Unpacking the Hip-Hop Heritage of HBO’s ‘The Night Of’


HBO’s miniseries The Night Of concludes Sunday evening after eight episodes. The series begins in Jackson Heights, Queens, when a nice college kid named Nasir Khan borrows his father’s yellow cab and winds up accused of brutally murdering a white girl who lives in an upscale brownstone on the Upper West Side. A spell at Rikers Island ensues, and the protagonist goes through a transformative experience as the show sharpens its focus on the physical and psychological effects of the prison system.

In addition to this somber commentary, The Night Of has also revealed itself as a show stitched together by a roundup of hip-hop artists, songs, and references, many of which are also tied to New York City. Ahead of its finale and new life as a binge-watching experience on HBO Now, here’s a primer on the show’s hip-hop connections. (Standard disclaimer: Mild spoilers ensue.)

First, the Most Obvious: Leading Man Riz Ahmed Is Riz MC

Riz Ahmed plays The Night Of‘s lead character, Nasir “Naz” Khan. His previous film credits include Chris Morris’s suicide bomber comedy (yep) Four Lions and the brooding noir flick Nightcrawler, but he’s also been pursuing a career as a rapper back in his native UK. As Riz MC, his most prominent effort is “Englistan,” a musing on multiculturalism that hits home as his nation lies prone in a post-Brexit limbo. You can also catch Riz MC recording with Queens-raised Heems as the Swet Shop Boys; the primal, punchline-laden “Tiger Hologram” is the duo’s latest outing, ahead of an album slated to drop later this fall.

Sticky Fingaz Plays a Fellow Inmate

Since announcing himself on the hip-hop scene as one-fourth of the hoarse-voiced, Jam Master Jay–mentored group Onyx back in the early Nineties, Brooklyn-born Kirk “Sticky Fingaz” Jones has proceeded to make legit moves into the acting world. He’s racked up a sizable list of film credits, plus roles on TV in The Shield and Blade; here, he plays one of Naz’s fellow inmates. A new (and as-yet-unreleased) song from Sticky, “Listen Up,” soundtracks a key scene in the show — Naz’s transportation to Rikers Island.

Lord Jamar’s Role as a Prison Guard

Another renowned Nineties rapper-turned-actor, Brand Nubian mainstay Lord Jamar, takes on a recurring role as Rikers Island guard Tino. Jamar’s own “Revolution,” featuring guest vocals from Horse and Reality Allah, serves as a taut soundtrack that closes episode six in steely fashion, although you’ll have to watch the show to find out just how apt it is.

Treach’s TV-Room Stare-Down 

Halfway through the show, you might start to think the version of Rikers presented in The Night Of is a messed-up retirement home for Nineties rappers, because Treach from Naughty By Nature also turns up for a cameo. Despite the groups’s renown for anthemic crossover hits like “O.P.P.” and “Hip-Hop Hooray,” Naughty’s back catalog also includes street-wrought moments like “The Chain Remains,” which casts a glance at the prison system. Treach’s appearance in The Night Of is rooted in this side of his oeuvre, as he becomes involved in a tense standoff with Naz over what to watch on the Rikers Island rec room’s TV. Let the record show that only one of them is interested in watching Ellen’s show.

Michael K. Williams’s Early Rap Video Hustle

As Freddy the Rikers Island kingpin, Michael K. Williams adds another sterling role to his clip reel. But by the time he became a darling of the HBO world by playing Omar on The Wire and Chalky White on Boardwalk Empire, he’d already popped up in a slew of hip-hop videos; an early gem includes his appearance in the one for Boot Camp Clik’s 1997 track “Night Riders.” Catch him portraying a bootlegger at the top of the video — a role he may well have lived out, because Williams grew up only a block away from the rap collective’s sadly-departed Sean Price.

Show Writer Richard Price’s Clockers Connection

The Night Of was co-written by Richard Price, an author whose books take grisly glee in exploring the underbelly of New York City’s crime milieu. Tracing lines from the mid-Nineties to the present day, Spike Lee’s film adaptation of Price’s Clockers offered an early acting role to Sticky Fingaz (as drug dealing kid Scientific). Also in the mix is John Turturro, who was cast as a detective in the movie long before he’d play the eczema-afflicted attorney John Stone in The Night Of. (Keep your eyes peeled for his promotional “No fee ’til you’re free” ads around the NYC subway system.)