In the Netflix-and-chill era of entertainment, documentaries have never been more accessible; with streaming platforms and OTT services plying audiences with an ocean of addictive non-fiction content. Among the shocking exposés, educational pieces, and Cinderella stories, however, a certain category of documentary film has established itself as its very own niche.
Unsurprisingly, the hip-hop documentary — packing so much history, pathos and intrigue — has become a genre unto itself. Whether recounting the life stories of some of the most enigmatic rhymesmiths to put pen to paper or exploring the weird, wonderful and uncharted corners of its many subcultures, these films shine a humanizing light on their subjects; opening our eyes to untold truths and new perspectives.
With Netflix’s Big Daddy Kane documentary, Paragraphs I Manifest, already the subject of virtual water cooler conversations — its star-studded cast (Jay-Z, J Cole, KRS-One and more) turning heads — a rundown of some of the most compelling hip-hop documentaries ever made is not only timely but important. Especially considering hip-hop's impact on popular culture and the world as we know it.
Dive into these 10 essential hip-hop documentaries:
'Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme' (2000)
As much a cinematic love letter to the power of the spoken word as it is a captivating chronicle of hip-hop history, Kevin Fitzgerald’s critically acclaimed film Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme immediately springs to mind. The documentary captures the on-the-spot brilliance of the skilled emcee; zooming in on the off-the-cuff artistry of hip-hop's most virtuoso freestylers.
Filmed over seven years, the cult classic charts the development of freestyling as an artform; tracing its improvisational roots to the earliest days of the African-American church and the lyrical chanting of the very first Jamaican toasters.
Where Fitzgerald trains his camera on emcees, Doug Pray, the award-winning filmmaker and writer, sets his sights on the DJ — another of the founding pillars or four elements of hip-hop — in his 2001 documentary, Scratch.
Deejaying — or turntabling — is as fundamental to the history of rap music as the Hammond organ is to the emergence of mainstream Gospel. It is as synonymous with hip-hop as the harmonica is with the blues, or the saxophone with jazz. Pray brings this into sharp relief in Scratch, painting a vivid picture of the DJ’s role in hip-hop's origin story.
'It Takes a Nation-The First London Invasion Tour 1987' (1987)
Of course, hip-hop heads need look no further than Public Enemy when discussing iconic DJs. Born Norman Rogers, Terminator X — with his high-top fade, visor sunglasses, African beads and eye-catching ankhs — cut a striking figure onstage. Flanked by the forceful Chuck D, irrepressible Flavor Flav and Minister of Information, Professor Griff, Rogers routinely astounded concertgoers with his hypnotic flares, orbits and tears; assailing audiences with the unmistakable sound and fury of the quartet’s era-defining catalogue.
In 1987, Public Enemy personally introduced British audiences to their uncompromising brand of Afro-conscious raps with their first-ever UK tour. It Takes a Nation – The First London Invasion Tour 1987 documents the band’s fabled Hammersmith Odeon concert, capturing the bass-heavy, head-pounding genius of classics like “Countdown to Armageddon” and “Rebel Without a Pause” in all their raw, roaring glory.
'Stolen Moments: Red Hot & Cool' (1994)
In a similar fashion to It Takes a Nation, Earle Sebastien’s 1994 documentary Stolen Moments: Red Hot + Cool captures a moment in time; framing the stagecraft of the hip-hop concert in a truly affecting light. A companion piece to the compilation album of the same name — an excellent edition of the long-running Red Hot AIDS Benefit Series — the film explores the impact of HIV and AIDS on the African-American community.
Broadcast on PBS, the stirring documentary deftly unpacks taboos, takes on misconceptions and disabuses viewers of much of the sensational and reductive views held by many in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. It does all this while juxtaposing hip-hop and jazz as artforms; the likes of Digable Planets, Guru, and The Pharcyde paying homage to the legendary hepcats that inspired their styles and sounds.
'My Mic Sounds Nice: A Truth About Women And Hip-Hop' (2010)
Just as Stolen Moments takes an unflinching look at life, sex and disadvantage in Black America, My Mic Sounds Nice: A Truth About Women and Hip-Hop reckons with the harsh realities and everyday struggles of the historically marginalized. Reflecting hip-hop’s age-old penchant for holding up a mirror to the ills of modern society, the insightful documentary explores the role of women in the macho, alpha-dominated world of rap. Better yet, the world as a whole.
Notably, the film is directed by none other than Ava DuVernay herself; the Oscar nominee’s inquiring eye — a hallmark of her latter projects, including the Netflix feature 13th — is remarkably sharp and perceptive; contributing to an entertaining investigation of hip-hop’s relationship with women and the female emcee.
'The Art of Organized Noize' (2016)
While synonymous with New York (the Big Apple is often referred to as the Mecca of rap), hip-hop has many homes; the southern hubs of Florida, Louisiana, and Texas, among others, contributing so much to rap lore. Georgia, however — Atlanta, specifically — has produced more legends than most.
The Art of Organized Noize is an affectionately made tribute to the South and one of hip-hop’s most under-appreciated trios. Directed by Quincy Jones III, it showcases the brilliance of the A-Town’s Rico Wade, Ray Murray, and Sleepy Brown. In doing so, it documents the influence of the gifted triumvirate, Organized Noize, on legendary acts such as OutKast, Goodie Mob, and the Dungeon Family; reiterating the impact of the South on popular music today.
'The Freshest Kids: A History of the B-Boy' (2002)
Breakdancing is, of course, as hip-hop as it gets; the power moves, freezes, top- and down-rocks of pioneers such as DJ Kool Herc, Shabba-Doo, OG BGirl, and Crazy Legs played a defining role in the development of hip-hop culture and its associated artforms.
The Freshest Kids takes viewers on a rhythmic trip down memory lane, charting the birth and growth of breaking in fun, gripping fashion. As informative as it is entertaining (in spite of a now contentious, to say the least, appearance by Afrika Bambaataa — hindsight being 20/20), the film is a must for all dance aficionados and hip-hop fans.
'Just for Kicks' (2005)
Sneakers have long been a staple of hip-hop culture; musicians’ and fans’ fascination with high-tops, Chuck Taylors, and shelltoes even predating footwear-inspired anthems like Run-D.M.C.’s “My Adidas.” These kicks have added a little more pep to the step of snazzily dressed hip-hop heads for years, complementing the velour suits, baggy jeans, and B-boy get-ups of the varying iterations of the quintessential hip-hop look.
A lively exploration of sneaker culture, Thibault de Longeville and Lisa Leone’s Just for Kicks delves into the world of sneakerheads and shoe collecting; doing so at a time when camping out for the latest drops might well have been deemed deviant behavior. Wholly enjoyable and quirky without being cloying, the documentary is an endearingly put together film that speaks to the ongoing popularity of brands like Jordans and the success of the sneaker industry.
'Style Wars' (1983)
Regarded by many as the greatest hip-hop documentary ever made, Style Wars is an era-defining classic that draws the cultural significance of graffiti into sharp relief. It paints a vivid picture of golden-age NY street art, colorfully calling attention to the prodigious B-boys and taggers who evaded the long arm of the law to bring the city to life with youthful defiance and in-your-face ingenuity.
Produced by Tony Silver and Henry Chalfant (directed by the former), the film spotlights New York as a sprawling canvas for the brash and brilliant creativity of its most gifted inhabitants, capturing the rebel spirit hip-hop has long been renowned for.
'Dave Chappelle's Block Party' (2005)
Dave Chappelle is many things: divisive, headlinemaking, and a genius. He is polarizing and, depending on where you stand, toes the line of offensiveness in ways that either veer beyond the pale of decency or fall just within the confines of acceptability.
The subject of much (raging) debate today, the question is whether he is/ultimately will be regarded as being on the right side of history (a Kanyenian dilemma). Whatever the answer may be, one thing remains certain: Block Party, hosted by Chappelle and directed by French filmmaker Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) is a joyful celebration of hip-hop's long-standing love affair with comedy. The film finds a younger, more ebullient Chappelle at his carefree best. Joined by his favorite artists — ‘Ye, Erykah Badu and The Roots, to name a few — the comedian orchestrates an improbable mashup of raucously funny routines and chart-topping hits from the Great Backpack Songbook. The result is a party for the ages; one that very few would believe took place if it were not recorded on wax or film.