Hip-hop loves Scarface, the Al Pacino flick that just turned 20. Over time, the movie, about a self-made Cuban immigrant drug kingpin, has become part of gangsta rap's DNA. Scarface's morally repugnant rags-to-riches narrative, explicit detail about the drug trade and its sense of paranoia, blood lust and greed make up the genre's de facto formula. It's a logical extension, since many of the top gangsta rappers have admitted to crack-dealing pasts in interviews.
So leave it to Def Jam, which built itself as much on marketing as music, to mark Scarface's anniversary with a compilation of drug-rap songs. That's no surprise -- the Houston rapper Scarface, a gangsta-rap pioneer and Def Jam executive, named his latest record Balls and My Word in honor of the Pacino character's most famous line ("All I have in this world is my balls and my word, and I don't break them for nobody.").
Fortunately, Def Jam travels beyond the superficial -- increasingly the norm in hip-hop -- and uses Def Jam Recordings Presents Music Inspired by Scarface to make a near-academic case for the movie's true resonance. The album notes how cocaine was devastating urban communities well before Scarface; Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's cautionary "White Lines" predates the movie's fall 1983 release. Def Jam's compilation draws from rap giants who make clear, as the movie does, that drug dealing is anything but glamorous. Jay-Z's "Streets Is Watching," Raekwon's "Criminology" and The Notorious B.I.G.'s "Ten Crack Commandments" are clinical takes on how conscience and unforeseen circumstances can make the coke life hell. The album also demonstrates that today's young rappers continue to find ways to spin their own takes on Scarface. New songs by Cam'Ron and Joe Budden (Def Jam artists, of course) are chilling in their disregard for the law.
Naturally, Scarface the rapper's contribution may speak to Scarface the movie's influence the most. His extraordinary 1991 song "Mr. Scarface," which samples Pacino dialogue from the film, may be the most psychotic rap anyone's ever written, with its multiple cold-blooded killings, unfiltered rage and necrophilia. Even now, the song is shockingly violent, the equivalent of the film's chain-saw-beheading sequence. Like that scene, "Mr. Scarface" and other songs here won't lose their edge anytime soon.