Outlaw chic

Rating: NNNNNMy people, my people, my people. Was it slavery? Was it the whip of the white man? Fear? Poverty?.

Rating: NNNNN

My people, my people, my people. Was it slavery? Was it the whip of the white man? Fear? Poverty? Hormones? Who mixed that first cocktail of aggression, vanity and greed? Who made the pimp? Who made the player?

Watching Backstage and American Pimp back-to-back, I know that I am now, officially, a square. I’m not down any more, if I ever was.

Backstage follows the gentlemen of last year’s Hard Knock Life tour. Jay-Z, the sub-pro baller who’s sold in the gazillions. DMX, who released two albums in one year, both entering Billboard’s charts at number one. Plus Wu Tang’s Method Man, Redman, nouveau clown Beanie Sigel and the dozens of others who make up their crews.

Big commercial

It’s produced by Damon Dash, the Roc-a-Fella Records CEO who protects his brand like Bill Gates pushes product. It’s a big, long commercial for his label, and for tour partner Island Def Jam Records.

American Pimp carries a better pedigree. It’s directed by Albert and Allen Hughes, the brothers who made Menace II Society and Dead Presidents. This is their first documentary, but it follows the Hughes Brothers approach: find a glamorous, outlaw side of African-American life, then sit on the fence and watch it pass by beneath you.

Both films are about the kind of black men who scare and seduce white people. Both films park themselves at the lips of their subjects. As Run-DMC said nearly 20 years ago, these men are “supreme people who was born to talk.”

“The name is internationally known — Bishop Don Magic Juan.” This is how Mr. Juan introduces himself in American Pimp. In Backstage, more than one rapper says something like “I don’t think you set out to make history. It just happens.” Life lesson for the listener: if you shrink your world small enough, you too can feel like you’re an internationally known maker of history.

True, pimps and commercial rappers are easy targets. Most of American Pimp is just one ridiculous boast after another.

“Every man can kill. Every woman can be turned out.”

“I don’t steal nothing but a bitch’s mind.”

“Bitch asked me if she could take Mother’s Day off. For what? Yes, she got a baby, but she got a pimp to pay, too.”

“It’s all about getting this fuckin’ money.”

Maybe pimps are the last free men. Maybe they’re the real-life equivalent of Vincent D’Onofrio’s fantasy life in The Cell — unrestrained, vainglorious id. Maybe the deft reasoning, powers of persuasion, vaulting ambition, capacity for violence, sartorial style and constant self-reinvention on display in this film are exactly the alpha-male skills we want to reward.

Missing element

But there’s one missing element, and, thankfully, the men in American Pimp at least hint at it. That limp in a pimp’s stride betrays a fundamental ache in his game.

A pimp can’t do the work that earns his money. He can’t — or won’t — suck a trick’s dick. Pimps lack pussy. So pimps are forever offstage, forever unfulfilled. They’re like agents. Or critics.

That’s why I liked the story of Rosebudd in this film. A vigorous defender of pimpology, he’s since retired from the game for a life of telemarketing.

“I’m a big old square,” he now admits. “My daughter be needing diapers, and I got to go get ’em.” Finally, a woman who truly does need him.

You won’t find such vulnerability anywhere in Backstage. The rappers perform with identical bravado. Offstage, they cloak themselves in their posses and their money. They expose no flank.

In the end, that’s what separates the pimps from the rappers. The pimps talk a lot of shit, but they know it’s talk. Backstage leaves you with the feeling that Redman and the rest actually believe in their invincibility.

Pathetic loudmouths

Africanists can talk all they want about the tradition of boasting. I still like what my professor friend Richard says: Jay-Z channels evil.

If not for the beats, the flow, the timbre of their voices, if not for the euphoria that this music inspires, these men would be nothing but pathetic loudmouths.

Backstage presents its rappers as blunted, rampant children — playing video games or paintball, play fighting, getting stoopid. These are guys who cajole eager girls to show them their breasts, suck them off in toilet stalls, admire their music.

If only director Chris Fiore had as much insight as access, he might have cast the brothers in a more complex light.

As it is, we’ll have to wait a few weeks, until Spike Lee’s Bamboozled comes to town.


AMERICAN PIMP, directed by Albert and Allen Hughes, with Fillmore Slim, Rosebudd, Charm, Payroll, C-Note, Gorgeous Dre, Bishop Don Magic Juan, Too $hort and Latrice. 97 minutes. Opens Friday (October 6). For venues and times, see Rep Cinemas, page 94. Rating: NNN

BACKSTAGE, directed and edited by Chris Fiore, produced by Damon Dash, with Jay-Z, DMX, Method Man, Redman, Ja Rule, Memphis Bleek, Beanie Sigel and Amil. 87 minutes. An Alliance Atlantis release. Opens Friday (October 6). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 82. Rating: NN

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