August 14, 2015 is a day for celebration. Movie and music fans rejoice—because today not only marks the opening of the acclaimed N.W.A biopic Straight Outta Compton, but also the 22 and five-month, two-day anniversary of the 1993 comedy CB4.
Try not to fret if you somehow missed this. Let’s bring you up to speed:
Penned by funnyman Chris Rock and music journalist Nelson George, and directed with sometimes-astounding apathy by Tamra Davis, CB4 was a hip-hop mockumentary that told the tale of Albert aka “MC Gusto.” Hip-hop loving Albert and his two buddies Euripedes and Otis break free of the boredom of suburbia in fictional Locash, California, by reinventing themselves as a trio of foul-mouthed gangsta rappers named Gusto, Dead Mike, and Stab Master Arson, aka Cell Block 4 (CB4.) In an obvious spoof of N.W.A, they become the biggest sensations in rap music on the back of offensive, raunchy lyrics, and gangsta imagery.
The script tries to skewer gangsta-isms while also carrying a subplot involving a violent ex-con—the real “Gusto” from whom Rock’s character “borrows” his rap persona—with the story told as part of an ongoing documentary film being made about the group. Some scenes lose their punch midway through, and the film as a whole loses its satirical bite towards the end as the storyline gets sucked into the Gusto vs. Gusto conflict, but some of the parodies are dead-on—including a cameo from Stoney Jackson (yes, there’s a Stoney Jackson cameo in this) as the MC Hammer-esque Wacky Dee, Allen Payne’s Dead Mike going full-militant (a clever poke at Ice Cube’s 1991 conversion to Islam), and an overeager white documentarian detailing their rise and fall (the reliably odd Chris Elliott, giving one of his most pitch-perfect nervous-awkward performances.)
CB4 is a bit of a cult classic for hip-hop fans—one of the first major motion pictures to go for the jugular in spoofing the genre at a time when it was desperately needed. The comedy aims for This Is Spinal Tap or Hollywood Shuffle–level greatness but falls somewhere closer to Spaceballs or Don’t Be A Menace… territory. Nonetheless, the rawness and supposed “realness” of N.W.A was a perfect target for a young Chris Rock—and the movie served as the first significant thing the SNL alum had done on his own. Up to that point, Rock had primarily been wasting away as a lower-rung cast member on NBC’s long-running sketch series, overshadowed by elder statesmen like Phil Hartman and Dana Carvey and fellow newcomers Adam Sandler and Chris Farley.
The movie had a lot working against it. Hip-hop was only seven years removed from Run-D.M.C.’s mainstream breakthrough, so making a film mocking gangsta rap wasn’t going to have the widest appeal to an audience who may not even know the genre well enough to grasp half of the jokes. And movies like Singles and even …Spinal Tap underwhelmed at the box office because of their niche appeal to a specific musical crowd—namely grunge and hair metal fans, respectively. There’s also an uneasy bit of hip-hop regionalism that doesn’t always get addressed. Rock is a native New Yorker poking fun at rappers coming out of Compton, California. In an era when New York wasn’t exactly respectful of West Coast rap artists, there was plenty that could’ve been lost in translation. But none of that seemed to rub anyone the wrong way; CB4 didn’t make enough mainstream noise to be controversial. The movie opened at No. 2 and grossed a total of $17.9 million back in the spring of ’93. But the spoof managed to strike a chord within the hip-hop community and in hip-hop history.
In a case of life imitating art, Eazy-E and Ice Cube make appearances in the movie, and fellow N.W.A member MC Ren has a song on its soundtrack. The Ruthless Records founder even offered a quick diss to former bandmate Dr. Dre during a promo spot for Yo! MTV Raps. On his way out of a screening of CB4, and claiming that he was going to reform N.W.A with Ren, Ice Cube, and DJ Yella, Eazy announced that he was “staying sucka free in ’93” and that Dr. Dre “gets no love.”
And it’s worth noting that CB4 was the first significant appearance of Charlie Murphy. Eddie’s older brother had appeared in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever and Mo’ Better Blues, as well as alongside his superstar sibling in Harlem Nights, and he would become much more famous in the 2000s via celebrated appearances on Chappelle’s Show, but his first meaty role was as the gun-toting ex-con hell-bent on destroying Rock’s character for stealing his identity and riding it to gangsta rap glory.
Again—the film doesn’t always hit the mark. Despite some memorable moments with Khandi Alexander, CB4 doesn’t really give its female characters much to do. And it’s unfortunate. With talents like Alexander, Theresa Randle, and Rachel True, one would hope that they wouldn’t be stuck with fairly cliché roles. And in 1993, Chris Rock wasn’t entirely convincing as a leading man in a major film—something that would take some time for him to grow into. He’s pulling most of the comedic weight here as lead actor and writer, and the way some scenes fall flat can be attributed to his relative inexperience in both creative roles.
But Rock’s peers like Sandler, Farley, and Spade would all be appearing in their own star vehicles within the next two years, and while comedies like Billy Madison and Tommy Boy aren’t exactly Blazing Saddles or even Wayne’s World, they were hits. Lots of bad comedies make big money—but CB4 wasn’t one of them. So it became more of a late-night hood movie staple than a Top Rental at your local Blockbuster (RIP).
With all of the adulation being heaped upon N.W.A this week, it would behoove us to take a look back at this inspired ‘90s comedy and pointed rap game satire. From its pseudo-moralist, opportunist politicians, to its smarmy, money-grubbing industry pimps, CB4 does a better job of mocking the glamour and the guns than almost anything we’ve had since (save for maybe Rusty Cundieff’s woefully underrated Fear of A Black Hat). And now that it’s 22 years, five months, and two days old—maybe we’re past due for another hip-hop mockumentary.
Where’s Chappelle when ya need him?