who exists in order to gloriously be himself…his whole drive is to impress his personality and will on others…He begins with no resources or weapons, except for his bravado, and fakes out more powerful men simply byseeming dangerously resourceful. His act is a bluff, so there is no sense in underplaying it.” In underlining this notion of Tony-Montana-as-performer, Ebert makes a vital connection between the essence of the character and the essence of hip-hop in general. Namely, it addresses the notion of hip-hop as aperformance art, in which artists must utilize a similar sense of aplomb and bravado to create larger-than-life personalities, to get on stage and beextraordinary – and to bluff, to posture, to be aggressive, and to “impress their personality and will on others” in the name of artistic and personal expression.
In framing Tony Montana’s origins around the 1980 Mariel Boatlift, the film also manages to slip in a political dimension to the issue of violent crime, by thematizing Tony’s status as an impoverished refugee. This shares with hip-hop the desire to address disfranchisement and disempowerment as a social problem, as many rappers with origins in ghettos can relate to Tony’s status as a social and economic outsider. But most importantly, however, beneath the sheen of violence, glamour, performance and politics of “Scarface” is a standard rags-to- riches narrative that speaks not only rappers, but to desolate, poor urban minorities in general. This is a point that even the film’s producer, Martin Bregman, has stressed. Disappointed by the response of the early- eighties critics who couldn’t see past the graphic violence, foul language and abundance of drugs, Bregman had been a strong proponent of the film’s re-release for years. According to a Detroit Free Press article covering the Anniversary Edition DVD, “Bregman wanted people to see the film as he did – a story about a man chasing the dream.” There is a sense of hope in Tony Montana’s rise from a penniless refugee to an outrageously wealthy kingpin that resonates with the hip-hop culture’s struggles to break out of the despairing ghetto-life and pursue the American Dream; indeed, as the Def Jam documentary reveals, many hip-hop artists, such as Scarface and Trick Daddy single out Tony Montana as a role model for his transition from poverty to wealth. This connection can be seen in the popularity of one of the film’s adages, “The World Is Yours” (words that Tony sees scrolling across a blimp), a phrase which has become one of the most widely-quoted lines in gangsta rap, appearing in songs such as Nas’ “The World is Yours” and Mobb Deep’s “It’s Mine,” the latter of which even samples Giorgio Moroder’s original title theme from the movie’s opening credits.
Further evidence of Brian De Palma’s “Scarface” being internalized by hip-hop culture can be seen in the frequent references to the film made in music videos. One prominent example is the video for Mariah Carey’s song “Heartbreaker,” which features a rap interlude by Jay-Z. In one version of the video, Jay-Z raps his verse while seated in a circular bathtub in the middle of a lavish bedroom, cigar in hand, as a blonde-wigged Mariah Carey lingers irritably at a mirror in the background. This is clearly a tribute to the infamous bathtub sequence in “Scarface,” where Tony Montana sits in a bubble bath in a near-identical bedroom, puffing on a cigar, wallowing in his self-satisfaction while talking down to his irritated wife, played by Michelle Pfeiffer. In reproducing this scene with Jay-Z as the Al Pacino figure and Mariah Carey in the Michelle Pfeiffer role, the “Heartbreaker” video demonstrates the pervasiveness of “Scarface’s” images in hip-hop, moving even beyond the realm of gangsta rap and into the rap-pop frontier. The song itself describes an emotionally uneven relationship, in which a woman laments a man who has broken her heart but admits she is still unable to resist his charm, and the man being fully aware of his hold over her. The evocation of the bathtub scene in “Scarface” can be seen as a fitting image for this theme, for it mirrors the emotional struggle between Tony Montana and his wife Elvira as depicted in that scene in the movie; even as Tony berates and degrades her, Elvira’s own drug-addiction and weakness prevent her from being able to leave him, just as Mariah is unable to break away from her “Heartbreaker.”
The most notable aspect of the DVD featurette “Def Jam Presents: Origins of a Hip-Hop Classic” is that it addresses hip-hop’s fascination with the “Scarface” mythos by talking directly to the very rappers and industry figures who have helped make the film such a cultural phenomenon within the hip-hop community, and have embraced the film as a “ghetto classic.” Sean Combs, also known as Puff Daddy and P. Diddy (and most recently as simply “Diddy”), attests to having seen the film no less than sixty-three times, and claims that it “scared him straight.” Fat Joe goes on to describe Tony Montana as the “ultimate ghetto superhero,” while other hip- hop artists from Snoop Dogg to Eve to Sean Paul and even the rapper Scarface himself contribute their various reflections and insights on the popularity of the film and its title character. The commentary on various aspects of “Scarface” and the Tony Montana character are not limited to only rappers, however; hip-hop executives such as Russell Simmons, Raymond Benzino and Damon Dash, as well as a handful of actors including Mekhi Phifer and Hassan Jordan, also share their views on the resonance of the “Scarface” character and story in relation to larger issues of capitalism, empowerment and the American Dream. Also significant is the inclusion of Latino commentators such as the Los-Angeles-based tattoo artist Mister Cartoon and rapper Pain in da Ass, who offer insights on the importance of Tony Montana’s Latino roots and the film’s subsequent impact on the Latino community. The documentary is divided into nine segments, each named after a different aspect of the film – “Ghetto Classic,” “The Come Up,” “Gangsta,” “Loyalty,” “The Rules,” “Greed,” “Manolo,” “Downfall” and “The Lesson” – with each segment having the commentators focus on that particular aspect in their discussions. For example, in the segment titled “The Come Up,” which centers on Tony Montana’s rise from underling to boss, poverty to wealth, Nas remarks that “we all are savages in pursuit of the American dream, rappers relate to that because that’s how we come up.” Russell Simmons also adds that “hip-hop is about empowerment at all costs, and ‘Scarface’ was about empowerment at all costs, and when you see that, it kind of inspires you not to take no for an answer.” In the segment titled “Loyalty,” which explores Tony Montana’s allegiance toward his associates, Mister Cartoon reveals how “the machismo of Latinos is to be a man’s man…and to stay to your word,” and P. Diddy describes Tony as an “upstanding gangster” who “played by rules and morals.”
Even upon an initial viewing, the rhetorical shortcomings of “Def Jam Presents: Origins of Hip-Hop Classic” are already apparent. With a runtime of only twenty minutes, the documentary is unable to regard the significance of “Scarface” to hip-hop culture in anything more than the most superficial terms. Far from presenting a thorough cross-section of voices and opinions from the entirety of the hip-hop spectrum, the panel of commentators featured in the documentary represent, more or less, only the most mainstream and recognizable figures of hip-hop (circa mid-2003, when the documentary was produced) – P. Diddy, Eve, Outkast, Snoop Dogg, Sean Paul, Memphis Bleek, and the like. In fact, in cataloguing the list of faces that make appearances throughout the documentary, it is highly questionable whether the panelists were picked for the validity and relevance of their insights regarding the topic, or if they were merely selected for their high public appeal and record sales at the time. There are no insights from alternative, socially-conscious, or non-gangster oriented hip-hop artists such as the Roots, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, or even Will Smith. It is also interesting to note that aside from the rapper Eve, there is not a single female voice among the commentators; and indeed, the world depicted in “Scarface” is a world with little room for females, and the film often basks shamelessly in its misogyny and commodification of women. Furthermore, some of the hip-hop artists who are featured are presented in less-than-flattering lights; the most notorious example is the Wu-Tang Clan’s Method Man, who addresses the camera in close-ups for all of his segments, and speaks with a dazed, stoned look amidst a cloud of billowing smoke. This setup, whether genuine or staged, forces the viewer to call into question the relevance of what the commentator is saying, or even the lucidity of his mental processes at the given moment. Thus, upon closer analysis, the representation of the “hip-hop” side of the hip-hop/”Scarface” relationship is actually quite limited, in light of the vast sections of the hip-hop community that do not speak up for the influence of De Palma’s movie.
Another problematic issue of representation in the documentary “Def Jam Presents: Origins of a Hip-Hop Classic” arises when one considers the moral grey-area that the film “Scarface” occupies, and the moral ambiguity of deifying a figure like Tony Montana. In examining the character and exploits of Tony Montana, it is an undeniable fact that despite his charisma and bravado and occasionally honorable intentions, he is at the core a drug dealer, violent criminal, misogynist and murderous sociopath, among other things. In the documentary, Outkast’s Andre 3000 touches upon this point in passing when he acknowledges that Tony Montana is more of an anti-hero, one who indeed does violent and morally questionable things, but whom the audience will still root for because of his perseverance and underdog status. The majority of the hip-hop commentators represented, however, still romanticize Tony’s actions in his rise from having nothing to becoming successful and wealthy; all the while conveniently disregarding the fact that Tony Montana’s business and means of living was very much tied to death, violence and urban desolation. The flimsiness of this viewpoint can be seen in the segment titled “The Come Up,” in which the commentators praise Tony Montana for his drive and determination, and for being a resilient, self-made man in the face of adversity. In one part, P. Diddy states “Tony, he was like a lot of us who were backed up against the wall, he had to fight to try to make it in this world…and that’s the only reason why minorities relate to it so much.” In this sequence, as P. Diddy characterizes Tony Montana as a man “backed up against the wall” who had to “fight to try to make it in this world,” clips from the film are shown in which Tony Montana participates in destructive riots at the refugee detention center and seizes his first opportunity to better his conditions – by gutting another human being. Far from being “backed up against the wall” and driven to action in desperation, Tony flagrantly lashes out at others in his quest for personal gain. The juxtaposition of P. Diddy’s sympathetic words with images of Tony Montana’s unsympathetic actions serves to deconstruct the documentaries’ idealistic view of its subject. In the segment titled “Loyalty,” Tony is lauded by the hip-hop artists for his fidelity to his boss Frank, to whom Tony dutifully returns a cache of money and cocaine when he had a chance to run away with both. Kevin Liles, President of the Def Jam Music Group, describes Tony’s actions as “loyal” and “honorable” while the rapper Malice adds that Tony was a man of “principles and morals…you can trust him.” What seems to be overlooked, however, is the fact that Tony’s loyalty to his boss is rather short lived, for soon Tony is coldly disposing of Frank, even as the older man begs on his knees for mercy. This cold-hearted brutality seems to refute the notions of “honor” and “morals” when describing Tony Montana, and negates P. Diddy’s characterization of him as an “upstanding gangsta.” And yet it is this very comeuppance over his boss and seizure of his profitable business that has many of the same hip-hop stars praising Tony for being “an opportunist,” and admiring his drive and determination to improve his situation (as explored in the earlier segment “The Come Up.”) The contradiction in these viewpoints is quite clear: Tony is extolled for his loyalty to his boss when it is convenient to him, yet when he betrays and kills that same boss, he is not seen as disloyal, but rather further extolled for being ambitious, and a go-getter. Perhaps most alarming of all are the sentiments of rapper Trick Daddy toward the end of the documentary, which alleges that Tony Montana never hurt any innocent people, but “only other drug dealers, or people crossing drug dealers,” concluding that “he my idol forever.” What such statements often disregard are the thousands of innocent lives that are brought to ruin by Tony’s product, or lost in the cycle of violence that his trade continually perpetuates.
One possible explanation for the limited, superficial and often morally questionable representation hip-hop receives in “Def Jam Presents: Origins of a Hip-Hop Classic” is due to the prominence of the “Scarface” aspect of the documentary over the “hip-hop” aspect. This is exemplified by the structure of the documentary itself, with segments divided to reflect different facets of the film - “The Come Up,” “Gangsta,” “Loyalty,” “The Rules,” “Greed,” “Manolo,” “Downfall” (as opposed to, say, segments that reflect different facets of hip-hop). This structure demonstrates how the documentary is dominated by the narrative and rhetorical framework of “Scarface,” with the hip-hop elements edited and molded to fit this framework. It is interesting to consider the possibilities of a reverse approach, with the narrative of the film being molded to fit the framework of the hip-hop culture at large, which would have certainly provided a more wide-sweeping and well-rounded view of hip-hop in its relationship to “Scarface.” However, the reason behind this one-sided structure is quite clear and understandable when one considers the purpose of the documentary in regards to its packaging, marketing and presentation. For all intents and purposes, the document serves as mere promotional material, one of many quickly-produced and heavily-edited extras to augment the DVD re-release of De Palma’s film, with the restored film itself being the main attraction. In “Def Jam Presents: Origins of a Hip-Hop Classic,” hip-hop is in the service of “Scarface,” and not the other way around (for instance, a documentary feature on the movie “Scarface” and how it fits into the greater canvas of hip-hop culture might have been interesting). The result of this arrangement on those being represented in the documentary is that of a very limited and narrow representation; because the hip-hop artists such as Snoop Dogg and P. Diddy are positioned in such a way as to praise and help promote the film, what is emphasized are their laudatory remarks that appreciate the film’s surface (though it is indeed an impressive surface), while the film’s moral ambiguities and a deeper social questions are downplayed. The effect of this on those viewing the documentary is a similar one; in hearing such views from the hip-hop figures, the audience is presented with very little in terms of deeper social messages and concerns, and is instead encouraged to regard “Scarface” in the same way as the rappers – from a superficial perspective that glorifies violence, chaos, and bloody death in a hail of gunfire.
Carter, Kelly L. “Tony Montana, role model: On its 20th anniversary rerelease, ‘Scarface’ and hip-hop tighter than ever.” The Detriot Free Press. 18 September 2003
Galupo, Scott. “Pacino’s flashy thug amasses money, power, legions of rap imitators.” The Washington Times. 19 September 2003.
Ebert, Roger. The Great Movies II. New York, Broadway Books 2005.
Boom, Benny and others. Def Jam Presents: Origins of a Hip-Hop Classic. DVD (20 min.) Universal Studios Home Video, 2003.