Sampling Blaxploitation: Hip-Hop, The ‘Browns’, and Tarantino

The blaxploitation films of the 1970s comprise a controversial subgenre of racial stereotypes, uniquely rich and soulful soundtracks, and newfound black power. These films and the music that accompanied them faced the “problems and pleasures of contemporary black life”, often with lead characters that offered “fantasies of individual empowerment through violence, crime, and the performance of individual style”, as put by Amanda Howell.

While blaxploitation filmmakers’ formulaic approach to moviemaking caused the genre to fizzle out after several years, the 1990s saw a rebirth in its popularity. As hip-hop evolved, producers and emcees suddenly found comfort in a strong thematic tie to these 70s films, which they expressed in a number of ways. Interestingly, their approach to referencing blaxploitation history can be compared to director Quentin Tarantino’s own appropriation of blaxploitation themes in his creation of 1997’s Jackie Brown.

Blaxploitation as Hip-Hop

An immediate connection between the growing popularity of hip-hop in the early 1990s and the re-emergence of blaxploitation during the same time can be drawn. This is not coincidence if one considers the intrinsic similarities in these mediums’ cultural significance to much of black America. As Harvard professor and cultural critic Isaac Julien claims, “[Blaxploitation films] were the hip-hop of the era, reflecting what was happening on the streets while exaggerating it for dramatic effect.” As the conventional role of the hip-hop emcee shifted from a feel-good party mover to a gritty street reporter, 90s hip-hop artists began to craft messages that mirrored those found in classic blaxploitation films. And predictably, these same artists—not unlike Tarantino—found deep inspiration in these films, lyrically, instrumentally, and otherwise.

The tradition of hip-hop sampling blaxploitation soundtracks is largely a pragmatic one. Hip-hop culture “prizes and cultivates it memory, such that the lyrics and images” of past black culture are still accessible to modern emcees. Blaxploitation’s “mix of fantasy pragmatism, whereby criminal behavior is at once commended and deplored”, as Joanna Demers puts it, proved a perfect match to the grit of early 90s hip-hop, which was ushered in by politically-charged, streetwise anthems like Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power”and NWA’s “Fuck tha Police” and “Dopeman.” The struggle against “the Man”, the prominence of drug dealers in urban communities, and the artists’ pressing need to report the perspectives of their neighborhoods made a re-appropriation of blaxploitation imagery only natural.

Demers writes that hip-hop artists, “in sampling sounds…from the 1970s, often err in conflating different political schools of thought or glorifying artists that may not have even been committed to revolutionary ideals.” However, it seems that to these artists, more important than historical accuracy was paying homage to those musicians who “were the first to code ‘blackness’ acoustically as a free, resistant identity…”. That is, by sampling blaxploitation music, hip-hop artists put their modern works in what is largely a uniquely black historical context.

Willie Hutch, who composed the soundtracks of the Motown-released Foxy Brown and The Mack, has had his works sampled several times through the years, by different artists often with different intentions. Texas hip-hop duo UGK used Hutch’s “I Choose You”—a song used to complement scenes of pimps courting and securing prostitutes in The Mack—for the instrumental portion of their hit own song about modern “pimping”, “International Player’s Anthem.”  Socially-conscious emcee Lupe Fiasco makes pragmatic use of the angelic “Mother’s Theme” from The Mack OST on his speculative mixtape track “Coulda Been.”

Willie Hutch, “Mother’s Theme”

Cloud-rap duo Main Attrakionz also use “Mother’s Theme” for their song “Perfect Sound.” But rather than stay tied to the original’s literal significance, they are simply concerned with the song’s rich aesthetic, its instrumental lusciousness. There is no chorus; each verse ends with “If I couldn’t speak, this would be the perfect sound like—“ followed by the first few seconds of “Mother’s Theme.” To them, this bit of music comprises the “perfect sound”—forget the Hutch’s lyrics or the cinematic context for which the song was intended.

Main Attrakionz, “Perfect Sound”

Of course, countless examples exist of hip-hop artists who, in 70s blaxploitation music, have made use of the “ghetto” themes, or just made use of a very rich piece of music. (Indeed, as Howell writes, “It is not unusual for critics to observe that the [blaxploitation] soundtracks were better than the films themselves”.) This sampling is sometimes intentionally obvious, as with the sampling of the guitar riff from the Shaft theme on Jay-Z’s 1998 “Reservoir Dogs” (named, of course, after the Tarantino film). Other times, no music is sampled, but the image is invoked. For example, the production on dope-slinging duo The Clipse’s “Cot’ Damn” is original. But the third verse sees Pusha T rattle off “My verses heal like Curt Mayfield’s music” quickly followed by a spot-on, Pharrell-sung imitation of Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly theme: “I’m your pusha!” Appropriately, Pusha T follows with a Shaft-esque “Damn right.” Clearly, these artists inspired by both the tangible content of these classic films and their soundtracks and the feelings (of power as “your pusha!”, for example) they channel.

Tarantino’s Pragmatic Blaxploitation

Tarantino’s inspiration by blaxploitation is similarly balanced between an appreciation of content—music, imagery, etc.—and the unique feelings the genre can channel. With films like Pulp Fiction and, most notably, Jackie Brown, Tarantino was part of a trendy re-emergence of blaxploitation stylings during the 1990s. Curiously though, his motivations for creating Jackie Brown do not appear to be politically charged or intentionally unusual.

Rather, Tarantino’s well-documented fondness for 70s blaxploitation films was developed in his adolescence through sheer, enjoyable exposure. And he has made no mystery of his enamoration with Pam Grier. In one interview, he remarked on her uniqueness as a strong, Bond-esque character without an industry equal:

“…there was no white, or any female, equivalent of her in cinema…She was the only woman starring in a series of action films that required her to be the star…But she didn’t try to be the man or anything. She was all woman in those films.”

While his love for blaxploitation cinema (and Grier) were formidable driving forces for the formulation of Jackie Brown, so was his audiophilic nature. Robert Miklitsch writes that Tarantino is almost possessive of his favorite songs and his vintage taste, and that his “musical sense or taste tends to dictate his cinematic choices rather than vice versa.” He finds particular inspiration in finding the “right” opening or closing credit sequence music early in his writing process. As he has said, “Once I find it, that really triggers me into the personality…of what the piece should be.”

Considering this proclamation of the pragmatic importance of the opening song, Jackie Brown makes for a particularly interesting case study. In a memorably stylized introduction sequence, the Tarantino’s beloved Foxy Brown (directed by Jack Hill) finds Pam Grier’s character maneuvering and dancing about the screen to the Willie Hutch-composed “Theme of Foxy Brown.” The song itself is fast, funky, and begins with a dated, hushed exclamation of “Super bad!” Grooving, bouncy guitars and busy percussion pace luscious orchestral swells, and horn blasts punctuate Hutch’s sung description of “Miss Foxy Brown.” While listening to Hutch outline Foxy’s characteristics—she’s loyal, sexy, and is “the type of woman that won’t let her man down”—the viewer is visually acquainted with Foxy. That is, the viewer assumes the scopophilic gaze, taking in Foxy’s silhouette, her shifiting, fragmented body parts (eyes, legs, chest, etc.), and full-length shots of her in various outfits she later dons at different points in the film. She is at once objectified and glorified as an independent, no-nonsense, goddess-like figure. As Demers notes, her laughs and winks at the camera solidified the introduction’s near revolutionary nature; unlike characters in films past, Foxy is joyously aware of her theme.

Intro, Jackie Brown

On the other hand, the opening sequence of Jackie Brown is relatively tame. The viewer is met with Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street”, originally the theme for the Barry Shear-directed 1972 blaxploitation film of the same name. Aside from an obvious nod to the genre, Tarantino’s selection is highly intentional. Womack’s song is autobiographic in a sense: the lines “I was the third brother of five / Doing whatever I had to do to survive / I’m not saying what I did was right / Trying to break out of the ghetto was a day-to-day fight” begin what is a celebratory song of struggle and bitter triumph.

Despite the selected “theme” song’s appropriation from another film, Tarantino’s use here wholly fulfills the genre tradition of relegating a narrative-relevant track to the opening credits, as they provide “an ideal location to ruminate on the virtues and vices of the main character” because of their relatively static nature.  While the “Theme of Foxy Brown” summarized what the viewer was soon to see, “Across 110th Street” appears to introduce the past troubles of the protagonist, Jackie, a work-battered flight attendant played by an older (but still majestic) Grier. The very first shot of Jackie finds her moving across an airport on a moving sidewalk. Her motionless side profile allows the viewer the opportunity to make note of the aforementioned opening lines of “Across 110th Street.” Even when Jackie begins to hurry to her post by briskly walking (in time with the music, no less), she never loses an ounce of professionalism.

The track is so fitting that one could speculate that the (non-diegetic) music may actually be playing in Jackie’s head, and that the viewer is let in on her personal, by-memory soundtracking of her mundane work life. She could be as aware of her “theme” as Foxy is of hers.

This early assumption that Jackie may be an intense, self-soundtracking audiophile could be confirmed by later events. In fact, Jackie Brown, not unlike many of Tarantino’s films, features several characters that appear quite emotionally invested in their music. In effect, Tarantino has projected his audiophilia onto his characters. This projection, however, necessitates an important divergence in how Tarantino utilizes music from how music is utilized in Foxy Brown.

Tarantino’s Divergent and Aesthetic Blaxploitation

Aside from the profit garnished by any given blaxploitation film itself, an originally composed soundtrack was often a lucrative affair. Berry Gordy’s now legendary Motown label released the soundtrack to Foxy Brown, which enjoyed considerable success on The Billboard 200 in 1974. Hutch’s work on the soundtrack is characteristically solid, and songs like “Out There” remain influential among hip-hop producers, as evidenced by the high frequency at which they are sampled.

Foxy Brown barfight scene

But curiously, in context of Foxy Brown, Hutch’s compositions are insistently used in a diegetic manner. The viewer is regularly permitted only excerpts of what are very developed songs, and these songs are usually played through the low-quality speakers of an on-screen radio or jukebox. And even though their diegetic use is usually easily detectable by the songs’ quality or distance at which they are heard, it is often made unmistakably clear that they have a source, as someone will cut a radio on or off, or, say, someone’s head is used to break a jukebox and cease the music. Aside from the scene-dominating theme music played at the beginning and ending of the film, and aside from the non-diegetic, frenzied, percussive funk that accompanies the chase scenes (appropriately titled “Chase”, and placed at the front of the soundtrack), the music in Foxy Brown is never very loud or prominent. And thus, the music in Foxy Brown rarely does more than delicately complement a scene. If it were not for the intention to successfully sell the soundtrack (an intention that should not be obvious to many viewers), the minimal use of these original, film-specific tracks might be baffling.

In contrast, Tarantino’s score for Jackie Brown is not originally composed. Nor do these tracks settle for a less than critical role. The compilation-style soundtrack for Jackie Brown is obviously not as homogenous as that of Foxy Brown; each song is picked from a virtually boundless universe of pre-existing music, and thus has a very specific functionality within the film. (Though, notably, the soundtrack to Foxy Brown makes for a far more conceptually tight standalone piece than does the more reference-based Jackie Brown soundtrack).

The foremost example within the story of Jackie Brown is the repeated use of The Delfonics’ “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time).” The viewer is first introduced to the track shortly after Jackie explains to Max Cherry that she has not bought CDs because she has too much time and money invested in her albums, thus confirming her love for music. The dialogue drops for a moment as a rich piano, light bells, and spacey guitar usher in the softly crooned lines “I gave my heart and soul to you, girl / Didn’t I do it, baby? / Didn’t I do it, baby?” As strings and other male voices fill the song out, Max comments on how “pretty” it is; when he is later caught on-screen buying a cassette of The Delfonics, it is understood that this first playing was, according to Miklitsch, “the exact moment in Jackie Brown when Max goes from initial attraction to full-blown romantic infatuation.” Late in the film, when Max is listening to “Didn’t I” while driving to the mall to help Jackie carry out her plan to make off with Ordell Robbie’s money and evade the police, it is clear that he is doing so more out of love than for a big monetary payout.

Tarantino’s musical selections in regards to the antagonist, Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson), are also crucial to developing his character. With Roy’s character, music is representative of his yearning for control. Early in the film he allows Louis Gara (Robert DeNiro) to listen to the music in his car as loud as he wants, as long as his “levels” are bothered—he has them how he likes them. He chooses to soundtrack his execution of former employee Beaumont Livingston (Chris Tucker) with the “Strawberry 23”, as performed by the Brothers Johnson, blasting over the Buick’s speakers. “Strawberry 23” is a bass guitar-driven piece that begins darkly enough to be murder-appropriate, but is lyrically packed with scenery too colorful and beautiful to ever be mistaken for an original soundtrack substitute.

The Brothers Johnson, “Strawberry 23”

Likewise, Ordell’s choice to play Johnny Cash’s country affair “Tennessee Stud” before attempting to kill Jackie at first seems musically out of place of the genre. However, if we consider the lyrical content—“The Tennessee stud was long and lean…He had the nerve and he had the blood / There never was a horse like the Tennessee stud”—the song fulfills the traditional blaxploitation theme of the lead male as an unparalleled macho figure.

The final appearance of Max’s beloved “Didn’t I” late in the film is the only moment in which Ordell is not in control of what music is being played. This directly parallels how he, by agreeing to meet Jackie at Max’s office, has lost control of his own fate. That he does not recognize that “Didn’t I” as Jackie’s music also illustrates he has lost his mental edge.

Of course, there are several instances in which Tarantino repurposes a song to explicitly emphasize what is happening on-screen, a more pragmatic approach parallel to the aforementioned hip-hop producers. A very short scene where Jackie goes to jail is accompanied by “Long Time Woman”, originally performed by Pam Grier for the woman-in-jail film The Big Doll House. Max’s first (obscured-by-shadows) sight of Jackie as he his picking her up from jail is backed with Bloodstone’s love-at-first-sight ballad “Natural High.” Tarantino even pays homage to Foxy Brown the female rapper with a brief play of her song “Letter to the Firm.” In all of these cases, Tarantino is doing little more than rounding the proverbial music history bases and filling up what would otherwise be silences with non-diegetic music. The latter is not unlike the blaxploitation tradition of strong, non-diegetic chase songs during action sequences. Though, as Jackie Brown is more concerned with subtle manipulation than pursuits and fisticuffs, this parallel seems appropriate.

Lastly, the ending of Jackie Brown fulfills Tarantino’s desires—and indeed the blaxploitation convention—of the heroine having conquered any number of foes and acquiring some fortune. However, just as Foxy Brown’s being “Super bad!” at the end of her story cannot resurrect her lost lover or brother, Jackie’s full emergence from “the ghetto” (or musically, 110th Street) via securing a half of a million dollars is not all sweet. She leaves behind her love, Max. Our last image of her is driving to the airport, soon to depart for Madrid, and mouthing—with a sluggish, perhaps disillusioned delay—the celebratory lines of “Across 110th Street.” Tarantino manages to rouse the same imbalance of emotion between the character and the (presumably more jubilant and less emotionally invested) viewer as found in Foxy Brown.

That is, through these aforementioned adaptations of blaxploitation ideas on style rather than imitations of the styles themselves, Tarantino manages to create a work that is at once unmistakably modern and undeniably rooted in the blax aesthetic. In discriminating between which influences deserved more exact treatment and which should only be alluded to, Tarantino’s movie is both believable and highly stylized. These methods mirror the same adoption of blaxploitation influences that hip-hop has seen: a blend of necessary, image-developing pragmatic use, and more sound-essential appropriation of rich musicality. Original blaxploitation did not find longevity as an industry. But the legacy of blaxploitation as bearing a narrative until then untold, a host of images that are still referenced as “cool”, and a slew of rich, influential soundtracks continues, as evidenced by modern cinema and especially hip-hop music and culture.


Further Reading / Sources

Demers, Joanna. “Sampling the 1970s in Hip-Hop.” Popular Music, 22/1 (Jan. 2003): 41-56.

Howell, Amanda. “Spectacle, masculinity, and music in blaxploitation cinema.” Screening the past (1 Jan. 2005).

Miklitsch, Robert. “Audiophilia: audiovisual pleasure and narrative cinema in Jackie Brown.” Screen, 45 (2004): 287-304.