'Reasonable Doubt' at 25: A Shift From Blaxploitation to Mafia Raps

Blaxploitation films have had a tremendous impact on Hip-Hop culture.

Films like Dolemite and Let's Do it Again contributed to Lil Kim, Foxy Brown, and Biggie Smalls' monikers. Black Caesar became a major source of inspiration for Big Daddy Kane's "Raw." Superfly, The Mack, and Willie Dynamite gave MC's like Too $hort and Snoop Dogg the blueprint for their pimp aesthetics. Finally still, the depictions of Watts in Melvin Van Peebles' Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song felt like a precursor to what N.W.A. eventually accomplished on "Straight Outta Compton": an unfiltered look at the uncomfortable reality of life in the inner city.

In the early '90s, Hip-Hop seemed to lose its connection to Blaxploitation films. It wasn't that Jim Brown and Fred Williamson were no longer portraits of Black masculinity. Rather, MC's seemed to become enamored with the "Mafioso archetype."


Kool G Rap is rightfully attributed as the Godfather of Mafioso rap. His album Road to Riches established a firm connection between the Black and Italian underbellies where futures were secured via an, "any means necessary" kind of attitude. Then, Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx added to the oeuvre.   However, one can't undersell how JAY-Z's Reasonable Doubt moved the cultural needle from Blaxploitation archetypes — who committed "loud" criminal acts — to men who preferred a more calculated approach as if grand masters moving pieces on a chess board.


From the outset, Reasonable Doubt is unapologetically inspired by the mafia. The first audio byte on "Can't Knock the Hustle" is an overt homage to Scarface. But there's nuance to its usage. Whereas Tony Montana entered the dope game to take stranglehold on the American Dream, Shawn Carter let the corner boy attitude disappear in favor of the allure of Hip-Hop. Thus, it's quite appropriate that he anoints himself as having the "Godfather flow" on the first verse of the opening track, and again refers to himself as Don Corleone on "Politics as Usual." The mafia references continue throughout the entire project, and the Jonathan Mannion-shot cover art oozes with Copacabana-esque flavor.

"I basically accepted that I’d be a hustler who happened to rap in his spare time." - JAY-Z in his 2010 memoir Decoded

On a sociological level, it's fascinating that Hip-Hop artists were — and continue to be — enamored with the Italian underbelly when there is ample evidence which suggests that members of La Costa Nostra were racist. However, Hip-Hip culture — from the very outset — was built upon reinvention. I'd make the case that Reasonable Doubt is an example of "sampling" the tenets of Mafia culture. JAY-Z looped the parts he identified with, and tossed out the rest. What we got was Mario Puzo, meets G Rap.

 

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