Every July and December, I look forward to the Solute movie gift exchange. I’ve gotten to watch classics I kept putting off seeing (The Last Temptation of Christ) or movies that contained two or three things that piqued my interest (Randy Newman’s score, a comedic performance from a young Keanu, and Steve Martin’s brief return to his balloon animal-making days in the original Parenthood) but otherwise never appealed to me, and that was why I skipped them. Sometimes the gift takes me out of my comfort zone (The Indian Runner).
I have yet to unwrap a stinker. (Please don’t gift me Slappy and the Stinkers.) Zulu is my least favorite movie out of the ones I’ve been gifted so far, but even that often wrongheaded epic still has a few things going for it (particularly the John Barry score and the solemn cop from the Peter Yates film Robbery—in the first draft of this paragraph, I mistakenly referred to the director of Robbery as Peter Hyams, as in the Capricorn One and Running Scared guy, because I occasionally mix up the two directors’ names—stealing Zulu as a mischievous malingerer).
Ruck Cohlchez has gifted MacGruber three times. My gifting method is to often gift movies that either star Asian performers (Together Together) or were directed by Asian Americans (Vietnamese American director Bao Tran’s The Paper Tigers, a great argument for why a lot of other American martial arts movies suck Spalding-sized balls, and they suck because you tend to erase us from the things we created, white Hollywood).
When Local Hero was one of the gifts in a recent gift exchange (not the latest one), I thought about grabbing a few highlights of that film’s terrific Mark Knopfler score and compiling them with themes from past Solute gift exchange entries for a mix that would function as an audio companion to one of the gift exchanges. But I completely forgot about the mix idea because I had a lot on my plate. (For example, I grew frustrated with the non-fiction book I had worked on for about a year and scrapped it to start work on a somewhat easier-to-write and completely different non-fiction book.)
Then the latest gift exchange took place, and a lot of the movies that were gifted this time contain original scores I’m fond of: Cowboy Bebop: Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, The Virgin Suicides, Sonatine, and 1994’s Crooklyn, an early ’70s period piece about the lone sister in a pack of difficult-to-wrangle siblings in a Bed-Stuy brownstone and their parents, an easygoing but financially clueless jazz pianist (Delroy Lindo in a change of pace from the role where I first saw him, the intimidating Jamaican gangster he played in Malcolm X) and a harried mom with a clear preference for her nine-year-old daughter over her more rambunctious sons. She’s played wonderfully by Alfre Woodard, who’s great in everything she appears in, whether it’s Star Trek: First Contact, a blockbuster I love, or Scrooged, a blockbuster I don’t care for because the movie-within-the-movie starring Lee Majors and Santa Claus is way better than the rest of the movie.
The 1994 Spike Lee Joint’s orchestral Terence Blanchard score remains unreleased, while “Crooklyn,” the end credits theme—beautifully accompanied by ’70s clips of the Soul Train Line from the classic dance show where Robi Reed, Lee’s casting director for Crooklyn and most of his earlier films, happened to be one of its dancers when she was a teen—is a hip-hop classic. Crooklyn‘s end credits sequence remains my favorite end credits sequence in a Spike Lee Joint, and I loved it so much in 1994 that I bought the cassingle of the end credits theme. That cassingle is still in a shoebox full of a bunch of other cassingles of ’90s hip-hop or R&B tracks, but I don’t know where that shoebox currently is in my parents’ garage.
While I’ve forgotten where I put the shoebox, I’ll never forget a projectionist addressing the audience right before the trailers that preceded my Crooklyn screening at the now-defunct Century Capitol 16 in San Jose so that she could warn us that the distorted look of the Aunt Song sequence wasn’t an accident. Lee shot the sequence in 2.35:1 but didn’t uncompress the anamorphic visuals because he wanted to illustrate how out of place Troy Carmichael, a nine-year-old Brooklynite and the stand-in for Joie Lee, the director’s sister and Crooklyn‘s primary screenwriter, feels at Aunt Song’s fancy house in suburban Virginia, an artistic move that annoyed many critics in 1994.
The Crooklyn end credits theme concludes the following 47-minute mix I quickly assembled because I thought it would be cool to have my favorite instrumentals from Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, Investigation, The Virgin Suicides, Sonatine, and a few other titles from the most recent gift exchange together with the Crooklyn theme on one mix. It’s entitled “Playing Hot Peas and Butter.”
“Can You Feel the Love Tonight” from The Lion King won Best Original Song at the 1995 Oscars. I never cared for it. I’ve never been into Disney show tunes. My favorite original song from a 1994 movie is a posse cut. Buckshot (from the group Black Moon, best known at the time on hip-hop radio for 1992’s “Who Got da Props?”) collabed with Special Ed, best known for 1989’s “I Got It Made,” and Masta Ace—whose “Born to Roll” single, an ode to lowrider culture, was getting lots of play on hip-hop radio and destroying motorists’ eardrums in 1994—to wax nostalgic about ’70s Brooklyn, the setting of the Lee siblings’ semi-autobiographical movie about their childhood, while Guru’s monotone voice, looped from another Brooklyn anthem, the 1992 Gang Starr track “The Place Where We Dwell,” repeatedly asserts, “Never taking shorts ’cause Brooklyn’s the borough.”
Q-Tip, the frontman of the Queens rap trio A Tribe Called Quest, and his ATCQ bandmate Ali Shaheed Muhammad produced the Crooklyn theme—Buckshot, Special Ed, and Ace were billed as the Crooklyn Dodgers in what ended up being their only track together—and it’s a spectacular ATCQ boom bap track in the mold of “Jazz (We’ve Got)” and “Award Tour,” except it’s without the voices of Tip and Phife Dawg. (However, Tip gets on the mic for only two seconds to make a brief callback to the early ATCQ track “Can I Kick It?”) In an excellent 2013 oral history Red Bull Music Academy did on the recording of the theme, Tip recalled the day when a certain Wu-Tang Clan member could have been a Crooklyn Dodger had he not objected to the film.
“[Spike Lee] just said he wanted Brooklyn MCs, so we had a screening of the movie and we had Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Masta Ace, Special Ed, Buckshot, a couple of other ones,” said Tip to Red Bull Music Academy. “We was watching the movie and ODB got up after ten minutes and was like, ‘Man, ain’t nobody getting shot in this movie!’ and walked out. So it was the MCs that was left that got on the record.”
ODB sounded just like one of the many white critics who dismissed Crooklyn in 1994 because either it didn’t fit their idea of Black cinema or they considered its coming-of-age subject matter to be fluffy for a Spike Lee Joint after a streak of provocative films that tackled colorism (School Daze), police brutality (Do the Right Thing), the debate of art vs. commerce in the jazz industry (Mo’ Better Blues), extramarital interracial affairs (Jungle Fever), crack addiction (Jungle Fever again), and systematic racism (Malcolm X). In what world is the predicament of preteen siblings losing their mom to cancer fluffy?
Originally entitled Hot Peas and Butter, Crooklyn was one of many films I reviewed for the San Jose Mercury News when I was one of the paper’s high-school-aged movie reviewers, and I enjoyed the film so much that I couldn’t control my enthusiasm in the sentences I wrote. At one point, I mashed together one massive sentence about the opening title sequence—a montage of Bed-Stuy kids playing street games and Strat-O-Matic Baseball to the tune of the 1971 Stylistics track “People Make the World Go Round”—and a later scene in a bodega where RuPaul dances to the Joe Cuba Sextet’s “El Pito (I’ll Never Go Back to Georgia),” one of many amazing songs Crooklyn introduced me to. It was such a terrible run-on sentence that the editor rewrote my ungainly monstrosity so that the sentence now said that RuPaul was dancing in the opening titles. RuPaul does not ever appear in the opening titles.
I wanted so badly in the reviews I contributed to the Merc to have the verbal dexterity Buckshot, Special Ed, and Ace displayed in “Crooklyn.” I simply didn’t. I wished I could be singsongy like Buckshot and brilliantly rhyme “Howard, Tapscott, and Sutter” with “playing Hot Peas and Butter.”
My favorite verse in “Crooklyn” is particularly dexterous: Ace wittily imagines a bunch of bumbling or wholesome ’70s sitcom characters as ’90s thugs (“Reuben Kincaid drives a 300E/And he be pimping Chrissy from Three’s Company“).
“When Spike opened the movie and I saw how they were dressed, it made me really remember being in Brooklyn growing up,” said Ace about the creation of his “Reuben Kincaid drives a 300E” verse to Red Bull Music Academy. “The one thing that stood out to me as a kid was sitting with my grandmother and watching a bunch of different programs when we’d watch TV together. We’d watch The Partridge Family, we’d watch Barney Miller. I thought it would be a cool thing to talk about some of the characters on the TV shows and kinda put it into a more current what-they-might-be-doing-now angle, being that it’s not the ’70s any more and it’s the ’90s now, 20 years later, and stuff is a little more street and a little more wild. I tried to bridge the ’70s and the ’90s.”
And that’s why “Crooklyn” works as a closing theme to a ’70s period piece, while the 1978 Frankie Valli/Barry Gibb disco hit “Grease” fails as an opening theme to a ’50s period piece. “[The Valli/Gibb theme] sounds nothing like any of the songs that appear later in the movie,” complained Tom Breihan in his deep dive into the Valli/Gibb song for Stereogum‘s “The Number Ones” column, where he also said, “My best guess is that [Grease producer Robert] Stigwood asked Gibb to write a song called ‘Grease’ without telling him a single thing about [the film].” Outside the context of Grease, it’s okay as disco—in fact, Prince Paul loved its opening horn break so much that he sampled it in the 1991 De La Soul classic “A Roller Skating Jam Named ‘Saturdays,’ ” while the late, great J Dilla loved the Valli/Gibb song even more and sampled it more than once—but within Randal Kleiser’s movie, it’s an awkward fit because it doesn’t acknowledge the ’50s or even attempt to sound like the decade, whereas Buckshot, Special Ed, and Ace rap about their longing for ’70s Brooklyn and joke about how much the borough has changed since then.
The end credits theme is a clever way to transition the audience from the innocence of the early ’70s to a present we’re trapped in: a world where Dwayne Nelson would be running around Watts with a Glock in his hand instead of the basketball he dribbled in the What’s Happening!! opening and closing credits. Beats-wise, “Crooklyn” doesn’t really sound like something from the ’70s. It’s not conventionally ’70s like last year’s Diana Ross/Tame Impala tune “Turn Up the Sunshine,” an enjoyable throwback to Ross disco anthems Tame Impala founder Kevin Parker, super-producer Jack Antonoff, Sam Dew, and Patrik Berger wrote for Minions: The Rise of Gru, or Tip’s own song “Barely in Love” from his 2009 album Kamaal the Abstract. But if you listen closely to the horn stabs and string riffs Tip sampled in “Crooklyn,” they’re bits and pieces of the jazz records he grew up hearing. Tip, a musical genius, doesn’t interpret the ’70s like how ordinary, non-music-making you and I interpret the decade. He doesn’t hear wah-wah guitars, which are such a tired shorthand for “the ’70s” that whenever a white character in a present-day sitcom says “Bomp-chicka-bomp-bomp” as a punchline to dialogue about sex, I want to throw my MacBook across the room.
Can we throw “Bomp-chicka-bomp-bomp” into a tire fire, along with “Okay, good talk. Good talk…” and all those other overused sitcom phrases from that Workaholics writers’ room whiteboard pic that went viral about seven years ago?
Meanwhile, Buckshot, Special Ed, and Ace’s Crooklyn theme, like so many other ATCQ tracks, is a head-noddingly catchy gem that stands the test of time, and I enjoyed revisiting it while assembling “Playing Hot Peas and Butter.” It wasn’t the first original song to conclude a Spike Lee Joint on a perfect note (Gang Starr’s “Jazz Thing,” the result of a suggestion from Lee to Guru to build a track out of a poem journalist and future Bosch co-producer Lolis Eric Elie wrote about jazz history, was an effective coda to Mo’ Better Blues), and it definitely wasn’t the last.