Monday, March 20, 2006

Rhyme & Reason

Hip-Hop and Hollywood haven't always been the best of friends. From the tired irony of the sterile white guy bumping gangsta rap to rather monolithic depictions courtesy of Spike Lee, Hip-Hop has commonly been used in movies as a comic foil, an after-school special, or a broad target. What's more, rarely has it been allowed to speak for itself. And anytime some member of this wild tribe does make to the Hollywood inner circle, it's with a sense of novelty or tokenism, the compromised exception and not the rule. In movies or the general media, Hip-Hop should not be exclusively painted in a positive or negative light, as either beautiful or ugly, as either criminal or safe, as either comical or tragic, but it should have an opportunity to represent itself and demonstrate, through its many faces, that it is all of those above qualities, at least. This is precisely what 1997's Rhyme & Reason attempts and largely succeeds in doing.

As a documentary without a common narrator, director Peter Spirer chooses not to tell this story as a strict historical piece or an exposé. His generally objective lens instead simply captures its subject, dozens of the most prominent rappers of the time, and lets them explain their own side of things. From a concerned Chuck D to an indignant Ice-T, from an animated RZA to a restrained Nas, from a remorseful B Real to an unapologetic Dr. Dre, from a cliché Master P to a surprising MC Eiht, a spectrum of points of view and styles are given their due coverage. No one speaker really dominates the screen time, and no one person is propped up as a champion or used as a fall guy. Additionally, while it was released in the wake of 2Pac's death, and there is a tone of "we have to make a change", as this is done through the sincere words of Treach and the straightforward approach of Kurtis Blow, for instance, it escapes the melodrama and grandiose appeals for MESSAGE that would have otherwise threatened to derail the film's levelheaded tone.

There's some history, but it doesn't tell you everything. There's rappers from all over, but not from every particular region or subgenre. There's some music, but ultimately interviews are more the central focus. Every idea isn't explained to its fullest depth, and some pros and cons may not always weighted the same. But in a well-paced 90 minutes, simply everything cannot be covered. Moreover, what the movie does achieve is a worthy accomplishment. Rhyme & Reason manages to portray Hip-Hop on its own terms, with its own voice, by its own truths, from the inside. This is not a Nightline investigation or a Ken Burns miniseries. This is not a "rap music as the modern minstrel show" rant or a poetic ode so biased by its love affair. It's something very genuine and with many sides.

I don't know what Hip-Hop was meant to be back in the New York blocks of the early 70's or what was rushing through the veins of Rakim or what was popping off on the corners of a Regan-era Compton, so I can't say then if Rhyme & Reason accurately captures that feeling to the most precise detail. However, the movie does convey a very appropriate Whitman-like idea, "I am large, I contain multitudes." Hip-Hop is a culture and a record deal, protest and submission, blunted and sobering, siphoned off electricity and sold out arenas, beautiful and not, and ugly and not too. But then Hip-Hop also isn't just an abstract presence to be read or written about--it moves. Move something.

Other Rhyme & Reason highlights include: "'85 weed drought, '86 crack came through"; Da Brat with a blunt on the toilet seat; Grandmaster Caz explaining breaks; the Jack The Rapper convention; Kool Herc's Riverview 1600; Lil' Caesar from the Air Force Crew performing; LV talking about how he got shot 9 times; Mack 10 getting pulled over while being filmed; a quick innercut of Jay-Z while coincidentally Nas speaks on screen; Q-Tip at a playground asking kids about Wu-Tang; Redman freestyling over Flava in Ya Ear; RZA's East Coast / West Coast breakdown; Speech explaining the styles of DJ's Howie T, Mix Master Ice, and DST; Spice 1's mom going through the photo album; Treach's eulogy to 2Pac; Xzibit on the Stretch Armstrong / Bobbito Show.

10 Quotables

Abstract Reality, Q-Tip:
I've been losing a lot of people lately. It's at an alarming rate. It's sad. I lost five people in the past four months. I don't care who you are. Fuck it, if you niggas are playing all that hardcore shit, stop it, because y'all niggas have kissed your mama before. Y'all niggas have been in vulnerable states where y'all niggas have cried. Ain't none of you niggas out there iron. And if you say that, you're lying. . . . I have faith that people are gonna wake up. I really do, I have that faith.

Against All Odds, Tupac:
The same crime element that white people are scared of black people are scared of. The same crime element that white people fear we fear. So we defend ourselves from the same crime element that they're scared of. While they're waiting for legislation to pass, we're next door to the killer. We're next door to them, because we're up in the projects, 80 niggas in a building. All them killers that they're letting out, they're right there in that building. But 'cause we're black we get along with the killers or something? We get along with the rapists 'cause we black, 'cause we're from the same hood? What is that? We need protection too.

Based on a True Story, Mack 10:
That's where white America pisses me off at. Saying Arnold Schwarzenegger can kill a whole fucking police force in his movie, but the minute Mack 10 talks about shooting one police or something they want to take my record off the shelf. Some of us didn't even graduate from high school and we're making 7 figures. It's hard for you to swallow if you went to Harvard or Yale all your motherfucking life, and you ain't making but $50,000 a year, and a motherfucker like us can make a million. That's hard for you to swallow.

The Breaks, Kurtis Blow:
All of our heroes were killed off: Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, JFK. I grew up having heroes that were the local drug dealers, the pimps, the pushers, the guys with the dough, the guys that were riding around in the Seville's, in the Cadillac's, guys who were flashing the 100 dollar bills, the number runners. The whole thing about Hip-Hop was to wear the gold chain and to dress like the street hustler.

Holy Intellect, Wise Intelligent:
As far as messages go, I'm trying to get across several different things. For instance, there's one side of me that's totally for the preservation of black youth, because we're dying at a rapid rate. The numbers of dying youth is increasing daily in our neighborhood. I can't stand the ghetto. A lot of rappers run around like "yeah, I'm from the ghetto." I live in the ghetto, the ghetto don't live in me. This is an ill situation, we have been put here for a cause, we have been put here to die. That's genocide, man, and that's the bottom line. If I had a chance to live with a stream flowing through my backyard, meadows in my backyard, you think I wouldn't? We're not here just because we want to be hip and fly. It wasn't our choice to come from the ghetto. So as far as staying true to the hood, I'm not really staying true to the hood. I'm staying true to the people that are in the hood.

I Kick My Thoughts Alone, Nas:
After growing up here and seeing my man that lived up stairs getting killed and then my brother shot, that showed me what type of world this shit is. Most of the time I feared about living here was when I was young, when I couldn't defend myself from shit that was going on, 'cause it was older niggas doing shit. It was a big world, and I was young, and all I had was my moms and my brother, my younger brother. So all I did was just handle myself to get to a position where I can say I'ma hold my ground. I'm old enough to control my destiny and not to be bullshitted by no bullshit niggas no more or nothing. . . . I be thinking about going back to school because my knowledge is limited right now. There's a lot of things that I don't know about that I could take advantage of soon as I learn about them. . . . I'm not a big drug dealer with 25 years on my head. I sing rap records, and I can make my bread. I'm not a doctor or a lawyer, but I'm 21 with a start.

P.L.O. Style, Method Man:
As far as the music go, you got your watered-down niggas, then you got your happy go-lucky niggas, then you got your hardcore niggas and your underground niggas. Basically it's all drug blocks, everybody is selling their dope on your block. What we saying to y'all is like this: we got our shit sewed up, so don't try and to come on our block selling your synthetic shit, 'cause you gonna get blowed up. Straight up and down, it ain't happening.

Power, Ice-T:
If a kid is in a gang, then he raps from the perspective of a gang banger. What if the kid sells drugs? He's rapping from the perspective of a drug dealer. What if the guy's a pimp? He'll rap from the perspective of a pimp. When you rap, basically you rap to another rapper. What a gangster rapper says is "you, listener, I will shoot you in your motherfucking face." He forgets about the rules. He forgets about the theory, what's right and wrong, what's message versus non-message. It is reality rap in its truest form, because you take out all the barricades. It's very direct, taking rap to its most real form and just rapping it, just not giving a fuck.

Prophet of Rage, Chuck D:
Sometimes the reaching and the showing off of the Lexus', and the Big Willieism, that's cool for some, but it's a nightmare to most, because 99/100 don't achieve that particular dream. So our particular dreams have to be rooted more in reality. People talking about keeping it real, but you gotta make it real first.

South Bronx, KRS-One:
Rap is something that is being done. Hip-Hop is something that is being lived. A rap artist can be anybody from anywhere, but you got to visit the Bronx. Period. Wherever you are in life, wherever you want to be, you will always be a rap artist until you visit the South Bronx. Look at the projects, look at the people, see the environment that Hip-Hop started in. Go to 123 Park and just stand there and imagine the birth of a culture happening in this very spot.

Nas: I Kick My Thoughts Alone (video)
BONUS: Guru, Kai Bee and Lil' Dap: The Way It Iz
BONUS: Mack 10, Daz, Kurupt: Nothin' But The Cavi Hit
BONUS: RZA: Tragedy


Blogger Hummingbyrd said...

This is not a "rap music as the modern minstrel show" rant.
-true indeed b/c it is Soooo unproductive.

As far as the music go, you got your watered-down niggas, then you got your happy go-lucky niggas, then you got your hardcore niggas and your underground niggas.
So simple yet so eloquent.

March 20, 2006 10:29 PM  
Anonymous Colin said...

"So simple yet so eloquent."

That's the Wu all over. Every single dude in the Clan can tell you some amazingly deep shit in 10 words or less. It's brief, but everything still makes snese and it still hits you that.

Fletch, at first I was hoping you upped a whole movieand I was freakin' out. Then it was a video I already had. But nice touch on the 3 other songs, definitely didn't have those.

March 20, 2006 10:35 PM  
Blogger neo said...

Good blog..I'd love to watch it on youtube perhaps? You know the funny thing about some of these interviews is, its funny how years later some ppl change in their ideals and thoughts as to what they felt was "right" and "wrong" in their own eyes as far as hip hop is concerned.

March 22, 2006 11:31 PM  
Blogger Fletch said...

The Nas clip is the only part of the video I know is on youtube. Otherwise, try Amazon or your library or video store to see if they've got it. I don't want to go around tell anyone to make blind purchases, but it's truly a well-made film about a very interesting set of voices.

March 23, 2006 5:16 PM  
Blogger The G Manifesto said...

thanks for writing about this movie. good for the next generation.

March 23, 2006 6:23 PM  

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