Few genres have been investigated, dissected and ultimately celebrated as intensely through documentaries as hip-hop. Take a dip into the endless vaults and you’re not just soaking up knowledge on the music, but getting an acute socio-political context from the last 50 years, too.
Not all of it is easy viewing. Brutal truths about racial inequality, injustice, poverty, addiction and violence are all key themes as the genre’s most influential figures set the scene, shedding light on the lyrics, lives they led and the challenges faced by black Americans to this very day.
Whether the multifaceted culture is being approached technically, sociologically or artistically, the realness is tangible. And thanks to YouTube, you don’t have to spend a dime to consume them.
Whether you’ve run your Netflix tank dry or you’re after things to watch during any downtime this summer, here are 10 examples of dope hip-hop documentaries currently streaming on YouTube.
Founding Fathers: The Untold Story Of Hip Hop (2009)
Hip-hop ground zero is usually cited as The Bronx, 1975 with Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash. However, this Chuck D-narrated tale takes us back another layer and celebrates the men who inspired Herc and Flash: Grandmaster Flowers, Master D, Cipher Sounds, Infinity Machine and many more who were running foundation parties in Brooklyn and Queens five years before most history books begin.
Watch as the early pioneers trace their own influences on iconic early raps to Louie Armstrong and Martin Luther King speeches and join the dots with early DJ craft, disco and how cinema played a role in their own sound-system developments. Schools don’t get any older.
Style Wars (1983)
One of the earliest full-length portraits of the full picture of graffiti, breaking and rapping, Style Wars is essential viewing for anyone remotely interested in real hip-hop culture.
While the main focus is on the graffiti writers, all intent on tagging every line in New York City’s sprawling subway network, the overall message at the time was a quantum leap in youth culture and the cavernous rift between generations.
32 years later and the now-gentrified NYC is barely recognizable. An incredible time capsule soundtracked by Sugarhill Gang, Grandmaster Flash, Trouble Funk and The Fearless Four, and featuring some of the most pioneering writers of all time (Dez, Iz The Wiz, Demon, Futura and more), Styles Wars was the first time anyone had given these artists a voice and articulated the culture with depth and understanding. It won several film festival awards as a result.
Hip Hop: Beyond Beats & Rhymes (2006)
A deep dissection of hip-hop’s hyper-masculinity and themes of homophobia by footballer-turned-documentary maker Byron Hurt, Hip Hop: Beyond Beats & Rhymes attacks the genre’s criminal and confrontational characteristics and muscular misogyny with the help of Busta Rhymes, Chuck D, Jadakiss, Mos Def and many more hip-hop luminaries.
Stripping back the layers of America’s race inequality, Bryon backs up his critique with raw statistics of death rates, incarcerations and addictions and interviews that don’t hold back on the realness.
10 years later, while hip-hop has definitely diversified and expressed itself with more maturity, the socio-political status and police attitude in America hasn’t. #BlackLivesMatter
Planet Rock: The Story Of Hip Hop And The Crack Generation (2011)
For balance. The Ice Cub-narrated Planet Rock provides another perspective on why crime and gang culture are so prevalent in rap discourse: by telling the hip-hop story through the complete social annihilation of crack cocaine and the brutally bullish reaction of the CIA’s Crack Cocaine Legislation of 1986, which led to the most imprisoned demographic of young men in history.
Watch and learn as members of Wu Tang and Cypress Hill and Snoop Dogg, among many others, take us back to their hustling roots with frank honesty and how they and a whole generation of gangbangers ditched the rock and flipped their fortunes by reporting what was really going on at street level.
The Show (1995)
Rewind to 1995: The Show is an awesome snapshot of where hip-hop was at 21 years ago.
A great exploration of the scene’s first chapters and a really interesting documentary to watch with current game hindsight, there are some moments of serious gold here: Russell Simmons visiting Slick Rick in prison, an interview with Biggie and the Wu explaining what types of weed inspire their legendary bars the most.
Lacing together some unreal live footage, very few documentaries will have you literally praying for a time machine to go back and be in those crowds, but this one will. Guaranteed.
40 Years Of Hip-Hop (2013)
What does it take to be a hip-hop scholar? Let KRS-One explain. A unique one-man documentary-cum-academic lecture, KRS-One digs deep into the entire discourse, looking back through history to understand why people want to rap in the first place and leaving no social stone unturned.
History, culture, politics, spirituality, even the chaos and disruption of the EU: the works. No other artist could pull off a schooling like this than Professor KRS-One. You won’t regret the time you invest in this.
The Art Of 16 Bars (2005)
The Art of 16 Bars is an acute analysis of the poetry that studies all aspects of the game’s oral history and how the best do it.
Narrated by Method Man and featuring thoughts, reflections and deep insights from the likes of Mobb Deep, 50 Cent, RZA, Jay-Z, Nas and Killer Mike on how they pen their bars and their thoughts on their peers’ tactics, this a fantastic exploration of the ever-expanding art of wordsmithery.
Complete with a cult battling stories from BET legend Jin, some beautiful off-the-cuff freestyling from the likes of Guru, Supernatural, KRS One and reflections from a refreshingly young and smiley Kanye on how freestyling could be the rap of the future, this might be 11 years old, but it still packs a punch today. Poetry in motion.
Forget Meek Mill vs Drake or Lil Durk vs Tyga, this epic legend-studded documentary captures some of the heaviest genre-influencing fallouts, dramas and competitions in hip-hop and how they’ve shaped lyrics, attitude and culture ever since.
The documentary covers the very first battle between Kool Moe Dee and Busy Bee in 1981 through to East Coast vs West Coast by way of Notorious B.I.G vs Tupac, Jay-Z vs Nas and lesser-discussed but still hugely scene-shaking beefs such as Tru Life vs Mobb Deep.
Climaxing with 50 Cent’s beef-baiting years with Murder Inc. during the early 2000s, the documentary closes with poignant lessons learned from soldiers fallen and asks whether the next generation will get rich or continue to die trying.
Public Enemy: Prophets Of Rage (2011)
Public Enemy are political pugilists who exuded raw power from their earliest days, and this BBC-produced documentary succinctly documents their influence and force in hip-hop.
From their Spectrum City Roosevelt roots to points of fiery friction and all aspects of controversy in between, including the groundbreaking production of The Bomb Squad and the choreography and clean-living disciplinarian Professor Griff’s Security of the First World, this is a great insight into the highs and lows and the cultural force of a unique act who have consistently eschewed hip-hop clichés.
This is all the more relevant now Chuck D has formed Prophets of Rage with kindred spirits from Rage Against The Machine and Cypress Hill.
Skepta: Top Boy (2016)
Skepta: Top Boy is a full-flavored half-hour jolt of pure grime and its current global takeover, with Skepta confidently at the helm. After the challenge of previous U.S. tours, Skepta and the Boy Better Know family enjoy the American tour of their lives.
Crammed with backstage behavior, intense live footage and a trip to the White House, this is an on-point investigation of how London found its own voice, Skepta found his own groove and American finally “got” grime, plus it captures the rap paradigm shift that’s happening right now between the U.S. and UK.
For more hip-hop news, watch Tyler, the Creator explaining how Pharrell changed his life.
- Words: Dave Jenkins
- Lead image: Biggie & Tupac