Run This Town
Taraji P. Henson keeps rising to the top.
Words Clover Hope

Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the October 2009 issue of XXL Magazine featuring Jay Z on the cover, with the second half running as outtakes online. It's being re-printed complete here to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Oscar-winning film Hustle & Flow starring Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard.

Since her breakout role in 2001’s Baby Boy, Taraji P. Henson has been a spark plug in films like Hustle & Flow (2005), Something New (2006) and Not Easily Broken (2009). Following an Oscar-nominated performance in last year’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the D.C. native next co-stars in Tyler Perry’s I Can Do Bad All By Myself, currently in theaters, and the upcoming Hurricane Season. Henson recently spoke to XXL about her love of hip-hop.

XXL: What appealed to you about I Can Do Bad All By Myself?
Taraji P. Henson: I was eager to work with Tyler Perry again [after The Family That Preys]... I think people will relate to the journey of my character [April]. They may not like her in the beginning, but by the end, the audience will love her, because of her decision to grow up.

When did your relationship with hip-hop first begin?
When I first heard The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rappers Delight” and “Apache”... It was something I had never heard before and could totally relate to, even though I was only 10 years old.

If you could record a song with any rapper, who would it be?
I would have to say Kanye West, because not only does he produce hot tracks, he’s a risk taker, and so am I. I think that’s what makes great art.

What’s been your best concert experience?
My favorite concert was an underground Talib Kweli and Mos Def concert that I went to in L.A. I just remember standing backstage looking out into the audience. It was a sea of white and other races pumping their fists and rapping every lyric. I was blown away.

How do you wish hip-hop would change?
It’s become this big-pimpin’ money machine. I would love to see the art of hip-hop reinstated at its core. If that means dropping an album that doesn’t sell a million copies at first but moves the people in a positive way, so be it.

taraji p henson hustle & flow 10 years anniversary
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On Her Earliest Hip-Hop Memories
Roxanne Shante was very “hood,” and because I grew up in the hood I felt as if she was speaking for all the little brown girls with hopes and dreams who came from pretty much nothing. Me and my girls would stand in the mirror with our hip-hop gear and outrageous hair and pretend we were them! As I grew older, hip-hop grew with me. As apart of my curriculum at Howard University, I had to study African-American music, which prompted my love for jazz music. My relationship with The Native Tongues grew out of my appreciation for jazz, because that’s when I first started hearing jazz music infused with hip-hop. I was madly in love with A Tribe Called Quest, The Brand Nubians and The Jungle Brothers.

On Her Favorite Artists
Biggie will always have a place in my heart and music collection even though his life was cut so short. For me, he was the voice of the East Coast hood, and I know if he were alive today I would have all of his albums. Love me some Roots ’cause they are just grown and sexy and they use a live band. Talib Kweli and Mos Def, because they are smart, lyrical geniuses. If you two should happen to be reading this, my soul needs another Black Star collabo! J Dilla, rest in peace. His ear for music was incredible. Common—another lyrical genius. Nasty Nas is just brilliant. Lil Wayne ’cause he can flow to the sound of a washing machine and make it hot! Kanye West because he takes risks. Mary J. Bleezy is my number one soul sister in R&B. She totally deconstructed and rebuilt herself in the public eye through her music and is still going strong. Her music has always spoken deeply to my soul. I often used so many of her songs to help me get where I needed to be emotionally in my work. Dwele, Raheem DeVaughn, Musiq Soulchild, their sounds are so grown and sexy because they sing about love and life, not bumping and grinding. I don’t see nothing wrong with a little bump and grind. I just don’t need a whole album about it.

On Why She Loves Hip-Hop
It’s art! It’s poetry! People tried to hate on it back in the day saying it was just a phase, but it is here to stay. With each generation, hip-hop finds a new sound and a new life. People also said it was noise, but guess what? This noise sells a lot of product all over the globe in commercial spots, so hip-hop gets the last laugh.

On Her Favorite Movie Role
That would have to be Talk To Me. Working with Don Cheadle was a dream come true. He is the most talented male actor of our time. I think Vernelle, my character, showcased my range. She was some of everything a human can be. Of course the story was beautifully written and directed. Until then, I had never seen a love (friendship, that is) between two Black men on the big screen.

On Her Favorite Hood Movie
I know I’m not supposed to say that Baby Boy is my all time favorite hood movie, but I have to tell you, Baby Boy is my all time favorite movie. I can’t help it and I must tell the truth.