Documentaries are an educational tool; whether in the classroom or simply as a medium to inform on a specific subject of value. That being said many might, on the surface, find hip-hop a less likely candidate for the documentarian's focus. On the contrary, hip-hop's rich and often complex history is the perfect catalyst for filmmaking. And given hip-hop's modus operandi has as much to do with the visual aspect as it does with the auditory, putting the art form to film just makes sense.
So without further ado, iHipHop decided on a list of the top 10 best hip-hop documentaries. Check it out after the jump.
10. Style Wars (1983)
Dubbed “the original hip-hop documentary” Style Wars
was released in 1983 during the early days of hip-hop. The documentary serves as something of a time machine; looking back to the gritty and street-centric 1980s NYC where graffiti and hip-hop culture were starting to find its footing. The beauty of Style Wars
can be divided into two: as a remnant of since long-gone street art and as a portal into an era when the NYC streets were coexisting between hip-hop, breakdancing, and graffiti. It's essential viewing for all.
9. Rhyme & Reason (1997)
Rhyme & Reason
Released in 1997 and directed by Peter Spirer, Rhyme & Reason
is perhaps the all-encompassing hip-hop documentary on the list. Rhyme & Reason
features many facets and tangents in the culture of hip-hop; it's got everything from its roots in jazz and gospel to the blueprint for a culture that strives to give those in tough situations a voice. The impressive part about Rhyme & Reason
is the way Spirer is able to effortlessly weave in-and-out between the many subjects and still make a cohesive documentary that isn't muddled by incoherencies. It also features some incredible interviews with the likes of Lauryn Hill, Nas, Ice-T, Kurtis Blow, and more.
8. Uprising: Hip-Hop & the L.A. Riots (2012)
Uprising: Hip-Hop & the LA Riots
Occasionally we have to take a step back from our listening pleasures and revel in the ugly. And that's precisely where the excellent Uprising: Hip-Hop & the L.A. Riots
comes in. Featuring narration from Snoop Dogg, the documentary examines the violence that occurred in South Central Los Angeles in 1992 following the Rodney King beating. Uprising
With interviews from Nas, John Singleton, Too Short, and KRS-One Uprising: Hip-Hop & the L.A. Riots
raises some poignant questions not only regarding those horrific events but what is hip-hop's involvement in it going forward and is history going to repeat itself?
7. Tupac: Resurrection (2003)
There are countless Tupac Shakur documentaries out there and one you probably think that should have made the list is the much talked about Nick Broomfield Biggie & Tupac
documentary. However we disagree as that documentary is marred by inconsistencies and circumstantial. Basically, it's all speculative and probably not true. Instead we've opted for Tupac: Resurrection
, a documentary that operates like a live action collage, of sorts. The entire documentary is pieced together by footage of the rapper and in doing so we are viewing his life as observers, thus further illuminating Tupac as this larger than life person we cannot quite figure out. And though Tupac died more than seven years before the release of Tupac: Resurrection
, the documentary still feels fresh and relevant.
6. Dave Chappelle's Block Party (2006)
Dave Chappelle's Block Party
Back in the summer of 2004, when Dave Chappelle's career was at a fervent all-time high, he decided to put on a block party in Brooklyn. That's about it, really. But what makes Dave Chappelle's Block Party
so great is just that: simplicity. It's a sleek blend of comedy and hip-hop, two things that actually go together like peanut butter and jelly but don't often get a chance to intermingle. And along with Chappelle's exceptional taste in hip-hop, the live performances (Kanye West, Mos Def, Common, Talib Kweli, The Fugees, etc.) are solid as well. Come in expecting a funnier-than-usual music concert film and you'll be more than pleased.
5. Notorious B.I.G.: Bigger Than Life (2007)
Notorious B.I.G.: Bigger Than Life (2007)
We're convinced it's impossible to dislike anything about The Notorious B.I.G. so whenever we view a documentary featuring the iconic Brooklyn rapper it's just that much more entertaining and palpable. But the best Biggie documentary comes from the director of Rhyme & Reason
, the great Peter Spirer. Spirer's documentary is a fitting tribute to the late great MC, with touching interviews from the likes of Method Man, E-40, Raekwon, and Common recollecting the life of Biggie. Notorious B.I.G: Bigger than Life
also contains some wonderful never-before-seen footage of Biggie prior to his untimely demise.
4. Scratch (2002)
While the topic of DJing may seem a little dated at this point, Scratch
is actually a unique hip-hop documentary. Rarely do you ever see anyone ever mention the long lost art of DJing and turntablism so Scratch
is definitely here to give it its just due. Scratch
director Doug Pray takes broad strokes in describing some of the most notable evolutions in turntable hip-hop music. Scratch
covers just about everything from the very first “scratch” all the way to modern usages. If you're looking for something new, something refreshing in a hip-hop documentary, which focus on something other than rapping and the MC for once, then Scratch
has got you covered.
3. Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap (2012)
Something From Nothing
Released in 2012, Ice-T's Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap
makes a bold claim that hip-hop rules the world. But Ice-T just doesn't talk the talk, he actually uses his findings and evidence to make this assessment. In his documentary, Ice-T goes about tracing hip-hop's evolution from the streets to the mainstream. The coolest part about Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap
is Ice-T engages some of hip-hop's figureheads face-to-face. Some of the people Ice-T chops it up with include Dr. Dre, KRS-One, Doug E Fresh, Mos Def, Eminem, Kanye West, Snoop Dogg, and Common. The documentary also has some freestyles from some of the aforementioned, which are worth checking out.
2. The Show (1995)
The Show's premise is quite simple: rappers discuss their craft while preparing for a live hip-hop show. But even in its awfully simple outline, Brian Robbins' The Show (narrated by Russell Simmons) carefully frames each rapper (including Craig Mack, The Notorious B.I.G., Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, Method Man, Run-D.M.C., Slick Rick, etc.) as they discuss their unabashed love for the art that is hip-hop. Through these candid interviews the rappers are shown as humans who have a deep interest in what it is they are doing. It's a true testament that even as hip-hop has grown to become a multi-billion dollar industry it's still all about the passion for the music.
1. Fade to Black (2004)
Fade To Black
Yes, we know, Jay Z never retired from rap like he said he would following the release of his critically-acclaimed The Black Album
. But even with that being said, Fade to Black
is an interesting hip-hop document as it showcases a rapper at his peak as Jay Z rocks a sold out Madison Square Garden crowd with guest appearances from R. Kelly, Beyonce, Mary J. Blige, and P. Diddy. Fade to Black
is also worth watching for those now infamous studio footage of the young Kanye West working on some production. Jay Z even offers up some valuable insight into his creative process, which alone is worth a viewing or two.