6 Best Hip-Hop Movies to Watch

Staff & contributors

This cult classic is the first hip-hop movie in cinema’s history — and, aptly, one of the most sampled movies in rap music. With a cast drawn exclusively from the NYC graffiti, breakdancing, and rap subcultures that it spotlights, Wild Style wisely doesn’t try too hard to construct a conventional drama. Instead, there are toe-tapping scenes in neon-lit, smoke-filled clubs that stretch far beyond usual cinematic limits because they’re following the dynamic pace and infectious rhythm of the battling emcees, not film’s rules.

In lieu of a plot, Wild Style captures the singular atmosphere of the period it was filmed in, when hip-hop culture was thriving and art curators had begun to look to graffiti artists to fill their galleries. That uneasy turning point in the culture is chronicled here through the perspective of Zoro (real graffiti “writer” Lee Quiñones), a young artist who looks on with disdain as his peers embrace the commercialization of their medium by NYC’s art world. (As he shrewdly puts it, risk is central to graffiti’s identity — made for subway cars and walls, not framed canvases.) Brilliantly capturing the freewheeling spirit of NYC’s hip-hop scene, this is a time capsule that never feels dusty thanks to the appropriately off-the-cuff filmmaking.

Genre: Drama, Music

Actor: Busy Bee, Daze, Dondi, Fab 5 Freddy, Grandmaster Flash, Lady Pink, Lee Quiñones, Nathan Ingram, Patti Astor, ZEPHYR

Director: Charlie Ahearn

Rating: R

This fun comedy-drama is about a New York playwright called Radha who never hit big. When she turns 40, she decides to reinvent herself as RadhaMUSPrime, a rapper.

And it’s all a personal affair: Radha Blank plays the main character (named after herself) and is also the writer, director, and producer.

The story is about rap and theater, but being so connected to reality, it feels like it’s about Blank making the movie itself. Its very existence feels like a triumph against the pressure of age, the misunderstanding of others, and the weight of unreached goals.

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Music

Actor: Antonio Ortiz, Ashlee Brian, Haskiri Velazquez, Imani Lewis, Jacob Ming-Trent, Oswin Benjamin, Peter Kim, Peter Y. Kim, Radha Blank, Reed Birney, Stacey Sargeant, T.J. Atoms, Welker White

Director: Radha Blank

Rating: R

This fascinating documentary traces the roots of freestyling back to the rhythmic sermons of Baptist preachers, the improvisational energy of jazz music, and the spoken word artistry of the civil rights era’s Last Poets — but, like the form of rap it chronicles, it largely exists in the moment. The ephemeral nature of freestyling makes it a tricky thing to bottle, but The Art of Rhyme does so by mimicking the freewheeling energy of the MCs onscreen. And there are many legends of the medium featured here: from underground titans like Supernatural and Craig G (whose epic battles are shown here) to big names who crossed over into recording success like Talib Kweli, Mos Def, and even precious footage of a 17-year-old Notorious BIG. It’s as enlightening as you’d hope, but what makes this documentary such an impressive portrait of freestyle are all the ways it mirrors the impulsive, quick-thinking philosophy of the form in little over an hour.

Genre: Documentary, Music

Actor: Akim Funk Buddah, Bahamadia, Bobbito Garcia, Boots Riley, Debi Mazar, DJ Kool Herc, Eluard Burt, John Coltrane, Muhammad Ali, Planet Asia, The Notorious B.I.G., Tupac Shakur, Yasiin Bey

Director: Kevin Fitzgerald

, 2019

This drama is about two friends attempting to rave in 1994 Scotland, after a recent Thatcher-era law banned the act and all music “characterized by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats”.

Johnno and Spanner, one living in fear of his older brother and the other of his stepfather, want to turn things around by joining their first and probably last rave. They’re introduced to the world of illegal parties, a movement as influential as punk, that in the 1990s was born in reaction to the U.K.’s oppressive policies.

Genre: Comedy, Crime, Drama, Music

Actor: Amy Manson, Anthony Anderson, Ashley Jackson, Brian Ferguson, Chris Robinson, Christian Ortega, Dave East, Emayatzy Corinealdi, Gemma McElhinney, Kevin Mains, Khalil Everage, Laura Fraser, Lorn Macdonald, Martin Donaghy, Megan Sousa, Neil Leiper, Paul Walter Hauser, Rachel Jackson, Ryan Fletcher, Seandrea Sledge, Stephen McCole, Uzo Aduba

Director: Brian Welsh, Chris Robinson

Rating: N/A

Operating in a similar style and speed as the Safdie Brothers’ Good Time and Uncut Gems, Freestyle gives us a peek into the seedy underbelly of Poland through the eyes of Diego, a smalltime muscian who slides back into his drug dealing ways when he finds himself short on money. On the sensory front, Freestyle is a thrilling experience. Diego charges the film with palpable anxiety, Kraków’s underground community lights it up in dizzying neon, and the local hip-hop scene backs it with exciting new sounds. It’s a technical feat, but stripped of these elements, Freestyle is nothing more than a predictable crime thriller populated with predictable characters, many of whom, by the way, are thrown in at random points in the movie so that it often gets confusing and infuriating to watch. Despite potentially having something to say about the apathy of youth or the glaring discrepancy between social classes, Freestyle seems solely interested in being a slick crime thriller that has its characters run around in circles to save themselves. It looks good and sounds even better, but without anything substantial holding it up, Freestyle fails to relay an authentic sense of relevance and urgency. 

Genre: Action, Adventure, Crime, Drama, Thriller

Actor: Artur Krajewski, Filip Lipiecki, Hana Nobis, Juliusz Chrząstowski, Krzysztof Zarzecki, Maciej Musiałowski, Michał Balicki, Michał Sikorski, Nel Kaczmarek, Olek Krupa, Patrik Vrbovský, Roman Gancarczyk, Zofia Kowalewska

Director: Maciej Bochniak