Twenty years ago today Jay-Z’s musical film Streets is Watching was released in stores across the United States. Released on May 12, 1998, the direct-to-video film was originally scheduled for release two weeks earlier on April 28, but unforeseen circumstances resulted in its release date being pushed back. The project was a huge success for the Roc-A-Fella Records label, quickly gaining them $2 million in videotape sales. In three months it had sold a 100,000 copies, and was certified Platinum by the RIAA. Since 1998 the film has grossed a total of $10.7 million in the United States.
Streets is Watching compiled the music videos for tracks from Jigga’s first two studio albums Reasonable Doubt and In My Lifetime, Vol. 1, using the visuals to tell a semi-autobiographical story of the rapper’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 entertaining material, but it’s the things I grew up seeing.“
The gritty musical film would help to reinstate Jigga’s street credibility after the perceived disappointments of his shiny suit-influenced second album, In My Lifetime, Vol. 1. During the recording process the Roc’s new distribution partners at Def Jam Recordings had encouraged Jay and his team to create more radio-friendly music in their search for success. With production from Puff Daddy’s Hitmen team, Vol. 1 found Jigga rapping over pop samples and funky synths—a sudden departure from the Mafioso prophecy of Reasonable Doubt. In an interview with Rap Radar, the album’s A&R Kyambo “Hip-Hop” Joshua explained that “a lot of things [were] rushed into on the second album. ‘Oh man, we need singles. We need bigger records.’ That album represented a conscious effort to take it to another level.” Unfortunately, while in search of those big records, many of Hov’s fans and music critics were disappointed with the inclusion of “(Always Be My) Sunshine” and “I Know What Girls Like.”
After being released as a single on September 16, 1997, the Roc soon came to realize that “(Always Be My) Sunshine”—as declared by the genius Chaka Pilgrim—“wasn’t that great.” In last year’s “Roc-A-Fella Celebration” hosted by ItsTheReal, Pilgrim spoke on how the Streets is Watching concept came about in October 1997. “[After ‘Sunshine’] we decided to go back to the streets to do what was authentic,” she explained. “Damon came to me and was like, ‘Let’s just keep making these visuals.’ Everybody was really supportive of it. I think that was what propelled the [Roc-A-Fella] vision forward and the music forward.” Chaka would then come up with the idea of collating these music videos into a musical film, with scripted scenes tying the videos together. Among the shiny beats there were many hard-hitting tracks that were being overlooked on Vol. 1, and the Roc team knew that the film would be the best way for Jigga to reconnect with his fans on the ground. Also present at ItsTheReal’s live show, Lenny “KodakLens” Santiago would add “thank God for Streets is Watching. We were kinda digging out of a hole after ‘Sunshine,’ and the video didn’t help. Streets is Watching is the first time we just did our own thing.”
The majority of the Streets is Watching footage was filmed by frequent Roc collaborator Abdul Malik Abbott and his production partner Schavaria Reeves
over a seven day period in locations across Brooklyn, Manhattan, and New Jersey in October 1997. Filming was put on hold so Hov could fulfill his opening act duties on Puff Daddy’s “No Way Out Tour.” He quit the tour in December and returned his focus to the film. The video for the film’s title track “Streets is Watching” was filmed later in early-1998.
Filming locations included inside the Tom, Dick, & Harry’s Clothing Store in Bedford-Stuyvesant and the Surrogate’s Courthouse in Manhattan. The final version of the film would also include Jay’s first two videos, 1994′s “I Can’t Get Wit That” and 1995′s “In My Lifetime.”
Streets is Watching was written by Shawn Carter, Chaka Pilgrim, and Dame Dash; and co-written and directed by Abdul Malik Abbott.
“[Jay-Z] and I got together and decided to put something out that portrayed his most graphic stories,” Dame once explained to MTV News of the 40-minute film that details how their label went from operating out the trunk of their car to being one of the strongest independent labels in hip-hop. “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 film’s script was inspired by a well-known New York street tale from the late-’80s. As Hov told the MTV Radio Network in a February 1998 interview, “[our Streets is Watching story] is a real life thing taking place, [inspired by] a couple of hustlers back in ‘88. We have the newspaper clippings. It’s a real story. It’s a famous story in the city among the underground people and the people that’s in the know, it’s a very famous story, and a very touching story. People really want to see how that story went down, and then a lot of people can relate to it across the country. We definitely feel that’s going to be a very big project for us.“
Def Jam Recordings would refuse to fund the film due to the graphic content, so the Roc-A-Fella Records had to source the $320,000 budget themselves. They struck a deal with
Constance “Connie” Orlando, the current EVP Head of Programming for BET☆, and her newly launched production company CMO Productions to produce the direct-to-video film. When Def Jam realized how serious the Roc were about the project, and watched as the final product come together successfully, they would later agree to chip in on a video distribution deal. At the time of release Roc-A-Fella publicist Sherri Fultz explained to MTV how “at first, Def Jam said no to the whole thing because it was too raw, so Damon and Jay-Z had to come up with the money themselves. When Def Jam saw that they were serious about putting it out, then they finally chipped in on a distribution deal.”
In an interview with MTV News after the film’s release Hov spoke on why he and the Roc-A-Fella Records team had chosen to release the film on the direct-to-video format, explaining that “just like with [Roc-A-Fella], when we first started that, we didn’t know too much about putting out records and marketing and things like that. It was a learning process. To be honest, I couldn’t really put together a movie that was worthy of the big screen, yet.“
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!” Another fan felt like more could have been done to promote how Jay had since changed his lifestyle: “I thought Jay-Z coulda switched it up at the end and shown a more positive message about how he ended up running his record label after coming up in the projects. He entered corporate America after being raised in the projects and dealing drugs. I think that there is a message there that he didn’t show.”
The film’s soundtrack featured appearances from Roc-A-Fella Records artists and those working adjacent to the label, including Rell, Memphis Bleek, Jigga, Ja Rule and DMX as their rap group Murder Inc., DJ Clue, Diamonds in Da Ruff, the Usual Suspects, Sauce Money, Noreaga, Christión, M.O.P., and Wais P. Hov featured on seven of the album’s 12 tracks, and he delivered us classic cuts such as “Only a Customer” and “Celebration.” 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. Jigga and Bleek’s “It’s Alright” and Rell and Jay’s “Love For Free” both made appearances on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
Streets is Watching was re-released on DVD on October 5, 2004 with an updated score and “lost video footage.” The extra footage would now put the film’s running time at 60 minutes.
The film’s cover was captured by hip-hop photographer Monique Bunn on the set of the “Streets is Watching” music video.