Best Hip Hop Documentaries
From its meager beginnings on the streets of the Bronx to its acceptance and approval by mainstream America, hip hop has come a long way. Outside of the music, however, hip hop is a community. It's a language, an attitude, and a way of life. Unfortunately, greed and ego have virtually killed the vibrant genre and colorful community, transforming it into a trend akin to the flannel shirt and Wayfarer combo. However, long before corporate America and the mainstream took notice and dug their claws in, hip hop was meaningful and groundbreaking. It was also life changing as it gave many kids a reason to leave the corners behind and strive for something outside of the hood.
As made evident on a list by Complex, hip hop has had a deep connection with cinema as many artists have used characters, scenes, and quotes from a number of Hollywood flicks, particularly those with a gangster theme. Jay Z has used a range of dialogue in his albums from movies like the critically-acclaimed Scarface and Carlito's Way. According to Picturebox (where the film is currently streaming), the latter is from the same actor-director partnership (Al Pacino-Brian De Palma) that brought us Scarface.. As a result of hip hop's history with cinema and its rich, unique, and sometimes dysfunctional life, hip hop makes the perfect subject for a documentary. Here is just a sample of the great documentaries that helped define the industry, genre, and culture of hip hop.
This 2000 documentary directed by Chris Fiore—reviewed here by the New York Times—chronicles the 1999 Hard Knock Life tour that featured Jay-Z, DMX, Method Man, and Redman. Produced by Damon Dash, Backstage highlights the goings on on stage and off. Viewers are given an inside look at the reality of life on tour for the biggest acts in hip hop at the time. From killer performances to Dame Dash's wild antics, this doc is one of the first to really show the luxurious and more commercial side of the hip hop genre. It also does a stellar job at giving us an intimate peak at the drama that comes with being in the rap game.
A cast of the biggest names in hip hop during the '90s is what drives this Brian Robbins film; however, it's the candid interviews that make it a poignant hip hop documentary. Hip hop all-stars like Biggie, Diddy (Puffy at the time), Snoop, Dr. Dre, and Method Man discuss the industry and the growing business behind it, while hip hop OGs Afrika Bambaataa, Kurtis Blow, and Run-DMC weigh in on the current state of the industry, and Def Jam founder Russell Simmons brings the film together with his insightful commentary. While hip hop was steadily achieving mainstream success in 1995 when The Show was released, both the hip hop legends and new bloods expressed the same message: hip hop is more than just a business—it's a lifestyle.
Since the very first rap battles were performed on inner city streets, beefs have always been a part of hip hop, and there have been plenty of films that document some of the biggest. The 2003 film Beef takes a look at some of the most talked about (and deadliest) feuds in hip hop. Notable rivalries include KRS-One vs. MC Shan, Kool Moe Dee vs. Busy Bee, 50 Cent vs. Murder Inc., and Tru Life vs. Mobb Deep. The film focuses heavily on the Dr. Dre/Eazy-E beef, as well as the more recent Jay Z/Nas feud and the tragic and fatal Notorious B.I.G./Tupac saga. Although the film chronicles the interesting history of hip hop beefs, it also takes a social stance as producer Quincy Jones III created the film to show that the feuds among rappers was killing hip hop.
Style Wars is the quintessential hip hop documentary and was the first to ever present hip hop in its full form. Released in 1983, this Tony Silver and Henry Chalfant collaboration shows the multiple sides of hip hop culture—from the use of graffiti to the B-boy style of dress to the origins of rap music itself. And unlike the previous films listed, Style Wars doesn't have a notable cast; instead it focuses on the struggling graffiti artists and young hip hop heads living in New York City and its boroughs. As an emerging culture at the time, hip hop, and everything that came with it, was often met with disdain and its opposers like former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, police officials, and MTA subway maintenance workers. Not only was Style Wars the first real hip hop film, it received wide critical acclaim winning the Grand Jury Prize for a documentary at the 1983 Sundance Film Festival.