The Golden Age of Hip Hop on the Silver Screen

Owen Clark

The Get Down’s Shaolin Fantastic learns the ropes from Grand Master Flash.

Hip hop is dead. I can’t exactly recall the point at which I first heard this phrase, but it seems to be etched in my earliest memories of acquainting myself with rap music, and all of its accompanying baggage. Undoubtedly, journalistic decries of the death of entire genres of music, sports, or really anything entertainment related, have become tiresome clichés. Jazz is dead; boxing is dead; this writer’s short-lived career is dead—frankly these assertions are as banal as they are dubious. However, the only upshot of such a declaration is that it often elicits a thoughtful discourse as to how we reached this supposed nadir, and the state of things to come.

Let me just say from the outset, if you’re looking for a detailed analysis on the current state of hip hop music, you can stop reading. I’m far from an expert on the subject, and in all honesty, I detest the critic culture that currently dominates internet journalism. However, like many others, I share an affinity for rap, and see it as having a fairly unique origin and evolution that will always fascinate me. If I may be so bold, I will say that my introduction to rap music probably occurred before the standard age of the nerdy, white, middle-class demographic that I belong to. I was nine or ten when I purchased my first rap album, It Was Written—Nas’s sophomore studio offering, and follow up to the highly acclaimed Illmatic. I’m possibly stretching the truth for the sake of my ‘rep’; I definitely possess several of Shaquille O’Neil’s critically-lauded singles in my old CD rack, so who can say which came first, but let’s just say I started listening around the time that those black and white ‘parental advisory’ stickers started appearing on CDs—great job Tipper Gore, you really deterred our interest. This isn’t some sort of brag; had my sister not attended Abbeydale Grange, Sheffield’s version of Dangerous Minds, I might have been listening to the same Spice Girls CDs as my peers, but I think it led me to buy into the idea that post-gangsta rap music just wasn’t worth my time.

Flash-forward to the present, rap is certainly alive and well. Summer sixteen (the summer, not the album) was about the time I realized that the genre is to some extent semi-unrecognizable from the rap I know and love. That August, my former roommate/current friend and I attended a Lil Dicky show in Manhattan. For those of you that don’t know, Lil Dicky is a technically flawless, comedy-focused rapper, whose ingenious parodies effectively spell out all of rap’s shortcomings. The venue reeked of weed and was populated almost exclusively by teenagers (the most frightening demographic). Lil Dicky preceded Lil Yachty (why are rappers always diminutive?), who at the time I hadn’t even heard of—but that man, with his braids so bright, managed to whip the crowd of vape-high/Bud Light-drunk teenyboppers into a frenzied state. I stood back, terrified, but also intrigued. The next day, I perused Lil Yachty’s tracks on Spotify, from the safety of my living room, and came to the realization that his particular style of drawling, atonal, syncopated rap-talking, in essence exemplified the current movement in hip hop that somehow emerged right under my nose.

Accepting that you’re no longer ‘down with the kids’ can be a tough pill to swallow. But for me it came at a time when I happened to notice an uptick in the appearance of documentaries/dramatic portrayals exploring the early origins and development of hip hop music. This might be a slightly tangential straw at which I’m grasping at, but this speaks to me as a collective acceptance, that rap has in a way, come full circle. Maybe not in the true sense of that phrase, but what I mean is we’ve reached the point where we can sit back (‘with a Buddha sack’) and wax lyrical about the earlier days of the music, with a sense of nostalgia that only comes with firm, mainstream, establishment; and some current, unfamiliar deviation from our perceived norm. So with that muddled sentiment in mind, I will end this long-winded introduction and briefly review some of these excellent offerings.

Hip Hop Evolution

Originally airing on HBO, and currently streaming on both HBO and Netflix, this four-part documentary follows Canadian rapper Shadrach Kabango (stage name Shad) on a musical pilgrimage to discover hip hop’s origins in the crime-stricken streets of 1970s South Bronx, and trace key developments throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s, as the genre took new and exciting directions, and garnered mainstream success. Shad takes us on a fascinating journey, revealing remarkable insights that are accompanied by a plethora of interviews with key figures in the rap community, both past and present.

The show explores crucial innovations in hip hop, beginning with the founder himself, DJ Kool Herc, and his ‘merry-go-round’ idea of using side-by-side turntables playing the same (or similar) record, in order to elongate rhythmic drum beats in soul and funk tracks—known as break beats—at legendary parties in the recreation room of the Bronx project he called home. Herc would punctuate these breaks with rhyming slang phrases, normally delivered through an Echoplex delay, and thus hip hop was born. We see how some of the originating icons built on the methods of others to finesse early hip hop—Grand Master Flash’s ingenious technique for identifying the precise location of break beats; Melle Mel’s use of rap to bring awareness to the social strife experienced in the woefully deprived communities of inner city America, in the timeless classic The Message; Run-DMC’s at the time startling decision to drop the instrumental samples and rap purely over beats; Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin’s savvy entrepreneurial strategy that turned rap into a multi-million dollar business, and took hip hop center stage with acts like LL Cool J and The Beastie Boys. The final episode explores the genres infiltration into West Coast circles, and how the crack epidemic, police brutality, and rising gang warfare on the streets of LA engendered the gangsta rap that came to dominate the 90s.

There’s a thought-provoking scene in the short-lived and divisive HBO drama Vinyl, in which we see a presumed DJ Cool Herc—honing his craft by spinning funk records side by side to create break loops—maligned by the elders and their calls to ‘let the record play man!’ This perfectly illustrates the salient message of Hip Hop Evolution, that these developments were not simply step-by-step progressions on a clear-cut path, but truly imaginative innovations that exceeded against all odds. There’s also a theme here that pervades throughout Vinyl, of betting on the wrong horse—whether it be record company execs or the general public. When Hip Hop Evolution details Run DMC’s 1986 collaboration with Aerosmith on Walk This Way, we’re reminded that throughout its early history, hip hop was often scoffed at as a passing fad that would never materialize into mainstream success. For a hip hop group to collaborate with a larger than life rock band was actually a huge deal at the time. What’s even more remarkable is that some twenty years on, it’s actually hip hop that is unquestionably the more dominant mainstream genre, and rock is unfortunately falling by the way side.

The Get Down

Although The Get Down was produced completely independently of Hip Hop Evolution, in many ways it serves as the perfect companion piece. This six-part Netflix-original drama, which takes its name from the slang term for those gold dust-like break beats, follows a group of teenagers as they navigate the burning Bronx of the late 1970s—struggling to steer clear of the street gangs, rising crime, and political corruption that blighted the city, while establishing a hip hop crew mighty enough to topple the throne of Grand Master Flash. Although co-creator Baz Luhrmann’s trademark style of production provides a brightly colored, comic book feel; the show weaves a captivating narrative—perfectly illuminating the key developments of the 70s hip hop scene described in Hip Hop Evolution, with a dramatic spin. We’re treated to scenes like Grandmaster Flash sending his protégé Shaolin Fantastic, on a dangerous race against The Savage Warlord street gang, to retrieve a rare copy of a record to sample (which was a huge part of gaining an edge for early DJs). We see the inside of one of DJ Cool Herc’s aforementioned parties (also depicted in Vinyl), in a hunt for a mystery bootlegger—a key feature of the dissemination of early hip hop tracks; and we get a glimpse of what life was like for kids whose playgrounds were the burnt down tenement buildings and abandoned lots around the South Bronx’s Charlotte Street.

The show does a great job of using fictional portrayals to educate viewers about key events that changed the course of hip hop, such as Grand Master Flash handing Shaolin Fantastic nothing more than a purple crayon to impart the lesson of creating break loops (see if you can figure it out). However, the standout highlight is the depiction of the 1977 New York blackout, when an electrical fault caused the entire city to lose power for an entire night and day, during a brutal July heat wave. While this event will forever be remembered as a shocking display of carnage—where mass looting and rioting saw some 1,600 stores damaged, with over 1,000 fires, leading to almost 4,000 arrests—it served as a crucial facilitator in the development of hip hop, where stolen DJ equipment tripled the number of functional hip hop crews overnight. The blackout was of course covered in Hip Hop Evolution, but gaining some perspective on what it was actually like to live through, gives the show a touch of magical realism, reminiscent of another Netflix original, Narcos, in which as a viewer you’re frequently brought to disbelief, questioning whether these seemingly bizarre events actually happened. The producers also do a great job of splicing in period footage to solidify pertinent scenes.

One of the reasons why I call New York home is its riveting history, particularly the 70s and 80s, where soaring crime rates and near-bankruptcy led parts of the city to resemble a dystopian war zone. I’ve read books on the subject, and watched myriad YouTube videos cataloging the widespread arson that leveled the Bronx in particular (where my mother grew up in the 40s and 50s), but until now I’ve had to make do with The Warriors as the closest thing to a historical portrayal of this captivating period. The Get Down fills an obvious void, and manages to tie multiple developments together such as graffiti artistry, disco music, breakdancing, and Ed Koch’s mayoral campaign, over six hour-long episodes, while maintaining a compelling story.

Time Is Illmatic

This was always going to be a winner for me. In my humblest of humble opinions, I can say without any shadow of a doubt that Nas’s 1994 debut album Illmatic is the greatest rap album of all time. This record is to hip hop, what Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue is to jazz, somehow managing to effectively distill the beauty of all that preceded it, while blazing a new and exciting path. The intro on the albums first musical track, NY State of Mind, still gives me chills. With its triplet swing-style rhythm on drums; the crescendo of the blues scale-derived riff played on upright bass; and the piano, peppering the bass line with an offbeat altered chord—the track lays a groove deeply rooted in jazz, that sets the scene for Nas’s hilariously self-depreciating ‘I don’t even know how to start this,’ prior to dropping one of the greatest verses in the history of rap. Spoiler alert—Time Is Illmatic ends with Nas spitting this verse to headphone monitors in the studio, contextualizing its brilliance. While I haven’t always been so opinionated on the matter, I think the fact that twenty-five years after its debut, holding the title of the only rap album that I periodically come back to time and time again, without skipping a single track, is testament to its preeminence.

Time is Illmatic (which viewers can watch via streaming on Amazon Prime) expertly intertwines Nas’s early life growing up on the streets of Queensbridge (in America’s largest public housing project) with the production of Illmatic—weaving a complex story of personal strife that sowed the seeds for a precocious 21-year-old Nas to produce this iconic masterpiece. For me, what sets the album apart from other classics is the coupling of musicality—jazz-derived rhythmic grooves that permeate through every track; with deeply poetic storytelling—a tradition firmly rooted in the country blues music of the early 20th century, of which Nas has unquestionably mastered. With this in mind, it’s particularly interesting to explore Nas’s relationship with his father, a Mississippi-born jazz musician (who actually makes a cameo playing cornet on the outro of the album’s third track), and to see an in-depth examination of the production of these tracks. I kind of see myself as a slightly better looking version of Ryan Gosling’s Seb in the film La La Land—I genuinely hold the opinion that if you don’t at least somewhat appreciate jazz and blues music, then you don’t deserve to listen to rap or rock. Thus, I feel somewhat validated by this aspect of the documentary. It also really highlights how important instrumentation is to the album, with Nas sampling jazz legends like Ahmad Jamal, in contrast to others that rely heavily on samples from very well established famous songs (*cough* Kanye *cough*). Serving as a sort of internal control, It Aint Hard to Tell, which samples Michael Jackson’s Human Nature, is probably Illmatic’s corniest track.

Other highlights include an examination of another flawless track, One Love, with words from its producer Q-Tip. Here we delve into the tragedy of a generation of young black males lost to the mounting mass incarceration that pervaded the latter half of the 20th century, and continues to this day. One Love is definitely a stand out track on the album, in which Nas’s rap takes the form of a letter to a friend in prison, exploring both the horrors faced behind bars, and the void that’s left on the streets—exemplified by the line ‘plus, congratulations, you know you got a son//I heard he looks like ya, why don’t your lady write ya?’ This message is arguably even more relevant now than it was then, with the industrial prison complex at an all-time high, perfectly illuminated in the recent Netflix documentary 13TH. Again there’s an interesting precedent to this, wherein early blues music would often center around the hardships of the penitentiary and the forced labor that came with it—the trials and tribulations encountered in navigating a system that’s designed to keep you down.

I think this documentary and the album itself serves as an interesting follow up to Hip Hop Evolution and The Get Down, since you’ll notice Nas’s frequent nods to the old guard (also coincidentally, Nas introduces each episode of The Get Down with a tailor-made rap). Lines like ‘A smooth criminal on beat breaks’ or ’I reminisce on park jams, my man was shot for his sheep coat’, as well as ‘back in 83 I was an MC sparkin, but I was too scared to grab the mics in the parks and, kick my little raps’—are all brought to life with the knowledge of how early hip hop took shape during Nas’s childhood. At times in the album the instruments will even drop out for a couple of lines, allowing Nas to rap solely over beat breaks, merging the old with the new—an audacious feat for a 21-year-old newcomer. You might be able to tell at this point that I’m struggling to resist the urge to digress into a song by song review of Illmatic, so I’ll cap this off with words from the man himself—‘Sip the Dom P, and watch this document-ary till you’re charged.’ Ok I rejigged it a little, but you get the message.

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