Mid90s is Jonah Hill's autobiographical coming-of-age film about a 13-year-old kid who survives a rough home life in Los Angeles by adopting a group of teen skateboarders as his surrogate family. The kids come from various ethnic backgrounds. And they skate to one of the best hip-hop soundtracks ever assembled.
"You know how in movies set in the '70s you always see people listening to classic rock on their headphones?" Hill asks during a phone interview in the midst of rehearsing for his recent hosting gig on Saturday Night Live. "That was me with hip-hop. It's just the emotional backbone and soundtrack of me growing up."
I asked Hill to explain what five different songs in the film mean to him. Here are his edited responses.
1. "93 'Til Infinity," Souls of Mischief — The Souls were part of the Oakland hip-hop collective Hieroglyphics, and "93" brought them national recognition with it's silky-smooth production and nimble wordplay.
"If you were into hip-hop in the early and mid-'90s, the West Coast was mostly known for gangsta rap," Hills says. "When the Pharcyde and Hieroglyphics came out, it was an artsy hip-hop style for the West Coast, and that was a big deal. It was a game changer for me. Skateboarding to those albums was part of the soundtrack of me growing up."
2. Cypress Hill, "When the [expletive] Goes Down," Cypress Hill — L.A.'s Cypress Hill, pioneers in Latino hip-hop, didn't just rap about weed; their beats actually sounded stoned. Rhyming over the slow, easy sample of the Outlaw Blues Band's "Deep Gully," Cypress Hill conjured their signature blend of menacing and mellow.
"They were huge for me," Hill says. "A lot of the people I grew up skating with were Hispanic. To have a band from that culture come out with such an incredible album and have a voice in hip-hop in a big way was a big deal to a lot of my friends. And the album is just incredible. Shout out to Cypress Hill."
3. "Liquid Swords," GZA — The title track of perhaps the best solo album to come out of the Wu-Tang Clan, "Swords," like most of the album, uses ample dialogue from the 1980 Japanese movie Shogun Assassin. Hill was particularly proud that he left in a key Shogun line to mark the transition between the second and third acts of Mid90s: "This was the night everything changed."
"It's one of those things where if you know that song you're like, 'I can't believe he left that in there. That's so cool,'" Hill says. "Getting to play a song off of Liquid Swords as opposed to just a Wu-Tang song, that speaks to a serious hip-hop fan because it's a deeper cut off one of the greatest albums of all time."
4. "Watermelon Man," Herbie Hancock — Here's one of the non-hip-hop tracks sprinkled throughout Mid90s. Hill uses the track (not the original version but the funked-up version off the Headhunters album) in a pivotal party scene, but the song is also a shout-out to the king of skate videos.
"The song is used in one of the most famous Spike Jonze skate videos, Mouse," Hill says. "For me it perfectly represented the chaos and confusion of this new world this kid is entering. He's going to this party and dealing with the opposite sex for the first time in a way he's not ready for. But it's also a nod to anyone who skated during that time."
5. "Sucka Nigga," A Tribe Called Quest — There was a lot of buzz when Hill explained in interviews how he emailed Morrissey to ask for permission to use "We'll Let You Know." Well, it turns out he's also buddies with the Tribe's leader Q-Tip. This song, from the groundbreaking Midnight Marauders album, is a serious but humorous take on a flammable epithet.
"I chose that song because it reflects the conversation the kids are having in that scene," Hill says. "They're having a pretty deep and touchy discussion about sensitive subject matter, but it's framed as humor. When I talked to Q-Tip about that song, he said the beat is so fun and palatable and bouncy, but the subject matter is actually quite serious."