Flashback Fridays: Hustle & Flow
At the 2005 Oscars, like a group of urban insurgents, Three 6 Mafia took the stage and performed one of the most out of place, yet perfectly fit for its film songs, "It's Hard Out Here For A Pimp." An intense testament to seeking escape from a despairing lifestyle, it's a brutally honest expression from a brutally honest movie. The urban experience, the grit and raw power of pure lyrical flow and the crushing road to success drive Craig Brewer's 2005 film "Hustle & Flow." It starred Terrence Howard as Djay, a West Memphis pimp who's life essentially consists of making money off the group of women who live in his house. He decides to try hip hop music and discovers a natural passion and talent. Soon he and an old high school friend turn a room in his house into a makeshift recording studio to produce a demo and hopefully get it into the right hands.
Although it plays like a feverish chronicle of street life in the mold of "Boyz In The Hood" and "Menace II Society," it's a film driven just as much by music as it is by strong narrative. At the time the rap biopic was gaining recognition, a trend that began with 2002's "8 Mile," a semi-fictional account of the life of Eminem (starring the artist himself). "Hustle & Flow" bested that film because of its grittier tone and more complex characters. Its soundtrack is also a superior work because it lacks the gloss and sheen of an Eminem production, it plays like a visceral record of life in the gutter, observations from the streets, and the drive to get out. The film itself plays like a neo-musical in the way the songs Djay writes frame his experiences. One song, "Whoop That Trick," is like a scorching howl from an individual wanting to tell his story with violent conviction and brutal honesty when he growls "you're fucking with a street nigga, from the gutter pimp tight slash drug dealer."
But the crowning song of the film is the melancholic yet grooving "It's Hard Out Here For A Pimp." An original by Three 6 Mafia, performed by Howard and the luminous Taraji P. Henson in the film, it embodies the character of the movie itself. The beat is a pounding march while the lyrics are words full of honest reflection and testimony.
The song features commentary like, "in my eyes I've seen some crazy things on the street, got a couple of hoes working on the chain just for me, but I gotta keep my game tight like Kobe on game night, like taking from a hoe that don't know no better I know that ain't right, I've seen people killed, I've seen people deal, I've seen people live in poverty with no meals, it's fucked up where I live, but that's just how it is, it might be new to you but it's been like this for years." In its essence the song does what few mainstream rap tracks do these days, it goes back to the roots of the genre and acts as a reflection of urban reality. What most detractors of rap music do not understand is that the music serves almost as a chronicle of people's lives. If the image isn't pleasant, such is the reality of societies ghettoized by economics, inequality, and racism.
Djay's lines about being a pimp are not the cartoonish, glamorized idea of the action, instead he's raw and upfront about what prostituting a group of women to obtain capital is all about. In the film he composes the song after a particularly unsettling scene where he throws out a rowdy, defiant sex worker from his place with her baby after she mocks his "line of work" and lowers him to the status of her driver.
The Academy Awards also recognized the song's merit and awarded it the Oscar for Best Original Song. It was the second hip hop song to win the honor in Oscar history after Eminem's "8 Mile" track "Lose Yourself." The performance at the awards ceremony was memorable. In a year that was marked by the usual Oscar tunes like "Travelin' Thru" by Dolly Parton, Three 6 Mafia stole the show by performing "It's Hard Out Here For A Pimp" with Henson crooning the notorious chorus. Even with the weird Oscars touch of having dancers in urban wear still trying to do emotive interpretive dancing, the group scorched the stage. Of course there were a few typical network TV touches, such as when the lyric "you got a whole lotta bitches jumpin' ship" had "bitches" changed to "witches." When Queen Latifah stepped out to announce the winners there was total glee in her voice when she announced Three 6 Mafia and the group added a natural, fun vibe to their speech so different from the kind of rehearsed, plastic Hollywood vibe.
A decade later and "It's Hard Out Here For A Pimp" still pulsates with a defiant rhythm and style that shames the mainstream. It pulls no punches and brings an urban reality to life through its attitude and lyrical visuals. It tells a story and brushes on a reality we should consider in these furious days in the wake of Ferguson.