*Ernest Dickerson’s “Juice” may center around four Harlem teens focused on attaining respect, but an additional presence shadows the Wrecking Crew through the good, the bad and the tragic.
Hip-hop music not only makes up the soundtrack of “Juice.” It doubles as the unseen fifth Crewmember that fits the quartet and the entire film like hand to glove.
“In our film, it is more of a character. But it is also the ambience. It’s the perfect, I think, accompaniment to the images,” Dickerson explained to EURweb about hip-hop’s presence in “Juice.” “To me, the two forms that are closest to each other are film and music. Film isn’t close to literature because when you read something, you read it. Your brain processes it and then it goes into the brain. But film and music, it goes directly right into the brain. Music into the ears, right into the brain. Film, the eyes and the ears directly into the brain. And they’re both dealing with a lot of the same things. When you’re directing a scene, you have to establish the rhythm of the scene, just like you have to establish the rhythm in music. When you edit, you’re editing to a certain rhythm. You’re editing to the rhythm of the film. So music and film are very, very, very, very close together. That’s why music as an accompaniment to film, is in a way, becomes an extension of the visuals of the film.”
Fueled on hip-hop and a stellar cast featuring then- big screen unknowns Omar Epps, Tupac Shakur, Khalil Kain and Cindy Herron, “Juice” offered a glimpse into the world of Q (Epps), Bishop (Shakur), Raheem (Kain) and Steel (Jermaine Hopkins) as they live life with a mission to get the “juice,” a word used to define respect among peers and anyone they encounter on the mean streets of their hometown. The ‘90s drama, which marked Dickerson’s film debut, was released on January 17, 1992. This year marks the 25th anniversary of “Juice,” an occasion that will be celebrated with its first-ever release on Blu-ray on June 6, 2017.
Highlights captured on the special edition include a high-definition version of “Juice” as well as new commentary from Dickerson, interviews with the cast and new footage with castmembers on set, not to mention the film’s original ending and Dickerson’s explanation for not using his initial conclusion.
While a lot of talk about “Juice” centers on Shakur and his powerful performance, it’s worth noting the attention paid to the often-neglected element of hip-hop known as DJ’ing, via Q’s dreams of attaining his own “juice” with his skills on the turntables. Those skills are put on full display via Q’s late night practice sessions in his room as well as his audition and eventual positioning as a competitor in a competitive DJ battle.
For Dickerson, the DJ culture proved more appealing than the obvious choice to center “Juice” and Q’s world on MC’ing.
“I thought it was interesting. I thought it was an interesting aspect of hip-hop, using turntables as a musical instrument. And I was just really, really, really interested in that and fascinated with that,” the filmmaker stated while confessing his love for a different musical genre. “I am not a big listener of hip-hop. I’m of another generation. The music I listen to is more jazz because I grew up in the 50’s. I grew up in the 50’s and 60’s. I’m older. For me, I’m more attracted to more traditional instrumentation. My favorite musicians are Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Jimi Hendrix. To me, those are my favorite musicians. Carlos Santana, people like that.”
Although jazz is prevalent in Dickerson’s musical appreciation, the DJ’s use of the turntable “in an totally unorthodox way to create a whole different sound” that won the director over to hip-hop, among other things.
“I was really interested in using the turntable in a totally unorthodox way to create a whole different sound because I love experimental music, too,” he said. “I love music that’s always experimenting, that’s always mutating, trying different forms. And to me, that’s what scratching and mixing was. It was a different form of music.
“And some of it that I heard, I thought it was really, really interesting. I thought that that would make Q more of a musician as opposed to closer to a traditional musician using an instrument, as opposed to a voice, using his voice and rapping and rhyming. And to me that was more experimental. It was more pushing the envelope. So I think that’s why I did it,” Dickerson continued while touching on his reasons for putting a spotlight on DJ’ing. “And also, I had listened to some of it and some of it I thought was really fascinating and how they did it. I was really just really interested in that, and also, I hadn’t seen anything else that concentrated on that. Most films that have hip-hop in them, they deal with rapping, but scratching and mixing was something that was something that hadn’t [been] seen before. It’s too bad it’s a lost art because I thought it had some really interesting potential to do some really, really interesting stuff. So I think that’s really more where that came from.”
A Public Enemy fan, Dickerson put the exclamation point on hip-hop’s dominance in “Juice” with seeking out the man who helped shaped the legendary group’s sound, Hank Shocklee. The interaction between the pair resulted in Shocklee composing the score to “Juice” as well as executive producer status on the soundtrack to the gritty feature.
“Public Enemy was a group that I really like quite a bit and that’s one of the reasons why I wanted that sound for my film. That’s why I contacted Mr. Shocklee. I had to be true to the characters as well because that was the music they would be listening to. That was the music that would be part of their lives. And so it was important to try and get a hip-hop score, but also a score that had the drama in it that a traditional film score would need,” said Dickerson. “I’ve always liked film scores that experiment with the form, that try to do something different within the form of musically helping the story to move along. And a lot of my people whose music I do like, they do have experience with experimental music. So I think it was that that had a lot to do with it.”
Although “juice” equates with power and respect, times have changed since the ‘90’s. The question is: How is “juice” defined in a current world where it seems even harder for black males to get what should be automatic, given recent events involving law enforcement, politics and even internal struggles within their own community?
“Well, ‘juice’ can be a lot of it and it was one of the themes of the film. It’s what you make of it. Q’s ‘juice’ was the fact that he was a talented young scratch and mix artist. And the fact that he was getting ready to go off and do his own thing, it was pulling him away from the group. He was finding his own ‘juice,’ his own power, his own way of getting respect. The fact that he was in this competition and doing very well in it, he was finding his own ‘juice’ and he wound up being lulled back into, I guess, a false ‘juice’ because there’s no power in the gun. That’s a false sense of power. That’s a spiral of violence. You don’t find your manhood in the use of a gun, although so many people, I think, still think that they can,” Dickerson stated.
“But ‘juice’ is what you make of it. Your own ‘juice’ is what you make of it. What is your power? What is your talent? I like to think that mine is as a filmmaker. But it’s up to each person to find out what their ‘juice’ is. And not everybody finds it, not everybody finds that. Like in the film, some people find a false sense of it and it winds up ruining their lives. So each person has to find their own.”
To see the trailer for “Juice,” scroll below: