Five Must Own Hip Hop Documentaries
Style Wars (1983)
If you’ve listened to Black Star’s Respiration then you probably know sample at the beginning of the song, where they are talking about going “all city” on the train cars with a “Crime in the City” tag.
Before Mayor Rudy Guliani was elected to “clean up” New York City, graffiti writers around the city were battling Mayor Ed Koch for the city’s subway cars. Koch who was determined to dishearten the graffiti bombers artistic efforts allocated taxpayers funds toward immediately painting over any tagged cars on the city lines.
This 1983 PBS documentary focuses on a time period where Hip Hop was just a fringe culture that had yet to become something financially exploitable. Style Wars points to the early days of B-boying and graffiti writing when young urban kids were looking to express themselves artistically; only to be met with derision and authoritarian aggression.
Style Wars encapsulates a New York in transition, both culturally and politically and captures the time period before Hip Hop was a commercial artform. Crack and AIDS were epidemics both looming around the corner, and graffiti was considered an activity shared among the criminal element.
I was hipped to this movie by a Betty I used to kick it with back in my university days. She’d already gained hella cool points but when Mix Master Mike pulled out his bag of tricks, I was ready to be on “just friends” status with all the other chicks I was hanging with.
Often called the most important element of DJing, this documentary is one of the few dedicated exclusively to turntablism. It follows it from its origins in the Bronx to the explosion of popularity thanks in part to Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit”, and features footage of the annual DMC competitions that still go on today. There are also some insightful cameos by DJ Shadow, Rob Swift, DJ Qbert, Kool Herc, and Grandmaster Flash; among many.
Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels Of A Tribe Called Quest (2011)
Not just for fans of A Tribe Called Quest, because if there was a rap artist or producer that came out after 1992, chances are they were influenced by the Tribe.
This Michael Rapaport documentary attempts to archive the early beginnings of ATCQ and the subsequent Native Tongues movement and goes inside the ill-fated reunion tour on the late aughts’ Rock the Bells festival. The friction captured during the film shows just why their last album, The Love Movement would be the last thing the public would get from them for 20 years.
There are some great interviews on this one, including Kanye West, Pharrell, and even the Beastie Boys (right before the passing of Adam Yauch).
Our Vinyl Weighs A Ton (2013)
A very touching and inspiring documentary about Stones Throw Records founder, Chris Manak AKA “Peanut Butter Wolf”. The film follows PBW from first being a fan of Hip Hop (isn’t this how everyone starts out?) to him and his best friend Charizma getting signed to a record contract before tragedy forced Manak to take a career detour.
The film is who’s who among artists from the late 90’s and early 2000’s with cameos from Madlib, Mayer Hawthorne, Common, Kanye West, and even Snoop. If you are a fan of Lootpack, J-Dilla, or MF Doom, then this is a must watch.
Stretch And Bobbito: Radio That Changed Lives (2015)
Imagine having to stay up from 1 AM to 5 AM on a Thursday night to catch some college radio show that you could barely pick up on the radio dial. To catch the Stretch Armstrong Show on WKCR, Hip Hop fans had to do just that, as DJ Stretch Armstong and Bobbito Garcia became curators and ambassadors of a still fringe culture; helping to usher in the “golden era” of Hip Hop.
Other than the few big acts of that time period, Hip Hop was still an underground thing where local acts could only get play on a college radio station on the Columbia campus.
You may have heard of Stretch (GTA 3) and Bobbito aka “DJ Cucumber Slice” (NBA Streets, Gunning For Tha Number 1 Spot) and not realized it. This documentary revisits their time as interns for Def Jam, playing music for free at WKCR and basically breaking all these new and exciting artists to larger audiences (before Hip Hop was a mainstay in every suburban home and at corporate events).
It will blow your mind to see them going through the archives with now established artists, recalling a time when they were young and raw. This is a great movie and it clocks in at a 1 hour 30 minute clip–just enough time to dive in, but not long enough to give you the chance to lose interest. This film will fill in a lot of gaps, and after it is over, do yourself a favor and look up one of their shows on youtube.
Luckily some genius archived a small assortment of these shows on Youtube and you can pull them up and listen to them without ruining your Friday from a lack of sleep (as much as I wish I could have heard these shows in real time as teen in the nineties, I know deep down that it would have caused me to fail out of high school. I had enough distractions as it was).
You can pause any show and resume things at your own convenience as third generation rappers like Souls of Mischief, Busta Rhymes, MF Doom, Alkaholiks, Mobb Deep, Big L, Jay-Z, Notorious B.I.G., Nas and Wu-Tang Clan show up to the studio and drop freestyles during a time when New York City had the best local music scene in Hip Hop history.
The Show (1995)
A good documentary with some legendary footage (U-God and Method Man having an argument on the bullet train in Japan is the most memorable scene to me) of the biggest artists in 1995. It is good but my biggest critique is that it tends to lag in some places. It could have used some more editing as some scenes may have been better served as bonus cuts from the director.
Rhyme & Reason (1997)
Similar to The Show, but with far less lulls and a better soundtrack (“How High” arguably the biggest banger on The Show but Rhyme and Reason is consistently solid throughout). Some appearances by Hip Hop acts that you might have forgotten about from that time like Crucial Conflict and Mack-10.