On a somber April afternoon at the W Hotel in West Hollywood, music producer Arthur Baker sat down to interview Oscar-nominated filmmaker John Singleton, as part of the International Music Summit’s fourth annual IMS Engage event.
The day-long event took place April 21, 2016, a conference celebrating leaders in “music, technology, film and futurism” with guest speakers like Live Nation’s James Barton, broadcaster and artist Pete Tong, and others—though the festivities were marred somewhat by the sudden passing of Prince, announced in the early morning.
Singleton, a big fan, was quick to take the opportunity to commemorate the musician during his talk. After playing a segment of Purple Rain to open up, the director and Baker went on to an hour-long discussion of music in cinema, as well as his use of music within his films, such as Boyz n the Hood, Poetic Justice and Four Brothers.
With his nomination for Boyz n the Hood at the age of 24, Singleton remains the youngest person and only first black director to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director. Music plays a huge part in his filmmaking, from the evocative, emotional soul and R&B that soundtracks his movies, to his role launching the acting careers of Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris, Ice Cube and Janet Jackson.
Watch the video for a fantastic in-depth conversation with Singleton, in which he plays scenes from his films and discusses the music in each. We’ve also excerpted some of the highlights below.
On when he knew he wanted to make movies:
“At 9 years old, when I saw Star Wars. It was the first movie I saw many, many times. I grew up in Inglewood next to a drive-in theater, the Century Drive-In. I used to sit and watch movies outside my mom’s apartment. We’d see just the images: Kung fu movies, B horror films and blaxploitation movies, and they would be silent because we didn’t have the sound. I say that in a way, Pam Grier’s tits inspired me to make movies, because I used to see Pam Grier shake her tits and stuff on the big screen.”
On Prince and Purple Rain:
“I’ve always used this picture as a Citizen Kane of musical films because the prerecords that he did not only move the story together, they have a resonance to them… I hope that his passing inspires a whole new generation of people to play as many different instruments as possible and explore different avenues in music as possible.”
On musical genres he loves:
“For me, my main influences have always really been early 1970s soul and R&B. That was the music that I always wistfully go back in, and I think about growing up black and poor in American in South Central Los Angeles, thinking, ‘These are the records that my momma played, that my aunts played, that my father played as he’s rolling in his blue drop top Impala down Century Boulevard [on an] 8-track.’ This is the music that got us through hard times.”
On whether he plays actors music before the scene rolls:
“Always. For [the opening scene to Four Brothers], I played the music on the set while I was shooting to get the emotion of what we’re trying to do, and to get people in the mood of what we’re trying to do.”
On featuring Marvin Gaye in a scene in Baby Boy:
“There’s something in film we call source music, where it’s in the scene, playing as the characters are hearing it. This is an example of a song going from source to score. Sometimes pictures use music just as source, or score. But this is an example of what I call, with my editors, ‘scource.’ It starts one way and then builds up and becomes something else, when we really get going on something… You’re paying so much money licensing the song—you’re like, damn, you wanna really use it, not just a piece of it.
That was a Marvin tune, and Marvin Gaye’s one of my favorite soul artists of all time. I heard that tune, and it’s not one of the more popular tunes, it’s not really a hit song, but it has such emotion there, and I’m said, ‘Man I gotta use this in a movie one day.'”
On directing musicians who are non-actors:
“I feel like most rappers are actors anyway. Everybody’s trying to project an image of what they want to be, as opposed to what they actually are. A lot of people that I work with, I’m from where they’re from; I’m the cat that can beat and bang on ’em, like, ‘Listen, this is what I need out of you.’ For better or worse, I’ve given careers to people in music to make a transition into acting, so that they take acting seriously as an art. Because it’s a whole separate art. You throw all that other stuff to the side, all the pretension to the side—there’s a construction that goes into acting, it’s not just memorization. It’s a whole thing of embodying yourself into a character, and being selfless.”
On recent musical biopics:
“I think that music-based films should only be made by people who are truly fans of the music. They fucked up James Brown [with Get On Up], they fucked up Nina Simone [in Nina], they’re gonna fuck up Tupac [in the upcoming biopic All Eyez On Me] until I get a chance to make my version of it… They didn’t see eye to eye with what I wanted to do. They wanted to make a movie about a rapper, and Tupac was much more than a rapper. I’ll just be polite, but It’s making me mad just thinking about this shit.”
On the current state of rap music:
“There’s a couple artists that I really like who are doing different things, of course. Kendrick Lamar: I love what he’s doing. I don’t even think we can call him a rapper, I think calling Kendrick Lamar a rapper is an insult, I think he’s more of a performance artist. I think he’s an artist in the sense of the way that that artists used to be—black artists in the ’40s and ’30s where they’re innovators.” MM
IMS Engage 2016 took place April 21, 2016 at the W Hotel in West Hollywood.