Soundtracking is a regular column that appears on Cineplex.com looking at the music featured in the biggest new releases both in theatre and on home video. Shane McNeil looks at Chris Rock’s hip hop history and the music of Top Five.

Originally published on Cineplex.com – December 8, 2014.

Chris Rock’s Top Five hits theatres this Friday and it’s as much a film about the history of hip hop as it is about the nature of comedy.

The film made a huge splash at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival for netting a $12.5-million distribution rights deal with Paramount, a pact that was largely floated by electric audience response. What helped evoke that response was the natural dialogue.

Top Five is very much a movie about people hanging around, talking nonsense. However, in between old stories and filthy jokes, one current – or one question, rather – runs through the entire film and helps give the film its title: Who are your all-time Hip Hop Top Five?

This is not a “top five” in the Nick Hornby sense, as in: “What are your top five hip hop songs about New York?” Instead, it’s a basketball question that asks: “If you could only pick five hip hop artists for your team, who would you take?” Naturally, in true NBA form, everyone is allowed a sixth man to come off the bench.

Rock reveals his Top Five in the trailer itself going with:

  1. Jay-Z
  2. Nas
  3. Scarface
  4. Rakim
  5. “And then I might let Biggie (Notorious B.I.G.) in there. My Sixth man is LL Cool J … before the show (“NCIS: Los Angeles”)!!”

 

The film’s look at hip hop history extends into its soundtrack, of course.

On-screen, Top Five gives a healthy dose of Kanye West and Jay-Z as well as Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg (both NSFW) in addition to soul and jazz references like Freddie Jackson and Art Blakey.

The soundtrack album, however, is a hip hop greatest hits tape put out by pioneering label Def Jam.

It’s almost worth listing the entire tracklist, but for the sake of brevity the disc includes the likes of Kanye West, Jay-Z, DMX, Slick Rick as well as Salt-N-Pepa and The Roots – both of whom appear on the “top five” list of Rosario Dawson’s Chelsea.

As if that weren’t enough, the disc ends with one of the greatest hip hop tracks of all-time:

A list nerd’s approach to hip hop history is not at all surprising considering the sources here. Rock has an extensive history of loving and talking hip hop, but so too does the film’s Executive Music Producer, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, drummer for The Roots. The latter also contributes original score to the film.

Rock has gone on record to count down the twenty-five greatest hip hop albums of all-time: a list that includes his top five in addition to Lauryn Hill, A Tribe Called Quest and an extremely hard-to-find 2Pac album.

Questlove, though, can only be described as “next level.” His outstanding 2013 memoir Mo Meta Blues is a minefield of musical lists. He seemingly uses lists as mechanisms to help himself remember his own history, as well as the history of the music that he has loved for over forty years.

He, too, went on record for an all-time list, curating an all-time top fifty Hip Hop songs list for Rolling Stone Magazine in 2012. Questlove’s top five?

  1. “Rebel Without a Pause” – Public Enemy
  2. “Rapper’s Delight” – Sugarhill Gang
  3. “F*** tha Police” – N.W.A.
  4. “Buddy” – De La Soul
  5. “The Message” – Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five

The pair clearly wanted to re-establish the hip hop soundtrack, and between their two extensive knowledge bases, they came up with something that not only expresses the narrative current that runs through the film, but they take it a step further into an actual musical collection of the names that get thrown around by the likes of Rock, Dawson, Tracy Morgan, Whoopi Goldberg and even Jerry Seinfeld throughout the film.

“I don’t get the sense that white executives worship black music the way they used to,” Rock recently told the New York Times.

And – 50 Cent and Eminem vanity projects notwithstanding – the kind of all-star hip hop soundtrack that Top Five unleashes has become a thing of the past, not seen since the 1990s brought about the likes of Above the Rim, Juice and Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai.

The world finally gets a look at Top Five on Friday. More importantly, however, the soundtrack comes out tomorrow! It includes this classic: