There are almost as many hip-hop documentaries on earth as pop-cultural references in an Eminem song. Here are a few sweet samples from across the genre’s spectrum.
By
Jeremy Cassar

29 Mar 2016 - 4:25 PM  UPDATED 17 May 2018 - 3:42 PM

Adapted from Greg Kading’s 2011 book, the SBS 2 documentary Murder Rap: Inside the Biggie and Tupac Murders is an admirable attempt at even-handed hindsight.

Works on the two most famous murders in hip-hop have usually fallen to sensationalism or bias, which is why Murder Rap is a refreshing palate cleanser. The creators probe all involved and try their hardest not to deify or demonise a single subject.

It stands in stark contrast to Nick Broomfield’s Biggie and Tupac - I added the documentarian’s name to the title because this is the Nick Broomfield show. His sleazy, sensationalist voice-over walks us through Nick’s faux-suspicious journey between the Eastside and Westside, where he asks leading, or blatantly accusatory questions in a condescending tone. If you have a fit imagination, and can mentally edit out every appearance of Broomfield or his voice, you might learn a thing or two about the story, and get to see some actually good and timeless footage.

Hip-hop documentaries are almost inherently fascinating. The reckless energy and artful protest of early hip hop, and the showmanship and materialism of the genre’s current incarnation, both translate to quality entertainment.

Let’s take a look at some of the best examples…

 

Dave Chappelle's Block Party (2006)

 

If there was ever a title that sold itself, it’s this one. You’ve got Dave Chappelle, a genuine living legend of comedy, and a public party in the streets. It’s such an ingenious recipe, it’d make Heston jealous.

The doco is basically one huge, reckless concert, organised to celebrate the memory of legendary producer J Dilla (who I’ll get to next). Dave MC’s the eve, pulling together The Roots, Big Daddy Kane, Mos Def, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, Talib Kweli, Common, Bilal, Kool G Rap, a young Kanye West, and a rare performance from The Fugees.

And for anyone not into Hip Hop superstars, or groundbreaking comedians – Block Party is directed by Michel Gondry (the guy that made Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, if that helps).

 

J Dilla: Still Shining (2006)

Mid-90s rap pioneer James Dewitt Yancey is cited as one of hip-hop’s true innovators. The man behind the curtain for acts like De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Busta Rhymes, Erykah Badu and The Roots has spawned a bunch of documentaries – most of which are posthumous compilations of his interviews and performances.

The most heartstring-tugging of the collection is Still Shining, made shortly after his 2006 death from a thrombotic disease. Combining interviews with his collaborators, friends, and mostly with his mother, Shining is a respectful ode played out with a sense of immediacy.

Watch the touching tribute here:

Also, check out Dilla’s appearance on the show Crate Diggers, where he talks through his vinyl collection.

 

The Show (1995)

Narrated by Def Jam Records founder Russell Simmons, this doco is a time capsule of mid-nineties rap. One that when dug up documents the genre’s new levels of commercialisation.

Through candid interviews leading up to performances from artists such as Run-D.M.C., Snoop Dog, Wu-Tang Clan, Dr. Dre, Slick Rick, Method Man, Warren G, and Biggie himself, we get to witness both sides of the coin – classic performances on stage and eye-opening honesty backstage.

Watch the whole film here:

Scratch (2001)

We all know the rappers, the MC’s and the producers, but won’t somebody think of the turntablist?

Somebody did, and Doug Pray’s thoughtful investigation into what was once more a specific art form than an overused gimmick is far more universally engrossing than it sounds.

He traces these professional scratchers back to pioneers like Afrika Bambaataa, to modern wizards like DJ Shadow, as featured in the scene below.

Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap (2012)

Admittedly, this was an expertly promoted (hyped) film, primarily because it was directed by Ice-T (a rapper that is now chasing down criminals on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit).

All bells and whistles aside, Mr T went down a fairly uncharted back-alley in the Hip-Hop Documentary hood to examine how rappers go about, well, rapping. The process of lyric writing in the hip-hop world is a fascinating one, and each rapper seems to have a slightly different take.

Ice visits nearly every prominent name in Hip Hop, so I won’t even bother listing even half of them, but yes, Eminem is in there. And yes, Kanye too.

Here’s Marshall Mathers freestyling then talking shop:

Beats, Rhymes And Life: The Travels Of A Tribe Called Quest (2011)

Made extra poignant by the sad passing of founding member Phife Dawg, Travels delivered what Tribe Called Quest fans had been waiting for – a behind the curtain peek into their legacy, their early disbandment and their decade-later reunification. A must-see for any scholar of pioneering hip-hop, Travels is a movie for the fans, made by super-fan / Phoebe’s cop boyfriend from Friends, Michael Rapaport. 

Watch it on SBS On Demand here:

Watch Murder Rap: Inside the Biggie and Tupac Murders on Thursday 31 March at 10:30pm (AEDT) on SBS2.

Can't wait? Watch it right now: