“I’ll do anything for the dollar, you know me, I’m Tommy Brown…”
That’s the opening monologue to Hype Williams’ debut film from 1998 belly ends. After that, the camera quickly moves to the intriguing and classic heist scene that has captivated every viewer who has seen the film this year. Illuminated in a UV filter and scored by an a cappella version of soul II soul‘s Back To Life (However Do You Want Me), the film begins with the viewer being transported into a world of crime, drugs and sex through direction by Hype Williams and alluring cinematography by Malik Hassan Sayeed. They had done the unthinkable – they created a 96-minute music video.
Listen to the soundtrack belly now.
When belly Released in 1998, the “hood classic” reigned with a series of feature films characterized not only by their coming-of-age storylines but also by their musical choices. Remember Master P Foolish and I have the hook up. Just like those movies with No Limit, belly used the wealth of talent at Def Jam Recordings to create a soundtrack featuring excerpts from rising hip-hop stars to support the film. The film that starred DMX and Nas, tells the story of two friends and their lives as street criminals. Nas’ character Sincere longs for a life outside of crime, while DMX’ character Tommy sinks deeper into the drug game. Her life takes a turn after Tommy makes a big decision that could take her life and jeopardize her illicit businesses.
Upon its release in 1998 CNN Film critic Paul Tatara said, “There is no actual story, or at least no story that could be understood as spoken by the characters,” a sentiment emulated by many critics. But where the plot is lacking, the soundtrack plays an important role in connecting the music to the characters and their lives.
The first single “Grand Finale”, released by Def Jam a few days before the film, set the tone for the film. The track begins with DMX saying, “I’m not going back to jail. Next time the county or state sees me it’ll be in a bag,” a line from the film that captures his character Tommy’s unbreakable bond with his criminal lifestyle that gave him so much. Method Man takes the opening verse, which raps about dead friends, murder, and robberies; a life all too familiar to his character, Shameek aka Father Sha, who is called upon to take down Tommy and ends up killing a local drug dealer. Nas seemingly raps in his character’s voice, Sincere, alluding to prison as “the belly of the beast” and saying it’s “love.”[s] eating black meat.” His verse is a sentiment not too far removed from his character, who is seemingly more enlightened and intellectual than his counterpart Tommy.
On Story To Tell, originally released on yes rule‘s album Venni, Vetti, Vecci, he describes a multi-city drug operation just like Tommy’s, affecting Omaha, Jamaica, Queens and Atlanta. He speaks from the perspective of a drug dealing veteran who knows the game and appreciates the allure and luxury that comes with it. in the bellyTommy faces imprisonment and death, but the younger generation still looks up to him.
The score inside belly also helped bring all these ideas together. As mentioned above, Soul II Soul set the tone early, while dancehall continued the film with tracks like Sister Nancy’s “Bam Bam”, Mr. Vegas’ “Sucky Ducky” and “Top Shotter” featuring DMX, Mr. Vegas and and Sean Paul. A major plot of the film is Tommy’s relationship with a Jamaican drug lord named “Ox”. The film uses this musical genre to further immerse the viewer in the seedy world of crime in Jamaica.
A review of the New York Times belly said that it is a “film that begs for a slap on the head for its virtue while catering to movie tastes that lend themselves more to crotch shots, topless dancers, wall-sized TV screens, ganja galore and wherever possible , interested.” The review touched on the film’s theme of glamor and materialism—but left out a key message.
D’Angelo‘s “Devil’s Pie”, originally published on his voodoo album, breaking through film’s over-glamorization of drugs. He literally compares the lifestyle to “devil’s cake,” a metaphor for the vices consistent with “street” culture. The track plays after a scene in which a Reverand convinces Tommy not to kill him, in a soliloquy that blends youth’s fascination with drugs, sex and guns with their lack of spiritual connection. His message is central to D’Angelos, who denounces the sinful desires and activities of youth — drug use, violent gang activity, and illicit sexual relationships. This song is an indictment of people like Tommy and his girlfriend Keisha who are addicted to these vices and the rush that wealth and their high-stakes lifestyle bring them.
That belly The soundtrack was not only a milestone in hip-hop films, but also a deeper observation of the characters that inspired it. Although Tommy and Sincere are fictional, their stories and the consequences of their lifestyles resonate in the music we listened to then and now.
Listen to the soundtrack belly now.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in 2018.