De Palma’s Scarface became a language unto itself in the early days of hip hop, and continues to inform the language of rap music to this very day. The arc of Tony Montana’s tale from destitute exile in a hopeless city to riches and indulgence beyond the dreams of mere mortals obviously draws some parallels with the rise of the gangster rapper from the ghetto to the top, with the shortcut of selling drugs seen as the secret to escaping poverty and destitution. Oliver Stone’s script is an indulgent and dramatic rewriting of the 1932 Howard Hawks film - he apparently mined his own experiences with cocaine addiction for the film.
Little did De Palma and Stone know that the film would become such a massive influence on a genre of music that was at the time just coming into its own, and was still a couple of decades away from being the most significant musical movement of the modern era. The film in its own right would surely have sustained some legacy had it not created this impact, but legions of new fans have become exposed to the film due to its referential status.
In the documentary Def Jam Presents Scarface: Origins of a Hip Hop Classic, the Wu-Tang Clan’s Raekwon describes Scarface as the bible of hip hop, and the film does take on Tony Montana’s epic tale in a biblical sense. Our anti-hero deals with moral dilemmas at every turn, with such desperation not just for survival but ultimate wealth there’s going to be some human casualties along the way. Montana speaks with a poetic Cuban slant to his wisdom, which he spells out along the way like a dark prophet. Raekwon’s classic Wu-Tang era solo album Only Built 4 Cuban Linx is dripping with references to the film, not least in the single Incarcerated Scarfaces.
Even though evidence of Scarface’s influence are still apparent today, it was very early in hip hop’s origins that the text was originally borrowed. Coming up alongside NWA, the Geto Boys also used the tales of selling drugs and criminal activity as a way out of poverty, with Brad Terrance-Jordan borrowing the title of the film for his rap "nom de plume" in 1989.
“I bury those cockroaches,” snarled a still voraciously political Ice Cube on his monster 1992 track When Will They Shoot lashing out at attempts to silence rap music as its influence became more and more obvious on the mainstream.
One of the most quintessential tracks of the '90s golden era of hip hop owes its entire mantra to the film. Nas’ huge smash The World Is Yours from the genre defining album Illmatic. It’s a reference from an inscription on a statue in Montana’s ridiculously lavish mansion peeped towards the end of the film, after Montana himself having earlier seen the message on a blimp – a mantra for the essence of the film that we are made aware Montana has taken on board. NY State Of Mind from the same album also mentions Scarface sniffing cocaine, holding an M16.
Atlanta rapper Future included the track Tony Montana on his 2012 debut album, referencing Cuban cigars and banana boats, while Coke Boys Records guru’s Karim Kharbouch aka French Montana’s reverence for the myth and the anti-hero should be quite obvious.
Interestingly the score and the soundtrack to the film is remarkable, but a long way away from the hip hop that it inspired. Giorgio Moroder’s atmospheric synthesizer style was however incredibly influential on score music of the time, and his use of new wave pop songs produced and written by himself with guest vocalists was a stroke of genius, and became blueprints for the future of '80s film, such as the hilarious and over the top Push It To The Limit (sung by Paul Engemenn) which was subsequently copied for every '80s montage comedy action scene.
'Scarface' screens on Monday 1 May, 8:30pm on SBS VICELAND (no catch-up).