It was at the Mercer Hotel in New York City in 2013 when Pharrell Williams and creative director/VP of his company i am OTHER, Mimi Valdes, first met filmmaker Rick Famuyiwa to talk about potentially teaming up on a project.
Famuyiwa did not have a script, but just a look book and wild ideas of melding geek culture with the violent area of South Los Angeles known to those who lived there as “The Bottoms.”
Williams and Valdes immediately said yes and agreed to come on as producers. The film that would become titled “Dope” was one step closer to being realised.
But with a music producer like Williams now on board (whose worked with everyone from Britney Spears to Jay-Z), Famuyiwa also felt another hurdle could be cleared: getting classic ’90s hip-hop songs featured in the film.
What Famuyiwa didn’t realise was he would get more than that from Pharrell.
“Dope” looks at the life of Malcolm (Shameik Moore), and his two friends Jib (Tony Revolori) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) as they navigate their geek existence through the violent streets of the Inglewood section of Los Angeles.
But what makes it stand out is the music featured that ranges from memorable songs from legends like Nas, A Tribe Called Quest, and Public Enemy to original songs written and arranged by Pharrell that exemplify the outsider quality of the main characters.
“Rick wanted something similar to N.E.R.D.,” said Valdes, referring to Pharrell’s band know for its unique sound of electronic and funk. “But lyrics that really reflect what these characters are going through.”
Pharrell volunteered his services and came up with four songs that Malcolm, Jib, and Diggy’s band, Awreeoh (pronounced “Oreo”), perform in the movie.
According to Valdes, no one knew if the three actors had singing abilities until a mic was put in front of them.
“They were cast first and foremost for their acting ability and we all hoped and prayed that they could deliver on these songs,” said Valdes. “I remember once the kids got cast Rick and I did Google searches to see if they could sing. So we got lucky. We recorded the four songs in the studio in two days [before production began] and it was amazing.”
But when it came to getting clearance to use ’90s tracks Famuyiwa wanted in the film, sometimes even Pharrell’s fame and Valdes pull (former editor-in-chief at Vibe) wasn’t enough.
“Rick had specifically put in the script songs that he wanted featured,” said Valdes. “But we couldn’t get some just because a lot of ’90s songs have a lot of samples that weren’t cleared the first time [the songs were released] so we couldn’t find some of the writers of those songs.”
Valdes recalls Ice Cube’s “Jackin’ for Beats” as one of the songs Famuyiwa really wanted but was a casualty to rights issues.
But at the end of the day, classic songs that make you nostalgic of a time that Valdes calls “the golden age of hip-hop” are prominently featured in the film. Including Valdes’ personal favourite, which plays during the end credits.
“It was my idea to put “Humpty Dance” in there,” said Valdes of the classic anthem from Digital Underground. “It’s a nice little touch at the end of the film. The screenings I’ve been to it feels like a party at the end. There’s a happy vibe when that song plays.”
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