Film and TV

Rapper's Delight

Waiting for a limo to pull up and an entourage to spill out, you can't help wondering how many tickets New Times is going to have to buy to get everyone inside for the movie. Even at Centerpoint's matinee rate, this could get ugly.

But this isn't L.A. Just because a fellow's breaking out musically, a homegrown star riding the rise of hip-hop in a very un-hip-hop town, doesn't mean he's gone Hollywood. And there he is, proving it. On foot. Blue jeans, tee shirt, Atlanta Braves cap cocked sideways on his shaved head. All apologetic, too.

This town's most promising rap artist walks up alone, saying he's sorry for being a few minutes late -- girlfriend had the car and he was forced to hoof it.

But that's the kind of guy Pokafase is. A rapper that you can't help warming up to in a hurry. And a movie buff, too. Only too happy to check out Malibu's Most Wanted on opening day if for no other reason than to catch up a little, cinematically.

"I'm behind on my movies," says the MC once inside the cineplex. "I look around at these posters, I don't know any of these movies."

He hasn't missed a thing. It's the shit season, when the studios dump all of the crap on audiences that won't reel in teens by the boatload in summer or win awards in the fall. Gotta figure we're in for a stinker today, too, with Jamie Kennedy taking on the demanding role of playing a complete moron.

At least the trailers are good. Poke admits to being blown away by The Matrix Reloaded preview. Even the Treasure Island sneak looks promising.

"I'm easy to please," the rapper explains, saying that he leans toward the big action joint, and doesn't expect too much from a trip to the cinema. "The break from the work is good," he says. The Way of the Gun. Scarface. Braveheart. Pulp Fiction. Give him a dose of that kind of action, and he's a happy man.

Living in the Phoenix area since he was 9, Pokafase was born Alafia Long in Kentucky and spent his earliest years in Louisville's housing projects. His family landed on the Valley's west side and has been moving east ever since, rising so far so fast that at one point he ended up in Paradise Valley. "I lived there for about a minute," he says.

The Cortez High graduate started rhyming in high school and turned pro a few years later in the duo Know Qwestion. But after a falling out with former partner Cash and also shaking off the precious moniker, Cappuccino, that a girlfriend had saddled him with, Long renamed himself after a cartoon character and began having better luck. He's waiting to see what hand he's dealt when his first solo album comes out in May -- Mastermind, on the Artist Direct label.

Today, however, he's having a surprisingly good time. Malibu's Most Wanted, after flirting with complete cheesehood in its opening minutes, starts delivering good laughs.

The thumbnail: Kennedy plays B-Rad, a white rapper and Malibu rich kid who thinks he's so down with black folk that he refuses to answer to his "slave name," Bradley. But B-Rad's antics threaten to ruin the gubernatorial campaign of his father, Bill Gluckman (Ryan O'Neal), an out-of-touch moneybags who can't understand why his campaign workers can't find something for his wigger son to do. When B-Rad unveils his idea for a good slogan to pull in female voters -- "Bill Gluckman's Down with the Bitches and Ho's" -- Dad's campaign manager (Blair Underwood) figures it's time to get B-Rad out of the picture. His plan makes perfect movie sense: hire a couple of accomplished black actors (played by Taye Diggs and Anthony Anderson) to pretend that they're ghetto thugs, carjack B-Rad, and take him to Compton to scare him white.

Diggs and Anderson's numerous turns on screen not only save the picture, but give the audience a needed break from Kennedy's annoying B-Rad and his attempts at an Ebonics patois (which comes out sounding as much Appalachia as South Central). Howls come from the audience when Diggs, as Juilliard-trained Sean, reads up from The Book of Rap and Hip Hop Slang so he can talk smack correctly. Shrieks greet his attempts to come off ghetto-menacing while practicing what he'll say during the carjacking, chrome replica semiautomatics in each hand and a blue bandanna hanging down over his eyes. "Add a bee-yatch and I think you've got it!" offers his partner PJ, played by Anderson.

This isn't just funny shit, but, as Pokafase notes, a refreshing curveball for the viewer not expecting to leaven his slapstick comedy with social commentary.

"It's a white guy acting like a thug, and he's supposed to be set straight by two black guys trying to act like thugs," says the rapper, pointing out the rich irony of the situation. And the layers of meaning keep on coming. B-Rad figures out the scam, but not before some real thugs arrive with real guns, and the white rapper ends up playing kingpin at what he thinks is a staged gang shoot-out, not realizing that the bullets aimed at him are the genuine article. Pretty soon you've got a movie with more existential quandaries than a Philip K. Dick novel. (The likes of which were made into mind-bending films like Blade Runner and Total Recall, yo.)

Okay, maybe that's an exaggeration. This was not a deep film. But Pokafase appreciates its message. "I liked the theme: Be yourself," he says. Crazy as it sounds, Poke seems to find in the goofy B-Rad's issues with authenticity an apt metaphor for some of his own struggles. After all, he may be a rising star, but he's still a rapper from Phoenix.

"There are advantages and disadvantages to it. In a city like L.A., there are 10 times the competitors. Of course, no one's like Pokafase," he says with a grin.

But besides the big fish in a small pond thing, Poke says there's a novelty about a black rapper from the desert that seems to be helping him break out. "Good music speaks for itself. And there's a curiosity about Phoenix. I like spreading the word, letting people know that we're not all just about saloons and cactus."

In his hometown, Pokafase says he's likely to perform in front of an audience that's more diverse than one he'd get in Detroit or Chicago. The rapper says he runs into B-Rads daily, white kids who act and talk like they've been raised on BET.

"You see a lot of that. Folks that aren't black who have grown up in the hip-hop culture. And now that hip-hop is driving popular culture, there's almost a hypocritical thing that happens when people question whether people are acting black.' They aren't acting black, they're just immersed in hip-hop. This generation growing up is as real as it comes. Because they grew up on it," he says.

"There was a point when a movie poking fun at hip-hop culture would have been completely rejected," Pokafase says, admitting that a few of Kennedy's antics made him uncomfortable. "His character was so overdone, though, it was funny. I thought it was cool. Now that hip-hop's become such a monster, it can handle being made fun of."

Unfortunately, Malibu's Most Wanted has to wrap up its unlikely plot with a typical Hollywood "moment of shit" -- Dad's gotta tell B-Rad that he loves him just the way he is, of course. But at least this reconciling is done with ghetto thugs holding their semiautomatics on one side of the room, aimed at B-Rad's Malibu wanna-be friends holding a spear gun, shoulder-mounted missile and blunderbuss on the other. No one ends up hurt. But a Hummer is destroyed.

Well, that's a start, anyway.

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Tony Ortega
Contact: Tony Ortega