Follow N.W.H. as they prepare to release their Fear of a Black Hat album but not without tripping on some of the usual pitfalls in the music industry – girls, guns and going solo…
For her doctorate in sociology, postgraduate student Nina Blackburn (Kasi Lemmons) has persuaded up-and-coming hip-hop group N.W.H. (Niggaz Wit Hats) to let her follow them through a year on the road, in the studio and at home as they produce, release and tour their brand new album, Fear Of A Black Hat. Beginning with a hometown show – where hometown is exactly isn’t forthcoming with Tone Def saying that rappers who tell their audience where they’re from is, “like a motherfucker saying he got a big dick and can fuck for hours!” – Tasty Taste (Larry B. Scott), Tone Def (Mark Christopher Lawrence) and Ice Cold (Rusty Cundieff) enjoy a brief moment in the spotlight before the familiar trappings of success come their way. Movie deals, solo albums, gold digging ladies on the tour bus and a shitload of weaponry come between old friends as they lose managers, their hats and even each other on their way to the top. And still they ain’t too tired to bust a cap in yo ass!
Fear Of A Black Hat owes much to This Is Spinal Tap. In fact, were it in the business of demonstrating just how much it owes Rob Reiner’s documentary – or, if you will, rockumentary – Fear Of A Black Hat would move out of house, home and marriage, signing over everything but the underpants it was wearing at the time to This Is Spinal Tap. N.W.H. lose managers like Spinal Tap mislaid drummers, seeing two shot and killed during the making of Fear Of A Black Hat with their Stumpy Pepys being Whitey de Luca, who, they admit, was the inspiration behind their controversial Kill Whitey album. Like Spinal Tap, Fear Of A Black Hat is interrupted for a rundown of past album and song titles – highlights are Booty Juice, Back in the Ho Life Again, Ho Down, P.U.S.S.Why?, Straight Outta The Butt as well as their Christmas album Ho Ho Ho’s, which contained the seasonal classic Santa Claus Is Cumming – and like Jeanine, there’s the meddling of Cheryl, Tasty Taste’s girlfriend who takes umbrage at Ice Cold’s starring role in black auteur Jike Spingleton’s New Mack Village.
But if all this leaves you with the impression that Fear Of A Black Hat is nothing but a poor ripoff of Spinal Tap, that’s probably a wrong one. Like the very similar CB4, Fear Of A Black Hat pays homage to the world of hip-hop and is often very funny, with writer/director Rusty Cundieff nailing the imagery, sound and language of rap culture as did Rob Reiner, Michael McKean, Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer with heavy metal. Where Spinal Tap gave us, “Hello Cleveland…Rock and Roll!” Fear Of A Black Hat has, “Motherfucker…somebody need to tell you something, man ‘cos she’s came to you! She’s lickin’ your ass like a fuckin’ lollipop in this motherfucker! What I’m saying…motherfucker! What the fuck am I saying? Motherfucker…” There’s almost a kind of poetry in its use of motherfucker and if anyone ever tells you that swearing isn’t funny, you really ought to direct them towards Fear Of A Black Hat – that particular speech by Ice Cold is one of the finest moments in the film. Although, you may, if you have one nearby, want to move your delicately-tempered aunt out of the room before Fear Of A Black Hat plays.
Yet, as positive as all this is – and how can you fail to be positive about a film that contains that much swearing – Fear Of A Black Hat is not as open a film as This Is Spinal Tap. Reiner’s film was much better at producing moments of straight comedy and of revealing a world that few of its audience had any particular knowledge of. You didn’t, for example, need to know very much about The Scorpions, Saxon or Judas Priest to appreciate Spinal Tap getting lost backstage, Lick My Love Pump being recorded in D-minor – the saddest of all the keys – and the sight of two dwarves dancing about an 18″ model of Stonehenge. Fear Of A Black Hat, on the other hand, makes much reference to the world of hip-hop in the mid-to-late-eighties with Guerrillas In The Midst sounding not unlike Fear Of A Black Planet-era Public Enemy, Fuck Tha Security Guards is a clear nod to N.W.A.’s Fuck Tha Police while it’s a wonder that Booty Juice wasn’t an existing Sir Mixalot track. There’s even time for a homage to the short-lived Daisy Age sound of PM Dawn with Tone Def’s solo success with the scatological I’m Just A Human Being.
Too early for The Wu-Tang Clan, Cypress Hill and Death Row Records, the sound of Fear Of A Black Hat begins with the early beatbox rap of My Peanuts and ends with the dense hip-hop of Guerillas In The Midst but everything sounds real enough to work in the film. There may be no one song as good as CB4’s Sweat Of My Balls but the title of If Yo Mamma Don’t Shut The Fuck Up, I’m Gonna Shoot The Bitch more than makes up for it. Even the names reference the real world of hip-hop – Tasty Taste (Public Enemy’s Flavor Flav), Ice Cold (Ice-T and N.W.A.’s Ice Cube) and Tone Def (Tone Loc) – adding up to something that sounds convincing, with there even being space for white rapper Vanilla Sherbert (Devin Kamin) who joins N.W.H. backstage to bond with, “my niggaz!” Without any of the knowledge of that time, you would be reduced to laughing at the – admittedly very funny – fumblings of their latest manager trying to load a snub-nosed revolver as yet another business meeting ends in a Mexican standoff or watching Tasty Taste on his own shooting range, complete with pop-up figures of the KKK to fire at.
As inspired as moments like this are, they’re often lost in comedy that drags the film to a halt. Ice Cold’s being pulled over by a security guard opens with some great dialogue, particularly Ice Cold complaining that it’s not even a real cop that’s got him pinned to the ground, only a donut-eating security guard, but when it ends with a riff on Rodney King, it falls flat. Similarly, the New Mack Village scene is, after we’re introduced to Jike Spingleton, absolutely not what this film needs and feels like too much of a diversion away from the girlfriend-tension that had been building up nicely. But accept those moments as ones that come with every comedy – even one as great as Airplane! has gags that don’t work – and Fear Of A Black Hat has much to enjoy. Granted, you ought to own copies of Straight Outta Compton, It Takes A Nation of Millions and Run DMC’s Raising Hell to get the most out of the film but, given that they’re fairly essential albums anyway, that should be a given. Not quite as memorable a film as they are albums and maybe not the definitive comedy from within the music business, at least not since the making of This Is Spinal Tap, Fear Of A Black Hat is a sometimes wickedly funny satire on a wave of rap artists who made such an impression that so many years on, the jokes still carry.
Reviews of the Region 1 release of Fear of a Black Hat are complaining that the version released by Columbia Tristar was non-anamorphic. Well, they ought to spare a thought for us in Region 2 who don’t even get that, with Network only finding a pan-and-scanned print of the film for their release. As with such fullscreen releases, the end credits add insult to injury by being shown in 1.85:1 but the rest of the print is in a shocking state, looking fuzzy, washed out and with a lot of print damage. Indeed, until some of the clarity of DVD appears a few minutes in, you may well be wondering in Fear of a Black Hat wasn’t mastered off a VHS cassette.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack isn’t bad, though, with the music tracks being an obvious highlight, particularly Fuck Tha Security Guards and Guerillas In The Midst. There’s not much use of the rear channels when run through a Pro Logic decoder but there are some ambient effects and everything is clean throughout with some, though not much, background hiss. There are, however, no subtitles.
Network have only included two Trailers (both 3m28s) on this release, which falls some way short of the Region 1’s Commentary, Deleted Scenes, Cast Interviews and Music Videos. To almost quote Fear of a Black Hat itself, Network are lickin’ our asses like a fuckin’ lollipop with this motherfucker!
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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