By Chris Gray
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At the corner of Jones and West roads in the northern part of town stood a launderette where Larry Gardiner used to take his family's clothes every Sunday morning. Feeling inspired one particular Sunday five years ago, Gardiner brought with him a legal pad and pen. By the time his laundry was through, Gardiner had written 19 pages of dialogue for a movie to be called Caught in the Crossfire.
"I was excited," says Gardiner, a video producer with ties to the local rap world. "The stuff I was writing was making sense. My wife read it when I got home, and she liked it. So I did a tablet and a half, and everything else I typed." Though the title has changed, Gardiner's mostly handwritten movie came to life in October when 4 Deep had its premiere at the AMC theater on Dunvale.
Though long in coming, the moviemaking bug has finally infected the Houston rap community. Two other independent films created by two talented rap labels will be in local theaters next year. But unlike earlier rap-related releases, which were mostly national in scope and distribution, these three flicks -- Wreckshop Records' The Dirty Third, Dope House Records' Hustletown and Gardiner's 4 Deep -- are Houston-based and likely won't see screen time in theaters beyond the Third Coast.
Plus, there are the soundtracks, which, for urban movies, are almost always more substantial than the accompanying films. This fact isn't lost on these Houston auteurs.
"[The Dirty Third] is a film to support a soundtrack," says Wreckshop president D-Reck Dixon, frankly. "Not the other way around."
In 1985 rap hit the silver screen nationwide via Krush Groove, a Warner Bros. production about rap's early days in the Bronx. It was produced by Doug McHenry and George Jackson, who would later put out two other urban fairy tales, New Jack City and Jason's Lyric, the latter filmed in Houston. Rap in the movies became commonplace about ten years ago when Friday, House Party and Boyz N the Hood brought black culture squarely into the mainstream movie complex.
Like rap music itself, which is relatively cheap to produce, these films generated huge profits. Friday, starring rapper Ice Cube, was created for $4 million. It grossed $28 million. House Party was made for $2.5 million. It grossed $25 million. And, the biggest winner, Boyz N the Hood, was created for $4 million. It grossed $48 million. Needless to say, the soundtracks for these three movies scaled Billboard's Top 200 albums chart.
Of course, these films had two things going for them, major motion-picture company backing and star power: Krush Groove's Kurtis Blow and LL Cool J, Friday's Ice Cube and House Party's Kid 'N Play. It wasn't until independent films in general became mainstream about five years ago that many rap artists -- themselves independent businessmen by virtue of their small record labels -- saw the moneymaking potential of movies. Independent movies.
The first to go from successful independent record mogul to successful independent filmmaker was Master P. I'm 'Bout It, 'Bout It, P's first effort, went straight to video, but his second, I Got the Hook Up, was picked up by Dimension Films (a division of Miramax) and released in 1998. It brought in $10.3 million, and the accompanying soundtrack on P's No Limit label went platinum. While the movie was no better plotted than an episode of America's Funniest Home Videos, the concurrently released soundtrack was decent. About this time the idea that movies could sell music -- rap music -- caught on and began to spread.
Of the three local movies vying (or soon to be vying) for Houstonians' attention and money, Gardiner's 4 Deep has the potential to be the most substantial piece of cinema, though the soundtrack, which is "inspired" by the movie and features tunes from Lil' Keke, Yungstar, South Park Mexican and Lil' Flip, among others, isn't bad either. It, too, was released in October.
The fact that three independent, inner-city, street-life films are cropping up in Houston today is novel. That Gardiner's film may even have some substance is weirder still, considering his lack of time, money and filmmaking experience. But if Gardiner's movie has any cinematic heft, as opposed to just musical and/or symbolic, it is because Gardiner and his production company, Irie Productions, are behind it.
Gardiner came to America from England by way of Jamaica in 1979. Even though his educational background is in computer programming and architectural drafting, his work experience is in video.
After relocating to Houston from Florida in 1986 and gaining technical video experience as a volunteer at Channel 39, previously Houston's all-access station, Gardiner began churning out corporate videos. His first client was Technica, a geophysics company. "It cost me $500 to make their video, and I charged them $2,500," says Gardiner. "That was the bug."
Gardiner was still working in computer programming when he opened his own video production company in the Clear Lake area. In October 1989 USM Productions, with Gardiner as its only employee, was taking orders from large corporations such as Carrier.
Through a series of networking gatherings, Gardiner met Carlton Joshua at Rap-A-Lot Records. "He gave me my first small break," says Gardiner. That break came in the form of two national commercials for a pair of Rap-A-Lot artists with new CDs. Soon after, entertainment jobs came in by the truckload. By 1995 Gardiner was the best rap commercial producer in Houston.