By A.D. Carson
I remember, now, waking up the night my aunt came to tell our mother about Tony. My brother and I were asleep in the bedroom of our small apartment. I thought it was a dream, a subconscious thought making its way to the fore, as these things do, taking away our heroes, our security, and exploiting what our minds know to be a better truth about us all: that we’re scared. And not just of death, but, in a certain way, of life as we know it.
Whatever happened to him on that night, for whatever reason, no movie would ever portray Tony as heroic as he was to us. He was an artist; he wrote beautiful poetry; he drew sketches for our grandmother that made her beam with pride. He played sports and made fun of us. He sometimes tickled us too hard. He wrote rhymes and rapped, too. He was 23 years old. I wanted to be just like him.
Menace II Society was released the year our cousin was murdered: ’93. Reports said at around 11pm he was with a group of friends playing cards that September evening when gunmen walked up and fired into the living room. We never needed a movie to tell us what our life was like, but Menace, and similar films, gave us a way to see us and, to an extent, be seen. The Hughes brothers were two years and six days younger than Tony when their film was released.
I call my brother between my two conversations with the film’s co-writer and co-director, Allen Hughes. My brother probably still knows all the words to the movie. I imagine it might have been a much scarier prospect years ago, but he is as good at being O-Dog as Larenz Tate. Presently, he is at our mother’s house waiting to pick up my nephew from basketball practice. I tell him about the conversation and this piece I’m working on, and that Hughes says he sees the film as “pseudo-documentary.” A product of “reporting” a reality that contained excessive violence and “a lot of toxic masculinity, in and out,” Hughes says. “The magic of Menace was…it had the immediacy of a documentary because 50 percent of it was improv and 50 percent of the actors never acted before.”
My brother and I talk about our memories of Menace and the time after it was released. (We never saw it in a theater.) I tell him that I plan to write something about the influence of the film on hip-hop. From there we go on an oft-traveled tangent about growing up in central and southern Illinois, and the under-appreciation of the artists of that moment—acts like MC Breed and Top Authority from Flint, Michigan, 8ball & MJG from Memphis, and 2Pac, Spice 1, DJ Quik, and MC Eiht from California. They are the people who seemed more representative of what we thought we knew to be home. It’s far more likely they are the artists the people we looked up to liked.
When we rapped, it was their art we were imitating on our way to creating our own styles. We discuss how different our lives are from our parents’, what responsibilities we have to do things differently, and what, if anything, we currently see of ourselves in the film, until it’s time for him to go, and then I scribble more notes on the back of an envelope in preparation for my call.
“Menace II Society was a film that came out about a group of kids that were influenced,” Hughes tells me. “Like what was happening in Los Angeles at the time was life started imitating art…you know, as far as that gangster-ism shit.” If he were making Menace today, he says, “it would, technically, be more proficient, and I think the writing would be, the narrative…everything would be better in that regard.” (Hughes’ 2017 miniseries for HBO, “The Defiant Ones,” definitely demonstrated this technical proficiency in sight, sound, and storytelling.)
“What wouldn’t be better is the energy of it, the urgency of it,” says Hughes. “The visceral nature that it has is coasting through it. That was made by kids that were the same age as kids that were in the film.”
His remark about Menace as “pseudo-documentary” is part of a larger point, that the film is bookended by “The Defiant Ones,” an actual documentary that, in many ways, culminates in what we might see as hip-hop’s afterlife, after the deaths of Tupac and Biggie, after Death Row, as hip-hop approaches its 50th year. In the series this is marked by the opening of the Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy for Arts, Technology and the Business of Innovation at the University of Southern California, and Dr. Dre donating $10 million for Compton High School’s performing arts center.
“Yeah, that’s why we all gotta stay alive long enough to make some change, you know,” says Hughes.
I wonder what Tony would be doing today if he were still here, if we would talk regularly about music and art. I wonder if he ever got to see Menace. It was out three months before he was killed. I wonder if it would’ve made the same kind of impression on him as it did on me and my brother. I wonder if he would see any of himself in the film. I wonder if, when he was writing raps or sketching in his notebook, he ever thought about making movies or music.
If “hip-hop peaked in the ’90s,” as Hughes says (he clarifies, “Creatively. Not the industry of hip-hop”), then I can’t help but imagine the space people like me and my brother occupy, as creators and consumers, as somewhere between nostalgic for what influenced us and trying to use what we’ve learned, living since then, to make some change. Clearly, we’re no more O-Dog and Caine than we are Hughes or Dr. Dre, but we’re similarly motivated, nonetheless, and perhaps haunted by memories of what we lost, for whatever reasons.
A.D. Carson, Ph.D., is assistant professor of Hip-Hop and the Global South at the University of Virginia.
Allen Hughes will appear at three film screenings this weekend:
Menace II Society Friday, November 2 at 8:30pm, Vinegar Hill Theatre
F for Fake Friday, November 2 at 3:15pm, Vinegar Hill Theatre
“The Defiant Ones” Saturday, November 3 at 7pm, Alamo Drafthouse Cinema