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.
At this time Gardiner began writing the script for what would be 4 Deep. Last month more than 270 people showed up for the movie's two-day premiere. "It's a milestone for me," he says. "It was versus tremendous odds. Lots of other African-American producers have tried to get their films on screen but have failed. For me, I always thought I could do one."
4 Deep's plot concerns the lives of four friends who have grown up in the city together. As they age, they each choose different lifestyles. One becomes a devout Christian. Another, a gang leader. Another, a police officer. And another, a good-hearted vagabond. Gardiner says the characterizations came from what he knew: working closely in a group of four men. He has sung in quartets (as bass) all his life.
"It's about choices," he says, summarizing the movie's grand idea. "Ultimately one guy makes a choice of a life of crime, and it affects everyone around him."
Making the movie cost $150,000, of which $40,000 came from Gardiner's pocket. "Making a movie was a natural progression for me," says Gardiner. "It's what I was telling everyone I could do."
The guys at Wreckshop had been talking about making a movie since Dixon started the company three years ago. Dixon already had about five script treatments written out before he approached his colleagues in September with the one for The Dirty Third . Of all his treatments, says Dixon, The Dirty Third 's was "most ready to go."
Dixon had never written a script before, but he and Wreckshop had produced a 44-minute documentary. With the help of Lionz Eye Entertainment, Ghetto Dreams, which details the life of deceased rapper Fat Pat, was released this past May. It is No. 6 on Southwest Wholesale's Top 50 video purchases chart, according to the distributor's November 15 newsletter.
"Movies was the next step," says mild-mannered Dixon, sitting in his studio offices off Bissonnet. "We wanted to develop the market here, do what was already going on in more mature rap markets."
A couple of days after Dixon showed his Dirty Third treatment to his artists, who would all play significant roles, the first round of auditions was held at the downtown Hilton. From a group of nearly 50, a handful of local hopefuls landed parts. Rehearsals followed. From the end of September till the middle of October, actors worked through scenes. They developed dialogue as they went. "That gives it a more real feel," says Tyte Eyez, a Wreckshop rapper who has a leading role in the movie.
Filming started at the end of October and lasted through the beginning of November. For about 18 hours every day, actors and film crews huddled around Claiborne and Delano streets in the Third Ward -- the camera and sound crews with their equipment, the actors with their motivations -- and shot take after take from various angles. Henry LeBlanc of Lionz Eye co-directed the movie with Dixon's brother Floyd Dixon.
"It's just another accomplishment," says Noke D, Wreckshop rapper and record producer (who, with fellow label mate Dirty Dollar, operates Platinum Soul Productions, a beat-making company). "It's just another thing we set out to do, something we dreamed about doing that's become a reality."
The film is about two inner-city "cliques" ("not gangs," says Tyte Eyez, "'cause that's not really what they are"), one that has influence and money, and another that has aspirations of influence and money. The smaller, less established clique, headed by Eyez in the role of Quintin, tries to knock the bigger clique, headed by Dixon as Big Street, off its pedestal, and all Houston breaks loose. Though most of the guys at Wreckshop say otherwise, ESG, arguably the label's brightest talent, thinks the content of the movie is worth as much as its promotional value.
"It's about family," says ESG, who relocated to Houston from Louisiana eight years ago and whose record Shinin' N' Grindin' was released earlier this year. He plays Action, a clique tough, in the movie. "Wreckshop cleared my head up to stay off the streets. And our personalities are pretty close to the ones on camera.
"We want to help our artists first, blow up the family first, which is why we all have specific roles. That's why it all fits like a puzzle. This movie's about two young guys growing up in Houston and it's a rivalry thing. That's day-to-day life. That's day-to-day life for us."
While the movie cost about $75,000 to make ("more than that damn Blair Witch," says ESG), marketing and selling the movie could run into the $300,000 range. "If we break even, we're all right," says Dirty Dollar. "It'll make it easier next time."
Dirty Third: The Album will be released a day after the movie's January premiere, even though the soundtrack was laid out before the movie was a gleam in Dixon's eye. "People been hearing us for three years," says Dirty Dollar. "Now people will get to see us and put names to the faces," or faces to the names.
Says Noke D: "It's just another promotional tool to sell records."
Or sell compassion. South Park Mexican, who actually has a role in The Dirty Third , says Hustletown , his record label's movie, will bring attention to the plight of urban Mexicans.
While a soundtrack is planned and music is being written for specific scenes, SPM (a.k.a. Carlos Coy) says the movie has an identity separate from the music. It has meaning. "The most dangerous thing in the world is a gifted Mexican," says SPM, himself a misguided savant who as an adolescent avoided time at a juvenile detention center by gaining admittance to a prestigious private Ivy League prep school only to get kicked out after one year. "A gifted Mexican is most likely to get in trouble. He'll take all his gifts and all his talents and use them to commit crimes.
"Mexicans have the lowest self-esteem. Because they do, they focus on each other. They're their own worst enemies."
The movie follows the life of SPM, from his single-parent upbringing to his dope peddling to his eventual incarnation as a rap superstar. Casting has just begun. Filming is tentatively set to begin in January. SPM expects the movie to cost about $80,000, before marketing and promotions.
Given that SPM's latest CD, 3rd Wish: To Rock the World, has already gathered 3,000 preorder sales, according to Southwest Wholesale, the Hustletown soundtrack, with its accompanying movie, does indeed have the potential to rock the world. Or at least the Southwest.
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