“I do whatever for the dollar, you know me I’m Tommy Brown…”
This is how the opening monologue to Hype Williams’ 1998 debut film Belly ends. Afterward, the camera quickly moves to the mesmerizing and classic robbery scene that captivated every viewer who saw the movie that year. Lit in an ultraviolet filter and scored by an acappella version of Soul II Soul’s “Back To Life (However Do You Want Me),” the film opens with the viewer warped into a world of crime, drugs, and sex through the direction of Hype Williams and the alluring cinematography of Malik Hassan Sayeed. They had done the unthinkable – they created a 96-minute music video.
When Belly came out in 1998, the “hood classic” reigned supreme with a slew of feature films marked by not only their coming-of-age storylines but their musical selections. Think Master P’s Foolish and I Got the Hook-Up. Just as these films did with No Limit, Belly tapped into the wealth of talent at Def Jam Recordings for a soundtrack with cuts from rising hip-hop stars to support the movie. The film, which starred DMX and Nas, tells the story of two friends and their lives as street criminals. Nas’ character, Sincere, longs for a life outside of crime, while DMX’s character Tommy sinks further into the drug game. Their lives take a turn after Tommy makes a huge decision that could end up costing them their lives, and threatening their illegal business.
Upon its release in 1998, CNN movie critic Paul Tatara said: “There is no actual story, or, at least, no story that you could understand as spoken by the characters,” a sentiment that was mimicked by many critics. But where the plot lacks, the soundtrack plays a vital role in connecting music to the characters and their lives.
Released by Def Jam a few days ahead of the film, the first single, “Grand Finale,” set the tone for the movie. The track opens with DMX saying: “I ain’t going back to jail. Next time, the county or the state see me it’s gonna be in a bag,” a line from the movie which captures his character Tommy’s unbreakable bond to his criminal lifestyle that had given him so much. Method Man takes the opening verse rapping about dead friends, homicide, and robberies; a life all too familiar to his character, Shameek a.k.a. Father Sha, who is called upon to take out Tommy and eventually kills a local drug dealer. Nas seemingly raps in the voice of his character Sincere, alluding to jail as the “belly of the beast,” saying that it “ love[s] to eat black meat.” His verse is a sentiment not too far off from his character, who is seemingly more enlightened and intellectual than his counterpart Tommy.
On “Story To Tell,” which was originally released on Ja Rule‘s album Venni, Vetti, Vecci, he details a multi-city drug operation just like Tommy’s which touches Omaha, Jamaica, Queens, and Atlanta. He speaks from the perspective of a drug-dealing veteran who knows the game, and acknowledges the allure and luxury that comes with it. In Belly, Tommy faces jail time and death, however, the younger generation still looks up to him.
The score in Belly also helped bring all of these ideas together. As mentioned above, Soul II Soul set the tone early, while Dancehall infiltrates the movie with tracks like Sister Nancy’s “Bam Bam,” “Sucky Ducky” by Mr. Vegas, and “Top Shotter” which features DMX, Mr. Vegas, and Sean Paul. A major plot in the film is Tommy’s relationship with a Jamaican drug lord named “Ox.” The movie utilizes this genre of music to further immerse the viewer into the seedy world of crime in Jamaica.
A New York Times review of Belly said that it was a “film that begs for a pat on the head for its virtue while catering to cinematic tastes more interested in crotch shots, topless dancers, wall-sized television screens, ganja galore and, wherever possible.” The review tackled the movie’s theme of glamour and materialism – but leaves out a key message.
D’Angelo‘s “Devil’s Pie,” originally released on his Voodoo album, breaks through the film’s over-glamourization of drugs. He compares the lifestyle to, literally, “devils pie,” a metaphor for the vices that align with “street” culture. The track plays after a scene where a Reverand convinces Tommy not to kill him in a soliloquy that connects the youth’s fascination with drugs, sex, and guns to their lack of spiritual connection. His message is central to D’Angelo’s, who denounces the sinful desires and activities of the youth – taking drugs, violent gang activity, and illicit sexual relationships. This song is an indictment of people like Tommy and his girlfriend Keisha, who are addicted to these vices and the rush that wealth and their high-stakes lifestyle rings them.
The Belly soundtrack was not only just a landmark in hip-hop movies, but it was also a deeper observation of the characters that inspired it. Even though Tommy and Sincere are fictional, their stories and the consequences of their lifestyles resonated in the music that we listen to then and now.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2018.