Jonah Hill Tells Us Why ‘Above The Rim’ Is the Greatest Movie Soundtrack Ever
The writer and director of 'Mid90s' shares his love for Nate Dogg and why he decided not to release a physical version of the film's soundtrack.
Photo courtesy of A24/ Photo via the film 'Above The Rim'
It’s 2018 and Jonah Hill has made an actual goddamn masterpiece. His debut feature Mid90s, written and directed by Hill and in theatres now, is a stark, hilarious, and deeply emotional coming-of-age movie about a 13-year-old boy (Sunny Suljic) who befriends a group of teen skateboarders so he can escape his violent household. It’s as personal as taking a long look inside his childhood bedroom, reflecting the actor-turned-auteur’s obsessive love of California skate culture and Death Row-era hip-hop. But even after you take in Mid90s’ sumptuous cinematography (the film is shot on Super 16mm in the sun-kissed parking lots and avenues of downtown Los Angeles), and heartbreaking performances by a cast of brilliant newcomers (it’s seriously Goodfellas with tweens), one fact remains undeniable: Jonah Hill has really fucking good taste in music. “My whole writing process is all about listening to music; I wrote every scene to these songs,” says Hill on the phone from New York, the day before he’ll host SNL for a record fifth time. “So yeah, a huge part of this film was about creating the ultimate hip-hop soundtrack that was also the backbone of my youth.”
This noble cause is Hill’s to die on. While the late nineties and early aughts were full of best-selling hip-hop soundtracks (see: 8 Mile, the Friday movies, Belly, 50 Cent’s biopic Get Rich or Die Tryin’, the RZA and Jim Jarmusch collaboration Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, weirdly enough, Bullworth), as the music industry collapsed, so did the idea of a movie soundtrack you’d want to hold close to your heart and put inside your Discman. Mid90s’ hip-hop song selection is as meticulously curated as the vintage Wu-Tang Clan and Chocolate Skateboards t-shirts worn by the young ensemble, featuring such period-era anthems as Cypress Hill’s “When the Shit Goes Down,” Big L’s “Put It On,” and Jeru The Damaga’s “Ya Playin’ Yaself,” in addition to an achingly beautiful original score composed by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross of The Social Network.
But it’s also the kind of movie that uses Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man” to indicate the high anxiety of a 13-year-old experiencing their first-ever unchaperoned boy-girl party (when they’re also high on Adderall) and an airy Philip Glass composition when they’re being chased away by the cops for skateboarding in an illegal courthouse. Like Greta Gerwig’s Dave Matthews Band-stanning Lady Bird before it, Hill exhibits a radical vulnerability with his song selections alone. If the Mid90s soundtrack is the closest we’ve ever gotten to understanding Jonah Hill’s soul — it’s one who loves Smokepurpp, Morrissey, and ESG in equal measure.
Yet not even Jonah Hill could insert the incredible Mid90s soundtrack into the device of his choosing, as he and his revolutionary film distribution company A24 made the decision to release it exclusively on Spotify as the streaming service’s first-ever Official Movie Soundtrack. In addition to the fact that no one’s exactly buying CDs these days, it allows Hill’s soundtrack to be shareable, ever-evolving, and fluid, instead becoming confined to a traditional tracklisting of 17 songs maximum. Here’s the filmmaker on how Mid90s reinvented the movie soundtrack, his favourites of the era, and inevitably, Warren G and Nate Dogg’s “Regulate.”
How do you like to use music in your creative process when you’re writing and directing?
Well, I don’t know what directing is for a lot of people, but I just wanted to see all these songs emotionally framed the same way as I first heard them. A lot of what was really exciting about making my first movie was being able to tell the story of my whole life, framed with the same emotional lens as how I first experienced the GZA’s “Liquid Swords.” Different kinds of music mean different kinds of things for every generation. The music you hear on the Mid90s soundtrack really means a lot to me.
Growing up in the mid 90s, what movie soundtracks were you obsessed with?
Ahhh! This interview is heaven; this is such heaven! Honestly, I always wanted to make one of those classic soundtracks because listening to them was one of my favourite parts of being a kid. Since nobody buys CDs anymore, we decided to make the first-ever Spotify movie soundtrack, so… [Long pause]. Well, the Above the Rim soundtrack is probably the greatest soundtrack ever made.
Whoa! What makes it so special?
It’s a hip-hop performance movie featuring Tupac Shakur, so the soundtrack is… hold up, I’m looking up the exact track order, so I don’t mess it up. [Pause] Wow okay, there are some real classic songs on this soundtrack. “Regulate,” first of all, which is as classic as it gets.
And Nate Dogg! I’m a huge Nate Dogg fan—also a solo Nate Dogg career fan—it’s really sad that he’s gone. Then, there’s Dazed and Confused, obviously—I wasn’t familiar with all those seventies jams. And The Wedding Singer, which is like a random one, but I also wasn’t familiar with all those eighties jams. Then the Deep Cover soundtrack, the title track’s performed by Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg...
But Quentin Tarantino’s the GOAT — the Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction soundtracks were big deals for me. There’s actually this crazy urban legend that he made a huge amount of his money from his soundtrack sales alone, since he has ownership of them. But I don’t know — you’d have to look that up. *Note: According to the website Celebrity Net Worth , Quentin Tarantino was worth $100 million in 2017. By way of example, in 1994, the Pulp Fiction soundtrack climbed to number 21 on the Billboard music charts and since gone on to sell more than three and a half million copies.)
So why did you and A24 decide to release the extremely dope Mid90s soundtrack exclusively on Spotify? As someone who has a lot of nostalgia for the Discman-era of the soundtrack, aren’t you sad there will never be a physical release?
Well, my producer Eli Bush and I were talking a lot about the soundtrack and what we wanted to do with it. I have two managers, one of them works in film primarily and the other works in music. So Eli, Ian [Montone, Jonah’s manager who works in music], and myself kept asking ourselves what we were going to do—should we make a record deal and put it out on a CD? A cassette? The record companies were courting us to release it, but then we thought, “Why don't we try to do something new?” So we called Spotify and partnered with them.
I really had to think long and hard about who is gonna buy a CD these days. Ultimately, there’s more momentum if a soundtrack can become something that someone can really use. Even earlier today, someone came up to me at a coffeeshop to tell me, “I’m listening to the Mid90s soundtrack on Spotify.”
Your film features everyone from Herbie Hancock to The Mamas & the Papas to Philip Glass to The Pharcyde, in addition to an original score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. How much of this is a reflection of your own taste in music?
I mean—it could not be more of a reflection of my taste in music. [Laughs]. I think music is… well, I’m as big of a music nerd as I am a skateboarding and film nerd. So if I wasn’t doing this, I would be an intern at Noisey.
Chandler Levack is on Twitter.