sun 18/03/2018

Hip Hop World News, BBC Four | reviews, news & interviews

Hip Hop World News, BBC Four

Hip Hop World News, BBC Four

Want to know the old-man rap consensus? We've got just the show for you

Rodney P: great presenter of a badly flawed film

Oh BBC Four, we do love you, but this was an uncomfortable proposition from the start. We watch your pop music documentaries, because – let's face it – nobody else is making any, but so often they are pretty thin gruel. There are gems, of course, generally the ones focusing on an individual artist or label, or super-specific genre or time period. But the broad-sweep ones are more often than not a hodge-podge, seemingly governed in their narrative by what library footage was available, but also by a cripplingly old, white, rock establishment view of history.

Even when soul and reggae are the subjects, it's always the dad-friendly stuff, and the story inevitably peters out around 1983, while the recent extensive history of independent labels was a real shocker. Its stories were well told, but its implicit message that – bar a couple of minutes on rave – white guitar bands were the start and end of independent music since 1976 was historically inaccurate and frankly a bit gross. So seeing that the channel was turning its attention to rap – and to the political aspects of rap at that – was a bit like hearing that your headmaster is taking street dance lessons for an end-of-term spectacular.

Practically nothing is said of post-2000 hip hop

OK, the positives first. There are some major ones. There are no old, white, broadsheet/monthly magazine journalists in this programme (and yes I am aware of certain ironies in me writing this, thanks): almost all the talking heads are black, either academics or figures from within hip hop itself. It's presented by enormously charming Brit rap veteran Rodney P, who does the thoughtful and sometimes emotional “my personal journey” links a whole lot better than most professional TV presenters can. And almost all of them have something interesting to contribute at some point in the 90 minutes. There's the odd profound and deftly expressed insight into deeper historical forces behind rap tropes, like the pervasiveness of the industrialised prison system in the USA feeding its hostility, or how rap at its brashest is only reflecting wider American capitalist values, yet gets judged more harshly than other crass consumerism.

But jeez, if you want to get the absolute encapsulation of the old establishment view of hip hop, spelled out as if to people who've never heard a rap record in their life, this is it right here. With maybe one exception, every single person speaking in this programme appears to be over 40: BBC Four has temporarily pushed aside one ageing orthodoxy in favour of another. There's even a moment where Russell Simmonds talks about Puffy, Jay-Z and Dr Dre – incredibly wealthy men in their mid-forties or older – as the new generation.

Not once but twice in the course of proceedings, we are earnestly told about “the four elements of hip hop” – rapping, dancing, graffiti and deejaying – and the secret fifth element, knowledge, as being the essence of hip hop culture: which perhaps was true at the inception of the movement, but hasn't been a seriously current view for twenty-odd years. Endlessly, a semi-mythical mid-Eighties golden age, when KRS-1, Rakim and Public Enemy were supposedly speaking just to enlightened black audiences, is held up as hip hop's ideal form, and pretty much the only modern acts shown or spoken about positively are those who hark back most to that ideal, like Kendrick Lamarr, Dead Prez and Mos Def.

The consensus is that, though the celebration of acquisition in Puff Daddy and Snoop Dogg's records is understandable given the form's roots in poverty, they were the start of a cultural decline leading through 50 Cent and into... well, it's never really quite clear what. Beyond the very occasional nod to Jay-Z, practically nothing is said of post-2000 hip hop. There's no Lil Wayne, no Outkast, no Young Thug, no Kanye – all figures who have helped to radically redefine not just rap but conversations about and within black America – let alone younger figures who are setting the cultural tone for these fervid times. Constantly there is the sense that hip hop is only political if it is overtly didactic, with almost no acceptance that some of its greatest social impact can come when it's at its bleakest, silliest or most problematic. You can just hear all the Guardian comment thread posters cheering “Hurrah, yes, all that bling-bling is just so meaningless!”

There was SO much slack and repetition in this documentary that could have been cut

Not only are most of hip hop's most provocative, disturbing, funny, youthful, entertaining and currently relevant sides written out of history, but so is sex, in all senses. Women are utterly absent from this documentary, apart from in one brief and wince-makingly tokenistic section in the middle, where a couple of women commentators are wheeled on briefly to comment on, y'know, women's stuff, then wheeled back off so the old geezers can get back to their good-old-days chat. This section is an uncomfortable mix of prurient and puritanical as it creates a false dichotomy between sexy women rappers (Lil Kim and Nicki Minaj) and worthy ones (the inevitable Queen Latifah flashes up on screen for a second). 

Damn, could they not have found even 60 seconds to acknowledge that Beyoncé, one of the biggest cultural icons in the world now, is using the tools and language of hip hop to deliver powerful social messages? There's a painful, but painfully funny moment during this, where British rapper Estelle is gamely defending women's right to dress how the fuck they want, when Rodney P asks her: “What does hip-hop look like when you take the women out?” Without missing a beat, she smiles “It looks like a very one-dimensional cockfight”.

There were 90 minutes to play with here, huge parts of which consisted of old men from the music industry, some clearly no longer at their sharpest, talking at quite some length. It's understandable that Rodney P was keen to meet his hero Rakim, and his place in the documentary is deserved – he is indeed, as is driven home many times, one of the very best rappers in history – but did we really need to have so much of the show taken up by him answering questions that weren't asked? Did we, indeed, need to be told about the four elements twice? No one contributor is actually terrible at any point, but the uniformity of tone and assumptions is relentless. Rodney P is a brilliant screen presence, in many cases more interesting than the interviewees, and just about carries the whole thing single-handed - let's hope this leads to him being on screen more in future - but deserves better from the researchers and especially editors.

Hip hop deserves better: if this had been just one in a series or season of contrasting personal perspectives - presented explicitly as a history of the Eighties and early Nineties - it would have been great, but obviously the channel were never going to give as much airtime to the biggest musical movement of the modern age as they did to, say, indie rock. There is SO much slack and repetition in this documentary that could have been cut, leaving space instead instead for people as sharp and funny as Estelle managed to be in her 30 seconds. Space for anyone but forty- and fiftysomething men repeating their orthodoxies at great length, in fact. But then I guess it wouldn't have been a BBC Four music doc.

There's a moment where Russell Simmonds talks about Puffy, Jay-Z and Dr Dre – men in their mid-forties or older – as the new generation


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Didn't watch it. Was watching Luke Cage on Netflix instead, which is the most hip hop drenched, Black experience-reflecting TV event I think I've ever seen (a bullet proof Black man in the year of Black Lives Matter!). Will check out the rap doc though. Who produced it?

This is going to be long, moany and overly verbose, so let me deal with the positives first. Rodney P was a great presenter, and I'd watch him fronting anything else like this in the blink of an eye. Someone give him a regular gig somewhere. Also, Estelle provided some real horse sense when she said, "listen to the stuff you like and don't bother with the stuff you don't like". A great idea. Let's hope it catches on amongst that irritating breed of rap conservative who thinks anyone gives a shiny shite what he (it's always a he) thinks about Kanye West.

Now, the thing I kept thinking about afterwards was Rodney's comment about how hip-hop "gave a voice to the voiceless", only for the film to then set off on a path which implied it no longer does this. If you're soundtracking footage of the Ferguson protests with NWA's Fuck The Police rather than Lil Boosie's Fuck The Police - a completely different song which became a de facto anthem for those protests - you're essentially speaking to people who haven't listened to rap in 20-odd years, and whose frame of reference is limited to things like gangsta rap at its most showbiz. 

You're presuming the majority of your audience knows the sum total of fuck-all squared about the music and so needs to be told about Rapper's Delight yet again. You're also presuming that nobody watching would either know nor care about current rappers with plenty to say who also happen to be hugely popular with people who, y'know, actually listen to rap. That's as opposed to the carpetbagging rock critics seeking a nostalgia fix for their days as student radicals, who these films so often seem to be speaking to; if indeed they're not actually written and made by them.

Also, if giving a voice to the voiceless is one of rap's unique strengths, why was so much of the film taken up by old dudes trying to proscribe what language the young'uns should be using with that voice? I'm not about to tell any black person that they oughtn't to find the proliferation of n-bombs in current rap music objectionable. But rap is youth music, and for better or worse, this is the language the youngsters use. Their job isn't to seek the approval of so-called academics or self-appointed "elders" like Lord Jamar. Speaking of whom, I'd have loved to know how much of his interview got left on the cutting room floor, given some of the less than liberal opinions he's know for espousing. Furthermore, do the Tone Police ever stop to consider what else might be passing them by while they're busy counting n-words?

Of course, there's always plenty of room in these things for the notion that rap should be capital-P political, as well as for endless laments of how this notion has seemingly been abandoned by its present day exponents, which brings us back to "voice for the voiceless" again. It appears there are lots of people who object to rap's current constituency telling their stories the way they want. To quote KRS, why is that? A rapper like Kendrick (who I love) will routinely get a pass from (some) old heads and (many) day-tripping hacks alike because the way he presents himself adheres to the widely-accepted narrative of what rap is supposed to be. But many of those same people will ignore someone like Vince Staples, who makes no secret of his gang affiliations, refuses to apologise for them, rhymes about the life in a totally non-judgemental way and challenges the listener to find the quote-unquote message themselves without having someone to hold their hand throughout the entire process. It'd be good  to see the representation of women in rap dealth with in something other than the same binary terms as ever. Why not go talk to someone like Tink or Junglepussy or Lady Leshurr or Young M.A. or Kash Doll or Katie Got Bandz or even CupcakKe if you really want to get a handle on how broad a range of ways in which female rappers are expressing themselves right now?

Hardly anybody ever thinks to mention that Rakim, the ne plus ultra of "conscious" rap, appeared on the front cover of his first album wearing snide Gucci and draped in loads of tom, while on the back cover he's pictured alongside some of the most notorious and mythologised gangsters, drug-dealers and murderers of the era. What he had to say about withdrawing from the front line of rap because he no longer felt there was an audience for the kind of music he was making was interesting, but that assertion's not really true. 

What's changed is that fewer people, whether creators or consumers, are concerned with old-school ideas about how the music should be made; this "real hip-hop" notion that there's a "correct" way to do it, which has inadvertently led to some of the most boring rap music in the entire history of the form. There's still as much coded language in new rap as there is in a vintage Rakim song. There are still rappers innovating in terms of lyrics, concepts, rhyme structure, flows and delivery, and there are metric fucktons of sonic innovations in the music. After all, rap is the only popular musical form that is still developing and moving forward - much 2016 rap barely even resembles the stuff that was hitting 10 years ago. There is still plenty of substance to what rappers rhyming about, if you're willing to put the work in and you can bear to hear stories that might make you feel uncomfortable, told in language you might find unpleasant, and don't just want a cultural studies lecture set to music. Remember, this stuff isn't made with you in mind, and it's under no obligation to meet your moral or aesthetic standards.

The world also moved on long ago from the idea that New York City is the centre of the rap universe. The number of rappers to have emerged from the five boroughs this century who've gone on to have a significant impact on the music as a whole can be counted on not much more than the fingers of one hand. If you're making a documentary about rap in 2016 that completely ignores the South (particularly Atlanta and Houston) and to a lesser extent Oakland, you're not making a rap documentary at all; you're producing an exercise in nostalgia that attempts to write the last 20 years of the music's development out of its history.

One dude I'd love to see in a doc like this is Boots Riley of The Coup, who is one of the most vigorously capital-P political rappers there is. He got into the game via the classic community-organiser-turned-rapper route that characterised much of the "message rap" era. But he's also someone who understands better than possibly any of his peers that "gangsta rap" has always existed as a legitimate expression rather than a hideous aberration whipped up in a lab by evil white music execs to suppress black people and take money off white people looking for vicarious thrills. I read an interview with him a couple of years ago where he said something that's stuck with me ever since;

"The way that people survive is what creates their culture. Fishing villages create fishing songs. Not the other way around."

If people are bothered by gangsta rap, then you need to address the social and political conditions in which it's become the most accessible and relatable form of self-expression for so many young black people; "giving a voice to the voiceless", in other words.

  Really hate to take the doddery old bastard line on this one, but there are very good reasons why this well-made and thoroughly enjoyable doc focussed so much on late 80's to mid 90's hip-hop, and ignoring those facts won't change any of them.  The show did make a glaring omission of Outkast, and Southern rap in general, but frankly I could do with forgetting all about the rise of No Limit Records and their seemingly endless roster of grotty herberts towards the end of that decade.

  Personally, I was extremely chuffed to see an interview with the notoriously reclusive Rakim.  And listening to the man recite lines which had inspired him to perform as a youngster, the contrast in his delivery, and the heft behind his words, as well as those of Chuck earlier in the programme - Lord Jamar, perhaps less so - really did place the superstars of today in pretty fucking bleak contrast.  It was genuinely poignant to see Rakim disowning his position within the community, and as is well known, this is not just some revisionist bullshit.  Rakim was indeed asked by his record label to conform to the appetites of the day, and he politely declined.

  I'm glad to see Rodney's getting plenty of credit here and his decision - presumably he was asked - to retain the footage in which he is somewhat overcome with emotion, speaks well of him I thought.

  A brief Sugarhill Gang reminiscence aside, you could well argue that as much history was snipped from the beginning of this story as the end of it.  Fine by me - we call it golden era for a bloody good reason.

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