In 1998, the late, great, heavyweight rapper Big Pun blew minds with a memorable verse on “Twinz (Deep Cover ’98),” which included the following tongue-twisting couplet:
“Dead in the middle of Little Italy, little did we know / That we riddled two middlemen who didn’t do diddly,” Pun rapped.
Nineteen years later, fans of ’90s hip-hop will recognize an homage to those Pun bars in writer-director Geremy Jasper’s coming-of-age hip-hop comedy “Patti Cake$,” starring Danielle Macdonald as an aspiring rapper name Killa P/Patti.
The Australian actress plays a suburban New Jersey rapper in the Fox Searchlight indie, which was one of the breakout films of this year’s Sundance Film Festival and hits theaters August 18. And that’s no coincidence — that song played an instrumental part in giving Macdonald the confidence and skills to rock the mic.
“I’m pretty sure I did ‘Twinz’ like three times,” Macdonald told TheWrap. “I sent [Jasper] three different versions of it with notes each time. That was kind of the first time he realized I could do something like that.”
It helped convince Macdonald too, who had fallen in love with the script the first time she read it — but had plenty of questions about how she’d ever become the film’s protagonist. Killa P is very much a product of the New Jersey hip-hop scene, working dead-end jobs while making music with R&B singing sidekick Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay) and beat-maker Basterd (Mamoudou Athie) as she tries to catch her big break.
“I read it trying to see myself in it the first time,” she told TheWrap. “That was hilarious. I just couldn’t honestly. I didn’t see how on Earth I could ever do it. I can’t rap and that’s a skill this girl has to have. I didn’t know how to be cool. I didn’t know how to have swag.”
But after Jasper reassured her that he wanted a talented actress who could learn to rap, and not vice versa, Macdonald settled into the role. Then it was time for rap school, which naturally began with a little homework.
“I listened to a ton of new artists I’d never heard of before,” Macdonald said. “I watched videos of random rap battles online.”
Jasper also gave Macdonald a test when they started production. Once the film got funded, he said he had about two-and-a-half months to essentially cut a hip-hop record. And he had to make sure his frontwoman could actually spit.
“I did an a capella that was an early version of what Patti and Jheri do on the car,” Jasper told TheWrap. “It was a very early version of that but it had that style and I just needed to see if she could handle that. It’s not super complicated, but it would take a little work to get it. She performed it for me and it was rough, but she had a good sense of rhythm, which was the most important thing. If she didn’t have rhythm, we’d be f—ed.”
Jasper’s hip-hop curriculum then took Macdonald through some of the genre’s canonical — and challenging — works. Literature students test themselves by parsing James Joyce. Aspiring rappers like Macdonald get tongue-tied imitating Kendrick Lamar.
“The first song I remember doing was [PTAF’s] ‘Boss Ass Bitch,'” Macdonald said. “We did so many. I did pretty much every artist you could think of. Ended up doing Kendrick Lamar’s verse on [Big Sean’s] ‘Control.’ Definitely not doing well with it. He is an alien because there is no way any human could do that.”
“We did [Nicki Minaj’s verse on Kanye West’s] ‘Monster,'” Jasper added, running through some of the other notable lessons. “We did [Dr. Dre and Eminem’s] ‘Forgot About Dre,’ which I thought she did an excellent job on. We did [Notorious B.I.G.’s] ‘Ten Crack Commandments.'”
And Patti’s rapid-fire rhyme style, a la “Twinz,” wasn’t planned either — it actually turned out that it was easier for Macdonald to emulate that type of flow than a more leisurely cadence.
“Danielle would say that songs that had more space in them were more difficult,” Jasper said. “That’s where a rapper’s personality comes in. What you do with the holes, what you do with your breath. That’s where style comes in. But if you’re doing chopper style super-fast, sometimes it’s just like — it’s so technical it’s almost like gymnastics.”
As Macdonald gained more confidence, she and Jasper kind of formed a workflow. Brooklyn rapper Skyzoo also joined the team, serving as a rap coach for the budding MC.
“I would write the initial pass for me, then I would demo it and record the rhymes,” Jasper said. “And then Danielle would come in and then we would modify it. It was a process. I never knew what was going to sound great coming out of her or what was going to sound lame. So I was constantly tweaking.”
And as can be expected from someone who has never really rapped before, turning Macdonald into a passable MC had plenty of ups and downs. “We would like stumble and it wasn’t working and I would bang my head against the wall and she would be getting frustrated,” he said. “[I’d say] let’s try it one more time. And then she would just nail it and it felt right. To me it was when it felt like, ‘Oh, it wasn’t Danielle, that’s Patti. There she is coming out of the speakers.’ We were always chasing that.”
Becoming Patti gave Macdonald a newfound appreciation for Big Pun, but especially another late New York rap icon. She was a fan of his back in Australia, but taking on “Ten Crack Commandments” while preparing for “Patti Cake$” made her appreciate the brilliance of the Notorious B.I.G. even more.
“When I did that song, I realized that this guy makes me feel more like Patti,” she said. “I started listening to all of his stuff. He’s so cool and confident.”
Jasper may be one of the biggest hip-hop heads in directing (he and TheWrap spent a few minutes after the interview breaking down the latest Kendrick Lamar album), but after filling stacks of notebooks writing rhymes while making “Patti Cake$,” even he needed a little boom bap break.
“I’m listening to other stuff now,” he said. “I want to listen to country and western. Classical music or something.”