10 great hip-hop documentaries

With James Lavelle’s Meltdown festival bringing some rare hip-hop films to BFI Southbank, we do some digging of our own to find 10 landmark docs on hip-hop’s history and culture.

Dylan Cave
Updated:

Dave Chappelle’s Block Party (2006)

Dave Chappelle’s Block Party (2006)

Hip-hop and cinema connected early and stayed locked. First captured in 1982, when the burgeoning street culture was barely a decade old, Charlie Ahearn’s groundbreaking fiction Wild Style brought together on screen hip-hop’s four main elements – DJing, emceeing, B-boying and graf writing – and entranced a generation. 

From that moment, the camera’s interest in the culture never really ceased. B-boying stormed the teen musical with a wave of breakdance movies in the 1980s; rap spiced up the AOR strains of music television; and a wave of hip-hop stars, led by Will Smith, Queen Latifah, Tupac, Ice-T and Ice Cube bum-rushed the movies in the 1990s, bringing hip-hop to Hollywood. But there has often been an uneasy relationship between hip-hop and fiction movies. Public Enemy, Ice Cube and Big Daddy Kane once pronounced “Burn, Hollywood, Burn” and not without reason: for every Do the Right Thing (1989) or 8 Mile (2002) there’s a sizeable glut of exploitative cash-ins: 1984’s awful Body Rock, for example, or the lazy Too Legit: The MC Hammer Story (2001).

Hip-hop and documentary has been more consistent, perhaps because hip-hop – as a culture that celebrates individual expression – derives its strength from originality and truth. It’s harder to fake the funk with documentary. It captures hip-hop in its rawest form.

As with all the other top 10s in this series, the following list of hip-hop docs that rock is far from exhaustive and concentrates on the best titles currently available in the UK. It means that a couple of personal favourites are omitted, including Joey Garfield’s Breath Control: The History of the Human Beat Box (2002), a film whose screenings are as rare as a Basquiat-etched test pressing of Rammellzee & K-Rob’s ‘Beat Bop’ (yeah, a ref for the DJs!). Absent too are Dick Fontaine’s Beat This! A Hip Hop History (1984) and Bombin’ (1988), cornerstone British TV docs that helped expose hip-hop culture to UK audiences in the 80s. Each film has yet to find a DVD release but both can be seen, along with Wild Style, in a short programme of hip-hop films featured as part of James Lavelle’s Meltdown at BFI Southbank this June.

That still leaves 10 sureshot documentaries that together reveal the charm, skill, truth and beauty of the late 20th century’s most significant cultural movement. As The Real Roxanne might put it: “You are now doc’in with the best…”

Style Wars (1983)

Director Tony Silver and Henry Chalfont

A documentary about New York graffiti writers getting up on subway trains and in the Bronx, Tony Silver and Henry Chalfant’s Sundance-winning Style Wars didn’t require the fictional framework that Charlie Ahearn used to structure Wild Style. Where Ahearn’s film aimed to show hip-hop in all its diffuse elements, Style Wars focused on what was at stake for the kids involved. From battles with rival crews to the hard-line state response via Mayor Ed Koch, hip-hop’s path to mainstream acceptance was a struggle. Style Wars documents this brilliantly, witnessing Kase 2 perfect his ‘computer rock’ lettering as he nonchalantly explains how he lost an arm on the subway. Elsewhere, a 17-year-old Skeme struggles to convince his mother about his illicit quest for fame and his dream of having his painted trains run all around the city.

Silver also looks at B-boying, and captures a battle between the Rock Steady Crew and the Dynamic Rockers. Like the graffiti wars, the moment reflects the way in which hip-hop battling is replacing the dangerous turf wars of terrifying New York street gangs that plagued the city in the 1970s. Ultimately, of course, the graf pieces are ephemeral, but Style Wars has helped capture examples for posterity. In addition, the film preserves the energy and attitude of the practitioners at their freshest moment.

Big Fun in the Big Town (1986)

Director Bram van Splunteren

In 1986, DJ and journalist, Bram van Splunteren pitched a series of music documentaries to Dutch public broadcaster VPRO. Inspired by hearing the Beastie Boys’ ‘Rock Hard’, he suggested one of the episodes should investigate rap music and the new sound coming from the next generation of hip-hop producers. His resulting documentary, Big Fun in the Big Town is the perfect snapshot of hip-hop music on the cusp of its so-called golden era, with almost everyone featured – from Run DMC to LL Cool J, Doug E. Fresh and Schoolly D – a major force in hip-hop’s sample-based new school.

Biz Markie and Roxanne Shante perform ‘Def Fresh Crew’, super-producer Marley Marl spins for Mr Magic’s Rap Attack radio show, while Grandmaster Flash shows off his scratching skills. In another moment that emphasises the transitory nature of the fast-moving culture, Flash takes interviewer Marcel Vanthilt to an abandoned venue that once thrived with hip-hop parties. 

Later, Suliaman El Hadi of The Last Poets bemoans the ego-trippin’ that makes up the majority of mid-80s rap music. He calls for political insight in rap lyrics, unwittingly anticipating the militant onslaught delivered by Public Enemy, then only months away from releasing their debut album.   Screened once on Dutch TV in 1986, Big Fun in the Big Town all but disappeared from the hip-hop canon until distributor Five Day Weekend released a fab DVD package in 2012.

The Show (1995)

Director Brian Robbins

Released on the back of a platinum album that helped the film take over $1.5m on its opening weekend, The Show documents a concert by some of 1995’s biggest hip-hop stars. Produced in association with rap mogul Russell Simmons, co-founder of hip-hop record label Def Jam, the film cuts between footage of the all-star concert and the backstage thoughts of rap’s leading voices. At the time The Show was released, hip-hop had evolved into big business and director Brian Robbins is clear to acknowledge this, interspersing interviews with stars Notorious BIG, Snoop Dogg and Warren G with words from Simmons, Death Row CEO Suge Knight, future Motown head Andre Harrell and up-and-coming Sean ‘Puffy’ Combs, who keeps an uncharacteristically low profile here.

It’s the era of Tupac Shakur and Biggie’s ascendancy, but The Show pays dues to the rap pioneers’ forefathers. Again we see how the rap world can move so fast, with Run DMC no longer new school, but now labelled pioneers. We see Slick Rick incarcerated, the rap world that was once his now passing him by. Elsewhere, the film pays tribute to rap’s first generation with a round table that includes Kurtis Blow, Melle Mel, Grandmaster Caz and members of the Furious Five. For all that though, the highlight has to be the glimpses into the stars as they unwind offstage. It’s here that you catch Wu-Tang Clan’s Method Man and Ghostface Killah bickering about interview duty and long-ass tour bus boredom.

Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme (2000)

Director Kevin Fitzgerald

In the late 1990s, hip-hop reached a crisis of identity, with glamour, glitz and money threatening to completely override the culture. Rap music was almost completely removed from the struggling communities from which it came. As a counter to hip-hop being ‘All about the Benjamins’, a resurgent hip-hop movement – rallying behind the banner ‘independent as f**k’ – sought to bring elements of the culture back to their roots. In Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme, director Kevin Fitzgerald, also known as DJ Organic, documents the rise in freestyle emceeing, the skill of rapping with improvised lyrics. Filmed on street corners, in rap cyphers and at club nights in LA’s Good Life Café or NYC’s Lyricist Lounge, Organic’s film gives kudos to some of rap’s underground stars, like Juice, Supernatural and female MCs Medusa and Bahamadia.

The sheer abundance of freestylers on screen reminds us that the whole independent movement wasn’t all gravy – there are more than a couple of strained routines with backpack rappers trying to rhyme ‘cerebellum’ with whatever pops into their head. But overall Freestyle bears witness to the empowerment and sheer liberation of self-expression via the art of street rhyme. This is, after all, the era that gave us Eminem.

Scratch (2001)

Director Doug Pray

Scratch is one for the DJs, arguably the backbone of hip-hop culture. In 1973, DJ Kool Herc established the breakbeat, finding the best parts of funk and soul records – the firing intros, crazy drum solos or hidden middle eights – and extending the break’s running time by swapping between two copies of the same record. Scratch traces the way DJs have developed their skills, progressing from rocking parties to beat juggling, mixing, scratching to eventually recording and producing hip-hop music. Filmmaker Doug Pray interviews a veritable who’s who of hip-hop DJs, from Grand Wizard Theodore and DXT to Jazzy Jay, DJ Premier and ‘turntablist’ masters like QBert and the X-Ecutioners. 

Like Freestyle, there are areas of the culture that aren’t to everyone’s taste. The DVD’s inclusion of a musical notation demo for Scratching is a somewhat po-faced example of how seriously ‘turntablism’ could take itself. But the main feature plays to a broad audience, celebrating the tactile buzz of DJs speaking with their hands. The  film’s most electric moment, following DJ Shadow into a subterranean vault filled with stacks of unplayed and undiscovered vinyl, will send a chill down the neck of any potential crate-digger.

The Freshest Kids (2002)

Director Israel

Of all hip-hop elements, B-boying probably made the easiest transition to Hollywood. It was certainly the earliest. By the mid-1980s, a wave of breakdance movies filled US cinema screens, 1984’s Breakin’ apparently taking more box office than that year’s The Terminator. But a combination of over-exposure and a perception that the dance was a fad, meant that B-boying all but vanished from hip-hop. By the end of the decade, the mainstream perception of hip-hop was simply as rap music and documentaries on B-boying were few, until filmmaker Israel made The Freshest Kids in 2002.

Like Scratch and Freestyle, The Freshest Kids benefits from the late 90s/early 2000s renaissance in hip-hop’s foundational elements. Just as the style was finding new popularity, Israel interviews the major players to develop B-boying, many of whom are familiar from earlier movies like Style Wars and Wild Style. Members of Rock Steady and the New York City Breakers recite an oral history of what the dance form meant to them and the respect it brought to the impoverished black and Puerto Rican kids of the South Bronx. The interviewees had reached their 30s by the time Israel interviewed them for the film and the ageing b-boys use the the advantage of hindsight to articulate the way they feel their culture was exploited as hip-hop shifted from positivity to a fascination with gang life and money. But, as ever, the audacity, charisma and finesse of the b-boys and their breaking wins out; the moves breathtaking, the style dope, the routines fly.

Dave Chappelle’s Block Party (2006)

Director Michel Gondry

At the height of the popularity of his Chappelle’s Show, comedian Dave Chappelle put together his dream hip-hop concert. On 18 September 2004, an astonishing bill of neo-soul and hip-hop artists assembled to play a one-off gig in Brooklyn. The film intersperses concert footage with scenes of preparation where director Michel Gondry keeps the charismatic Chappelle at the centre of events. We see Chappelle distributing free tickets to residents of the small Ohio town where he lives and share his delight in inviting the kids of Central State University Marching Band to perform at the show. 

In part, the film is a throwback to the impromptu block parties of the 1970s, channelling the tradition of hip-hop show as community event. But the performances are definitely new school, with sets from Mos Def, Common, Erykah Badu, Talib Kweli, dead prez and Jill Scott – the leaders of mid-00s hip-hop. In a massive coup, the event also hosts a one-night-only reunion of The Fugees, but it’s not the only surprise. Capturing Kanye West at the start of his solo career, his humble opening slot feels a bit odd (as one of the audience members understates: “That Kanye West… did his thing… I like that”), but confirms Chappelle’s impeccable taste and foresight. In fact, the backing band for Chappelle’s Block Party, The Roots, are now the house band for NBC’s The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.

Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest (2011)

Director Michael Rappaport

Biography is an important strand in the hip-hop documentary, Peter Spirer’s Tupac Shakur: Thug Angel (2002) and Robert Patton-Spruill’s Public Enemy: Welcome to the Terrordome (2007) being notable examples. But where both Tupac Shakur and Public Enemy are internationally recognised as major figureheads in hip-hop history, it’s probably A Tribe Called Quest who could challenge them as being the most loved. In Beats Rhymes & Life, actor-turned-director Michael Rapaport charts the career highs and lows of the group, telling a very human story of a group of kids banding together through their love of hip-hop but going on to record five celebrated albums.

The film takes its title from the group’s fourth album, and captures the trials and tribulations still at play among the different members. Although disbanding in 1998, the former members Q-Tip, Phife, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi White still perform occasionally, but their relationship is fraught and full of tragedy. When they started out, A Tribe Called Quest were a part of the Native Tongues posse along with De La Soul, The Jungle Brothers, Queen Latifah and others.  Native Tongues democratised hip-hop, celebrating individuality, tearing up tired images of rappers as always street tough and proving anyone with something to say could get involved. Rapaport understands this and allows Tribe’s individual personalities – the aspect that was so vital to the group’s vibe and success – to shine through.

Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap (2012)

Director Ice-T and Andy Baybutt

The underlying idea of this film is so simple, it’s a wonder it hadn’t been done years previously.  Ice-T opens his rap contact book and interviews his favourite rappers, asking them what rap means to them, as a craft and a way of life. Unlike in Freestyle, Something from Nothing concentrates on composed rap lyrics – as interviewee Dr Dre suggests, the mark of a significant hip-hop artist lies in their ability to construct a hip-hop song, writing rhymes that captivate audiences and take them on a journey.

The testimonies that Ice-T hears about the art of rap come from an impressive list of contributors and range from the trivial to the heartfelt. Nas defends hip-hop’s authenticity, Brand Nubian’s Lord Jamar breaks down the deprivation from which kids started making their own music, Public Enemy’s Chuck D reveals that even he had to confront his hecklers and Ice-T himself drops tips on how to avoid drying on stage.

But the best part of the film has to be watching rappers at the top of their game recite verses by other artists. Asked which verse performed by someone else he wishes he had written, Eminem breaks into ‘Yoke the Joker’, a half-forgotten LP track by Naughty by Nature. When Ice-T asks Snoop Dogg the same question, Snoop starts reciting his interviewer’s 1986 breakthrough gangster tale, ‘6 in the Morning’, and doesn’t drop a word. In these moments, the sense of hip-hop as a community is palpable. Your favourite rapper has a favourite rapper.

Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton: This Is Stones Throw Records (2013)

Director Jeff Broadway

Having toured UK screens in April 2014 and on DVD from 26 May, Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton is the latest hip-hop documentary to probe further into this remarkable culture. It examines the history of Stones Throw Records, the celebrated music label created by DJ, producer and hip-hop curator Peanut Butter Wolf. Set up in 1996, mainly to release material recorded by Wolf and his MC partner Charizma, Stones Throw went on to release some of the most highly acclaimed rap LPs of the 2000s including Quasimoto’s The Unseen, Jaylib’s Champion Sound, J Dilla’s ‘Donuts’ and the Madvillain album. Crafted largely at the hands of producers Madlib and J Dilla, each of these albums mark an astonishing advancement in the soundscapes of sampling, production and, with Madvillainy, sardonic yet complex rhyming from MF Doom.  

In 2010, the label enjoyed an international hit with Aloe Blacc’s ‘I Need a Dollar’, but it has stayed true to its progressive origins. Following the passing of J Dilla in 2006, Stones Throw began to spread beyond hip-hop, its new wave of artists augmenting the well established rap credentials. Alongside upcoming rappers like Guilty Simpson, Homeboy Sandman and Jonwayne, the new roster included the garage rock of Baron Zen, the synthesiser pop of James Pants, the electronic grooves of Dam Funk and the sweet soul of Mayer Hawthorne. Director Jeff Broadway traces the label’s history, interviewing many of these artists. Through them we see Wolf as both wunderkind tastemaker, eclectic and unpredictable, yet true to the celebration of individual originality – the ethos of hip-hop. Like they used to say, it ain’t where you’re from that matters, it’s where you’re at. 

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