You can’t see it but DJ Qualls is wearing a Lucero shirt
Here’s something that makes me happy: the first mainstream movie about Southern rap doesn’t take place in Atlanta. If it did, Andre 3000 or Usher would probably play the lead, a good kid with a dream trying to get his demos into shiny glass-wall skyscrapers into the hands of Clive Davis. His childhood best friend (T.I. or maybe Killer Mike) would try to lead him astray, convince him that there wasn’t any money in rap and that he should be a drug dealer himself. Lil Jon would have to appear in at least three scenes, playing himself and acting drunk. There’d be a Freaknik scene, which would involve Bone Crusher with his shirt off, possibly falling through a table and breaking it. This movie is probably being made right now, and I will watch it and enjoy it, but I’m glad it wasn’t the first one.
I’m glad Hustle & Flow takes place in Memphis, a city where hardly anyone has ever made money from rap music, where Lil Jon blaring-siren fight music started out and still exists as a primordial soup of murky horror-movie pianos and gutpunch kick-drums and slurry underwater voices. I’m glad we get pillowy cooed 70s soul on the soundtrack, seeping across blacktops and through musty wood-paneled rooms. I’m glad we get a cameo from DJ Paul, glaring in a doorway looking like Bernie Mac with fifty extra pounds and more lines on his face.
As a movie, Hustle & Flow is pretty contrived and predictable until the ending, which is contrived and surprising—but then I don’t know anything about movies. I know a couple of things about music, and the music in Hustle & Flow is good. Terrence Howard, playing DJay (stupid name), raps in that grainy throaty wounded Southern Pac voice, like Z-Ro or Lil Scrappy. DJay’s first song, “Whoop That Trick”, is a vintage Memphis get-buck banger right down to the ridiculously dumb chorus chant, and the scene where DJ Qualls improvises the swarming snares and ominous, churning synth riff is as charged as it is implausible. DJay’s other two songs are more Dungeon Family than Three 6 Mafia, sparkling acoustic guitars that you never see in the studio over chimes and washed-out drums. It’s not likely that an unsigned Memphis rapper would be throwing R&B hooks on his first couple of demo tracks (Memphis isn’t Philly), but then DJay is supposed to be like 35, so anything’s possible.
There’s an embarrassing scene of DJ Qualls comparing Southern rap to the blues (“From ‘Back Door Man’ to ‘Back That Azz Up’, it’s all about a man’s pain” or some bullshit), and DJay probably should’ve been a drug dealer instead of a pimp, but I can sleep at night knowing that Hustle & Flow got Southern rap sort of right. You don’t need to go see it or anything, but it got Southern rap sort of right.