- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 18, 2003

Take a scroll down the fashion Web site HipHopCloset.com and you’ll find a corner devoted to the “Scarface Collection,” a line of pricey T-shirts imprinted with pictures of Al Pacino and his lead-filled “little friend.” They’re fresh off the press, as seen in rapper 50 Cent’s “P.I.M.P.” video. Earlier this year, 50 Cent traded lyrical disses with another rapper who calls himself … Scarface.

Twenty years later, “Scarface” — the movie, which begins an anniversary theatrical run today, not the rapper — is still a touchstone for gangsta subculture, in ways both superficial and substantive.

Mr. Pacino’s memorable cocaine kingpin, Tony Montana, is still a pinup boy for hip-hop couture, with his garish chest medallions and flashy threads.

When MTV’s “Cribs,” a pop update on “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” tours the opulent digs of rap artists, “Scarface” memorabilia is an omnipresent decorative touch.

The influence doesn’t stop at interior design or the drug lord’s fashion sense; to this day Tony Montana is an emblem for a glamorously criminal version of the American dream.

“He’s an underdog figure,” says Charlene Gilbert, a visual media professor at American University and an independent filmmaker.

Freshly arrived ethnic minorities in America have long turned to “quasi-legal” enterprises and outright crime, she says, because that’s often the quickest way to the top.

“This is the only means of access they have to real power or status,” says Ms. Gilbert, and “Scarface” “struck a chord of familiarity with some hip-hop artists.”

“Outside of the drugs, he lived the American dream,” says DeVone Holt, a deacon of St. Stephen Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., and author of “Hip-Hop Slop: The Impact of a Dysfunctional Culture,” due in local bookstores this month.

A Cuban refugee, Montana worked his way to the upper echelons of Miami’s drug underworld. He wasn’t selling widgets, and he had to waste more than a few humans, but Montana had gumption and guts; he lived fast and hard; he made capitalism work for him, on his own terms.

Disenfranchised-feeling blacks were in Montana’s thrall when “Scarface,” the Brian De Palma-directed remake of Howard Hawks’ 1932 classic starring Paul Muni, was released in 1983.

Last year’s “Paid in Full,” a movie directed by Charles Stone III about a rags-to-ill-gotten-riches kingpin in mid-‘80s Harlem, paid tribute to “Scarface’s” enduring influence, showing a packed house of young blacks taking in their favorite gangster flick.

The same holds true today: Mr. Holt, who mentors at-risk youth at his church, says he’s “amazed” at how many children know the movie but who weren’t even born when it first came out.

“Scarface,” too, is a now meme in hip-hop lingo: The proper name has been vulgarized to generally mean “gangster,” or someone who bases his mack machismo on that of Montana.

In the early days of rap, “Scarface’s” one-liners, penned by the director Oliver Stone and mostly unprintable, were sampled by the likes of the Geto Boys and Kool G Rap.

“I knew most of the memorable lines before I even saw the movie,” says Mr. Holt.

This past Tuesday, Def Jam released “Music Inspired By ‘Scarface,’” a CD collection with songs from Grand Master Flash, Jay-Z and the late Christopher Wallace (aka Notorious B.I.G.), a full-circling that covers old-school hip-hop through to today’s most popular rappers.

“Put the drugs on the shelf, nah I couldn’t see it / Scarface, King Of New York, I wanna be it,” rhymed the latter on “Respect,” referring also to Abel Ferrara’s “King of New York,” starring Christopher Walken as drug kingpin Frank White.

To coincide with the theatrical rerelease, a deluxe “Scarface” DVD reissue is due out Sept. 30. It features a bonus documentary, “Def Jam Presents: Origins of a Hip-Hop Classic,” canvassing rappers P. Diddy, Snoop Dog, Eve and Scarface himself to discuss the influence of the 20-year-old movie.

James Miller, an English and American Studies professor at George Washington University, says the influence “Scarface” exerts on black culture is hardly a new thing.

“This isn’t the first time that gangster style has captured the imagination of African-American moviegoers,” he says, pointing out that as far back as Humphrey Bogart, black Americans have been drawn to noir cinema.

“The Godfather,” too, is a favorite for hip-hoppers; and the Corleones’ appeal among gangsta rappers is similar to that of Tony Montana. They were ethnic outsiders who played by their own rules — and got swimmingly rich while they were at it.

Cecil Brown, in his recently published book, “Stagolee Shot Billy,” says the archetype branches back even further, to the century-old myth surrounding Lee Shelton, the St. Louis “mack” (Anglicized idiom for the French term for pimp: maquereau).

Ballads about Shelton, a beloved “slum lord,” traveled under the name “Stagolee,” “Stack Lee” or “Stagger Lee.”

In 1991, the black directors John Singleton and Mario Van Peebles (“Boyz N the Hood” and “New Jack City,” respectively) sought to create more direct and modern portrayals of black urban crime underworlds, providing an alternative to Cuban or Italian surrogates.

But “Scarface” was, and is, the exemplar of its type: the countercultural lord of a vast, cash-rich empire who rises from poverty and goes down in a glorious hail of bullets.

And therein lies the negative rub of “Scarface.”

While he says Mr. Pacino’s performance is one of the best in movie history, Mr. Holt says, “It’s accompanied by one of the most dangerous messages that’s ever been perpetuated in cinema.” By which he means: It glamorizes crime.

“Hip-hop has a tendency to embrace movies that encapsulate thug life, and ‘Scarface’ is the quintessential thug life movie,” he says.

“Part of what that film does is glorify violence,” Ms. Gilbert says. “I think a lot of artists from that time got it and said, ‘Yeah, violence sells.’”

Mr. Holt says, “For this young generation that subscribes to hip-hop culture, the greatest danger to embracing ‘Scarface’ is that they embrace all the sexy and sensational aspects of the movie without paying attention to the ending.

“That’s the biggest danger,” he says.

Just ask the mothers of Tupac Shakur and Christopher Wallace.

Scott Galupo is a Washington Times features writer

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