Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Greatest Movies About Hip-Hop, Part 1: Documentaries

Hip Hop is a subculture that started in the South Bronx in New York City in the early 1970s. In 1983, it got its first movie, Wild Style. Since that time there have been tons of movies with plots that involve hip-hop in one form or another. For this exercise, one I think is fitting for Black History Month since it was largely an African-American with a healthy helping hand from Hispanics, I will give you what I think are the greatest hip-hop movies of all time.

This begs the question, what exactly is a hip-hop movie. Before we get to that, we must answer another fundamental question: what is hip-hop? If I ask that of the average Joe, white, black, or otherwise, they'll likely say rap music. That's only part of it. Granted, it's the part that has turned into a mammoth worldwide industry, but it's not all there is to it. In fact, there are five pillars of the culture: B-boying (better known as break-dancing), MCing (rapping), DJing (and/or music producing), Graffiti Writing (self explanatory), and Beat-Boxing (making that music with your mouth). To be included on this list, either the plot of your movie must involve one of those pillars, or one of the.m must be integral to the identity of a major character. And I mean character, not actor. I know, Ice Cube is a rapper and is in Boyz N the Hood and Friday. No, neither movie will be here. Nor will such movies as New Jack City, Menace II Society, or Set it Off. Now that that's out the way, let's get on with the list.

Sort of.

I'm going to do this list in two parts. We will end up by getting into regular narrative features before February runs out. To help you actually learn a bit more about the culture, we'll start today with Hip-Hop documentaries. Uh 1-2, uh 1-2...

First, some I need to see myself (chronologically)...

Beat This: A Hip-Hop History (1984), Big Fun in the Big Town (1986), Welcome to Death Row (2001), Scratch (2002), Tupac Shakur: Thug Angel (2002), Beef (2003), Rock the Bells (2004), Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats & Rhymes (2006), Notorious B.I.G.: Bigger than Life (2007), Wu: The Story of the Wu-Tang Clan (2007), 2 Turntables and a Microphone: The Life and Death of Jam Master Jay (2008), Uprising: Hip-Hop & the L.A. Riots (2012)

On to the list...

10A. Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme
In recent years, freestyling and battling has become popular in the mainstream, helped along by on of the movies we'll discuss later. However, it's always been there. For those not in the know, true freestyling is rapping off the top of your head, making it up as you go along. Battling is a competition between two people with the winner being the one who lands the sharpest barbs at the other person's expense. Damn near every rap fan, and even lots of other people have tried it at some point or another. Some are better than others. This doc discusses its history and evolution. It also deals with those who have become legendary within those circles and some of their most famous battles.

10. Rhyme & Reason
We take a look into hip hop culture and try to figure out why it is so popular. It also gets into what the future might hold for it. We do this through lots of interviews with culture icons as well as some of the hottest acts of the day. As a companion piece, also check out The Show, which came out a year or so earlier. That one is more fun and features more concert footage, but this one is the headier of the two.

9. N.W.A.: The World's Most Dangerous Group
Before the big biopic that came out last year, there was this little entry in VH1's Behind the Music. It really digs into the conditions in South Central, Los Angeles that contributed to the music that the group would create. It also goes more in-depth into the group's impact on both hip hop and popular culture.

8. Fresh Dressed
Here, we cover an aspect of hip hop culture that is often spoken of, but rarely focused on: fashion. Essentially, this gives us a rundown on it's history and how it has affected mainstream fashion. This includes legendary do-it-yourselfers like Dapper Dan and The Shirt Kings to those who became big time designers like Karl Kani and Daymond John. We also examine a number of the trends over the decades. It's a fun stroll down memory lane for me, and probably, an eye-opener revealing how much impact urban fashion has had on the world as a whole.

7. Dave Chappelle's Block Party
Back in the summer of 2004, comedian Dave Chappelle decided to throw a block party. He did so in Brooklyn, NY without a lot of advance press because it was mostly for he people in the particular neighborhood he chose, Clinton Hill. And it was free. He did invite a few other people. He went back to his hometown in Ohio and loaded up a busload of unsuspecting strangers. Mostly teenagers. Of course, this wasn't just any old block party. It was actually a full-blown concert featuring the likes of The Roots, Kanye West, Mos Def, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, and one time only reunion performance by The Fugees. Hands down, this is the most fun of all the films in this post.

6. Nas: Time is Illmatic
In celebration of the twentieth anniversary of what has become my favorite album of all-time, Nas' Illmatic, we get this documentary that takes a look at what went into making it. It's part examination of the rapper's upbringing, the circumstances that immediately preceded the album, and lots of anecdotes about its actual formation. We also get into the album's impact on hip hop culture and Nas' career. Among the talking heads are his family members, producers, fellow artists, culture pundits, and the man himself. Nas has recently produced a breakdancing doc which I haven't had the chance to see yet. Looking forward to it. (Full Review)

5. Beats, Rhymes, and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest
Like any genre of music, rap has had its fair share of groups where the members have rocky relationships and/or break up. One of the most famous ones to go through this is A Tribe Called Quest. We meet them on a reunion tour where the same old problems that drove them apart the first time are once again rearing their ugly heads. Thankfully, that's not all we do. We examine the history of the group, their success, and their impact through lots of people who were there. (Full Review)

4. Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap
This documentary does focuses on an aspect of rap I haven't come across in any other film, but one that I was desperate to see discussed: the actual writing of rhymes. It sprang from the mind of Ice-T, the man who would produce and direct it. It's simply him travelling around to see lots of his friends in the industry and have conversations with them based on them answering one simple question: how do you write your raps? His friends include Eminem, Snoop, Nas, Melle Mel, Doug E. Fresh, Rakim, KRS-One, Kanye West, Grandmaster Caz, and others. Being a person that has been in love with writing since I was very young, this is endlessly fascinating stuff. (Full Review)

3. Tupac: Resurrection
Practically since the day he died, rumors have persisted that the iconic Tupac Shakur is still alive. This documentary certainly doesn't help matters, but it is really good. It uses footage of the rapper in the most unique of ways. It's edited to seem as if he is speaking on his own death. It's all kind of eerie, but demands to be seen. It also makes me look forward to the Tupac biopic we're supposed to be getting shortly.

2. Style Wars
With the rise of gangsta rap in the late 80s and early 90s, the music has become the most controversial element of hip hop. However, graffiti was controversial from day one and remains so. What many see as art, many others see as vandalism. Style Wars takes a look this arm of the culture through the eyes of the artists. They dish on their work, other artists, and what was going on in New York at the time.

1. And You Don't Stop: 30 Years of Hip Hop
At the time this documentary aired in five separate parts on VH1, the 30 years in the title encompassed the entire history of the culture. And You Don't Stop does a brilliant job exploring that culture, every facet of it, from its humble beginnings to where it was in 2004. There is no stone left unturned. As far as I am concerned, this is the definitive hip hop documentary.


  1. Of the ones I've seen, N.W.A.: The World's Most Dangerous Group, Dave Chappelle's Block Party, Tupac: Resurrection, and Beats, Rhymes, & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest are some of the best docs I've seen.

    One doc I do want to mention although it's not entirely about hip-hop but it is sort of important as it's a VH1 documentary on New York 1977. It talked about street art, block parties, and all sorts of things in hip-hop as as how many DJs were before the blackout/riots and how many emerged afterwards. There were also bits about the meeting of the minds between those pioneers in hip-hop and the bands that were the stables of CBGB's like the Ramones, Talking Heads, Blondie, Television, and the Dead Boys as it was kind of obvious they both had a disdain of sorts for Studio 54. KRS-One is in that documentary talking about that year and how scared he was during the blackout.

    1. That doesn't sound familiar to me, at all. Definitely sounds like something I want to see. Do you know the name of it?

    2. NY77: The Coolest Year in Hell and I just found a YouTube link here:

  2. Seems I made a good choice by watching And You Don't Stop, as I can see you rank it above the other hip hop docs you've seen. Look forward to part 2 in this series

    1. You made a great choice. Hopefully, part 2 will be up on Monday or Wednesday next week. Thanks!