“Charm City Kings” won over many critics in its Sundance premiere earlier this year, and likely would have been doing the same in Texas this week if it were showing, as planned, at the canceled South by Southwest Film Festival. It’ll still get its chance to charm general audiences as well as critical gatekeepers, who have been impressed so far not just by actor Jahi Di’Allo Winston’s standout performance as main character “Mouse,” but by rapper Meek Mill, who gives a breakout supporting turn in the film, his first as an actor.
“It was a good experience for me,” Meek tells Variety. “I enjoyed it and it was a learning experience,” added the 32-year-old star, before saying he’d likely be doing more acting in the near future.
The rapper’s music is also a big part of the Overbrook/Sony Pictures Classics film, which chronicles the lives of a group of young teenagers on the streets of Baltimore amid an urban bike culture that Meek himself knows a thing or two about, having grown up in nearby Philadelphia. The rapper helped put that east coast culture on the nationwide map a decade ago via his music video for “Ima Boss.”
“There’s dirt bike scenes all over the east coast… New York, Delaware, Jersey… It’s not just Baltimore and Philadelphia,” the rapper points out.
The noted bike enthusiast has two songs in the film, “Milladelphia” and “Uptown Vibes,” and according to producer Caleeb Pinkett, “Charm City Kings” wouldn’t be the same without them. “Those two Meek records alone took a lot of our budget,” Pinkett says of licensing the tracks, while noting the entire music spend for the film was under $450,000. “But we had to have them,” he says.
Variety spoke more with Pinkett about the music used in the film, which is slated for an April 10 release (subject, like everything in the coronavirus climate, to change).
VARIETY: How did you end up with the songs for the film, and did you use a music supervisor?
PINKETT: We kind of had a supervisor, who is more just a friend of mine at Sony that we worked with, Jojo Villanueva. He’s fantastic. He and I worked on finding the music in the film. I had a lot of songs I wanted to use, but without the budget… so I couldn’t afford all the songs I wanted. So Jojo helped me find songs that I could afford that still carried some of the same emotionality that I was looking for.
One of the first songs heard in the film is Crown and the M.O.B.’s “Love My People.” What was the inspiration for that song choice?
We originally had a UGK/Outkast record called “Int’l Players Anthem (I Choose You)” in the beginning because we wanted to lift people up. With Andre 3000’s voice in that song and the way the beat comes in… it had a lot of energy. But we found a cheaper version of the song in “Love My People” and we were able to make it work. “Love My People” is a great record and it still carries the right vibe.
What was the “old school” song you had playing during the early car ride scene with Mouse?
It’s called “Tap The Bottle” from Young Black Teenagers, which was another record we found. It’s from a guy who was Kid’s roommate from that movie “House Party 2,” when they went to college. Originally, the song I wanted in there was “Love’s Gonna Get’cha” from Boogie Down Productions, which is one of my favorite rap records of all time because it’s so vivid and tells a story. And that story is also kind of the story of [Charm City Kings character] Mouse. But, again, BDP’s song was too expensive for us because our budget was small.
Did you begin the process of clearing the Meek Mill songs before you had him locked as an actor?
I wanted the Meek records whether he was in the movie or not. Meek was in jail when the movie was starting to go. I had spoken to Meek a year or so before we started early on, and he was in. Then he goes to jail and I’m like “OK, tragic. Well….” I was a month out from shooting and all of the sudden he was released. It was crazy, but we wanted Meek’s songs in the movie no matter what, because his sound, especially those two records in particular that we have in the film, are synonymous with that bike culture that our movie is about. Especially when you hear “Millidelphia,” that right there is bike central. When I first heard that record, I said to myself, “This has to be in my movie,” and that’s why I put it over the chase scene. That beat, that sound, his voice… the way he’s rapping on it, it just gives you that energy. It almost sounds like you are on a bike, you know what I mean?
The music isn’t always mixed loud in “Charm City Kings.” In fact, it’s often conspicuously quiet in certain parts. Was that a conscious decision for you?
Oh, yeah. That was a reflection of me working with the director directly. When we were in the editing suite we were careful to make sure that certain scenes were louder than others. So, for example, when a character in the film is listening to music in their headphones, we wanted it to feel like he was really listening to that music. These are the creative decisions that the director and the sound editor really worked hard on.
Is there going to be an official soundtrack?
Well, Swizz [Beats] signed on to do it, but he can only do six records, and then Meek’s people also called me, and he wants to do it also. So I think those two are gonna try and figure it out. Hopefully, we’ll have one, but it’s still up in the air at the moment.
Why aren’t there more local Baltimore artists in the film?
There’s two songs from local Baltimore artists in the film. We wanted more. But we’re happy we at least got two songs from [local rapper] Young Ying in the movie. It’s really tragic: I had just spoken to him while we were doing the music ,and then I found out a couple of weeks later that he was murdered. I had to ultimately clear the songs with his mother. We also had another song from a different Baltimore artist, but we used Samm Henshaw’s “Church” in that scene instead, which is just an incredible song.
Was it difficult for you to secure “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem” on your budget?
It wasn’t hard to get because we had a connection with Swizz Beats (producer of the track). But it was damn expensive. We paid a lot for it, around half the budget for the music in the film, but there was no way we could make this movie without that song somewhere in it. It’s pretty much the song that introduced that bike culture to the world and it’s still a classic record.