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This or that! Which is better, the soundtrack or the movie: ‘Above the Rim’

OPINION: In a series for Black Music Month, Panama asks one of the all-important questions about Black movies: Which is better: the soundtrack or the movie?

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

It’s June in Black America, which means that it’s also Black Music Month, or as it’s known more contemporarily for federal celebration and proclamation purposes, African-American Music Appreciation Month. The feds are always watching, stay fresh, y’all. Last week, we broke down which was better (or more iconic) Waiting to Exhale or the soundtrack to it. The movie won (by a landslide). We have a new one up this week: Above the Rim.

Here’s a quick reminder and breakdown to explain how we’re going to come to our definitive, biblically sound, scientific conclusion. We will use five different scientifically subjective and anecdotally sound categories; five because we need a potential tiebreaker: 

When you think of INSERT NAME HERE, do you think of the movie or the soundtrack first? While this entire exercise could probably start and end here, why would we do such a thing? Plus, people are wrong sometimes. Not me, though. Y’all. 

What had more impact? While sales should never be the main determinant of iconic status, a soundtrack can’t be iconic if nobody actually bought the thing. Or spent any time talking about it or there were no videos, etc. A movie can become a cult classic, a soundtrack pretty much needs to bop out the gate. Similarly, if a movie falls in the forest and nobody sees it, well, who in the hell left the gate open? It makes more sense in my head. 

How many iconic stars are in it? Is the movie full of stars (or future stars) and does the soundtrack have a plethora of big names and features? Iconic things include iconic people. I’m sure there are exceptions to this; I hope I never get stuck with one.

What is the biggest moment? In order for something to be iconic, there has to be something that everybody can remember about it immediately. For a movie, there has to be some kind of scene (or scenes) that folks are like “YASSSSSSS!” in a Beyoncé-dropped-an-album kind of way. For a soundtrack to be iconic, it has to have a song that had the people talking.

Which has remained more culturally relevant? Admittedly, this is mad subjective, but I also objectively feel like this won’t be that hard to determine. Some soundtracks from the ’90s really just killed the game (i.e., The Show soundtrack; I haven’t even been compelled to watch the doc since probably 1999, which is a year I always aim to party like.)

Are you ready, ready? Good. #ohletsdoit 

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Above the Rim, released in December 1994, was directed and co-written by Jeff Pollack, with the screenplay by Barry Michael Cooper. I think we can all agree that the movie and the soundtrack are iconic. But which one is more iconic? Let’s fight.

When you think of Above the Rim, do you think of the movie or the soundtrack first?

You know—and I’m possibly breaking the fourth wall here—I don’t think the movie stands a chance here. For instance, I’ve been a part of RECENT debates on whether or not Above the Rim is the GOAT Black movie soundtrack. It comes up in a significant number of conversations about movie soundtracks. It was a West Coast soundtrack for an East Coast movie RIGHT before the whole East Coast vs. West Coast Beef started. It was on Death Row Records, which, at the time, could literally do no wrong. Dr. Dre was involved. Everybody was involved. The movie, on the other hand, which I enjoy very, very much, is very well known but I just don’t think folks have as much reverence for it as they do the soundtrack (assuming they’re familiar with either). Personally, I almost always think of the soundtrack first. I will assume I speak for the majority of everybody everywhere.

Winner: Soundtrack

What had more impact?

Well, according to Box Office Mojo, Above the Rim made about $16 million at the box office on a budget of just over $6 million. It wasn’t very well reviewed, though I believe everybody agreed Tupac Shakur was amazing as Birdie. Meanwhile, the Above the Rim soundtrack features one of the greatest singles of all time, Warren G and Nate Dogg’s “Regulate,” the first single from the soundtrack that got as high as No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and easily, and indisputably, considered one of the greatest records of the ’90s. The soundtrack also hit No. 1 on the R&B charts and was on the charts for upwards of 40 weeks. SWV’s remix of “Anything,” which opens the soundtrack is the version of the song everybody thinks about. And it’s entirely possible that the omission of Tupac’s “Pain” from the CD version (for length purposes) is the entire reason anybody actually bought a cassette tape of the soundtrack. I’m just saying, the movie did numbers; the soundtrack is legendary and came out the gate swinging with “Regulate,” which is basically the soundtrack’s cheat code.

Winner: Soundtrack

How many iconic stars are in it?

Alright, let’s break down who all starred in Above the Rim, because it has its fair share of names you know, recognize and who have attained icon status: Tupac Shakur, Duane Martin, Leon, Bernie Mac, Marlon Wayans and Wood Harris. Interestingly enough, I think the only starring female role in the film is Kyle’s mother, who if not for Wikipedia, I’m not sure I’d actually even know her character’s name—Mailika Watson—played by Tonya Pinkins who has quite the accomplished resume. Now that I think about it, and don’t quote me on this, I think the only other speaking role by a woman in the movie was from the waitress who was trying to get some attention from Shep (Leon). 

So who is on this soundtrack? SWV, H-Town, Tupac, Tha Dogg Pound, Snoop Doggy Dogg, The Lady or Rage, Aaron Hall, Al B. Sure!, Jewell, Warren G. and Nate Dogg. And a slew of folks who I couldn’t point out in a lineup, who somehow STILL made a collection of some of the most banginest jams that ever did bang and jam. And here’s the thing, because this was a Death Row move, the producers are just important. For instance, I have no idea who B-Rezell is or if it’s even just one person. What I do know is that “Blowed Away” STILL goes hard and that’s because it was produced by DeVante Swing, who also produced H-Town’s “Part Time Lover” at the height of DeVante’s producerial powers in that mid-’90s era. This soundtrack also boasts production from DJ Quik and Dr. Dre and Daz, which basically screams “AMAZING ALBUM” at this time in 1994. 

I don’t know, I want to give this to the movie but I think that’s just me trying to be generous. 

Winner: Soundtrack

What is the biggest moment?

If there’s anywhere that this movie might make up some ground it would be here. For instance, this movie features the most improbable, impossible comeback scene in a sports movie of all time when Shep (Leon) shows up to the ShootOut championship game in corduroys, some low-top shell-toe Adidas Allstars and a long sleeve shirt and hangs 39 points, some assists, steals, rebounds on the way to securing the victory. In, like, 10 minutes, WITH A RUNNING CLOCK. Which would be the most iconic thing to happen if one player hadn’t, in a mistake of editing, gotten a rebound and thrown a full-court pass to himself for the high-flying dunk. I catalog the whole shebang here, please, enjoy; Thomas Shepherd, for my money, is the greatest fictional athlete of all time. 

There is also that famous scene of Tupac blowing the razor blade out of his mouth, which I’m pretty sure sent many, many fools to the hospital for stitches in late 1994. But eh.

I think it’s pretty clear that the biggest moment from the soundtrack is “Regulate,” a song that also inspired me to do some digging: Were Warren G. and Nate Dogg robbed by their own homies?? Inquiring minds would like to know. The song has aged way more gracefully than the film, which rarely makes anybody’s list of anything NOT soundtrack related. Meanwhile, as I said earlier, I think “Regulate” is one of the greatest songs of the ’90s and I’m sure many publications and ranking organizations would agree with this. That last film scene is good but “Regulate” just mounted up on it. 

Winner: Soundtrack

Which has remained more culturally relevant?

I won’t even spend a ton of time on this one since it’s EASILY the soundtrack. If Tupac wasn’t in this film, I’m not sure anybody would ever talk about it ever. Well, maybe Marlon would…as he answers questions about working with Tupac. Meanwhile, again, I’ve had recent debates about where Above the Rim’s soundtrack sits on the greatest soundtracks of all-time lists. So yeah, soundtrack all day. 

Winner: Soundtrack

So the soundtrack to Above the Rim provided the first-ever sweep, and rightfully so. I never doubted this would happen. Some soundtracks are just that iconic for various reasons: time, place, roster, etc. This is one of those. 

If you know like I know, you don’t want to step to this soundtrack. 

I’ll see myself out.

Panama Jackson is a columnist at theGrio. He writes very Black things and drinks very brown liquors, and is pretty fly for a light guy. His biggest accomplishment to date coincides with his Blackest accomplishment to date in that he received a phone call from Oprah Winfrey after she read one of his pieces (biggest) but he didn’t answer the phone because the caller ID said “Unknown” (Blackest).

Make sure you check out the Dear Culture podcast every Thursday on theGrio’s Black Podcast Network, where I’ll be hosting some of the Blackest conversations known to humankind. You might not leave the convo with an afro, but you’ll definitely be looking for your Afro Sheen! Listen to Dear Culture on TheGrio’s app; download here.

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