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Hip-hop stars don't stop there

(ran TP, GB editions)

Ice Cube's new movie, Next Friday, is another case in point: Rappers make the transition to the big screen in a way few pop singers can manage.

Take a look at the box office charts and you'll see Next Friday sitting proudly near the top.

Next Friday? You won't have read about it in any of the lists of films to look out for this year, commercially or artistically. The pundits are calling it a surprise hit, though they should have seen it coming.

The sequel to 1995's knockabout ghetto comedy Friday is typical. It proved that, despite the wealth of future classics playing in American cinemas, unpretentious comedies can always win the day. And like last year's The Best Man, it shows that mainstream African-American comedies can cross over.

Along with Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, it also indicates that a slow-burning video hit can set up its sequel for success at the cinema: Friday spent 100 weeks lurking in the video charts.

But most of all it is confirmation that the 30-year-old executive producer, writer and star of Next Friday, Ice Cube, has arrived in the movie big time.

Hip-hop has had some kind of relationship with the movies for years, going back to Wild Style in 1982 and early embarrassments such as Krush Groove. But unlike rock music and the movies, things have progressed.

Throughout the '90s, rappers have been given a chance to play roles in films that move beyond their music persona. And more than a handful have turned out to be decent actors. Will Smith and Ice T spring to mind, but the list extends to Busta Rhymes doing a voice for The Rugrats Movie.

There is also a niche audience for films starring rappers and no one else, which has been served by New Orleans hip-hop entrepreneur Master P, who churns out films notable for being cheap, nasty and profitable.

Former rapper Ice Cube stands out from the crowd. He has a three-picture deal with New Line Cinema, and Next Friday took $17-million in its first week, despite the fact comedian Chris Tucker is not there to repeat his starring role from the original. Ice Cube says this is because Tucker "doesn't smoke weed or use profanities now," but Tucker's escalating salary _ $4-million a movie, against a total budget of $10-million for Next Friday _ might have had something to do with it.

There is nothing profound about the film. The plot has Compton homeboy Ice Cube being sent from Los Angeles to live with relatives in the suburbs, and a typical gag involves getting a vacuum cleaner stuck to someone's face while trying to get rid of marijuana fumes.

The reviews have been harsh, but even if Ice Cube were worried about that _ and I suspect he isn't _ he's got the respectability angle covered, with his starring role in David O'Russell's much praised Gulf War adventure-satire Three Kings. This puts him in the company of George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg _ an ex-rapper of sorts _ and Spike Jonze as U.S. soldiers going in search of Saddam's gold just after the cease-fire. It's an excellent, unpredictable film in which Ice Cube plays a deeply religious soldier.

He's good in it, but that's no surprise either _ his acting has been good since his first film. "I kind of fell into it," he says. "I wasn't really thinking about acting, but I ran into John Singleton in 1988. He was telling me he had this script. I didn't really pay him attention."

Singleton's film was Boyz N the Hood, named after a song Ice Cube wrote when he was 16. The film was made in 1991, with Ice Cube playing Doughboy, the childhood friend of Tre (Cuba Gooding Jr.) who cannot steer clear of violence on the streets. Ice Cube had had no acting training, but he fired his acting coach after a couple of days on the advice of the film's star, Laurence Fishburne. Fishburne was proved right when Ice Cube got excellent reviews.

Since then he has made regular excursions from recording to appear in mainstream films, including Walter Hill's Trespass (1992) and the risible Anaconda in 1997. But it was Friday that turned him from a rapper who acted into a force in the movies. He says he wrote the script because he was bored on tour in Europe.

There were two obvious blueprints he could have followed: the harsh realism of Boyz N the Hood or the Scarface pastiche of New Jack City. He ignored them both.

Friday is about one day in the life of two amiable losers _ played by Ice Cube and Tucker _ from South Central L.A. The film has an anti-gun moral, and Ice Cube plays the baffled straight man led astray by Tucker. He was standing his hard man rap persona on its head. And it worked.

As it happens, the life his character leads in Friday is closer to Ice Cube's upbringing than the gun-toting world of his records. Born O'Shea Jackson, he had a stable family life, both parents had decent jobs and he did well at school. The song Boyz N the Hood was written before he had ever seen a drive-by shooting or played a part in gang warfare.

Friday led to Ice Cube's debut as a director with The Players Club.

"I was starting to direct my own videos because they weren't coming out exactly how I wanted, so I started trying to learn from directors I was working with, picking up traits just to help myself. It got to the point where I said, "I'm ready. Next time I write another film, I'm going to direct it.' "

The film cost only $5-million and picked up $23-million at the box office.

The easy assumption is that Ice Cube's film success has come on the back of his music career. But the hip-hop world has a ferocious turnover, and for most fans Ice Cube is a figure from the past. He explains: "When you do movies you can't promote records, so those records suffer."

At 30, Ice Cube must realize he has a better future as an actor and filmmaker than trying to compete with the latest young hard cases. It's a calculation others have made. Queen Latifah now has a solid acting career that doesn't lean at all on the fact that she used to make records. Starting out well as an opinionated waitress in Jungle Fever and briefly starring in her own sitcom, Latifah can be seen in The Bone Collector and heard as the voice of a character in Bringing Out the Dead.

So why do rappers _ be they hard-core stars like Ice Cube or pop idols like Will Smith or Marky Mark _ make the transition to the screen in a way few pop stars can manage? L.L. Cool J suggested in Interview magazine recently that "creating, memorizing and performing rap music comes from the same part of the brain as acting does. Rock 'n' roll is about singing; rap music, to a certain extent, is acting."

L.L. Cool J's acting career has also picked up as his music has tailed off. Recently he was in Halloween H20 and the expensive shark flop Deep Blue Sea, and he now has a substantial part in Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday.

His theory about rappers and acting is one that comes up most times the question is asked. It's certainly true that hip-hop is saturated with film imagery. But there is no easy explanation of why Ice Cube is a better actor than David Bowie, just the consistent celluloid evidence that he is.

There's one exception that should be made. The rapper who had the biggest potential to be a film star was the late Tupac Shakur. But unlike the others, he was not a gangsta rapper first and an actor second. He was a drama school product who became a rapper and adopted the tough guy persona when gangsta rap took over hip-hop. And he paid the ultimate price for it.

Shakur was a fine actor, and in films such as Gridlock'd, he played characters with a vulnerability that matched his delicate face, rather than the "Thug Life" tattoo he had on his stomach.

A rapper who shares Shakur's Fame-style education is Mos Def, contemporary hip-hop's most thoughtful major figure. He has had parallel music and acting careers from the start, but his profile as an actor should really take off when Spike Lee's next film, Bamboozled, comes out. "Mos is great," Lee enthused recently.

All of which leaves only one question: When's the Puff Daddy film, and can we do anything to stop it? It turns out that Sean "Puffy" Combs was scheduled to appear in Any Given Sunday but dropped out at the last minute. Then it was announced he had taken an option on King Suckerman, by the excellent crime novelist George P. Pelecanos. But that was two years ago, and nothing more has been heard.

Perhaps the reputation of rappers in the movies will be left intact, after all.