When first diving into the world of Hip Hop documentary, a viewer new to the scene might think that there are certain things required of this genre. Things like a love for Hip Hop, or a need to chronicle where it all started to where things are now. That way of exploring Hip Hop might’ve been all that a viewer needed in the past, but now there is so much more to investigate. Certain eras, certain regions, whether you want to focus on the culture, the emcee, the DJ or something else. Fortunately for everyone, there are all kinds of options to choose from.
Certain films everyone should see: Style Wars, Dave Chapelle’s Block Party, Rhyme & Reason, etc. The process of advising you on which films to view since they started coming out in the 1980s is a Herculean task, so we’re going to keep it simple and inform you of which films since 2010 you should check out. The following are the top five Hip Hop films to scope this current decade.
5. Soulz of Azucar
Hip Hop has become a global culture, being exercised in different ways across countless countries. In this film, Musa delves into how Hip Hop culture found its origins in different areas of Cuba, a country that is still a mystery to a lot of Americans despite its proximity to it. By examining archival footage, meeting with originators of Cuban Hip Hop, and discussing major events in Cuba’s Hip Hop history, this documentary does a thorough job of removing the curtain about one aspect of Cuban culture. The film also briefly dives into artists from the US who have come down to Cuba to perform, and have built lasting relationships with the people of this very misunderstood nation.
4. The Hip-Hop Fellow (9th Wonder) (2014)
Director: Kenneth Price
Many fans of Hip Hop these days tend to really learn about the emcees and the rappers within Hip Hop. However, there’s a lot to explore when it comes to the most fundamental part of the culture, the DJ. In this intriguing documentary, the legendary 9th Wonder (formerly of Little Brother, and if you don’t know either of these names, look them up now) is followed on his journey of becoming a Harvard fellow. This means that the North Carolina producer and DJ instructed students at Harvard in a Hip Hop course, and created work to present to his university peers and to the public at the end of his fellowship. It’s a documentary one might not expect in Hip Hop, because college is not something always associated as being Hip Hop friendly. This is due to the natural resistance of an art form like Hip Hop, which is averse to becoming institutionalized when its origins were born out of a lack of institutional access for low-income, Black and Latino (among other) students.
3. Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest (2011)
Director: Michael Rapaport
This documentary focuses on the history, tribulations, and reconciliations of the venerated group of A Tribe Called Quest. Each member of the group is introduced, along with what their role in the group, and where they are now. Other groups, celebrities, and Hip Hop aficionados are also interviewed on the importance of this group, and the tension that arose between Phife Dawg and Q-Tip. This is necessary viewing for not just Hip Hop fans, but all music fans. The recent passing of Malik “Phife Dawg” Taylor makes this a great time to view the film, as this provides background as to what was a key factor as to his unfortunate passing in 2016.
2. Our Vinyl Weighs A Ton: This Is Stones Throw Records (2013)
Director: Jeff Broadway
This label was founded by Peanut Butter Wolf (aka Chris Manak), who started making music with his close friend Charizma (aka Charles Hicks). The two had planned a career together and had signed to a label for a brief time before Manak decided to start his own. Unfortunately Hicks was murdered in 1993, and the duo that could’ve been ended. The film goes on to discuss how Manak continued with his label, who he worked with, and all of the different people in the music industry that were a part of his journey to becoming a very respected label. Numerous artists and celebrities are interviewed about the impact this label had on them, and how it is still active to this day. This film is another reminder that there are people out there that still want to make the music for their love of it, and not to try and get rich.
1. Stretch and Bobbito: Radio That Changed Lives (2015)
Director: Bobbito Garcia
This film is an expansive dive into the process in which mostly New York acts made a name for themselves in Hip Hop. If Stretch and Bobbito approved of your rhymes, your career was on its way. This film also highlights the significance of college and underground radio stations in the 90s, and how these stations were how Hip Hop grew in popularity. The cassette tapes recorded from these shows went across the nation and the world, and as the film states at one point “those tapes were like the internet before the internet.” The film jumps into notable recordings that happened on the show, including a revered recording of Jay Z and Big L on the same show. For Hip Hop enthusiasts, this film is a who’s who of some of the best acts of the 90s; for newer fans, it’s a lesson in how things grew, and who was doing what at the time.
Time is Illmatic (2014)
This list couldn’t be limited to five films, so sneaking in a sixth film as a bonus technically keeps us at five. This film is an incredible attention-grabber if you are a fan of Nas or 90s Hip Hop. The film discusses the making of Nas’ debut album Illmatic, and also looks at his life, who he recorded with, and what influenced him. This album is considered by many Hip Hop fans to be one of the top albums in the genre, and this documentary fully explores the world of Nas. Missing out on this film is ill-advised.