In the age of information being readily available everywhere, from Facebook to Twitter to RSS feeds and more blogs than you can count, never underestimate the power that YouTube still retains. You can lose hours, days, or even months digging through video archives that have been posted. VHS footage, concert videos, never before seen interviews – it’s almost overwhelming.
As far as hip-hop goes, it’s a venerable crash course at your fingertips. You can learn about rap’s origin in The Bronx, the impact that N.W.A. and Public Enemy had on the world at large by way of MTV specials, the story behind the first ever DJs and first-hand accounts of people who created the music that moves our feet. All of that and more is at your fingertips.
We take our rap seriously, and anyone who feels the same should know their history. But instead of enrolling in high-minded (and maybe out of touch?) college course dedicated to the culture, take a trip with us through the halls of rap’s past as we highlight the 20 Best Rap Documentaries on Google’s time-draining site.
The ever-present institution in hip-hop, whether just below the surface or brolic in public, is beef. The movie of the same name begins by revisting Kool Moe Dee and Busy Bee, in case you doubted the documentary’s comprehensive nature, and goes on to cover 50 Cent vs. Ja Rule, Jay Z vs. Mobb Deep, the Juice Crew vs. Boogie Down Productions, and tons of other feuds.
Beyond that, ‘Beef’ explores the nature of competition in art, linking hip-hop to classic showdowns between painters, classical composers, and jazz musicians in the past. It puts rap beef in context with Dolemite and games like the Dozens. It’s essential rap history.
Live Squad – The Tribute (Not Known) [REMOVED]
Take a look at 2Pac’s close friends from Queens, the infamous Live Squad. Majesty takes us through the crew’s history, and the highlight might be his explanation of the beef between Jay-Z, Prodigy and E-Money Bags. Not many people know how close Pac and Stretch were, so get familiar with this excellent film.
The Show (1995)
Russell Simmons heads this documentary that begins with a Slick Rick interview conducted while he was in jail. Artists of all shapes and personality are interviewed, including intimate footage of Biggie, Naughty By Nature’s Treach, Wu-Tang, Dr. Dre, and a slew of other hip-hop heavy hitters. “The Show” is widely recognized as one of, if not the greatest, rap documentary ever. So, relax and take notes if you haven’t already.
World Supreme Hip-Hop – The Frescho and Miz Story (2010)
Hardcore heads will appreciate this one. Philly and Brooklyn joined forces as the incredible DJ duo of Frescho and Miz took the hip-hop world by storm. “World Supreme Hip-Hop” tells the unheralded story of the DJ, which more people need to hear. You think you know your history? Not until you’ve seen this documentary.
Style Wars (1983)
The original hip-hop documentary, “Style Wars” not only set the precedent for hip-hop cinema, but for the culture’s larger presence across the world. DJing, b-boying, graffiti and rap are all covered in by Henry Chalfant, one of the first pioneering photographers to cover graffiti in mainstream press. Kase 2, Skeme, Crazy Legs and Dondi are only some of the legendary faces that appear in the movie, making for a seminal entry in the hip-hop hall of fame.
N.W.A: World’s Most Dangerous Group (2008)
Go deep into the story behind Dre, Eazy, Cube, Ren and Yella as the members themselves (along with former manager Jerry Heller and others) tell the story of the rap group that rocked the world. It’s by far the most informative piece of media on N.W.A available and goes into not only their revolutionary music, but the aftershock of their impact on the industry.
Big Fun in Big Town (1986)
Take a look at how Europeans covered early hip-hop with Big Fun In Big Town, produced for Dutch TV and featuring Run-DMC, LL Cool J, Biz Markie, MC Shan, Schoolly D, and many more classic artists. After you watch it, read Dave Tompkins’ take on the documentary over at Pitchfork.
Wu: The Story of the Wu-Tang Clan (2008)
You can’t proclaim to be a Wu-Tang fan without seeing this documentary. Power, Papa Wu, and many other behind the scenes players speak on the inner workings of the Wu during their rise, as well as the fall-outs that came in later years. Pay special attention to the timeless ODB stories. This one belongs in the hip-hop documentary canon.
Prophets of Rage (2011)
Public Enemy is undoubtedly the rap group that changed the direction of music (Ed. Note: Think hip-hop’s Beatles). “Prophets of Rage” talks with the people at ground zero when the movement took hold, including Def Jam employees like former prez Bill Stephney, Bomb Squad members like Hank Shocklee, and the S1W’s themselves. It’s hard to understand how much of an impact PE made when they hit, but rest assured you’ll have a better grip on it after watching this flick.
Rhyme & Reason (1997)
Six years before “Beef,” Peter Spirer would direct “Rhyme & Reason,” something of an accompanying film to “The Show” with it’s in-depth perspective of hip-hop from the inside out. It takes a holistic approach to the culture, beginning with figures like Grandmaster Caz and Kurtis Blow before trailing the evolution of rap. Through interviews with over 50 artists, Spirer also explores how hip-hop’s image has developed throughout the years and incorporates different perspectives in regards to it’s global reputation.
Tragedy: The Story of Queensbridge (2005)
Learn about one of the greatest slept-on MCs to ever pick up a mic, the one and only Tragedy Khadafi of QB. He’s interviewed in jail as he tells the history of running up in Marley Marl’s crib to audition for The Juice Crew, putting together Capone and N.O.R.E., hearing his influence in Nas’ music, and many other key moments in his personal history. You’ll have to watch this documentary in parts on YouTube, and it seems to cut off at the end, but it’s basically finished by that point. Don’t miss this one.
Welcome To Death Row (2001) [REMOVED]
‘Pac, Snoop, Dre, Dogg Pound – it’s not a stretch to say, Death Row was running shit back then. Go behind the scenes with everyone from Nate Dogg to the D.O.C. as they tell the firsthand story of the infamous record label’s rise and fall. Like Death Row itself, politics were put to the side in an effort to depict what really happened, and it pays off.
Dave Chappelle’s Block Party (2006)
At the height of his career, Dave Chappelle used his power to organize a grassroots concert unlike New York has ever seen. Dedicated to the memory of J Dilla and directed by the whimsical Michel Gondry, “Block Party” transforms Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill neighborhood into a hip-hop festival ground, as Kanye West, Common, Big Daddy Kane, Mos Def, Erykah Badu, The Roots and many more rock the stage while Chappelle filled in the gaps with short sketches and monologues. To see a figure like Dave leverage his influence for a community gathering around hip-hop is an incredible thing to watch.
Beat This: A Hip-Hop Story (1984)
England’s BBC recognized that this hip-hop thing was blowing up in the mid-80’s and got Dick Fontaine to direct a documentary that included Afrika Bambaataa and Kool Herc recounting the history of how hip-hop started. Do remember, this is 1984, so while many wouldn’t presume to think hip-hop had any history at the time, “Beat This” proves that notion dead wrong. It even stretches back to Muhammad Ali and Cab Calloway for references. This is a must see.
The ‘Up In Smoke’ Tour (2000)
To see Eminem, Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, and Ice Cube rock the same stage will probably never be topped. Sorry kids. At least you still have this documentary to capture the tour’s essence. You can’t find this kind of production value in the industry anymore. Peep Marshall backstage in his more wayward days.
Hip-hop began with the DJ, and with that “Scratch” appropriately opens with Grand Wizard Theodore breaking down his entry into scratching on the wheels of steel. Nowadays, DJs don’t quite rock parties or extend influence like they used to, so this is a useful documentary in understanding breaks, beat juggling, and B-boying as the sparks that made rap music take form. It starts with the first DJs and goes through the stages of the essential element, from the Zulu Nation up through DJ Shadow and the new millennium crate diggers.
Screwed in Houston (2007)
Before VICE was as big as it is today, they sent a dorky white dude in a blazer and khakis to explore the legendary Houston rap scene. He interviews Bun B, K-Rino and a host of other South Park Coalition members as they discuss Houston’s unique sound, the history of DJ Screw, and the tradition of sipping syrup. Homie even tries some sizzurp for the first time at the end. This is classic stuff.
Tupac: Thug Angel (2002)
Once again, Peter Spirer shows why he’s one of hip-hop’s most notable directors as he takes a look at the life of Tupac Shakur and the political, social and artistic resonance that his music had around the world. Connecting him with civil rights movements of the past, Spirer places Tupac at the center of hip-hop’s universe.
Freshest Kids: The History of the B-Boy (2002)
It feels like the B-boy is practically dead in today’s hip-hop sphere, but this movie takes it back to the origin, when B-boying was just as central as the rap music kids danced to. The free expression, the daring courage to break the rules of dance, and the importance of breakdancing is all emphasized with this fantastic film, and it’s importance is only heightened by the fact that B-boying is such a forgotten element in today’s hip-hop culture.
And You Don’t Stop: 30 Years of Hip-Hop (2004)
“And You Don’t Stop” gets it’s name from Grandmaster Flash’s practice of splicing together records on the turntables to keep a continuous loop, just in case you thought this was going to be a flimsy movie. Golden nuggets of history are dropped throughout VH1’s celebratory documentary as it describes not just the music’s evolution, but also the context behind how hip-hop came to be what we see it as today.
It’s broken up into many different parts, but the hour-long section below deals directly with the history of Gangsta Rap.