It’s difficult to fathom that 1990 was 30 years ago. It’s even more difficult to fathom that hip-hop saw its golden age peak just around this time. The late 1980s saw hip-hop quickly transition from what was widely-viewed as a temporary fad by the general public to a legitimate genre with a developed identity. Gone were the days of Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five and the Sugar Hill Gang. No more were Kurtis Blow and Whodini. Even more resilient names like Run-D.M.C. and LL Cool J faced stiff competition with the abundance of robust talent surfacing towards the end of the decade.
During this period, hip-hop metamorphose beyond 808 drums and beatboxing. 1988 discerned the origins of profane lyricism and gangsta rap as N.W.A shook-up broadcast radio with Straight Outta Compton. Public Enemy returned with an onslaught of politically-charged rhetoric regarding racial unrest with, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Slick Rick’s debut The Great Adventures of Slick Rick served as a Picassian touchstone to painterly storytelling in hip-hop. Even Eric B. & Rakim would further elevate lyricism with their internal multi-syllabic rhyme schemes on Follow the Leader.
This shifting nature would prove to be an evolution rather than an identity crisis. Despite the genre encompassing uneasy subjectivity like the inner-city lifestyles and protest oratory, there was a small few that straightforwardly attempted to maintain the innocence and cheeriness that hip-hop once engirdled during its humble beginnings.
Enter Kid ‘N Play, DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, who were considered Giacomo Casanovas of the genre as opposed to the Gil-Scott Herons that were Chuck D, KRS-One, and Ice Cube. At the time, if you were looking for clean fun hip-hop to listen to in 1988, Kid ‘N Play and DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince was one’s ticket to positivity, emphasizing in their recordings the importance of living in the moment, celebrating with friends and family, and just flat-out having clean fun.
You may know DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince as West Philadelphia natives Jeff Townes and Will Smith, simply by their streamlined catalog featuring masterstrokes like He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper and Homebase. With smash hits like “Summertime” and “Parents Don’t Understand,” they have been practically a household name for the better part of 35 years even winning hip-hop’s first Grammy Award in 1989 for the latter. We all know Will Smith embarked an eminent acting career receiving Oscar nods and commanding one of the highest salaries in Hollywood. The conversation of Smith is truly commonplace, given his backlog of work as well as his signature charisma, but after three decades no one seems to talks about the legacy of hip-hop’s other tongue-in-cheek twosome: Kid ‘N Play.
The New York City tag team were cut from the same bubblegum rap cloth as Townes and Smith, but had a slight lyrical edge over the latter. Consisting of Christopher “Kid” Reid and Christopher “Play” Martin, the duo released their debut album 2 Hype in 1988 and, despite not achieving the unworldly status of that year’s aforementioned albums, 2 Hype catapulted the tandem into commercial prosperity, with “Rollin’ With Kid ‘N Play” becoming a monster single on the airwaves. While not as successful as DJ Jazzy & The Fresh Prince, the duo still took a page out of Will Smith’s book and hurtled for the silver screen in Reginald Hudlin’s House Party, released on March 9, 1990.
The opportunity for Kid ‘N Play to star in House Party followed shortly after DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, in a twist of irony, turned down New Line Cinema’s offer to topline the project. Hudlin compiled the screenplay with Townes and Smith specifically in mind but, due to a legal settlement and contractual obligations with ABC’s The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, the duo passed. Nevertheless, Hudlin was able to recruit Reid and Martin and would go on to capture one of the most eccentric coming-of-age films released at the dawn of the 1990s.
Despite its coming-of-age label, House Party is undoubtedly a comedy from head to toe. That being said it’s a rather outlandish comedy: reeking of silliness, but with a rich musk of charm and intelligence. Kid ‘N Play essentially play fictionalized caricatures of themselves who want to host a party after the school day concludes. However Kid has a rough encounter with a group of bullies (played by the 1980s R&B trio Full Force) over literally spilt milk, which leads to Stab making a malicious comment about Kid’s deceased mother. Their fight is reported to Kid’s overworked father Pops via mail, who forbids his son from attending the party as punishment. Giving into peer pressure by Play, however, Kid escapes his bedroom on a last ditch effort to have the time of his life and to potentially meet the girl of his dreams. Along the way to the party, they encounter the police, Stab and his cohorts, and some bizarre neighborhood characters that make for an unforgettable night.
Judging the film on its premise alone, House Party reads off as a very simple yet uncluttered comedy. As the plot progresses, however, you realize that the house party itself isn’t the real narrative focus, but rather the relationships of Kid, Play and their fellow peers. Being a goofball comedy first, with plenty of slapstick and slick 1990s lingo that sadly shows its age, House Party features a good amount of heartfelt moments examining the constructs of friendship, love, self-preservation, and moral consciousness. It even touches on the precipice of a single father and son relationship during one’s adolescence.
Unlike previous coming-of-age films like John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club and 16 Candles, House Party has a sense of whimsy and style that keeps a smile on your face despite the challenges its protagonists encounter. While Hughes managed to neatly balance elements of comedy and drama in his works, Hudlin wrote comedy in the presence of mature content while also not taking itself too serious. It’s probably one of House Party’s best qualities, because the film never surrenders its enticement for dramatization and when Kid and Play do face turmoil (i.e. being arrested, getting reprimanded for misconduct) it is generally met with laughter and glee. Hudlin’s uncanny ability to take issues like family dynamics, sexuality, police brutality and racial profiling and apply some kind of humorous spin to them was a rarity for the time. Looking back, it makes you wonder whether or not this kind of content could be humanized and further depicted in a satirical manner today.
House Party was never going to turn in an Academy Award-winning performance but it does feature a remarkable cast that would rouse any viewer. Hudlin’s castings outside of Kid ‘N Play were all dead-on, especially in regards to acquiring comedic talent. With the Full Force playing the questionably-dressed bullies, audiences are introduced to a young Martin Lawrence in his first substantial role as Bilal, Tisha Campbell as Sydney, A.J. Johnson as Sharane, Daryl Mitchell as Chill and some uproarious performances from late comedians Robin Harris as Pops and John Witherspoon as Mr. Strickland. Even George Clinton of the Parliament makes a unwonted appearance as an old disc jockey hosting a black tie gala that Kid and the bullies crash.
Kid ‘N Play are no Denzel Washington and Mahershala Ali, but they don’t have to be, especially given the film’s clownish tone. Like their recordings, the duo have an infectious synergy that parallels the dynamic between Seth Rogen and James Franco, especially during the iconic dance-off and their versatile performance of “Kid Vs. Play (The Battle).” The way in which they freestyle over Bilal’s funky instrumental just screams 1990s hip-hop from the mountains. These two rappers bring their chemistry from the recording booth to the film set and the results leave one grinning, especially over a jazzy score compiled by Marcus Miller and Lenny White.
House Party, despite featuring some aged references like Pops’ callbacks to older media like Dolemite, as well as sporting some vibrant early 1990s fashion, remains a solid teen farce that holds up just enough 30 years later. The comedy is cohesive between its principle characters and the drama, while seldom, is quite subtle and even relatable at times. Some of the jokes have a measure of cheesiness to them, but never to the extent where the final product is unwatchable. This isn’t a mindless comedy that glorifies sex and misconduct like John Landis’ Animal House, nor is it a grand cinematic opus that challenges viewers with extreme moral inclination and social commentary like Rob Reiner’s The American President.
The story of House Party is easygoing at best and assures moviegoers that it will be both amusing and provoking. Much like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, its release played a gargantuan role in integrating hip-hop within mainstream culture, even spawning two sequels and an animated series. In the same vein as Kid’s signature hi-top fade, House Party still stands tall with all of its dimensions in conjunction as 2020 commences.