Over the years, hip-hop culture and, more specifically, rap music in general, has become a new, unique, and largely controversial component of our society. It is powerful, it spans coast to coast, and, to quote artist/musician Speech from the film, ” It’s a voice for the oppressed people that, in many other ways, just don’t have a voice”. The underlying stories of struggle and positive messages expressed by lyricists and hip-hop artists often get overshadowed by the “ghetto” themes and references that are rendered unrelatable by those who don’t share the same upbringing and views. Rhyme & Reason (1997), directed by Peter Spirer, delves deep into the roots of oft-misunderstood hip-hop culture and documents from the creation of the new movement, all the way up until it’s evolution into the full blown cultural force (and industry) that it has become today.
Originating in the Bronx, New York, hip-hop became a lifestyle for those in the area. Unlike what you see today, hip-hop also consisted of elements such as graffiti and breakdancing, along with the rapping component that is most prominent in today’s society. The true foundations to hip-hop are DJing, B-Boying (breakdancing), Emceeing (rapping), and graffiti, which altogether formed the actual culture of hip-hop, most of which seems to have been forgotten in recent times. Hip-hop music started out as an individual form of expression for those in the ghetto who faced hardship everyday; Interview footage of a laundry list of big name artists including Method Man, Dr. Dre, Tupac, Biggie Smalls, Ice-T and others recounting their past difficulties, personal stories, and other driving forces that got them into making hip-hop music. One piece of footage, in particular, that stood out was of Nas, discussing his troubled past and how it has affected him.
Around the time the film was made, Nas was just one of many who shared a similar situation growing up. Most of these families didn’t come from, or have a ton of money; the many hardships that came with living in the ghetto brought feelings of anger, hopelessness, and neglect, and writing hip-hop music was one of the few available forms of release. Artist/musician Wise Intelligent is quoted in the film saying, “We have been put here (the ghetto) to die…if I had the chance to live with a stream flowing through my backyard…you think I wouldn’t? We’re not here to be hip and fly, it wasn’t our choice to come to the ghetto…”. It’s eye-opening hearing the first-hand accounts of the inner motivations that go into the creation of hip-hop music, especially from personal accounts of the lives of well-respected, established artists. With these accounts comes a realization that hip-hop music isn’t just a genre full of reckless hyperbole and materialistic narcissism – the lyrics are the events and situations these people live everyday.
“There’s one side of me that’s totally for the preservation of black youth, because we’re dying…the numbers of dying youth is increasing daily in our neighborhood. I can’t stand the ghetto…I live in the ghetto, but the ghetto don’t live in me.” – Wise Intelligent”
One of the main issues with hip-hop culture (specifically the music), was that it was “hard to accept” by most. Those who didn’t grow up in the same economic and social climates just simply won’t understand the material. Usually, a rich man in Beverley Hills just simply can’t relate to the idea of growing up poor and having to rob, steal, or commit other crimes just to get by and put food on the table; it was just full of foreign ideologies and references that most rejected because they couldn’t relate to them. That is, up until record companies realized that they could make huge profit off the music. It was noted in the film that the involvement of record companies played a huge part in the shifting of hip-hop culture from all aforementioned components, into the mainly rapping/music portion that, you know, makes the money. Good music sells and makes money, while breakdancing and graffiti, do not – so the other elements got somewhat phased out. It certainly symbolized the money-hungry, corporation fueled environment we live in now, but it also seemed like a reluctant acceptance of hip-hop by the mainstream; It wasn’t truly accepted until it was known that it could make money (and who’s to say it’s even fully accepted? Most of the older generations still have a hard time calling it music). What I liked, though, was that most, if not all of the artists featured in the film all still appreciated each of the elements of the hip-hop culture, showing that the roots of hip-hop aren’t lost despite the genre’s entrance into the mainstream.
Another one of the general aspects that I appreciated about the film was that I didn’t sense much bias in any way. Rather, what I saw was just a bunch of real, true, individual depictions of life in the ghettos and less fortunate areas from the East and West Coasts, all with a common end in mind. It all seemed to capture the essence of hip-hop culture, in the sense that all of those featured in the film came from, generally, similar situations socially (hip-hop culture, EmCeeing, graffiti, breakdancing, etc.) and economically/politically (poverty and oppression). Each artist, male or female, old-school or new-school, seemed completely genuine in their interview footage when asked about their struggles which led to them making music, and their determination to one day make it to greener grasses.
Personally, I chose this topic simply because I love hip-hop music, and learning more about the history and culture will only allow me to appreciate the material more. When most of the music you hear today is regurgitated mainstream radio full of cliche lyrics and ideas, it’s nice to look deeper into a genre that, for the most part, has great substance and emotion attached to it. Admittedly, hip-hop music itself has seemingly begun to “water down” in recent years, but that still doesn’t overshadow the work of the great EmCee’s.
If I were to further research the topic, I would simply watch more documentaries from other artists and directors point of views, and listen to the music. Each artist has their own story, and their own unique connection to hip-hop culture, leaving a lot to learn. Also, some hip-hop music/lyrics tend to spark political debate, or at least be politically conscious while making a point, so maybe looking into the political side of things – legislation, economic concerns, or anything of the sort in regards to hip-hop culture, and the political and economic roadblocks faced by those who comprise it.