Among the many motion pictures the American film industry produces year after year, every now and then there’s a movie that promises to address issues in a manner others are afraid to address them. Whether the hot potato is AIDS, the death penalty, the assassination of JFK, the passion of Christ, the last temptation of Christ, Vietnam or what goes on in a fictional town called South Park, these movies are bound to stir controversy, often long before anyone has seen them. Arguably one of the most controversial movies of the ’80s, _Colors_ in some ways paved the way for West Coast gangsta rap, a vital subgenre that prospered between N.W.A’s “Straight Outta Compton” (1988) and Snoop Doggy Dogg’s “Doggy Style” (1994) and took rap music as a whole to unfathomable heights of popularity.
The fact that _Colors_ was the project of Dennis Hopper’s, an actor/director with a hard-earned outsider status in Hollywood, lent credibility to this movie that was meant to shed light on the Los Angeles street gangs which by then had risen to international prominence because of their violent feuds. Hopper even went as far as using actual gang members for several speaking parts. However, while _Colors_ successfully mirrored the dead end situation that is gang warfare and didn’t attempt to demonize (like John Carpenter’s _Assault on Precint 13_) or glamourize (like Walter Hill’s _The Warriors_) street gangs, it remained a routine cop drama whose script focused on the relationship between the veteran cop who has learned to interact with gangs on an equal, pragmatic basis (Robert Duvall) and the overeager rookie newly assigned to the gang unit (Sean Penn), falling in love with the girlfriend of a gangster, and finally dying in his partner’s arms. It was ultimately that same old law enforcement perspective of _Colors_ that encouraged filmmakers like John Singleton (“Boyz N the Hood”) and the Hughes Brothers (“Menace II Society”) to depict the dynamics of gang culture from the perspective of those directly involved.
The controversy surrounding _Colors_, however, wasn’t sparked by issues of authenticity or bias. Some people felt that the movie was too violent. Others thought it provided gangs with undue publicity. To use the rhetoric of rap music’s militant ambassadors of that era, white America feared that its children would start to imitate these black and Latino peers engaged in brutal warfare. In hindsight, these misgivings may not have been completely unfounded. Even Comptonite DJ Quik, who never made no bones about his gang affiliation, rapped in 1992: “I don’t think they know, they too crazy for they own good / they need to stop watchin’ that _Colors_ and _Boyz N the Hood_ / Too busy claimin 60s, tryina be raw / and never even seen the ‘Shaw” (“Jus Lyke Compton”). As a matter of fact, gang activity did rise in the ’90s all across the nation, and even if it takes much more than a simple flick for social institutions as complex as gangs to develop, fictional depictions of a certain outlaw lifestyle can have an impact on young minds. To this day this remains a particular kind of responsibility rap music has to come to terms with.
One early way to come to terms with that responsibility can be found on the soundtrack to _Colors_, the very blueprint for the countless hip-hop-dominated soundtracks that would follow. The album opens up with one of Ice-T’s most (in)famous songs, nothing less than a theme song bearing the same title as the movie. Even though he already had a major label album out (“Rhyme Pays”) that loudly spoke of the lifestyle many gangsta rappers would go on to describe in great detail, it was “Colors” which made Ice-T a household name and the object of all kinds of adventurous projections. Hip-hop historians may still speculate about the origins of gangsta rap, but the first figure to be publicly perceived as both a rapper AND a gangster was without a doubt Ice-T. He repeated the formula years later for another soundtrack project (“New Jack Hustler” for _New Jack City_) and received the same kind of attention. But ultimately, “Colors” is a late West Coast version of Melle Mel & Duke Bootee’s “The Message”, its protagonist claiming to have gone beyond the point of reasoning yet still attempting to reason with the listener:
“You don’t know me, fool
You disown me? Cool…
I don’t need your assistance, social persistance
Any problem I got, I just put my fist in
My life is violent but violent is life
Peace is a dream, reality is a knife
My color’s my honor, my color’s my all
with my colors upon me one soldier stands tall
Tell me, what have you left me, what have I got?
Last night in cold blood my young brother got shot
my homeboy got jacked, my mother’s on crack
my sister can’t work cause her arms show tracks
Madness, insanity, live in profanity
then some punk claim that they understandin’ me?
Give me a break, what world do you live in?
Death is my sect, guess my religion”
From the famous first lines “I am a, nightmare walkin’, psychopath talkin’ / king of my jungle, just a gangster stalkin’…” to eerily accurate observations like “We gangs of LA will never die – just multiply” and “We all want peace / but our war won’t end till all wars cease,” Ice-T succeeds in explaining the gangbanger mentality in simple terms and comes across highly credible, both on a rhetorical and on a performance level. The menacing power hiding just below the cold reasoning, as well as simple yet effective writing (“My gang’s my family, it’s all that I have / I’m a star, on the wall’s my autograph”) make “Colors” one of the best depictions of a lifestyle rap music regularly likes to associate itself with. While his acting talents were not yet put to use in _Colors_, whoever picked Ice-T to compose its theme song made an excellent choice.
Together with his associate Afrika Islam he lays down a track stripped to the bare bone, consisting of a menacingly prowling, synthesized bassline, some sneaky touches of keyboard and hard-hitting 808 drums, accentuated by sharp scratches and gunshots for sound effects. But it was ultimately the lyrical content of “Colors” that ushered in a new realism in rap. LL Cool J, who had claimed to be a “hip-hop gangster” as early as 1985, had put out a similar track in 1987 with “I’m Bad” (whose idea to incorporate police radio gets picked up here), but whereas LL simply boasted about his battling ability, Ice-T had a much broader agenda. If there ever was a rap song that was meant to ‘raise awareness’, it is “Colors”. But because it wasn’t preachy and a first person narrative, it was open to misunderstanding.
And so somebody must have thought that “Colors”, much like the movie, might end up sending the wrong message to kids. That’s why in the radio/video version of the song Ice acts as a commentator of the character he plays, saying things like “You wanna get rid of the gangs, it’s gonna take a lotta work” in between the verses and issuing a final patronizing warning at the end of the song: “Listen to me, man, no matter what you do, don’t ever join a gang. You don’t wanna be in it, man. You’re just gonna end up in a mix of dead friends and time in jail. I know, if I had a chance like you, I would never be in a gang, man, but I didn’t have a chance.” Sounds like he’s talking to your average suburban kid.
The rest of the soundtrack is largely determined by the label it was issued on. Warner Bros. made full use of its newly formed partnership with upstart Cold Chillin’, with the somewhat odd result that the majority of rappers on this soundtrack hail from New York. Cold Chillin’ is in full effect with Big Daddy Kane’s “RAW”, Kool G Rap & DJ Polo’s “The Butcher Shop”, Roxanne Shante’s “Go on Girl” and MC Shan’s “A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Waste” (the latter an exclusive). Salt-N-Pepa and Hurby Luvbug contribute “Let the Rhythm Run”, while Eric B. & Rakim feature with the third track besides “Colors” and “RAW” that has become a certified classic, “Paid in Full (Seven Minutes of Madness – The Cold Cut Re-Mix)”.
The soundtrack does have at least one more direct tie to LA, thanks to the group 7A3 and their song “Mad Mad World”. 7A3, consisting of two Brooklyn-born brothers and DJ Muggs (who would later become an accomplished producer with Cypress Hill) lived out in Cali, but their take was more universal, as rapper Brett E.B. addresses problems like famine in Ethiopia or Vietnam veterans. Still, what he says about teenagers with no future easily applies to adolescent gang members:
“Teenage years are full of complications
You go to school to get an education
never realizin’ that there’s a limitation
If you don’t get a job or a fresh occupation
With your parents there’s no communication
You feel a lotta fear, a lotta frustration
knowin’ your only destination
is to be a nobody in this population”
Considering the gangster glamourization that took over shortly after, 7A3 and even Ice-T belong to a generation aware of its responsibility towards a younger audience. In an odd twist of events, you can even witness Queensbridge’s own MC Shan telling kids that gangs are bad for them, just like drugs. His “A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Waste” portrays gang life as a purely negative lifestyle:
“When you say you knew somebody that was a gang member
you can’t say you know him, you can only remember
You have to live life all nervous and worried
But joinin’ a gang means you wanna be buried
It’s either that or jail cause there’s no other place
and a mind is a terrible thing to waste”
Listening to “A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Waste” today, it seems strange to hear a rapper adopt that clearly the position of an ADULT:
“Gangs are always violent but jail is rough
you go a man and you may leave a cream puff
You say you do crime cause you’re poverty-stricken
but so is everybody that you’re robbin’ and vickin’
Gangs ain’t gonna be around much longer
if 5 out of 10 become mentally stronger
My mother said bein’ in a gang ain’t nothin’
I didn’t listen to her cause I thought she was bluffin’
I thank her from my heart that she stayed on my case
made sure my mind didn’t just become another waste”
Maybe in 1988, chances were that kids out West would listen to an East Coast rapper like MC Shan. Four years later, Bronx bully Tim Dog reduced the statement to “all that gang shit’s for dumb muthafuckas,” and the song title was plain and simple “Fuck Compton”. But that was only after rap music was found gasping from an overdose of gangsterisms. Especially in hindsight of the gangsta rap debate, it’s nothing short of ironic that the soundtrack to _Colors_ is dominated by New York rappers. Even more ironically, next to Ice-T it’s Rick James, the only non-hip-hop act on here, that paints the most vivid portrait of street life on “Everywhere I Go (Colors)”:
“Your boy got busted, now he’s doin’ time
they caught that sucker in the middle of a crime
Trouble on the corner, jungle in the street
Everyone I know is tryin’ to make their ends meet
I feel like smokin’, I feel I’m gonna crack
I feel like fightin’ and breakin’ somebody’s back
The weak gotta perish, the strong, they will survive
that’s the law that keeps us all alive
Danger in the day and drama in the night
Who’s gonna say who’s wrong and who’s right?
Branded a beast when I was just a child
Now I’m just chillin’ before I go wild”
To sum it up, the legacy of this soundtrack lies in the fact that it was the first of many soundtracks to cater almost exclusively to a hip-hop audience (not counting soundtracks to old school flicks like _Wild Style_). Even though the _Colors_ score had a highly reputable composer in Herbie Hancock, Hopper compiled this soundtrack with Benny Medina, one of the key figures in hip-hop’s transition from underground to mainstream. They had to work with what little they had, as out West hip-hop was just beginning to put out product that could compete with New York. Even moreso, it’s astounding that Ice-T’s “Colors” was by far the key contribution to this soundtrack, turning not only into a landmark for West Coast rap but a classic period.