At their best, music documentaries rewrite history by showing us something three-dimensional, which stretches beyond a Wikipedia page. They are a fly-on-the-wall, a conduit that links the artists with the people.
Yet with rap still such a young art form – it’s commonly accepted DJ Kool Herc started hip-hop music by fusing two turntables at a Bronx house party just 45 years ago – hip-hop culture has been mythologised nowhere near as much as jazz or rock ‘n’ roll. Fortunately, as the art form grows up and settles into history, things are changing, with great hip-hop documentaries now a much more regular occurrence.
Here at Crack Magazine, we’ve travelled from the 1980s to the present day to round up ten of the greatest, with each guaranteed to change the way you interpret hip-hop history.
Style Wars (1983)
A look at the young graffiti artists – or ‘writers’ as they like to be known – who enthusiastically tagged New York City’s trains in the early 1980s, Style Wars shows the Dickensian social backdrop that helped to fuel hip-hop culture. When a mother accuses her teenage son of “ruining the system” by using graffiti, he brags: “Nah, I’m bombing the system!” – with this scene perfectly illustrating how graffiti and hip-hop culture disrupted America’s white status quo. Style Wars is a timeless piece of social commentary.
Big Fun in the Big Town (1986)
Sometimes there’s nothing more honest than an outsider’s perspective and Big Fun in the Big Town sees naturally inquisitive Belgian TV presenter Marcel Vanthilt travelling to New York to try to make sense of rap music. Vanthilt learns how rap provided Bronx children with a creative outlet, which was clearly lacking in their school system, and bravely questions a young LL Cool J about misogyny. His best interview is with gangster rapper Schoolly D, who presciently warns: “I just hope they don’t take the raw away and make rap music too pretty. That would suck!”
Wot Do You Call It? (2003)
With Stormzy now winning Brits, it’s easy to forget grime wasn’t always the darling of the British mainstream. Taking its inspiration from the Wiley song of the same name, this 2003 short, which aired as part of Channel 4’s late night Future Short series, analyses grime’s humble beginnings. With interviews with Kano, Jammer and Wiley himself, Wot Do You Call It? is a timely reminder of how grime was molded in inequality, having been created as a sub-genre due to garage heads not appreciating black rap artists “invading” their scene.
Tupac Resurrection (2003)
This Oscar-nominated documentary, which eerily lets Tupac Shakur narrate his own life story from beyond the grave, perfectly illustrates how the West Coast legend struggled to live under the weight of his many contradictions. It energetically shows how Shakur went from a Kate Bush-loving, sensitive, drama school student to a harsh, thugged-out, gangster revolutionary signed to the dangerous Death Row Records.
The Carter (2009)
The Carter is a raw account of the improvisational rapping genius of Lil’ Wayne. Weezy unsuccessfully tried to block this documentary from being released and you can see why, with it darkly shedding a light on his codeine addiction and out-of-control ego. Capturing its subject as the career-defining Carter 3 is released, director Adam Bhala Lough shows an artist who is spiralling out of control, thanks to an inner circle of yes men. The Guardian called The Carter “one of the best music documentaries ever made” and it’s hard to disagree.
Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest (2011)
At first, this A Tribe Called Quest documentary feels fairly generic, with a conventional talking heads (Questlove calls the group the “Miles Davis of hip-hop”) set-up. But thankfully this format is quickly abandoned as director Michael Rapaport dares to explore the delicate balance of hatred and love that drives Q-Tip and the late Phife Dawg’s relationship. By doing so, Rapaport captures something unflinchingly human, elevating Beats, Rhymes and Life into masterpiece territory.
Time is Illmatic (2014)
Documenting the creation of hip-hop’s greatest album, Time is Illmatic works best when Nas reflects on how the tragic environment of the Queensbridge Projects helped shape his groundbreaking debut. You start to realise that Illmatic – with its artwork filled with images of Nas and his neighbourhood friends; many of which are now dead or in jail – is less a rap album and more a historic document that immortalises working class black America. Or, as Nas tells us: “Every hood is haunted by the brothers that walked through there. The essence of them is still there.”
ATL: The Untold Story of Atlanta's Rise in the Rap Game (2014)
“If you listen to New York radio in 2014, you only hear us! We control shit now!” boasts Jermaine Dupri towards the end of this VH1 documentary, with the So So Def CEO perfectly summarising the rags to riches story of Atlanta’s hip-hop scene. Over the course of an hour, you learn how rap provided Atlanta’s youth with escapism following the city’s notorious Children Murders in the early 1980s, and how Andre 3000 shouting “The south’s got something to say!” at the 1995 Source Awards inspired a whole generation of ATL rappers – from Killer Mike to Future – to stand up and be counted.
Stretch and Bobbito: Radio That Changed Lives (2015)
Sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in the artists and forget what an important role DJs have played in shaping hip-hop culture. Thankfully, this documentary doesn’t forget as it shows how two plucky New York kids – Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Garcia – brought underground rap to the masses via their legendary student radio show on Columbia University’s WKCR. The work of the pair, who gave everyone from Biggie to Big L, Ol’ Dirty Bastard (who was signed to a major label after freestyling) and Eminem their big breaks, is rightly painted as a unique moment in history, with the Internet subsequently rewriting the rules of how to break a rap artist.
Death Row Chronicles (2018)
This new six-part series from BET is so compelling because it dares to humanise the label’s infamous CEO Suge Knight. Although Suge’s dark side is explored (one anecdote about how he made a enemy drink urine will make you feel disgusted), Death Row Chronicles also paints a picture of a complicated street-smart entrepreneur, who rewrote the blueprint of what a black-owned label could be. Featuring new interviews with Suge from prison, everything from Dr. Dre’s The Chronic to the rise of Snoop Dogg and the murders of Biggie and Tupac is covered in great detail, driven by a thrilling narrative energy that’s reminiscent of Netflix’s Making a Murderer.