Hip-hop’s love affair with gangster films is as much a part of its cultural identity, as gaudy chains and rampant misogyny. And, no movie made more of an impact than Brian DePalma’s hard-boiled (possibly overcooked) 1983 coke orgy, Scarface. Over the years, countless rappers have peppered their verses with inane catchphrases from Al Pacino’s one-dimensional, scenery-chewing portrayal of Cuban-American drug lord, Tony Montana. Scores of music videos have recreated classic scenes from this pseudo-cautionary tale about the pursuit of the American dream. And, it seems that MTV cannot complete an episode of Cribs without a rapper proudly flashing some tacky, Scarface-themed tchotchke that proves all the money in the world can’t buy good taste.
At the center of all the madness is Tony Montana, Patron Saint of Hip-Hop Gangstas, a fictional character turned myth. Pacino’s flashy, histrionic portrait of a larger-than-life kingpin is a supremely guilty pleasure; a roller-coaster ride of bad accents, loud suits and blood-thirsty mayhem. There is no questioning his appeal. Tony is the ultimate ghetto superhero, a man who rose from nothing to achieve wealth beyond his wildest dreams through sheer balls. His only gifts are relentless ambition and single-minded ferocity that he uses to succeed completely on his own terms. It is easy to see why the streetwise hip-hop audience relates to Tony, but the unfortunate truth is, heâ€™s a terrible idol to build a cult.
Tonyâ€™s rise to power has become a vaunted ghetto fairytale, or worse, a blueprint for the come-up from nothing to something. A serious student of money and power cannot see Tony Montana as anything more than a cartoon character of a cheap wise-guy, but Scarface is the identifying cultural epic of street hustlers and hip-hop gangstas. The naivety inherent in this phenomenon is why the rapper/hustler, despite all their money and fame, remains a marginal figure at the mercy of an industry they mistakenly believe they control.
Read carefully from the Gospel of Saint Tony and see if the makings of a real kingpin are in there. Early in the movie, Tony unveils this nugget of wisdom, â€œIn this country, you gotta make the money first. Then when you get the money, you get the power. Then when you get the power, then you get the woman.â€ That is where Tony fails colossallyâ€”he eventually gets the woman, and Lord knows he gets the money, but he never gets the power. He confuses moving big weight and driving fancy cars with real power, just as the platinum plaque-bearing members of the Cult of Saint Tony do. Despite all the guns, money and success, Tony Montana is never more than a glorified errand boy for the real men in power. He does not truly become the kingpin that his wide-eyed worshippers believe him to be. The old adage is that real bad boys move in silence, but Tony is constantly making noise. In their actions, real crime bosses resemble quiet, cautious businessmen. They are deliberate and thoughtful in every move they make, and try to always keep a low profile. Tony, on the other hand, is just a lowlife street hustler: loud, reckless, impulsive and always on the make to spot his next mark. He can’t wait to broadcast how much money he has, how much coke he’s moving and who his enemies are. Street hustlers never get ahead of the game. They can only hope to keep up long enough to prosper.
What eventually brings about Tony’s downfall is not greed, ego or carelessness; Tonyâ€™s downfall is fear, the innate fear every predator has of becoming the prey. When Tony’s carelessness gets him busted and he sees that there is no way to avoid jail, he appeals to Sosa. Only a real kingpin has the power to make Tony’s problems go away, as Sosa offers to do in exchange for Tony’s services. If Tony was the boss, he could have stayed out of jail on his own, as another of Pacino’s memorable characters, Michael Corleone, does in The Godfather II. Or, if jail was indeed unavoidable, a real boss could survive a bid with his business intact, much like Paulie in Goodfellas. However, Tony is a middleman and for him any jail sentence is a death sentence. If he was forced to serve time, his empire would have crumbled and Sosa, probably, would have had him killed for insurance. When all is said and done, Tony Montana is expendable, and his own fears him on a suicide mission. The real boss is never expendable.
For all his ruthlessness and cunning, Tony proves impotent when faced with real power. The secret of his success is his ability to spot weakness and exploit it, as in the case of the lazy, self-satisfied Frank Lopez. However, a lowly banker is the only person in the whole movie to tell Tony no and get away with it. When the banker refuses to cut a better deal on his money laundering services, Tony has no choice but to acquiesce, as he lacks the power to bargain. One can only imagine that negotiations over rappers’ boutique record labels are similar.
This is an important lesson for whatever flavor-of-the-month hit maker fancies themselves as the reigning king of hip-hop. Record sales are record sales, just as drug sales are drug sales. And, whether it is Ja Rule and 50 Cent or Tony Montana and Frank Lopez, all that matters is how much money they are making right now. They can hustle their way to the top and amass wealth beyond their wildest dreams, but at the end of the day the real bosses are the ones who will be around, regardless of the errand boy moving the product. Sosa can survive without Tony, just as Interscope Records can survive without 50 Cent, but the same principle does not apply the other way around. Saint Tony and his devotees are men of the same mind. Infatuated with their own ambition and wealth, they overestimate their own power and longevity. They are errand boys all.
Early in the movie, Frank asks his henchman, Omar, what he thinks of Tony. â€œHe’s a peasant,â€ says Omar. â€œYes,â€ Frank replies, â€œbut you get a guy like that on your side and he’ll break his back for you.â€ These men recognize Tony Montana as the middleman. Although he outlives them both, he proves nothing. He is brash and reckless enough to out-hustle anyone, but he’s neither smart nor humble enough to control his own fortunes. His only skill is spotting weaker prey. From the moment he steps off the boat, to his final curtain call in a hail of bullets, Tony Montana remains a lowlife hustler. No matter how much wealth or status he attains, he doesnâ€™t learn anything. Like all cheap hustlers, the game eventually overtakes him. And, to the Cult of Saint Tony, full of rappers flush with money, living for their next hit record, while someone quieter, smarter and more powerful pulls the strings, and counts the money. All the platinum plaques, sneaker endorsements and boutique labels in the world will not elevate these rappers above errand boys. They can study the Gospel of Saint Tony, but they will not find any answers.