We kick off African-American Music Appreciation Month (formerly Black Music Month) by fusing together two of our passions, movies and music as we countdown the 20 Top Black Movie Soundtracks of All-Time. Sure to create much dissension and discussion, we start with the ones that DIDN’T make the cut – The Honorable Mentions!
“Music is a world within itself / With a language we all understand / With an equal opportunity / For all to sing, dance and clap their hands!”
Stevie Wonder, Sir Duke
I have had to make some tough decisions in my life but many of them pale in comparison to creating this list. Anyone who knows me understands how passionate I am about films but also understand that I love music almost as much. In order to understand the ultimate choices that were made, I believe that I should share the criteria and process.
Movie soundtracks are different from film scores. The score is the music used in a movie to provide an underbelly for the visual story on-screen. That music can add tension, provide comedy relief or serve as an emotional bridge eliciting fear, tears or any other feeling the filmmaker is trying to convey. Soundtracks are a different beast altogether. These are the songs that are usually featured in a film and maybe additional songs that were added that were not in the film.
The best movie soundtracks are the ones that fuse together both of these elements, usually with a strong music producer who ties all of the songs together into a cohesive unit. When examining this list, we prioritized the initial 57 films into soundtracks that had a unifying vision or one producer who weaved the songs expertly into the story over soundtracks that were cobbled together with a handful of producers and trendy but forgettable songs.
After several agonizing days (and also understanding that each selection would need to be defended), the final soundtracks were selected. Many of my personal favorites had to be left on the cutting room floor but I could not in good conscious select an inferior favorite over a worthy candidate. Hence, we began our countdown to the number one Black Movie Soundtrack with the 37 runner-ups or the Honorable Mentions!
Across 110th Street (1972) – This gritty and funky soundtrack produced by Bobby Womack and J.J. Johnson was a wonderful audio companion to the crime drama set in 1970s Harlem. Womack wrote all of the songs including the film’s critically praised title song. The song was later featured in two films, Jackie Brown and American Gangster.
Notable song: Across 110th Street
Baby Boy (2001) – Despite a thumping title song, Just a Baby Boy, the rest of the soundtrack is potpourri of classic R&B hits and a group of upcoming artists. The album peaked at #12 on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums and #5 on the Top Soundtracks.
Notable song: Just a Baby Boy
Beat Street (1984) – One of three hip-hop themed soundtracks on this list, this 80’s look at a group of friends immersed in the rap culture, breakdancing, DJing, and graffiti. Arthur Baker, Harry Belafonte and Webster Lewis produced two soundtracks from this film containing music mainly from old-school hip-hop artists including Grandmaster Melle Mel and the Furious Five, Jazzy Jay, Afrika Bambaataa & The Soul Sonic and Treacherous Three featuring beatbox pioneer Doug E. Fresh.
Notable songs: Beat Street Breakdown, This Could Be the Night, Strangers in a Strange World
Black Caesar (1973) – The Godfather of Soul, James Brown (with heavy input from bandleader, Fred Wesley) crafted his first score and soundtrack spotlighting Tommy Gibbs (Fred Williamson) in the remake of Little Caesar about the rise of a Harlem crime lord. Whatsoever Brown touched, HAD to be funky and this soundtrack is no exception.
Notable songs: Down and Out in New York City, Pay the Cost to Be the Boss, Mama’s Dead
Black Orpheus (1959) – This story is an adaptation of the Greek legend of Orpheus and Eurydice, setting it in the modern context of a favela in Rio de Janeiro during the Carnaval and is widely acknowledged as the film that introduced the world to the bossa nova. It was the first film with Black actors to win the coveted Palme d’Or at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival as well as the 1960 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. One of three films on this list adapted from plays, (Carmen Jones and Porgy and Bess are the others) the film is particularly renowned for its soundtrack by two Brazilian composers: Antônio Carlos Jobim, whose song “A felicidade” opens the film; and Luiz Bonfá, whose “Manhã de Carnaval” and “Samba of Orpheus” have become bossa nova classics.
Notable songs: A Felicidate, O Nosso Amor
Cabin in the Sky (1943) – This classic film from MGM was one of two from that year that featured all Black casts. Starring Lena Horne in her first and only leading role, it also starred Ethel Waters and Eddie “Rochester” Anderson with appearances by both Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. The film received an Best song Oscar nomination for the Ethel Water song, Happiness is a Thing Called Joe.
Notable songs: Taking a Chance on Love, Happiness is a Thing Called Joe, A Cabin in the Sky
Boyz ‘N the Hood (1991) – The landmark Oscar-nominated debut by John Singleton became a cultural classic for it’s searing look at the lives of several characters in South Central Los Angeles. Co-starring Ice Cube, who was also a member of the world’s most dangerous rap group, N.W.A as well as contributing to the soundtrack gave the disc incredible street credibility. Produced by Stanley Clarke, the soundtrack also received contributions from Quincy Jones, Tony! Toni! Tone! and Too Short.
Notable songs: How to Survive in South Central, Me and You, Setembro (Brazilian Wedding Song)
Cadillac Records (2008) – How can you tell the story of the rise of renowned blues label, Chess Records without the music at the core of the story? Producers Terrance Blanchard and Steve Jordan. Beyonce Knowles co-starred and recorded five songs for the soundtrack including a cover version of Etta James’ At Last. Also, Mos Def, Jeffrey Wright, Columbus Short, and Eamonn Walker recorded songs for the soundtrack, and Raphael Saadiq, Knowles’ sister Solange, Mary Mary, Nas, Buddy Guy, and Elvis Presley also appear on the album.
Notable songs: Hootchie Coochie Man, At Last, Smokestack Lightning, My Babe
Carmen Jones (1954) – This breakthrough role for Oscar-nominated Dorothy Dandridge, was based on the libretto for the 1943 stage production of the same name by Oscar Hammerstein II, who also wrote the lyrics to music composed by Georges Bizet for his 1875 opera Carmen. Although Dandridge and co-star Harry Belafonte were singers, neither was capable of singing the operatic score, so Marilyn Horne and LeVern Hutcherson were hired to record their vocals. Other notable actors who were featured in the film included Diahann Carroll, Brock Peters and Pearl Bailey.
Notable songs: Dat’s Love, Stan’ Up an’ Fight (Toreador Song), Beat Out Dat Rhythm on a Drum (Gypsy Song)
Claudine (1974) – Curtis Mayfield wrote and produced the film’s score and soundtrack, the vocals for which are performed by Gladys Knight & the Pips. The Claudine soundtrack was released on the group’s record label, Buddah Records, and the film’s theme song, On & On, was a #5 hit for Knight and the Pips in 1974. One of several soundtracks on this list for the prolific songwriter, Mayfield wrote and composed the score and soundtrack for this film.
Notable songs: Make Yours a Happy Home, The Makings of You, On and On
Coffy (1973) – Roy Ayers’ soundtrack for Pam Grier’s iconic 70’s classic is a mix of funky upbeat tunes with tender, quiet, reflective ballads. Featuring vocals by Dee Dee Bridgewater and Wayne Garfield, this soundtrack peaked at #31 on the jazz charts.
Notable songs: Coffy Baby, Coffy is the Color
Deep Cover (1992) – Another wonderful companion soundtrack to this cult classic early 90s crime drama starring Laurence Fishburne as an undercover cop who moonlights as a rising drug lord whose life is slowly blurring out of control. Powered by throbbing funky title song by Dr. Dre and his protege, Snoop Dogg making his first appearance on wax. In addition, the disc contained a mix of hip hop, reggae and R&B tracks, peaking at #9 on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums.
Notable songs: Deep Cover, Mr. Loverman
Do The Right Thing (1989) – Director Spike Lee’s Oscar-nominated hard-hitting summer drama largely succeeds because of the wonderful job he did incorporating the various musical elements into his story. Jumpstarted by Public Enemy’s defiant anthem, Fight the Power, the soundtrack was successful, reaching the number eleven spot on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart. In addition, the Perri track Feel So Good reached the fifty-first spot and Guy’s My Fantasy went all the way to the top spot.
Notable Songs: Fight the Power, My Fantasy and Feel So Good, Can’t Stand It, Never Explain Love
Fear of A Black Hat (1992) – Rusty Cundieff’s mockumentary film on the evolution and state of American hip hop music derived it’s title from the Public Enemy album Fear of a Black Planet. The soundtrack produced by.Jim Manzie, Larry Robinson, N.W.H. featured an entire album of original material satirizing the testosterone-fueled gangsta rap scene. It also spoofs and lampoons alternative hip hop, political hip hop and Afrocentric rap groups.
Notable songs: Grab Yo Stuff, Booty Juice, My Peanuts, Guerrillas in the Midst
Girl 6 (1996) – Spike Lee’s examination of a woman working in the phone-sex industry is fueled by a soundtrack from Prince. Consisting of mostly previously released songs from him and related artists such as The Family, Vanity 6, and The New Power Generation, the album also features three previously unreleased tracks including She Spoke 2 Me, Don’t Talk 2 Strangers and Girl 6, which was newly recorded for the soundtrack. The title track was released as a single, backed with Nasty Girl by Vanity 6.
Notable songs: Girl 6, Nasty Girl, Screams of Passion
House Party (1990) –This loveable dance film from the Hudlin Brothers, Reginald and Warrington, caught lightning in a bottle with Kid ‘n Play and a hilarious comedic performance from Robin Harris. Ironically, the soundtrack with it’s mix of R&B and hip-hop was not much of a success, only making it to 20 on the Top R&B Albums chart. Also, the film is notable for appearance by future stars Martin Lawrence, Tisha Campbell, A.J. Johnson, John Witherspoon and Daryl “Chill” Mitchell.
Notable songs: Why You Get Funky on Me, House Party, I Can’t Do Nuttin’ for Ya Man, Kid Vs. Play
Hustle & Flow (2005) – Craig Brewer’s story of a a Memphis hustler and pimp, DJay, who faces his aspiration to become a rapper, won an Best Original Song Oscar for Three 6 Mafia’s It’s Hard out Here for a Pimp. It also features music by variety of artists including the film’s star, Terrence Howard, in his lead role as the street hustler-turned-rapper, Djay.
Notable songs: Whoop That Trick, It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp, Hustle & Flow (It Ain’t Over)
Jackie Brown (1997) – Quentin Tarantino’s third film, is a crime drama and adaptation of the novel Rum Punch by Elmore Leonard and pays homage to 1970s blaxploitation films, particularly Foxy Brown. The film featured no film score; instead, Tarantino used music from various genres and other films, including the title song of the film Across 110th Street by Bobby Womack to open and close the film as well as songs by The Delfonics and Slash’s Snakepit are heard throughout the film.
Notable songs: Who Is He (And What Is He to You?), Natural High, Didn’t I Blow Your Mind This Time
Juice (1992) – Ernest Dickerson made his directorial debut with this film which featured an incredible breakthrough performance by Tupac Shakur in this crime drama about four friends and how the lure of streets grew too great for one of them. Produced by Gary G-Wiz, the soundtrack consisting mainly of hip hop was a success, making it to #17 on the Billboard 200 and #3 on the Top R&B Albums.
Notable songs: Uptown Anthem, Juice (Know the Ledge), Don’t Be Afraid, Is It Good to You
Krush Groove (1985) – The early days of Def Jam Recordings and up-and-coming record producer Russell Simmons (renamed Russell Walker in the film) get the star treatment in this story. Simmons is portrayed by Blair Underwood in his feature film debut and Simmons also co-produced and was a story consultant AND he also has a cameo role in the film as a club owner named Crocket. The album peaked at #14 on the R&B chart and became a collectors item with only 1,000 copies of the album pressed on compact disc.
Notable songs: I Can’t Live Without My Radio, Tender Love, She’s On It, Holly Rock
Malcolm X (1992) – Terrance Blanchard produced the film’s score and the diverse soundtrack featured notables such as Arrested Development, Aretha Franklin and Duke Ellington. Spike Lee wrote in the album’s liner notes, “Many of the artists on this project were friends of Detroit Red/Malcolm Little. Malcolm loved to dance, and to be around the music. We have attempted to re-create that music, that sound – the distinct sound of the African-American experience.” Lee also continued, “The songs gathered here . . . all in some way reflect what it means to live, breathe, die and love, as the descendants of slaves.” Mission accomplished, Spike!
Notable songs: Revolution, Someday We’ll All Be Free, Flying Home, My Prayer
Menace II Society (1993) – The soundtrack for this terrific film peaked at number 1 on the Billboard Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums and at number 11 on the Billboard 200. Several songs heard in the movie, such as “Got to Give It Up” by Marvin Gaye and Love and Happiness by Al Green, were not included in the soundtrack album. The debut film by the Hughes Brothers initially was to star Tupac Shakur before a disagreement with the filmmakers.
Notable songs: Streight Up Menace, Trigga Gots No Heart
Mo’ Better Blues (1990) – In this Spike Lee film, it follows a period in the life of a fictional jazz trumpeter Bleek Gilliam (Denzel Washington) as a series of bad decisions result in his jeopardizing both his relationships and his playing career. The soundtrack to the film was composed and played by Branford Marsalis Quartet and Terence Blanchard. This film is notable because it paired two of Hollywood’s biggest black actors Washington and Wesley Snipes onscreen for their only film together.
Notable songs: Harlem Blues, Mo’ Better Blues, Pop Top 40, Jazz Thing
Poetic Justice (1993) – Tupac Shakur and Janet Jackson teamed up for this John Singleton road tale drama. The film and soundtrack, a blend of hip hop and contemporary R&B, the album was a success, making it 23 on the Billboard 200 and the film opening number one. Jackson also received a Best Original song Oscar nomination for her song, Again.
Notable songs: Indo Smoke, Get It Up, Call Me a Mack, Again
Porgy and Bess (1959) – Based on the 1935 opera of the same name by George Gershwin, DuBose Heyward, and Ira Gershwin, which is in turn based on Heyward’s 1925 novel Porgy, Due to its controversial subject matter, the film was shown only briefly following its initial reserved seat engagements in major cities, where it drew mixed reviews from critics and subsequently taken out of circulation. Shown on TV only once, in 1967, the film was also never released on DVD or video.
Notable songs: Summertime, Bess, You’s My Woman Now, It Ain’t Neccessarily So
Ray (2004) – The Grammy Award winning album, which vaulted Jamie Foxx to an Best Actor Oscar win, is largely comprised of Ray Charles’ greatest hits. 15 years in the making, this film was a warts-and-all look at the iconic blind musician who overcame his disability to become a five-decade sensation. Produced by Craig Armstrong and Charles, the soundtrack reignited a passion for the late entertainer’s music.
Notable songs: I Got A Woman, What’d I Say, Hit the Road, Unchain My Heart
School Daze (1988) – Produced by Stevie Wonder, Lenny White and director Spike Lee, the original soundtrack peaked at No. 14 on Billboard’s Top R&B Albums chart and featured several hit songs including Da Butt, written by Marcus Miller and Mark Stevens, and performed by the group E.U. (who appear in the film), hit number 1 on Billboard’s R&B chart and number 35 on its Pop chart and Be One, written by Bill Lee and performed by the late Phyllis Hyman, who also appears in the film.
Notable songs: Da Butt, Be Alone Tonight, Straight and Nappy, I’m Building Me a Home
Soul Food (1997) – The soundtrack which consisted of R&B music with a bit of some hip hop, was a huge success, peaking at #4 on the Billboard 200, #1 on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart and was certified 2x Multi-Platinum on February 17, 1998. Four singles made to the Billboard Hot 100: I Care ‘Bout You, What About Us, We’re Not Making Love No More, and A Song for Mama–making it to 23, 16, 13, and 7 on the chart, respectively. The latter was a #1 R&B single. The soundtrack was also noted for the quartet group Milestone, consisting of K-Ci and JoJo and Babyface’s brothers, Kevon and Melvin Edmonds, who all came together only once for their single and the movie appearance.
Notable songs: I Care ‘Bout You, What About Us, We’re Not Making Love No More, and A Song for Mama
Stormy Weather (1943) – One of the best Hollywood musicals produced in 1943 with Black casts, the other being Cabin in the Sky, and is considered a primary showcase of the top African-American performers of the time, during an era when African-American actors and singers appeared rarely in lead roles in mainstream Hollywood productions, especially the ones of the musical genre. This legendary soundtrack also included Lena Horne singing “Good For Nothin’ Joe,” a song that did not appear in the movie. Reportedly, the great Fred Astaire told the Nicholas Brothers that the “Jumping Jive” sequence was “the greatest movie musical number he had ever seen.”
Notable songs: Stormy Weather, Ain’t Misbehavin’, Jumping Jive
Tales From the Hood (1995) – The soundtrack to the 1995 horror film featured songs from Spice 1, MC Eiht, Wu-Tang Clan, Face Mob featuring Scarface, Ol’ Dirty Bastard and more. Consisting entirely of gangsta and hardcore rap, it did very well on the Billboard charts, peaking at #16 on the Billboard 200 and #1 on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums.
Notable songs: Tales from the Hood, Let Me at Them, The Hood Got Me Feelin’ the Pain, Born II Die
The Best Man (1999) – The film’s soundtrack, peaked at number 2 on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums charts, and number 16 on The Billboard 200 in 1999. Featuring an infectious mix of melodies and artists including The Roots, Beyonce, Ginuwine and others, the disc perfectly supports the story of this male-centered answer to female-targeted films.
Notable songs: What You Want, Let’s Not Play the Game, Turn Your Lights Down Low, The Best Man I Can Be
The Color Purple (1985) – Based on Alice Walker’s award-winning book, this story of a young African American girl named Celie shows the problems African American women faced during the early 1900s, including poverty, racism, and sexism. Celie is transformed as she finds her self-worth through the help of two strong female companions. The soundtrack comprised mostly of blues and gospel enjoyed relative success. This film is notable for receiving 11 Oscar nominations and not winning any!
Notable songs: God Is Trying to Tell You Something, Sister
The Harder They Come (1972) – Along with the emergence of Bob Marley, this film was responsible for ensuring reggae music would not stay just a Jamacian phenomenon. The heart of the soundtrack comes from performances by the film’s star, reggae singer Jimmy Cliff. Only the title track The Harder They Come was recorded by Cliff specifically for the soundtrack, with three earlier songs by Cliff added. The remainder of the album is a compilation of singles released in Jamaica from the period of 1967 through 1972, assembled by the director and co-writer, Perry Henzell, from songs by favored reggae singers. In addition to Cliff, these artists include The Melodians, The Slickers, DJ Scotty, and seminal early reggae stars Desmond Dekker and Toots and the Maytals.
Notable songs: The Harder They Come, You Can Get It If You Really Want, Many Rivers to Cross
The Wood (1999) – Consisting of hip hop and R&B music, the soundtrack found a great deal of success, making it to #16 on the Billboard 200 and #2 on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums and spawned two charting singles Neck uv da Woods by Mystikal and OutKast, and 24-7 by Liberty City. In addition to current songs, the soundtrack also mixed in some 80s favorites by Luther Vandross, Cheryl Lynn and Whodini.
Notable songs: I Wanna Know, Neck uv da Woods, 24-7, If This World Were Mine, Five Minutes of Funk
Trouble Man (1972)– Fresh off of his groundbreaking album, What’s Going On, Marvin Gaye released the soundtrack for this blaxploitation drama. The soundtrack was a more contemporary move for Gaye and a marketed departure from politically charged album of the previous year. It’s noted that while the film has largely been forgettable, the icon of a generation, Gaye’s one and only movie score is now considered classic. Like Isaac Hayes and Curtis Mayfield, Gaye took to recording a soundtrack for a blaxploitation film. Unlike Super Fly and Shaft, the soundtrack to Trouble Man does not feature love songs; except for a few vocal jabs by Gaye, it is made up entirely of instrumental pieces. Critics deemed Trouble Man on par with Hayes’ and Mayfield’s albums. According to Gaye, the song was autobiographical to his nature. The vocal version became another big hit for Gaye, reaching #7 on the Billboard Pop Singles Chart in 1973.
Notable songs: Trouble Man, Don’t Mess with Mr. T.
What’s Love Got To Do With It (1993) – Turner re-recorded many of her songs from the Ike and Tina Turner period for this album including their first hit single A Fool In Love. Three brand new tracks were also included, I Don’t Wanna Fight being a top 10 hit in both the U.S. and U.K. The album also includes Turner’s version of The Trammps’ disco classic Disco Inferno, a song she had often performed live in concert during the late seventies, but was never previously recorded in studio. Two tracks from her 1984 breakthrough solo album Private Dancer are included as well, the title track to the movie and I Might Have Been Queen. The album hit #1 on the UK Top 75 and was a huge hit in many countries including the U.S., the U.K., and Germany.
Notable songs: What’s Love Got To Do With It, A Fool in Love, Disco Inferno
Wild Style (1983) – The original soundtrack consists of 17 tracks recorded by various artists featured within the film. The album has been described by Allmusic as ‘one of the key records of early ’80s hip-hop.’ The film has received a large cult following over the years after its initial release. Highly regarded hip-hop albums such as Illmatic by Nas, Midnight Marauders by A Tribe Called Quest, Black Sunday by Cypress Hill, Resurrection by Common and Check Your Head by Beastie Boys have featured samples from the film. In 2007, the Hip Hop Honors paid tribute to Wild Style in recognition of its influence upon the culture. The film was also voted as one of the top ten rock and roll films of all time by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Notable songs: Basketball Throwdown, MC Battle, Cold Crush Brothers At The Dixie