The first half of the 1990s may be considered by some as being ruled by grunge, but for more enlightened music fans that is simply not the case. Hip-hop and R&B, in particular the New Jack Swing sound of the early ‘90s, has had a profound impact in shaping pop music. Producers like Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis and Teddy Riley modernized the rather quaint sound of R&B with funk rhythms, piano, jazz and break beats, while guys like Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest and The Bomb Squad gave hip-hop a fuller sound – a bass-thumping thickness. Rap and R&B, two genres that had been segregated by class prejudice and musical temperament, were now fused together to create an at once looser and tighter sound. Songs like Johnny Kemp’s "Just Got Paid" or Tony! Toni! Tone!’s "If I Had No Loot" or Michael Jackson’s "Remember the Time" or Schoolly D’s "Am I Black Enough For You?" or Naughty By Nature’s "O.P.P." made you feel as if you were inside the song – as if the greatest block party was boiled down to four minutes of grooves, beats and samples.
At the same time, the New Black Wave in American movies was for the first time giving young black filmmakers the opportunity to tell stories of the contemporary black experience. Naturally, the soundtracks to most of these movies contained some of the most cutting-edge tracks around. Unlike the soundtracks to movies like Breakin’ or Krush Groove, which were dominated by the most adventurous rap acts around, the soundtracks to movies like House Party or New Jack City made room for R&B slow jams and new-funk dance tracks. With songs like Bobby Brown’s "We’re Back" from Ghostbusters II or Public Enemy’s anthemic "Fight the Power" from Do the Right Thing giving their respective soundtracks a jolt of energy, it was inevitable that a full-scale new-jack soundtrack would make its mark. 1990’s House Party was a good start, with Kid 'n Play kicking the party up a notch or two. Then, 1991 saw new jack soundtracks start to come into their own. The soundtrack for Mario Van Peebles' New Jack City featured memorable tracks by Ice-T ("New Jack Hustler"), Christopher Williams ("I’m Dreamin’"), Keith Sweat ("(There You Go) Tellin’ Me No Again") and Troop/LeVert’s interpretation of "For the Love of Money." (The soundtrack also featured the ridiculously sexual #1 hit "I Wanna Sex You Up" by Color Me Badd.) The soundtrack to John Singleton’s landmark directorial debut Boyz N the Hood added a West Coast seasoning with songs like Ice Cube’s "How To Survive In South Central" and Compton’s Most Wanted’s "Grownin’ Up in the Hood." Even Stevie Wonder got into the swing of things with his song score to Spike Lee’s interracial love story Jungle Fever. (If you think about it, albums like Stevie Wonder's Innervisions laid the foundation for the new-jack sound.)
Then, in 1992, a movie and soundtrack announced with authority the arrival of street-level hip-hop. Ernest Dickerson’s excitingly directed Juice was an up-to-the-minute morality play about the intoxicating power of guns. Shot on the street corners of Harlem, where the ritual of hanging on the corner with your friends is charged with the possibility of violence, Juice has an electrifying propulsive energy. So does the soundtrack.
Produced by Hank Shocklee of The Bomb Squad (the production crew behind Public Enemy’s collage of sound), the soundtrack highlights everything from hardcore hop-hop to mid-tempo new-jack grooves to playful girl crew anthems.
The opening track, Naughty By Nature’s "Uptown Anthem," is a piano-driven thumper highlighted by Treach’s scat-fast flow. They’re contrasted by Son of Bazerk’s "What Could Be Better Bitch," a hilarious boast about being the best rapper around.
Too $hort’s "So You Want to Be a Gangster" is a spare and stark warning against getting into "the life," while M.C. Pooh’s "Sex, Money & Murder" is a jaunty strut about not giving a fuck. The one weak track on the soundtrack is EPMD’s "It’s Going Down." Its cluttered soundscape obscures some terrific rhymes. Cypress Hill offers something better with "Shoot 'Em Up," a sinister creep of a song with B-Real’s trademark nasal flow. (Not included on the soundtrack, but featured in the movie, is Cypress Hill’s "How I Could Just Kill a Man," a song that is easily the equal of Johnny Cash’s "Folsom Prison Blues.")
On the R&B tip, Teddy Riley & Tammy Lucas’ "Is It Good to You" is an afternoon delight shoulder-shaker. Aaron Hall’s "Don’t Be Afraid" gets you in the right mood, while Rahiem’s "Does Your Man Know About Me" is a creamy background jam about a male lover’s paranoia over getting caught.
But the two most memorable tracks are Eric B & Rakim’s "Juice (Know the Ledge)" and Big Daddy Kane’s "Nuff Respect." Positioned as the theme song for the lead character Q (Omar Epps), a good kid who dreams of being a mixmaster DJ, "Juice" is a stunning New York anthem about hustling as a way of survival. From its tension-filled bass line to Eric B’s perfectly timed scratching to its multiple samples, "Juice" feels like the big-budget sequel to "Paid in Full." Even better, "Nuff Respect" showcases Big Daddy Kane’s breathtaking rapping as he easily keeps up with Shocklee’s and G-Wiz’s thumping production. The soundtrack to Juice is just about the most perfect sampler of early '90s hip-hop. It’s more than a blast from the past. It’s a look into the future.
San Antonio-based film critic Aaron Aradillas is a contributor to The House Next Door, a contributor to Moving Image Source, and the host of “Back at Midnight,” an Internet radio program about film and television.