By all accounts, Shie Rozow, the music editor for Craig Brewer's film Hustle & Flow, was a nervous wreck when he got to Memphis. The Hollywood veteran had worked on a lot of big pictures, including both Spider-Man features, but no amount of experience or expertise could prepare him for the Bluff City beat.
"There's just something about the way we do things here," says Scott Bomar. According to Bomar, who composed the score for Hustle & Flow, Memphians have their own special brand of TCB. "It always looks like total chaos on the surface, but it always works out, and it always comes off fine," he explains.
Poor Rozow, having no experience with the Memphis method, was visibly shaken, especially by the prospect of working with a live drummer -- an archaic, foreign, and undesirable option in the eerily perfect world of digital recording. Hustle's budget only allowed for one day in the studio, and there wouldn't be time for any mistakes.
"Usually [the editors] have to move [all the beats] around in Pro Tools to make a drummer sound like he's playing straight time," Bomar says. But with Willie Hall -- the drummer who kept time for Isaac Hayes and who toured with the original Blues Brothers -- there was no need to worry. "When you've got Willie, you don't need a computer. He keeps perfect time, and [Rozow] just sat there watching all the downbeats on the [computer] screen, making sure everything was perfect. This guy's worked with every musician in Hollywood, and he said he'd never seen a better drummer."
Bomar, who cut his musical teeth with punk-rockers Pezz and made a name for himself with the surf band Impala, is equally proud of his current band, the Bo-Keys. He leaned on his Bo-Keys bandmates to score Hustle & Flow, using not only Hall but Stax veteran Skip Pitts, the guitar player whose distinctive sound on Isaac Hayes' "Theme from Shaft" started a wah-wah revolution, and Mark Franklin, a graduate of the University of Memphis' jazz program who toured with Bobby "Blue" Bland for 10 years. To round out his group of players, Bomar enlisted the aid of former Hayes producer/keyboard player Marvell Thomas and Bar-Kays horn blower Ben Cauley.
"These guys are all pros," Bomar says. "It doesn't take much to get them going. You just start playing and they all fall in and take [your song] to another place."
Hustle & Flow, which copped an international buzz after it sold at the Sundance Film Festival for an unprecedented $16 million, wasn't Bomar's first experience making motion pictures. Bomar's first score was for Teenage Tupelo, a zero-budget sexploitation shocker by Memphis' reigning king of bizarro cinema, John Michael McCarthy. Bomar met McCarthy in the early '90s through fellow musicians Greg Cartwright and Jack Yarber who -- not yet Oblivians -- were playing in a band called the Compulsive Gamblers.
"I was 16 years old, and here I was hanging out with these musicians and this guy making horror movies on his credit card. And there were all of these girls. It was pretty cool," Bomar says.
Soon Impala started practicing in McCarthy's garage and played the premiere of his first film, Gorotica. While it would take a little longer for McCarthy's films to catch fire, Impala was an instant sensation.
"Mike has always had plans for all these projects, and after we played for Gorotica, he asked if Impala would do the score for his film Teenage Tupelo," Bomar says. The band had a two-record deal for local Icehouse records and still owed one record. That provided a perfect situation to kill two birds with one stone, and Impala set out to score McCarthy's film about buxom Mississippi man-haters inhabiting an alternative universe where Elvis' stillborn twin lived.
Impala had two weeks in the studio and often composed on the spot, matching up grungy R&B, murder-jazz, and surf to whatever was playing on the screen in front of them.
"I think Teenage Tupelo is the most accurate representation of Impala and what we were capable of doing," Bomar says. "It really paved the way for what I did on Hustle & Flow. Mike knew these guys down in Mississippi who used to play with [Memphis rockabilly/country singer] Eddie Bond, so we had this pedal steel player and this piano player who we'd never played with before, and we had to create these two [tracks] that were supposed to be coming from a jukebox. So we had to re-create [the sounds of] a '60s Tupelo, Mississippi, trucker jukebox. I like a lot of different types of music, and that's what's fun about working with movies. People want and need so many different types of music -- a country song on a jukebox or maybe a polka."
Bomar never called Hollywood. Hollywood called him. "Incident on the 10th Floor," the first track from Impala's EP Kings of the Strip, became the trailer music for the film Way of the Gun. Their stripper-music-meets-Dick-Dale sound also graced the romantic comedy I Love You, Don't Touch Me, and their lurking cover of Henry Mancini's "Experiment in Terror" was featured prominently in the critically acclaimed Chuck Barris biopic Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. Licensing these songs to Hollywood hipped Bomar to the business side of the film industry and set the stage for his work on Hustle & Flow.
With nods to '70s classics like Truck Turner and Shaft, and an occasional bit of Impala-style tension-building, Bomar's score may sound like it belongs to another era, and on the front end that might seem at odds with a movie about a modern-day street hustler looking to make it as a rapper. But Bomar sees his vintage soul sound and the modern hip-hop beat as natural companions.
"A lot of hip-hop is based on '70s soul, funk, and R&B," he says. "I've got these musicians who have been sampled by NWA, the Geto Boys, Ludacris, and the list goes on. [Eightball & MJG's] Comin' Out Hard is all '70s soul samples -- Tyrone Davis and Bobby Womack. That's the roots of Memphis rap and a lot of other rap. It's "player's club" soul. It's the stuff you hear on the jukeboxes in North and South Memphis. Those are the records that were in [most Memphis rappers'] parent's record collections. So I wanted to make a score that somebody who was making rap music would want to sample."
According to Bomar, the studio session for Hustle & Flow got tense when Isaac Hayes -- who has a featured role in the film -- showed up at Ardent studio. "I was looking through the window, and there was Isaac and [producer] John Singleton. I said, man, this is serious. I've got to get down to business."
The business in question was, in many ways, the fulfillment of an ambition Bomar had harbored since he was 5 years old.
"I was grocery shopping with my grandmother at the Giant grocery store on Austin Peay Highway. You know, the one with the 50-foot giant holding the grocery bags. I was riding under the cart, and I remember hearing 'Theme to The Pink Panther' playing. It was like this epiphany. I started realizing the connections between the music you hear on film or television and music you listen to."
His musical career may have progressed in glorious fits and underappreciated starts, but when Hollywood started calling, Bomar had yet another epiphany:
"I thought, hey, I must really be doing something that people who make movies like."