Whether it is because of its niche subject matter or lack of broad distribution, many amazing hip-hop documentaries end up flying under the radar. Here’s a list of 11 you can stream right now.
Ever since hip-hop first blossomed out of the South Bronx, there has been a desire by filmmakers to capture visual evidence of the culture in motion. Early documentaries, like Tony Silver’s classic Style Wars and Charlie Ahearn’s partially dramatized almost-documentary Wildstyle, represent some of the earliest feature-length film representations of hip-hop culture.
In the decades since, countless films have been produced shining light on nearly every single nook-and-cranny of the culture and its history.
From 1995’s The Show to QD3’s classic docs of the DVD era to Netflix’s wildly popular doc-series Hip-Hop Evolution, there are a ton of informative and inspirational hip-hop documentaries on the market. Whether it is because of its niche subject matter, lack of broad distribution, or a host of other factors, many amazing hip-hop documentaries end up flying under the radar, with some achieving cult-like status. Here is a list of some of the best but lesser-known hip-hop documentaries that you can stream today.
Wreckin Shop: Live From Brooklyn (1992)
Originally produced for PBS in 1992, music video director Dian Martel’s film Wreckin’ Shop: Live From Brooklyn has found a second life as a cult favorite on YouTube. Beautifully shot in black and white, the film focuses on the abstract form of freestyle dancing that arose in New York in the wake of break dancing. Martel’s film brilliantly captures a kinetic style of movement that has since influenced dancers around the world.
Breakin’ n Enterin’ (1983)
Before he would co-create the sitcom Martin, writer and director Topper Carew would film Breakin’ n Enterin’, a rich portrait of the first generation of West Coast hip-hop dance. With performances from Boogaloo Shrimp and a young Ice-T, Breakin’ n Enterin’ fits perfectly alongside classic ’80s youth culture documentaries like Heavy Metal Parking Lot or The Decline Of Western Civilization.
Freestyle: The Art Of Rhyme (2000)
Taking care to connect the art of Rap with everything from poetry to Jamaican toasting, Freestyle: The Art Of Rhyme is a love letter to the spoken word. Supernatural, Medusa, Freestyle Fellowship, Yassin Bey, Westcoast freestyle legend Otherwize and many others show up in the film to display their skills and give first-hand insights into the craft of MCing.
Big Fun In The Big Town (1986)
When a Dutch television crew went to NYC in 1986 to capture the city’s hip-hop scene, they would not only come across a vibrant rap music culture, they’d secure interviews and performances from kids on the street and some well-known future legends. Whether it’s Grandmaster Flash cutting up “Take Me To The Mardi Gras” or Doug E. Fresh beatboxing, Big Fun In The Big Town is dripping with classic hip-hop moments.
Stolen Moments: Red Hot & Cool (1994)
Set against the backdrop of the HIV and AIDS epidemic, filmmaker Earle Sebastian’s 1994 documentary Stolen Moments: Red Hot & Cool is a powerful commentary on the state of Black life in america. Centered around a live concert at the legendary Supper Club in Manhattan, Stolen Moments pairs popular rap acts of the day — like The Pharcyde, Guru, Digable Planets, and The Roots — pairing them with Jazz legends like Donald Byrd, Pharoah Sanders, Lester Bowie and more. These performances are juxtaposed with interviews from Cornel West and Harlem-based HIV and AIDS activist Louis Jones. The performances are all incredibly inspired, but it is the social commentary presented in the interviews that brings the music onstage into a broader socio-political context.
Doug Pray’s 2001 film Scratch, highlights the backbone of hip-hop culture — the DJ. Focusing on turntablism, crate digging, and the art of party-rocking, Scratch taps a wide range of DJs to give crucial insights into the craft of DJing. QBert, Jazzy Jay, Steve Dee, Babu, Premier, Krush, and more make appearances to talk about this foundational element of our culture.
Copyright Criminals (2009)
Wrestling with both the artistic and legal implications of sampling, Copyright Criminals celebrates the creativity involved in producing new compositions from pre-existing recordings. While celebrating this creativity, the film also asks some frank questions about ownership, addressing how, when sampling was its height during rap’s golden age, many of the musicians who played on these records were not being paid. A fascinating watch, Copyright Criminals is so well executed, it should appeal to both producers and laypeople curious about the process of creating sample-based music.
Wave: A True Story In Hip Hop (2016)
Inspired at a young age after seeing Michael Jackson, Bronx-born dancer Tony Draughon Wesley would dedicate his life to dance. Nicknamed “Mr. Wave” — because of his fluid, avant-garde dancing style — Wave would go on to be one of the most influential breakers in early hip-hop history. This documentary Wave: a True Hip Hop Story explores the life and artistry of an underappreciated creative whose style still informs the way we dance today. Watch the documentary on Amazon.
Cry Of The City Part 1: The Legend Of Cornbread (2007)
In the late 1960s, a young man from North Philly named Darryl McCray (aka Cornbread) embarked upon a campaign that would transform the visual art world forever. Widely acknowledged as the first modern graffiti artist, Cornbread’s style would pave the way for every artist that followed him. Cry Of The City Part 1: The Legend Of Cornbread details McCray’s legendary exploits that included writing on the side of the Jackson 5’s private plane and even breaking into the Philadelphia Zoo and tagging his name on an elephant. Watch the documentary on Amazon.
808: The Heart Of The Beat That Changed Music (2015)
Originally released in 1980 by the Japanese instrument manufacturer Roland, the TR-808 drum machine has left an indelible mark on the sound of contemporary music. Gathering interviews from musical legends like Juan Atkins, Arthur Baker, Pharrell Williams, Questlove, and others, 808, takes a deep look at how one machine has shaped the sound of house, techno, trap, drum n’ bass, hip-hop, and more. Watch the documentary on Amazon.
Bad Meaning Good (1987)
Opening with a clip of a young Tim Westwood on Kiss FM radio, Bad Meaning Good is an indispensable look at what hip-hop was like in London throughout the 1980s. U.S. pioneers Run-DMC show up for an interview and performance section, but homegrown legends like the Cookie Crew and London Posse get ample screen time as well.
J. Dilla: Still Shining (2011)
Put together by filmmaker Brian “B. Kyle” Atkins is not only an informative take on the late J. Dilla’s impact and creative process and legacy, the film is a touching document of a community celebrating one of its brightest lights. Throughout, Dilla’s mother Maureen Yancey, Erykah Badu, Bilal, Questlove and others reminisce on Dilla’s work ethic and wide-range of production techniques. Still Shining is a tender, revelatory look into the life of the man who “made the MPC 3000 sound like a band.”
John Morrison is a writer, DJ, and sample-flipper based in Philadelphia.
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