CB4 was made in 1993 as a satire of the hip-hop music and culture of that specific era. Marking its 30th anniversary this year, it maintains salience three decades later as a look at the quest for fame, and the role authenticity plays in it.
Directed by Tamra Davis — a veteran director of music videos who was married, for many years, to Mike D of the Beastie Boys — CB4 took the general structure of This is Spinal Tap and used it to satirize the rap groups of the time, mostly NWA and 2 Live Crew. Chris Rock starred in the film, while also co-writing it; it was his first big movie around the time he left Saturday Night Live.
The premise, and it’s a very good one, is that Albert (Rock), Euripides (Allen Payne), and Otis (Deezer D) are three decidedly middle-class friends from a fictional California suburb called Locash (named for the film’s co-screenwriter, Robert Locash, who wrote with Rock and veteran journalist Nelson George).
They love rap music but have no connections or any gangster or street credentials to speak of. But they do really love Run DMC:
After the local crime boss/nightclub impresario Gusto (a young Charlie Murphy) gets hauled off to jail, the trio decides to invent a completely fictitious backstory that they met in prison (Cell Block 4), with Albert adopting MC Gusto as his persona, with the other two becoming “Dead Mike” and “Stab Master Arson.”
Before long, they release hit singles called “Straight Outta Locash” and “Sweat From My Balls.” The songs themselves are both hilarious, and a reasonable approximation of the kind of rap singles that might conceivably have been hit songs in the early 1990s. And the three men are definitely affecting a much tougher and streetwise persona than their real selves.
The sophomoric, sex-obsessed lyrics are a homage to 2 Live Crew, while they play the exact song authorities have warned them not to play, like NWA did, both in Straight Outta Compton and in real life. One dorky rapper, “Wacky Dee,” is a very funny simultaneous parody of MC Hammer and C&C Music Factory. And the characters faking their background seems lifted from Vanilla Ice having done that a few years before this.
The group is also being followed around for a movie-length documentary by filmmaker “A. White” (Chris Elliott).
Soon, there’s conflict, both over women (a groupie named Sissy, played by Khandi Alexander, gets between members of the group), while a proto-Ron DeSantis politician (Phil Hartman) tries to get them arrested for obscenity, even as his son loves the music. The group is also drifting apart, as Dead Mike gets into Afrocentric politics, and Gusto has broken out of prison and is out for revenge.
CB4 is a consistently funny movie, clearly operating with a deep knowledge of the rap world as it existed at the start of the 1990s, although a case could be made that Fear of a Black Hat, which came out a few months later, was better. It likely remains the best movie Chris Rock has ever played a lead role in, and those songs really do still hold up.