Allow rap to reintroduce itself with our list of The 25 Best Hip-Hop Documentaries.
Hip-hop's rich, colorfully history makes it a supreme subject for a documentary. It has an arc, an unstoppable momentum that humbly sprouts from the streets of the Bronx, birthed from a hunger for a true sense of originality. It has its forefathers (Grand Wizard Theodore, Grandmaster Flash, and Melle Mel) and its ground breakers (Afrika Bambaataa, Doug E. Fresh, and N.W.A.). And yes, it has strife in spades, but it also has something pop music will never truly comprehend—community. Thanks to complex, here are what they think are the best doccies.
25. Wu: The Story of the Wu-Tang Clan (2007)
The Staten Island hip-hop group's history is told with flair; All of the crews's dips and rises are illustrated through old interview footage with the members, new footage with minor characters on the Clan's periphery, and punctuated by tasty sound bites of ODB spouting offbeat wisdom.
The film doesn't give much new insight, instead it outlines the Clan's career (with a particular focus on OBD); It's a refresher course more than it is a history lesson. But when the subject matter is Wu-Tang, we're paying attention.
24. And You Don't Stop: 30 Years of Hip-Hop (2004)
And You Don't Stop originally aired on VH1 as a five-part series that gets its name from the moment Grandmaster Flash started splicing together records on his turntable so that the break played in an endless loop, a phenomenon that set the stage for the advent of break-dancing.
It's those light bulb moments that And You Don't Stop gives weight to, telling hip-hop's history through the little epiphanies that were, in actuality, momentous, like Grand Wizard Theodore in his room accidentally discovering scratching. Unlike most documentaries, here, there's no narration to tell you how to feel, instead terrific, grainy footage does the job, articulating hip hop's early days better than words ever could.
Also to its credit, with a beastly running time of 300 minutes, And You Don't Stop is able to covey an almost complete history of early hip-hop. The film even captures how the Bronx's unease at the time was a driving force behind the music, a concept that eludes most projects of this nature.
23. Welcome to Death Row (2001)
Why does a rap empire fall? That's the question Welcome to Death Row attempts to answer for its audience, taking us on a rollercoaster ride complete with rises, falls, thrills, and spills. Suge Knight, by the film's contention, is responsible for most of the spills, and it shows us how Suge would giveth West Coast gangsta rap and then taketh via shady business practices.
The film focuses on rap music's business and profitability and how that set the stage for deception among the company's affiliates. There are also warmer and fuzzier sentiments about how the label help thrust many young artists into fame and success. Thankfully, we're not handed these ideas; instead, they're delivered from the voices that count, with original interviews with Vanilla Ice, Snoop Dogg, P. Diddy and, naturally, Dr. Dre, along with the label's outlying affiliates and employees.
Welcome to Death Row offers a sad image of corruption, or if you look at it another way, a failed business model that any entrepreneur should take notes on. Rule number one: Don't hire gang members and criminals.
22. Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats & Rhymes (2006)
Byron Hurt takes on a daring task in the course of his 56-minute documentary: deconstructing sexism, violence and masculinity in hip-hop. Hurt goes well beyond the scope of most hip-hop documentaries, choosing to expose a tender nerve that desperately needs prodding.
The filmmaker's aim is ambitious, and his methods are undeniably effective. In a key scene, Hurt asks Busta Rhymes about his thoughts on homophobia, and Busta says, "I can't partake in that conversation." When further prompted about whether hip-hop culture could ever accept a gay rapper, he walks out.
It's not just what isn't being said that the film exposes; ultimately, Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats & Rhymes seeks to bring awareness to the existing issues in hip-hop cultures that will be stumbling blocks in its future, particularly in the way it's viewed by the world.
At least one rapper agrees. "We're [shown] throwing money at the camera and flashing jewelry at the camera that could give a town in Africa water for a year," observes Public Enemy's Chuck D. But if the first step to change is acknowledging the problem, Hurt has given hip-hop a positive push in the right direction.
21. Notorious B.I.G: Bigger than Life (2007)
It's been years since we lost Biggie, but his memory lives on through the emotional recollections of his many friends, including narration by Big Daddy Kane Diddy and musings by Method Man, Easy Mo Bee, Matty C, E-40, Raekwon, and Common.
What truly makes this film a must-watch, though, isn't the freestyle footage (though we always enjoy that) or the many interviews, but, rather, the never-before-seen clips of B.I.G. just prior to his murder. Watch for that, in addition to remembering what a charismatic, irreplaceable force Biggie was, and always will be.
20. Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap (2012)
Hip-hop rules the world. At least that's what Ice-T purports in his new film. The former gangsta rapper makes his point by tracing the evolution of rap and its rise from urban to universal in the most honest way possible: by having intimate, one-on-one conversations with the people that have propelled it there.
Chats with legends old and new, including Dr. Dre, KRS-One, Doug E Fresh, Yasiin (Mos Def), Eminem, Kanye West, Snoop Dogg, and Common give a fresh take on a now far from view history, but also, more effectively, into the mechanics of rapping.
Each artist seriously delves into how rhymes are structured and how techniques evolve, and the "art of rap" is demonstrated through powerful freestyles, most notably those from KRS, Kanye, and Eminem, all of whom give quite the tutorial.
19. 2 Turntables and a Microphone: The Life and Death of Jam Master Jay (2008)
Stephan Watford's and Guy Logan's documentary is one part tribute to Jam Master Jay and one part murder mystery. Throughout its duration, as much gets devoted to praising the Run-DMC disc jockey as attention is paid to delving into the fateful night when he was shot in his Queen's recording studio.
As such, every interview subject (running the gamut from Rev Run and Russell Simmons, to Jay-Z, Mary J. Blige, Ja Rule, 50 Cent, LL Cool J, Method Man, Swizz Beatz, and Kid Rock) serves to not only give insight into Jay's life and legend, but also his untimely death. Piecing together the facts may prove fruitless, but you're still left with a real sense of Jam Master Jay's remarkable impact on hip-hop, and, undoubtedly, a serious case of 1980s nostalgia.
18. Beat This: A Hip-Hop History (1984)
One of the original hip-hop docs from the Style Wars era, this BBC film clearly attempts to show hip-hop to a world that, at the time, couldn't yet make sense of it on their own. So, yeah, it's a little cheesy (thanks in part to narrator Gary Byrd), but that doesn't discredit what it does well. Beat This acts an untouched time capsule of an exciting time in the genre and in the city, with enough vintage footage of a graffiti-covered NYC to make it an exciting discovery.
Since Beat This is, basically, a history lesson, is not without its teachers. We're guided through hip hop's inception (and through the Bronx) by Malcom McLaren (the man behind bringing rap to the U.K.), The Cold Crush Brothers, Jazzy Jay, The Dynamic Rockers, and more. The film's strongest attributes, however, are its glimpse into DJ Kool Herc's infamous dance parties, which provide a lively offset to Byrd's dull voice-overs.
17. Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme (2000)
Freestyling will always be the litmus test that tells the truly gifted from the studio-crafted wannabe lyricists. Fittingly, director Kevin Fitzgerald's doc does a great job of using archival footage to capture how off-the-cuff rhyming began in black churches when pastors gave improvised sermons, and spilled over into cyphers on the streets and more formal MC showdowns.
The Art Of Rhyme features gifted artists is spades: Mos Def, Supernatural, Cut Chemist, ?uestlove, and Black Thought, amongst several others. And all of the included talent give performances that showcase their impromptu skills. That's what Fitzgerald's film best communicates: Essentially free flowing is done just for the joy of competing and demonstrating personal creativity, no other incentives required.
16. Scratch (2002)
While other filmmakers on this list chose to zero in on rappers and MC's, Scratch director Doug Pray opted to focus on one of the men behind the music: the turntablist. The film traces the history of the DJ, from the idea's inception to those manning the wheels of steel supplying the breaks to the B-boys of the '80s.
Scratch outlines the technique behind the craft as much as it illustrates the skill and passion of the turntablists, cutting from interviews and performances from DJ Shadow, the X-Ecutioners, and Afrika Bambaataa, with special attention paid to explaining why Grand Mixer DXT's scratching on Herbie Hancock's "Rockit" was so influential.
The result is a lively hip-hop history lesson that will leave you wishing you had the skill to stitch samples together like Qbert and Mix Master Mike once did. You'll be left in awe over the immense, and largely under-appreciated, talent that turntable manipulation requires.
15. Backstage: A Hard Knock Life (2000)
In Backstage: A Hard Knock Life, the concert footage is just as electrifying as you'd expect that of a groundbreaking rap tour to be, and the off-stage antics are just as riveting. Not to mention, you're immersed in it all, from DMX's standoffish, diva-like antics to Dame Dash passionately playing the role of mother goose. Also, the consummate bonding backstage with fans, and a different kind of affection parceled out to the most devoted groupies. Cue Jay-Z's "Girls, Girls, Girls."
Backstage, ahem, action aside, Jigga also discusses the current state of hip-hop's (negative) perception by the public, an idea that is opposed to what we're being shown, like Jay-Z announcing that the proceeds from Denver's concert will go to the victim's families of Columbine on the very day the shootings occurred. In the end, the affection between the rappers and their fans positively shines through; then again, rap's detractors probably wouldn't be watching this film anyway.
14. Tupac Shakur: Thug Angel (2002)
Most hip-hops fans see Tupac Shakur as a messiah, but is he worthy of the adoration?
In an effort to answer that question, celebrated documentarian Peter Spirer gives us plenty of never-before seen footage, and an early glimpse into the rapper's young life when he was a writing poetry and honing his acting skills, as well as interviews with fellow artists and friends, including Suge Knight, Snoop Dogg, Shock G, Treach, and Big Syke. Plus, there's footage of 2Pac at the tender age of 17, which alone makes the film worth the watch.
Shakur's rise to fame is painstakingly charted in Spirer's experienced hands, who does a good job of showing the multifaceted artist's humble beginnings and how the Black Panther movement weighed heavily on his beliefs. There's also attention drawn to how 2Pac's insistence on being authentic (being the man he claimed to be on his albums) lead to his death.
Angel? Maybe. Hip-hop's savior in a time of need? Undoubtedly, a fact that Thug Angel ably illustrates.
13. Dave Chappelle's Block Party (2006)
Dave Chappelle's Block Party is just as awesome as you'd expect it to be, and even more hilarious. For one, the enigmatic comedian has cooler friends than you (Kanye West, Mos Def, Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, The Roots, and The Fugees), and his invitees, various people he hands "a golden ticket" to in Brooklyn's Clinton Hill (where he throws the unannounced bash), are far more psyched for the festivities than anyone you gave an invitation would ever be.
On hiatus from The Chappelle Show, Dave takes his comedy to the streets, recruiting people for the upcoming performance while entertaining us by just, you know, being himself. Jokes aside, we also see a different side of Chappelle, his passion for the people in the neighborhood and the easy warmth he has with everyone he meets, from school children to old ladies on the street.
You can tell the beloved funnyman is affected by the overall sense of community and the genuine appreciation the residents show for his concert/comedy show hybrid. Maybe that's why he walked away from the $50 million he was offered to do a third season of The Chappelle Show a few months after, possibly to get back to those community roots. Conjectures aside, Block Party is an event you shouldn't miss.
12. Uprising: Hip-Hop & the L.A. Riots (2012)
According to Uprising, N.W.A.'s 1988 hit "Fuck tha Police" wasn't just a rebel's anthem—it was an intimation of what was to come, and when it finally came, a battle cry.
Through a series of thought-provoking vignettes of news reports, archival footage, and interviews with actual participants in the riot, including Rodney King (the man who was brutally beat by four police officers on camera), we get a fresh glimpse into the horrific violence that overtook South Central L.A. in 1992 and the civil unrest that motivated it all.
Snoop Dogg narrates Uprising (which he also co-produced), and with the help of interviews both old and new with John Singleton, Too Short, KRS-One, and Nas, he gives fresh insight into how hip-hop anticipated and possibly precipitated that turbulent time 20 years ago. One final question looms: Has the animosity that spurred that explosion disappeared or is it doomed to reignite once again. By the film's end, it's not answered, yet after watching Uprising you'll certainly have a strong enough evidence to form your own answer.
11. Rock the Bells (2004)
Rock The Bells is a film that shows hip-hop promoter Chang Weisberg's efforts to carry out the arduous task of reuniting Wu-Tang Clan for the first time in six years, for the now legendary 2004 Rock the Bells concert.
If for some reason you aren't a Wu-Tang fan (If so, what are you doing here?), you should still feel exhilarated watching this documentary. Much of the drama happens behind the scenes, as you see the immense effort expended to organize the event and the difficulties that arise on show day dealing with a crowd 10,000 strong and Ol' Dirty Bastard obstinately remaining in his hotel room. Will the show go on?
At points it doesn't seem so, but, ultimately, the answer is yes. ODB does take the stage, and it's his final performance before his death four months later, a fact that lends a sense of urgency and supreme importance to each scene in the film. In the end, it reads as both a posthumous love letter to ODB and an important tribute to a truly legendary hip-hop group.
10. Beef (2003)
"Beef" is the dramatic thrust behind hip-hop, an addictive back-and-forth between big personalities and even bigger egos that's as intrinsic to the art-form as rhythm, which is why director Peter Spirer was wise to have made it the focus of a film.
Spirer's classic hip-hop doc illustrates the colorful history of rap's feuds, from the clash between KRS-One and MC Shan, to the more recent animosities of Jay-Z and Nas. The director employs interviews, archived footage, and artist performances to tell an in-depth story of how rivalries arose and grew from simple street battles to full-fledged MC showdowns.
The film's success spawned two sequels and a BET series by the same name, which served to fuel our hunger (for, uh, beef), and, as of late, have also made us wonder: When will we get a new Beef, and will it focus on Drake and Chris Brown's recent altercations? So many questions...
9. The Carter (2009)
"I'm going to quit very rich, very successful and the game is going to be begging me to come back," Lil' Wayne boasts to the camera in this fascinating doc. But, clearly, quitting doesn't seem to be on his agenda, a notion The Carter only serves to solidify.
Adam Bhala Lough, along with producer Quincy Jones III, focuses our vision of Wayne, following the rapper at a pivotal point in his career, the seven months before he drops his triple-platinum Tha Carter III, in addition to several months after. Using a self-described "fly on the wall" style of filming, Lough gives us an unrivaled glimpse into the rapper's work ethic, illustrating him as an obsessive lyricist who writes rhymes constantly, a focus that is contradicted by Wayne's equally ardent drug use (which consists of mainly marijuana and sizzurp).
Despite everything being purple for Lil' Wayne, the documentary still shows a full-spectrum glimpse into his genius that demands respect. Above all, Wayne's dedication to his craft is apparent, which why the rapper's lawsuit to stop its release was so puzzling.
Wayne may have lost his case for creative control over the final product of the documentary, but he did allow the cameras in, and the final product, by any rap fan's measure, is far from unflattering. The filmmakers entered into Wayne's life without a particular point to prove, aside from showcasing the truth, and in doing so allowed us to discover it for ourselves.
8. Fade To Black (2004)
Hov dropped The Black Album, then he backed out of the game, saying he'd retied... And we got an amazing documentary out of the (temporary) deal. Seriously, though, Jay-Z's retirement may have been been short-lived, but within the context of a "final performance" we truly get to see the rapper at his best and brightest.
The incredible energy behind his now-legendary show at New York City's Madison Square Garden in 2003 (which included the likes of The Roots, R. Kelly, Beyoncé, Mary J., ?uestlove, and Diddy, just to name a few) is brilliantly captured. There's also behind-the-scenes action featuring Hov and a fresh-faced Kanye West in the studio (Yeezy was mostly a beat-maker back then, remember?).
But perhaps the documentary's most fulfilling aspect is the insight we're afforded into the legendary rapper's meticulous creation process. But a farewell? The Black Album being his final record? We didn't believe that shtick for a second.
7. Beats, Rhymes & Life (2011)
An alternate title to this documentary could have been Growing Pains. Director Micheal Rapaport, in his directorial debut, follows the legendary '90s rap group from its birth to its very messy breakup, thanks to the perennially rocky, complex relationship between Q-Tip and Phife Dawg.
The documentary is as much about that tenuous bond between two rappers as it is about the music; while their music evolves and their fame grows, their relationship deteriorates. But, like any relationship, history plays a large part in its future, and Rapaport does a great job of projecting both questions and hopes of what their future might hold, both as friends and as artists.
Also excellent is all of the included concert footage, which captures the seminal group in all of its trail-blazing, '90s glory. It's all very sentimental, and you'll probably play "Bonita Applebum" on repeat for weeks after watching.
6. Public Enemy: It Takes a Nation - The First London Invasion Tour 1987 (2005)
Not even ultra-grainy footage could stop this account of Public Enemy invading London in November 1987 from becoming a classic. Flavor Flav's energy is far too frenzied, he has too many over-sized clocks in rotation, and Professor Griff has too many stoic faces. All of it is just too much to bear, and we mean that in the best way possible.
"Everything is real. Real real real real...", Flavor Flav contends, and we're inclined to agree. Both on-stage and backstage antics from the crew, appearances from Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince, Whodini and LL Cool J, and PE frontman Chuck D.'s musings all exceed expectations. And, of course, Flav uttering "Bass for your face, London," in its appropriate setting, amps up our enjoyment, re-creating an authentic energy.
5. Tupac: Resurrection (2003)
Tupac Shakur manages to extend his lifespan just a little longer and somehow finds a way to tell his tale from beyond the grave… Well, at least that's what crafty director Lauren Lanz would have us believe. By painstakingly editing together a slew of sound bites, previously unseen video clips, and unaired archival footage of 2Pac's life, Lanz allows the late rapper to tell the story of his life, and even comment upon his untimely, controversy-laden death to great effect.
A stitched together, hodgepodge expression of one of the greatest rappers to ever live seems like it wouldn't do him justice, and certainly couldn't bring anything new to the rapper's legacy. But somehow, it manages to weave 2Pac's world together, creating a cut-and-paste truth of his significance to hip-hop, almost like one of those big pictures that are made up of 100's of tiny images—step back and you'll see how the old can somehow create something new entirely.
3. Rhyme & Reason (1997)
Peter Spirer was behind many of the notable hip-hop documentaries on this list, but none are as ambitious as Rhyme & Reason. It's not even that Spirer interviewed over 80 major artists for the film—it's the subject matter he includes that other documentaries fail to acknowledge.
Yes, Spirer gives us the requisite history tutorial, but he takes it to a new place, examining hip-hop's standing amongst other culturally significant types of music (like jazz and gospel), as well as their shared ties, namely a desire to be original and to give pain a voice. And while you're still thinking over the last connection he drew, he's on to another, splicing together potent scenes so that they play in an endless loop, like the break in the hands of a capable DJ.
But the film's greatest strength is in pulling on your nostalgia-inclined heart strings by following inner city kids, and then presenting questions about where hip-hop is heading by talking to the shortcomings embedded in the music. Such as, what does hearing women being called "bitches" and "hoes," as Lauryn Hill points out, do to a child's sense of respect for women? Big questions are posed by Rhyme & Reason and presented with such passion that we're inspired to find the answer to them ourselves.
2. Big Fun in the Big Town (1986)
Dutch filmmaker Bram Van Splunteren's doc was filmed for Dutch TV in 1986, but it was only released on DVD a few weeks ago, more than 25 years after Big Fun in the Big Town was first shot in NYC. And, honestly, we'd be mad that we've been without it this long if making the discovery this much later didn't feel like unearthing treasure the way it does.
Van Splunteren's passion for hip-hop shines in his earnest representation of his subjects, from a hungry LL Cool J and a very fresh-faced Biz Markie, to a boastful Doug E. Fresh confidently displaying his beatbox skills, all shown in crisp cinematography with a still-gritty New York City in the background.
There are also plenty of original interviews with Mr. Magic, Marley Marl, Grandmaster Flash, Run-DMC and Jam Master Jay, Roxanne Shante, Russell Simmons, the Last Poets and more. It's like finding a forgotten $20 in your winter coat pocket.
1. Style Wars (1983)
More than any other film on this list, Style Wars manages to communicate the essence of hip-hop music without overtly focusing on the music itself. Instead, the film sets its sights on graffiti and break-dancing, centering on how the evolution of these expressions became vital to the vibrant roots of hip-hop culture spreading across the streets of New York.
Style Wars, which originally aired on PBS in 1983, follows several street artists, notably one-armed graffiti writer Kase 2, who is famous for his signature form of wild style called "computer rock" as much as for his boundless devotion to expressing his art.
If he was writing in his room, this wouldn't be the film it was; instead, we have an educational-sounding voice-over (this is PBS, remember?) describing the great risks he took to write on subway cars, and gorgeous visuals of graffiti-enveloped trains weaving throughout NYC. Kase 2's art is not just about aesthetics any more than Rock Steady's devotion to breaking is just about physical movement. It's about capturing a certain spirit, expressing something otherwise inexpressible, and ultimately making something your own. And that's all hip-hop really is, at it's heart, isn't it?
A film like this is not without accolades: Style Wars was deservedly awarded the Grand Jury Prize in documentary category at the Sundance Film Festival, and is widely viewed as a indelible declaration of hip-hop's commitment to originality at a fundamental time of its development.