Radha Blank is a modern classic, fresh yet familiar. A 2014 flyer from her debut stage show features a very Illmatic-esque, sepia-toned image of a young Radha, presumably in kindergarten or first grade, peering into the camera like she can’t wait for recess. That April night at New York City’s Joe’s Pub, the celebrated playwright from Brooklyn was literally and figuratively transforming into one of her many monikers—an MC named RadhaMUSprime—a brash and witty boom-bap barista pouring all of her pain into tall, hot cups of “f**k it.” Her truth spills over in lines like “Why my skin so dry? Why I’m yawnin right now? Why them AARP ni**as sending sh*t to my house?” on “This Is 40,” one of several treats from the live mixtape that manifested into a Youtube series and is the foundation for her feature film of the same name: The 40-Year-Old Version.
“With RadhaMUS Prime, I had gotten fired off a film, my first professional screenwriting gig, and I was really frustrated,” says the forty-something whose writing and producing credits include The Get Down, She’s Gotta Have It, and Empire. “I just needed to create something that was mine and I decided to write a web series about a playwright who was down on her luck who wanted to make a mixtape as a way to get through her problems and it just made sense.”
Like a true Gen-Xer, 1986’s Transformers: The Movie served as a muse for her reinvention. “My name is Radha, I grew up in the time of The Transformers so it made sense that I would be RadhaMUSprime. You know that scene in the movie when Optimus Prime goes on to the great Robot Heaven in the sky but still kind of communicates with Hot Rod, who is fighting Galvatron over The Matrix of Leadership? The Matrix is kind of shaking and all of a sudden you hear Optimus say ‘Arise, Rodimus Prime’ and it’s how I open all of my live shows. That’s the one that stuck with me.”
The Forty-Year-Old Version is the culmination of a dream that began that night on the stage at Joe’s Pub. It is RadhaMUSprime’s origin story. Having already achieved critical acclaim for her plays like SEED, Radha fell into a rut of sorts, which was compounded by the passing of her mother, a visual artist and a free spirit who named her after a baby elephant. So she sought to tap into her days of banging on lunchroom tables at Murry Bergtraum High School, spitting bars that would leave her classmates in awe. Shot in black and white, FYOV feels like an A Tribe Called Quest video, so much that it literally opens with “Electric Relaxation,” but set in the present day. There is also a very Hollywood Shuffle feel as she skewers the white theater establishment hellbent on pushing poverty porn as art.
The Netflix-streamed original film boasts the acting debut of New York lyricist Oswin Benjamin playing her producer, D, who says more with his eyes than his mouth. And he’s joined by a guest list of emcees that reads like the ingredients in the best bag of Rap Snacks you’ve ever tasted. Forty-Year-Old Version is overflowing with the kind of tension, humor, and creativity that made songs like her provocative Big Daddy Kane remix, “Hoteps Hoteppin,” so unforgettable.
VIBE spoke with Blank, Benjamin, music director Guy Routte, MC Mickey Factz, and producer Mr. Walt of Da Beatminerz about crafting the soundtrack to the best hip-hop movie of 2020.
VIBE: There is so much great music in this film. How did you go about making the musical decisions for this?
Radha Blank: I made this film for New Yorkers who really love the culture and who might be a little nostalgic about it, too. One of the big compliments I’ve gotten about the film is that people think it takes place in the ‘90s. We all famously call it the Golden Era, but a lot of the videos from the ‘90s like Tribe, Latifah, and Digable Planets were part of my digital look book. I was listening to a lot of that music as I came of age, but I was also listening to it as I made the film. And I wanted the new beats, the beats that came from D [the character], to feel like it came from that time. So, I got to work with Guy Routte who is not only my music supervisor, he’s one of my closest friends, and he would go out and find this stuff for me. I said I wanted it to feel like D produces music for Sean Price or Heltah Skeltah and he knew just who to get—Da Beatminerz and Khrysis. I’m not saying a 22-year-old hip-hop producer couldn’t make these sounds, but these sounds have fat on them. They’re thick and they’re grown. We were in the studio for hours just listening to track after track and the sign that it was the right beat is when I started free-styling. If my impulse was to start rhyming, we knew that was the one. Since D is such a non-verbal character, he had to have beats that spoke.
Guy Routte: I met her in 2015 at Black Star Film Festival and we have mutual friends, Shawn Peters, in particular, an incredible cinematographer who worked on a lot of Pharoahe Monch videos, and I was telling Shawn that I wanted to get into the film world. He said he was going to Black Star and I jumped on a bus and met Radha there and we instantly clicked. She’s a big hip-hop head and a fan of the kind of music I’ve been involved with.
She was very, very clear about what she wanted. There were songs already in the script. A lot of jazz stuff. Her father was a jazz musician so she knew she wanted to use one of her father’s pieces. We ended up using two in the film. She knew she wanted this Quincy Jones song “Love and Peace” and this artist Courtney Bryan. A lot of the music was already baked into the pie but we knew that there were some things we needed to create.
It’s a dense film in terms of music but there’s a lot of bits and pieces. The song “Harlem Ave,” Radha wrote that. She already had it, she wrote the rhymes, melody, and hook and worked on it with Luqman Brown who used to be in a group called Funkface. He’s been working on scoring pieces. She’s so musically inclined.
Oswin, this is your first acting role. How did you prepare for it?
Oswin Benjamin: I got the dialogue and I read it over. It was like memorizing a verse but things don’t gotta rhyme so it was easier. I would run the lines with my wife and I’d call my friend Chris Rivers [youngest son of the late Big Pun] and run lines with him. Then I’d memorize the last two lines of what Radha would say so I know where I come in. I didn’t want her to say something and then I miss my cue.
RB: You hear how he just dropped that name on us? Because you know all his best friends are the best MCs in New York. “My friend Chris Rivers…”
OB: Shout out to Chris Rivers, I love him.
RB: Actually, it was Chris Rivers that brought Oswin to my attention because there was another MC I had in mind but he wasn’t available. So I went to Google search and typed in “New York Rappers” and this video pops up with Chris Rivers. I knew I saw it a few years ago but I was like who is this other dude? And it was this guy named Oswin Benjamin and then I went down this rabbit hole of watching all his music videos and I kind of just knew in that moment that this person has all the energy. They look like a New Yorker; they can convey a certain emotion with their facial expressions. He was a gift to the cast.
How much of your MC experience did you bring to playing D?
OB: As far as playing a producer, coming from my hip-hop background, I’m around producers all the time. So just taking up mannerisms from producers I like to work with, [how they act] when they’re around people that aren’t good and people that are. The energy in the room, how that shifts between the talented people and the people who might not be as talented, being able to zone in on those things.
Radha, how did you decide on the great cameos?
RB: I just made a list of all my favorite New York MCs that kind of span a certain era, people who are still out there rhyming. Not only are they ear candy but have a particular presence on screen. One actor stayed in character and insisted that we call him “Mr. Bus Driver.” He would not let us call him by his name because he was taking his role so seriously. It’s a hug. It’s the movie hugging you. It’s saying that the culture is still very relevant and we’re having fun with it.
That vendor on the train, I used to do an imitation of them in my teen years because, for me, hip-hop is not just about the pen, it’s about sonics and that’s one of the most distinctive voices the culture has, between him and Guru [of Gang Starr]. I just wanted to have that moment.
There is a really dope rhyme cipher scene. How did that come together?
GR: She started filming and said she wanted to do a cipher so I got Mickey Factz and Kemba.
Mickey Factz: We shot that at Arlene’s Grocery. It looks like a bodega from the outside but on the inside, it’s an actual club. That’s in the Lower East Side, off Houston. We shot that scene downstairs where the coat check and the bathrooms are. So we’re just on the steps rhyming. Oswin was there and he wanted to rhyme so bad. He was angry that he couldn’t rhyme but between takes, we would rhyme just to make him happy. She was like I want Mickey to set this off. As she’s walking in, I’m already rhyming and I’m just kicking this rhyme and I end it with: “Inverted triangle on the overcoat, I feel like Forest Gump when he lost polio/ That was too straight forward, let me space out/ I’m glad that I had the gumption to break out/ If you ain’t catch that bar, it’s time to OD/ brace yourself, Gump’s shin is what broke free…” When I first said that rhyme everybody broke character and we had to shoot again. Then Kemba rhymed and then Kemba made all of us break character. You know Kemba gives you that soul-spiritual tirade.
RB: I know how hard it was for Oswin to sit back in scenes where Kemba and Mickey Factz are tearing in. He’s sitting back playing the producer. We might have some BTS footage of him getting in there. He was so good at staying focused on his role as producer speaking through music.
There is a hilarious song called “Pound The Poundcake” that plays throughout the movie. Who is responsible?
MF: Radha and Guy reached out to me about doing a song for the movie so I’m thinking I’m gonna put together this “lyrical miracle” record. So he sends me the record produced by Da Dreak and it’s this trappy, tongue-in-cheek parody. There’s a lot of curses in it and it felt like satire. What a lot of people don’t realize is that I enjoy trap music and I have a fanbase that enjoys trap music and a lot of trap artists reach out to me to be featured. So I know how to make mumble rap.
I sent it to them and they loved it. I thought they were trolling until I showed up to the movie set to do my cipher scene. There were kids who came up to me after we wrapped [up] and Radha said, “This is the guy that made ‘Poundcake’ and they were like, “You made ‘Poundcake’? We love ‘Poundcake’!”
I’ve done a lot of stuff like that. When College Humor was around, I did a lot of their rap stuff like “Galactic Empire State Of Mind” so it’s not too far fetched.
D’s studio setup looks pretty legit. This isn’t a Juice situation where the turntables aren’t plugged in.
GR: When they were setting up the studio, they asked me to get a rundown of what he should have in the studio so I called up Raydar Ellis, who is a producer and MC and also a professor at Berklee College of Music. He teaches hip-hop production at Berklee and he told me what should be in there. They wanted to make sure the producers of the world would watch it and see he had what he needs. They knew how to get the theater situation in an authentic way so they wanted to make sure they had the hip-hop minutia. There is a scene in Arlene’s Grocery where we had Organized Konfusion posters on the wall. We wanted it to feel like a hip-hop space.
The closing credits feature a flip of Quincy Jones “Love and Peace” and you have some other beats placed throughout the film. Were those tracks what you had in the stash?
Mr. Walt of Da Beatminerz: The majority of them were beats I had, but the Quincy Jones flip I made specifically for the movie. Guy hit me and he said, ‘Can you do something with this Quincy Jones thing?’ I already had the record. I said, ‘It’s not in my BPM range,’ but I said, ‘Walt, you’ve been trying to get into movies, take that shot.’ He said he wanted something like what we did and I never really changed my sound. I just made it more 2000 and whatever. Me and my brother [DJ Evil Dee] were never ones to follow trends. We always stay true to the Boom Bap sound.
Radha: I’m really proud of the people who showed up for this film. We were at Sundance and we did very well there, but a lot of the people covering it made no mention of these cameos and it was very obvious to me that they weren’t of the culture. That’s why having this conversation with you means so much because I made it for us.
The Forty-Year-Old Version is in select theaters and streaming now on Netflix.