There are many great scenes in the 1999 comedy Office Space, and one that’s more famous than the rest. If you’ve seen it, you can probably visualize it in your head. We’re in a vacant field, where the trio of Peter Gibbons, Michael Bolton, and Samir Nagheenanajar — disgruntled workers at Initech, a mid-size software company — are ready to exact brutal mafia justice on their company’s dysfunctional printer, in broad daylight. A fisheye lens looks up at Peter and Michael from the machine’s vantage point, in the style of Tarantino’s car-trunk camera angle. Things certainly look bleak. But they also sound bleak. It’s this scene’s soundtrack — the convulsing bass and squirming G-funk synth of the Geto Boys’ murder anthem “Still” — that lets you know this printer is about to die.
There is no dialogue in this scene. The sound has been sucked from the diegetic world, except for the exaggerated, cavernous booms that punctuate each blow to the printer. All that exists are the Geto Boys and the vengeful wrath of these three men. Just as the microphone travels from the hands of Willie D, to Bushwick Bill, to Scarface, who yell “Die motherfuckers, die!” in turn, a Louisville Slugger baseball bat makes its way from the hands of Peter, to Samir, to Michael, who drives the knob of the bat into the heart of the printer and spills its guts in slow motion. He then flings the bat aside and wails it on the machine with his fists until Peter and Samir restrain him, though he does take some of the entrails home, as a souvenir.
Office Space, which celebrates its 20th anniversary on February 19, is a movie about rebellion. The disembowelment of the printer is not a case of undue violence, but rather a political act motivated by the news that Initech plans to lay off Michael and Samir. On their way out the door, they team up with Peter to infect Initech’s system with a virus designed to discreetly bleed the company of cash. As they walk this warpath, three songs — the Geto Boys’ “Still” and “Damn It Feels Good to Be a Gangsta” and Ice Cube’s “Down For Whatever” — serve as their spiritual guides.
Office Space leverages the anarchic spirit of gangsta rap to underscore the simmering rage of soul-crushing, white-collar cubicle-dom, as well the catharsis these characters feel as they attempt corporate sabotage. The movie’s use of rap is somewhat tongue-in-cheek — look at these cornballs, trying to act tough — but it also exposes real frustrations. Rap simultaneously raises the stakes and makes fun of them. At night, when they’re not forced to endure the bureaucratic nitpicking of the coffee-swilling vice president Bill Lumbergh, the oft-depressed, TPS report-filing schmucks of Initech look in the mirror and see lawless villains, ready to acquire wealth and stick it to the man in one fell swoop.
The film is set in Texas, which partly explains its heavy invocation of the Houston-bred Geto Boys. But surprisingly, their vital musical presence was almost scrubbed from the film. The movie’s original trailer prominently featured not “Still” but Fatboy Slim’s “The Rockafeller Skank,” and the studio nearly succeeded in mandating a sanitized soundtrack. “When [former 20th Century Fox president] Tom Rothman saw the first cut of the movie, he said, ‘You have to take out the gangsta rap.’ I said, ‘If the next focus group doesn’t like it, okay,’” writer and director Mike Judge recalled in an interview with Entertainment Weekly. “At the next one, the moderator asks, making a sour face, ‘What did you think of the music?’ This 19-year-old kid says, ‘What’s great is that the movie has gangsta rap, but these guys work in an office.’ Rothman looks over like, ‘Alright, you win.’”
Gangsta rap isn’t the only music in Office Space. The mambo of Perez Prado colors a handful of scenes, as does the rap of Slum Village and Kool Keith; Canibus and Biz Markie’s “Shove This Jay-Oh-Bee” plays through the end credits. But when gangsta rap is present, it is loud and at the front and center of the movie’s most incisive moments. After an epiphany gives Peter a fresh, carefree outlook on life, “Damn It Feels Good to Be a Gangsta” provides the blissful soundtrack to the montage in which he takes Lumbergh’s parking spot, knocks down his cubicle wall, and skips work to go fishing with his girl. Later, Ice Cube’s diabolical “Down For Whatever” sets the tone as Peter, Michael, and Samir upload the virus with an unnecessarily slick choreographed dance involving swivel chairs and clandestine floppy disk hand-offs. Mouse clicks ring off like gun shots. “Damn I’m such a G, it’s pathetic,” Cube raps. During these two scenes, as well as the printer one, Office Space more closely resembles a music video than a feature film.
The characters of Office Space, of course, are nerds — and more importantly, they’re mostly white, a tension the film is sharply aware of. Driving to work one day, Michael enthusiastically raps along to Scarface’s “No Tears” in his car (“I've got my pistol pawn cocked / Ready to lay shots non-stop until I see your monkey-ass drop”), only to lock his door and lower the volume when a black man walks past selling flowers. The man’s presence has spoiled the efficacy of this fantasy world that Michael has created, and exposed him for what he really is: a racially profiling coward. This scene illustrates the movie’s awareness of the massive gap between its characters and rappers, and how it exploits that gap for comedic effect. It is precisely the breadth of that gulf that makes gangsta rap all the more alluring and necessary for these characters to construct their own childlike personal mythology, the whole purpose of which is that it doesn’t square with reality.
In this sense, Office Space actively explores and pokes fun at the complex, often comical nature of non-black listeners who are typically voyeurs in rap, but nevertheless feel empowered by it. The way Peter, Michael, and Samir channel gangsta rap is not performative, but interior. As Samir brings his heel down on a defenseless, inanimate machine with the fury of a thousand suns, he is no longer Samir Nagheenanajar but Willie D rapping, “Back up in your ass with the resurrection / It's the group harder than an erection that shows no affection.” As Peter shows up late to work, he becomes J Prince, who goes through life with the world “swangin’ from [his] nuts.” As Michael uploads his virus to a floppy disk, he becomes Ice Cube, a reluctant pimp resigned to his badass fate: “Pimping ain’t easy, but it’s necessary.”
20 years later, white-collar workers — some of them Caucasian, all of them frustrated — are all Michael Bolton.
Due to social limitations at the time, the drones of Initech were unable to actually listen to their music at work, but Office Space was ahead of its time in imagining how office workers might interact with rap today. Rap has grown more mainstream, but more crucially, it’s infinitely more accessible due to the rise of the streaming economy, and changing social mores about what you’re allowed to do at the office. It has become commonplace for employees to listen to music on headphones as a means of quiet liberation of the mundane, sometimes dark nature of everyday work.
Office Space spends a full third of the film characterizing Initech as the eighth level of hell by sending Peter, Michael, and Samir through a gauntlet of minor but persistent annoyances — the faulty printer, the nearby customer service agent who speaks with a high-pitched voice, the never-ending stream of minutiae — that, when absorbed in succession, make a man want to keel over and die. Gangsta rap is not merely a useful tool to endure these sorts of moments; it is a crucial psychic ally in the epic struggle against the powers that be. Lumbergh has his closed-door meetings with the consultants he brought in to handle layoffs; Michael has his closed-door mental meetings with the posters of Gang Starr and Snoop Dogg that hang next to his computer. Twenty years later, white-collar workers — some of them Caucasian, all of them frustrated — are all Michael Bolton.
The heroes of Office Space love gangsta rap, but the movie’s true gangster is Milton Waddams, the mumbling dweeb who becomes radicalized over the course of a string of quiet abuses he suffers at the hands of his superiors, none less heinous then Lumbergh’s theft of his precious red Swingline stapler. In the end, he burns Initech to the ground. They should have never fucked with him.
Correction: A previous version of this story referred to the printer as a fax machine.