MCing, DJing, Breakin, Graffiti, Knowledge.
The Five Elements of Hip Hop.
Hip Hop celebrates its 50th anniversary on August 11th, 2023. Fifty years ago, Bronx native DJ Kool Herc threw a back-to-school party with his sister. There, Kool Herc introduced the “break”: where he would sample the breakbeats of upbeat Jamaican, funk, and soul records.
Fifty years later, hip hop has its imprint on every part of American culture and is a global phenomenon. Hip Hop is fun, competitive, and conversational. Hip Hop demands from us an examination of culture, what we accept, and what we ignore. Let’s take a stroll through film history and look at ten films that tell that story.
Required Viewing: The Five Elements
Style Wars (1983)
Graffiti – possibly the most reviled element of hip hop in hip hop. Style Wars is a 1983 documentary that dives deep into the graffiti scene of 1980s New York City.
Style Wars is academic––you learn the difference between tags, burners, and bombs from the most prominent artists in the city. You also see these artists collaborate at the “writers’ bench,” an area comparable to the agora of ancient Greece.
Style Wars is also a snapshot of the artist’s creative expression versus society’s rejection of the new and unfamiliar. Subway burners demanded attention from people with low incomes and the affluent alike. Police and politicians wrongly associated graffiti with other crimes and looked for progressively more inhumane ways to stop graffiti artists. The seeds for the “broken windows” policy are apparent. Sure, graffiti was vandalism, but it is hard to rationalize why these kids’ artistic expression led to policies of over-policing and discrimination across the country.
The Show (1995)
A plethora of fantastic hip hop documentaries highlights MCs’ lifestyle and creative work. Brian Robbins’ The Show stands out because it is not a retrospective. It captures the ideas and beliefs of hip hop’s most prominent stars in real time.
The Wu-Tang Clan, Naughty By Nature, Warren G, Snoop Dogg and Tha Dogg Pound, and The Notorious B.I.G. ran roughshod on the music scene with multi-platinum records. They were leading hip hop to a place where it was the dominant culture in American life.
Artists share how deeply personal their music was to them. Dr. Dre, Slick Rick, and others thoughtfully shared their conflicted feelings on young people emulating gangsta life and authentic storytelling about the conditions in the hood.
Unfortunately, The Show is tough to find. Its production company, Rysher Entertainment, has been belly-up since 1999, and no streamers carry it.
Beat Street (1984)
A group of youth all want to make it in hip hop. Double-K (Guy Davis) is a DJ and MC, his younger brother Chollie (Leon W. Grant) has a breakin’ dance crew, and his best friend Ramo (Jon Chardiet) is a graffiti artist. They all are seeking recognition within hip hop in their own way.
Beat Street should be a required viewing for hip hop lovers. You get to see every element of hip hop in some of its earliest forms. The music, breakdancing, and art are almost unrecognizable to hip hop lovers today. But upon closer examination, you can find bits and pieces reminding you of today’s hottest music. You get every hip hop cameo imaginable, including DJ Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, and a very young Doug E. Fresh.
Doug Pray’s DJing documentary is a master class on the craft of DJing. You hear directly from the legends Afrika Bambaataa, Grand Wizard Theodore, DJ Jazzy Jay, and others on the beginning of DJing in the 1970s and how the art form was created and evolved as the main element of hip hop.
You may have seen a turntable, but do you know how it operates? Don’t worry. DJ QBert, DJ Babu, and DJ Cue will show you. From scratchin’ to layering beats, you quickly see turntables as complicated musical instruments requiring years of practice. You appreciate the commitment to musicality, which encompasses more than practice. These DJs must know all music genres and spend hours “digging” for records at old record shops.
Scratch even highlights how music studios crowded out the traditional DJ and how DJs learned how to produce beats to stay relevant.
Hip Hop Storytelling at its Finest
Hustle and Flow (2005)
DJay (Terrance Howard) is an older Memphis pimp sick of the struggle. He is sick of being poor, of pimping, of everything. He wants something better. He decides to pursue his passion for rhyming, begins writing and recording with his old acquaintance Key (Anthony Anderson), and tries to promote his music.
Craig Brewer (Dolemite is My Name) writes and directs this hip hop drama by drawing from an all-too-common experience in hoods nationwide. Before the age of Soundcloud, aspiring rappers hustled at barbershops and gas stations, doing anything they could to get a mixtape in your hands.
Hustle & Flow works because it gives these artists a backstory. The humanity of DJay is on full display throughout the film. You get to see how hard it is for someone to break out in the industry. DJay’s story is hip hop, every clawing, scratching, and hustling part of it.
Let’s not forget that it gave us one of the most joyous Oscar acceptance speeches of all time.
Four typical teenagers live recklessly by skipping school, shoplifting, and running the streets. Bishop (Tupac Shakur) is sick of bullying from the police and neighborhood gangs and convinces his friends to knock over a convenience store. When the robbery goes wrong, their lives enter a tailspin.
Longtime Spike Lee collaborator Ernest Dickerson makes his directorial debut with his version of the gangsta movie. Harlem was the backdrop, New York hip hop was at its center, and New York native turned west coast rapper Tupac Shakur was its star.
A gritty soundtrack featuring Eric. B. & Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, EPMD, and others help tell the story of what happens when obsessed with power.
Tupac’s performance as Bishop was so believable because he modeled what he witnessed growing up – how the streets can warp someone to become deadly.
The final scene of Juice makes you contemplate nature vs nurture. Surrounded by violence, poverty, and drugs, Bishop never had much of a chance.
Roxanne Roxanne (2017)
Roxanne Roxanne gives us the origin of legendary battle rapper and MC Roxanne Chante. You learn her roots as a high school battle rapper who would take on all comers at party houses to earn a few dollars. Her complicated relationship with the hip hop industry grew as her notoriety grew.
Michael Larnell’s drama seems lost amongst the ever-growing number of hip hop biopics. But there is a case Roxanne Roxanne may be the best. This small film, produced by Pharrell Williams’ I am OTHER productions, profiles one of the most legendary MCs of the 1980s. Roxanne Chante was the only female MC within the Juice Crew, which included legends like Big Daddy Kane, MC Shan, and Kool G Rap.
Roxanne Roxanne is an excellent snapshot of how difficult it was to succeed as a woman during the early days of hip hop, no matter your talent level. If you want to understand the golden age of hip hop, Roxanne Chante’s story must be a part of that journey.
Malcolm and his friends love 1990s hip hop, dancing, and fashion. Their infatuation with a culture that dominated a decade prior gets them labeled as geeks today. But who cares? Malcolm has other things to worry about, like getting into Harvard. Things change when a drug dealer stashes molly in Malcolm’s backpack. Can Malcolm get rid of the drugs AND make his Harvard admissions interview?
Rick Famuyiwa (The Wood) knows something about telling a funny, coming-of-age story. Famuyiwa can develop a character in one scene better than almost anyone. His films are full of endlessly rewatchable moments and always send you home happy.
Dope works because it shows you another side of ‘hood narratives. Yes, Inglewood is rough, but you still have typical teenagers doing typical teenage things. Its levity is refreshing and challenges stereotypes of who lives and thrives in these neighborhoods.
Do The Right Thing (1989)
It is the hottest day of the summer, and the residents of Bed-Stuy are trying to find ways to keep cool. Although most of the Brooklynites’ interactions are humorous, an underlying current of racism throughout the neighborhood is close to boiling over.
You can’t talk about the best films of the 1980s without serious mention of Do The Right Thing. Spike Lee’s third film launched the visionary into the stratosphere amongst the auteurs, even if it took traditional Hollywood a bit longer to recognize his genius.
Public Enemy’s Fight the Power blares from Radio Raheem’s (Bill Nunn’s) radio, serving as both a warning and a call to action. Radio Raheem’s boombox cannot be escaped as he strolls through the neighborhood. A neighborhood tragedy leads to outrage, and the song’s call to action has new meaning.
The film goes one step further, asking what ” fighting ” looks like. Love versus hate and militancy versus diplomacy are dichotomies constantly questioned. The response isn’t hand-fed. Instead, each viewer is left to contend with their own conclusion.
Do The Right Thing challenged audiences to accept hip hop as more than party music. Hip Hop is profoundly political and revolutionary.
Boyz N the Hood (1991)
Young Tre (Desi Arnez Hines II), lacking discipline and structure, is sent to live with his father, Furious Styles (Laurence Fishburne), in a Crenshaw neighborhood. Now a teenager, Tre (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) finds himself navigating a poverty-ridden and violent hood with childhood friends.
John Singleton’s directorial debut was met with much acclaimed. Boyz N the Hood was an indie darling at the time, nominated for best director and best screenplay at the 64th Academy Awards. Yet, it still felt underrated by mainstream outlets at the time. Ice Cube deserved an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor and Original Song for How To Survive In South Central. It will be 12 years before a hip hop record is nominated in the category.
Boyz N the Hood would kick off the making of several “inner-city gangsta movies” that span the 1990s. Just as the best war films are anti-war narratives, The best 90s gangsta films were thematically anti-poverty storytelling. John Singleton was the best at this, showing the real, although uncomfortable, conditions of neighborhoods and how everyday Americans must cope.