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Starting his first film at age 22 with 1991's Boyz N The Hood, Singleton has been hard at work over the past 20-plus years cultivating his craft. His latest venture, directing an episode of Empire, adds yet another notch in his belt in the television world. He's also received the blessing of the Shakur family to take the lead in directing the long-awaited 'Pac film. With next year marking the 20th anniversary of Tupac's death, fans have been anticipating this film for a number of years.
XXL recently spoke to John Singleton to get caught up on his most recent work. He not only gives an update on the upcoming Tupac biopic but he also spoke on the possibility of a Baby Boy sequel, his work on Empire and a possible collaboration with YG. —Miranda J.
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John Singleton: I worked on the fifth episode. The one where the [Jussie Smollet, who plays one of Terrence Howard's sons] was robbed in the studio and [Yazz] made the video for “Drip Drop.” DeRay Davis was in it and you’ll notice the drive-by in it, that was me.
That was your first time working on a drama TV series right?
My first time with it, period.
I know that you’ve done some 30 for 30s before.
Yeah, but that was a documentary. This was the first time I’ve done dramatic television.
So how was it working on Empire? Did you connect with that from your relationship with Taraji P Henson from working on Baby Boy?
Yeah, it was through Taraji. She told me that they were thinking about doing it. Then [show creator] Lee Daniels called me up and he said that he had an episode that he thought would be interesting if I directed it instead of him. Lee and I are friends from way back, so I just said, "Yeah, okay. I’ll do it." I was just sitting on my yacht and I was on my phone. So I was like, "Let’s go." And, you know, it’s all friends and family on that show, so.
Did working on the show inspire you? Did you ever think about maybe working on your own TV series?
I already delved into TV and I’m started to get this show going right now. It’s called Snowfall. It’s about Los Angeles in 1981, before crack hit the streets. It’s [about] how cocaine hit the streets of L.A. I’m working on that right now.
Another thing that you’ve been working on that people are really excited about is the Tupac biopic. Are you still working on that?
Well, we’re putting it on hold for right now. I’m putting my involvement on hold right now because we’re trying to figure out some things. I got a script and I got the blessings from his family. We’ll see. I’m putting it on hold until it’s right. We’ve got to get it right.
And in terms of getting it right, you’re one of the best people to do it since you worked with Tupac.
I know. The thing about it is, not just that I worked with 'Pac, but we grew up in a similar environment. Where we’re from, you can’t really understand Tupac unless you grew up Black born in America. What he stood for is far beyond the music that he made. It’s what he stood for as a Black man in America. He was one of those people who had so much heart they could never back down. That’s lacking in a lot of people right now. Especially a lot of MCs. A lot of people are really going for the okie doke, they’re really not trying to say anything in their music. You can dance and party to have stuff going on but you know at a certain time when you look around you, you gotta say, "What’s going on with my people? Can I do something from the heart to elevate my people?" He was about that. It was a very introspective virus.
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Kendrick Lamar is phenomenal. I wouldn’t even call Kendrick a rapper, I would call him a performance artist because he’s somebody that’s channeled his own journey into his art and he’s affected so many people. He’s a great example of somebody who’s pouring his soul out to the world. A lot of other artists are giving the audiences what they think the audiences want and not enough of themselves. I love what he did with this album because he’s really talking about what’s going on right now. There’s a song on there [the live version of “i”], when a fight breaks out and he’s basically having a dialogue, not with just the audience on the track, but everybody that’s listening to the album. Every Black man that goes to parties can be like, "Yo, I’m not feeling good. I want to start some shit right now."
Also, at the end of the album when he was having that dialogue with Tupac, I felt in a way that he was being passed the torch. Do you feel that way? Do you feel he could potentially be someone like Tupac?
No, there will never be another Tupac. No matter how great anybody else is. Kendrick Lamar is his own special entity. Kendrick Lamar is making his own history. The thing about him is also, he’s laying it down for, I feel, a whole rise of the West Coast. With all the Top Dawg artists; ScHoolboy Q, what’s happening with YG, DJ Mustard and everybody. It’s like when Dre put it down back in the day, in the 1980s and 1990s, when all his artists were coming out of the West Coast and they were basically speaking on what’s going on out here. I think that these young brothers are giving a whole new perspective from a new generation.
How does it feel to be involved in making the Tupac biopic?
It’s a very intimidating because, like I said, you just want to get it right. I think the picture is not going to be good unless it’s offensive to some people. So, whenever you make a movie, you always have different elements that people have their say about. But when I’m making my movies, John Singleton movies, it’s really just my voice. So I can’t be listening to all the other suggestions of all these other people and shit. So we’re not going to pull the trigger on that until it’s right. If somebody else wants to do something different then they can do something different. But if it’s going to be right, it’s going to be right. It’s going to be something that potentially adorns 'Pac’s legacy.
I’m not sure if you’ve gotten to this part, but the casting probably has to be extra hard. Have you gotten there yet?
Yeah, I have. I have great casting choices, it’s just too premature to talk about.
You’ve cultivated so many classic hip-hop films. I looked on your Instagram and you had a picture from the set of Boyz N The Hood from when you were 23. Do you ever look back in disbelief of it all?
[I started at] 22. No, I don’t look back, I always look forward to making more history with great people.
What else can we expect in the future? I saw you on Instagram with YG. Are you guys working on something?
We’re just talking. We finally got a chance to sit down and chop it up. I’ve always been a person that supports anybody from L.A. that’s trying to do something within this whole game. It’s hard to really make it, whether it’s movies or entertainment. What I love about YG, is he’s still exploring. He’s young and he got it. He’s got a voice and he knows what he wants to do. He just wants to get better and better and he’s pulling all his people up with him. Through him, a lot of other young brothers can get some stuff going on.
To me, that short film that he came out with was awesome. It kind of reminded me of Boyz N The Hood.
It’s really funny. That’s just the first thing that he’s going to do.
I also see that you’ve maintained a great relationship with with Taraji and Tyrese. Baby Boy is a classic. Is there any hope of getting a sequel?
Yeah, we’ll see. I have a script of a movie that I want to do. It’s kind of an allude to Baby Boy but we have to figure it out. Taraji has an interesting schedule with Empire and Tyrese has a lot of stuff going on, and I do, but we’re going to put it together. The audience just really wants to see those two back together.
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