Taking hip hop to task

The film Hip Hop Immortals asks all the right questions

by

The graffiti and b-boy used to be you. The music motivates you but the cash corrupts you. The chicks seduce you. The kids look up to you. The cars and jewelry make them envy you. The tats and clothes define you. Hollywood and corporate sponsorship have sucked you in. You are hip hop. And this is the world described by the artists themselves in the worthy documentary Hip Hop Immortals, We Got Your Kids, which had a one-off showing/premiere last weekend at the State Theatre.

Hip Hop Immortals is unquestionably the most refreshing and pensive look at hip-hop culture seen in years. With up-to-date interviews, introspective analysis, graffiti graphics and precision narration, this film captures the essence of contemporary hip hop. The genre’s growth from an unrefined, underground music to a corporate conglomerate and its effect on children are the driving themes in this 80-minute montage.

Director Kris Palestrini and narrator Bonz Malone begin their story in the late 1970s and navigate us through the world of hip hop via the mouths and eyes of genre notables Grandmaster Flash, Rakim, Shock G, Busy Bee, Daddy O, Mos Def, and Kid Capri (just to name a few), each of whom reflects on a time when hip hop wasn’t about the bling bling and monetary gain, a time when poverty begat self-expression. It goes back to the nostalgic days when graffiti artists and break dancing b-boys were identified with the culture as much as was the lyricist.

At one point, Mos Def sums up the genre’s origin thusly: “The same thing that created rock ’n’ roll is the same thing that created hip hop.”

The film stays focused as it guides us through different eras and trends in hip hop, while examining the changes in culture. Remarkably, there are no live performances or extensive video clips yet the footage — which never strays far from its central themes — flows faster than Twista raps.

Yes, the glimmering jewelry and gleaming cars have always been culturally significant in hip hop. And here we are asked if the image of material over spiritual wealth “has it gone too far?” MC Eiht answers with this pithy quip: “Fuck a car, I just need money in my pocket, and clothes on my back.” Others, such as Fabulous and Jadakiss narrow the haves and the have-nots idea further; they believe those who can, do.

Ever since Heavy D began pimping Sprite, bloated corporate sponsorships and cliché-riddled television spots touting new hip-hop products have become commonplace in the genre. Embracing overt commerciality and accepting corporate dough was once considered a “sell-out.” Chubb Rock and Boo-Yaa TRIBE view the blatant marriage of art and commerce as taboo, while Common and Black Rob advocate it. (“Hey, whatever takes to get the paper! If my paper is straight, everything else is uncivilized,” says Black Rob in the movie.)

One of the most intriguing bits here is the juicy topic of porno, and we see and hear from Snoop Dog, the man behind the best-selling blue movie ever (2001’s Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle, released on Hustler Video). The segment shows us the power of a rap star in the multibillion-dollar adult film biz and how the line between hardcore and hip hop is as thin as a pubic hair.

And after the issues of explicit sex, violence and glorification of material objects, we have the children. Artists Killer Mike, Common, Treach and Eve offer different takes on censorship. Do they as artists censor their work or is it the responsibility of parents to govern what their children see and hear? This argument is certainly nothing new, and no fresh outlooks or resolutions are offered; but it’s imperative the question is raised, that this type of dialogue is ongoing.

Hip Hop Immortals does a worthwhile job of presenting both sides to every argument; and most debates are open-ended, left for the viewer to decide. To their credit, the producers trust that the audience is free-thinking, but here’s the drawback: The topics are sometimes presented and discussed so quickly that the subject matter is gone before you have time to ingest it. The messages are there, just don’t blink.

The movie closes on a poignant note without being maudlin: Wyclef Jean honoring those in hip hop who have lost their lives.

In short, the film is a raw and honest look at how hip-hop culture has impacted our lives, not only as consumers of pop culture and music, but as sons, daughters and parents.

 

A trailer for Hip Hop Immortals, We Got Your Kids is available at www.wegotyourkids.com. The film is available on DVD.

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