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By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 12, 1993


Tamra Davis
Chris Rock;
Allen Payne;
Deezer D.;
Phil Hartman;
Art Evans;
Theresa Randle;
Willard E. Pugh;
Richard Gant;
Charlie Murphy;
Chris Elliott
profanity and sexual situations

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"CB4" is an inside-baseball "rapumentary" on hip-hop culture that scores most of its bountiful comic points just by being down with what's inside.

Written by music critic Nelson George and "Saturday Night Live's" Chris Rock (who also plays the lead role of Albert, a k a MC Gusto), the movie is part rap "Spinal Tap," part "Loaded Weapon I," part Mad magazine. And, like those forms of parodic tribute, it assumes a very specific knowledge of the performers, the music and videos being parodied, a certain level of hipness. In other words, if you don't know rap, forget about it. You'd do just as well taking an SAT prepared by extraterrestrials.

If you know the turf, though, you're in for some fun. The movie begins with a screening of rough footage from a documentary in progress by A. White (a far-from-hip white filmmaker played as a lost and slightly decayed member of the Brady Bunch by Chris Elliott), who has been hired by CB4 to chronicle their history as a group. CB4 -- which stands for "Cell Block 4" -- has achieved superstar status as the baddest of the gangster rappers. "I thought I was hard-core," Ice-T complains in a hilarious mock interview. "But these guys are serious! What am I supposed to do now?"

The hook for CB4 is that they aren't just artists mimicking the gangster style, they're supposed to be the real items, straight out of the joint. The lyrics on their No. 1 album, "Straight Out of Locash" (a parody of N.W.A.'s "Straight Outta Compton") are way past the point of parental guidance; they're downright filthy, but to such a ridiculous extreme that you have to laugh.

The movie has a junky, anything-goes spirit; if it gets a laugh, it makes the final cut. And while this criterion almost guarantees a certain amount of bad with the good, the good is often outrageously good -- for example, the fantasy sequence showing an aged Flavor Flav of Public Enemy at a rap artists' retirement home. Gusto's sidemen in the group, Otis (Deezer D) and Euripides (Allen Payne), are also cuttingly true to stereotype. Otis -- or as he's known in CB4, Stab Master Arson -- just wants to play music and meet some girls (a big-butt porno mag is his constant companion), while Euripides -- a k a Dead Mike -- becomes a convert to radical Africanism, which ultimately brings the group to a crisis point.

The meltdown had to come because though CB4 may be livin' large, it's also living a lie. The gangster pose is just that, an act that Albert dreamed up when the real Gusto (played with superstar menace by Charlie Murphy), a neighborhood thug, went to jail on a drug bust. They're not really from the streets (they're basically middle-class), and they're not really hard-core (they're actually kinda sweet). And now that the real Gusto has broken out of jail, they're in big trouble.

Most of the movie consists of Albert's telling the story of the group's rise to fame, but plot isn't "CB4's" strong point. Nor are the performances particularly startling. (And this includes Rock, who's had his moments on "SNL," but doesn't show much star charisma here.) Directed by Tamra Davis (who directed "Gun Crazy" and a slew of music videos), the film is primarily a collection of sight gags that lovingly poke fun at the whole rap scene, blaxploitation pictures and most of black culture. Davis uses her video experience well (she's played the A. White role herself a few times), and she gives the movie the right up-from-the-streets look and feel.

But there's an unexpected innocence mixed in here that helps to blunt the pointed raunchiness (and political incorrectness) of the subject. In "CB4," rap, at least in its early raw heyday, is already something of a distant phenomenon -- a fad to be looked on with affectionate (and tolerant) nostalgia. Even if the music is still hot and the videos are still playing on TV, hip-hop, per se, is shown as a musical revolution that has already evolved past the lewd infancy that is being lampooned. Rap is growing up, and watching "CB4" is like looking at baby pictures. It's fun to look back and laugh, even if the past was only yesterday.

"CB4" is rated R for profanity and sexual situations.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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