roc a fella films

Jay-Z, as seen in the Roc-A-Fella Films production Paper Soldiers in 2002.

On the movie’s cover Hov is first-billed above the title - for a role that consists of a single shot of him in the studio, smiling serenely as his music bumps. Little does he know at the same time Shawn, played by Kevin Hart in his film debut, is in his house robbing him. Most of the Roc family also had a part in the film, with starring roles going to Beanie Sigel, N.O.R.E., Memphis Bleek, Dame Dash, Angie Martinez, Cam’ron, Jim Jones, Lil’ Cease, Charlie Murphy, and more…

Jay-Z’s Streets is Watching compiles the music videos for tracks from his first two studio albums Reasonable Doubt and In My Lifetime, Vol. 1, using them to tell a semi-autobiographical story of Hov’s journey from the drug game to the rap game. “I didn’t live next to doctors and lawyers,” Jay-Z told MTV News at the film’s premiere, “they lived down the block. I lived next to hustlers, that’s the people that I grew up looking up to, that’s the thing that was most attainable to me… It’s material, but it’s the things I grew up seeing.”

Released in the United States on May 12, 1998, the Platinum-selling direct-to-video musical film had a budget of $320,000 and made over $10.7 million in videotape sales. In just over three months it sold over a million copies.

Streets is Watching was written by Hov and Dame Dash, and co-written and directed by frequent early Roc-A-Fella Records collaborator Abdul Malik Abbott. It was filmed over just seven days in Brooklyn, Manhattan and New Jersey in October 1997. The final film also contains Jay’s first two videos, “I Can’t Get Wit That” and “In My Lifetime,” which were both released before he signed a major label contract.

“[Jay-Z] and I got together and decided to put something out that portrayed his most graphic stories,“ Dame Dash said of the hour-long film that details the rapper’s struggle to find his place in the music world. "There is so much censorship in the rap game so, as a storyteller, this provided Jay-Z with an avenue to put out all the stuff that we couldn’t get on the air.” The movie would help to reinstate his street credibility after his shiny suit-influenced second album.

Def Jam Recordings wouldn’t fund the film due to the graphic content, so the Roc-A-Fella Records team came up with the budget themselves. When the label saw how serious the Roc were about the project, and saw how the final product come together successfully, they would later agree to chip in on a distribution deal. 

The film’s corresponding soundtrack complied tracks from artists such as Rell, Ja Rule, DMX, DJ Clue, Sauce Money, Noreaga, Christión and M.O.P., among others. It was released through Roc-A-Fella Records/Def Jam Recordings and peaked at #3 on Billboard’s “Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums” chart.

At the premiere at the Tribeca Screening Room in Manhattan on May 11, one fan’s review was captured by MTV: "Yo, this shit’s gonna get like four stars from the thugs and two from the parents. Yo, it needs to have like five or six warning labels on it!”

Streets is Watching was re-released on DVD on October 5, 2004 with an updated score and “lost video footage.” If you haven’t already, go pick yourself up a copy.

Jay-Z, photographed on classic 120mm film, for XXL magazine by Jonathan Mannion in 1999.

This contact sheet is from the XXL shoot that officially announced Jay-Z, DMX, and Ja Rule as the Murder Inc. rap group, shown on the cover of the June 1999 issue. Producer Irv Gotti first gathered Jay, Rule and DMX on Mic Geronimo’s 1995 track ‘Time to Build.’ Gotti would eventually work to get all three artists solo deals with Def Jam in collaboration with their respective labels. The trio worked closely over the next few years, recording tracks together, appearing in one another’s videos, and then hitting the road together on Hov’s Hard Knock Life Tour. As a group, Murder Inc. only officially released two songs - although Ja and Gotti have said there are unreleased tracks in the vault. Murder Inc. could have been one of the greatest rap groups of all time - but sadly ego got in the way of them releasing an album.

“What do you think is gonna happen with three of the illest niggas together?”