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2023 - A Year In Hip Hop Film & TV

2023 marked a special year for Hip Hop. Universally recognized as the 50th anniversary of this multifaceted culture, it encompassed not just a unique style of visual arts, fashion, and dance, but also one of the world's most popular music genres. It's no surprise, then, that a wide range of film and television offering were released to celebrate and capitalize on the occasion. Perhaps the strongest representation of this came in the form of documentaries, aiming to shed light on some of the culture's most influential creators. Additionally, we saw the return of one of televisions best shows, along with several compelling podcasts that explored niche corners of Hip Hop History. Here, we’ll take some time to highlight some of the best Hip Hop-based film and TV projects of 2023.


 

FIGHT THE POWER: HOW HIP HOP CHANGED THE WORLD



Chuck D of Public Enemy explores Hip Hop’s political awakening over the last 50 years. With a host of rap stars and cultural commentators, he tracks Hip Hop’s socially conscious roots. From "The Message" to "Fight The Power," examining how Hip Hop has become "the Black CNN." Chuck D kicked off 2023 with a powerful four-part documentary series aiming to provide a political history and analysis of Hip Hop’s beginnings and future trajectory. What's particularly interesting is Chuck D's focus on Hip Hop's political leanings and consciousness, present since its start in the 1970s and continuing to be a voice of protest for the marginalized during turbulent times. The series also delves into the challenges the genre faced as it became a larger cultural and commercial force.


Joining Chuck D is a who’s who of Hip Hop personalities including the likes of Eminem, Ice T, Fat Joe, Sway, MC Lyte, Monie Love, Melle Mel, LL Cool J and more. DIRECTOR: Yemi Bamiro WHERE TO WATCH: PBS






 

MAY THE LORD WATCH: THE LITTLE BROTHER STORY




May the Lord Watch is the definitive story of Little Brother, the North Carolina rap group comprised of rappers Phonte, Big Pooh, and (formerly) producer 9th Wonder. The film follows the rise, breakup, and reunion of the preeminent 2000s rap group. However, the heart of the documentary lies in the evolving relationship between members Phonte and Big Pooh. This bond began at Durham's HBCU, North Carolina Central University, strained during their parallel growth in the music industry, and ultimately resolved with an enduring friendship as the two reunited to create their 2019 album, May the Lord Watch.

Using archival and interview footage, Little Brother (comprising Big Pooh and Phonte, with 9th Wonder formerly a member) has assembled a work that relays the definitive version of the group’s story. Viewers gain unique insights from their humble beginnings to their rise as one of the most acclaimed and beloved groups of the early 2000s.

While founding member and original producer 9th Wonder is absent from the documentary for undisclosed reasons, the true cause of the rift remains unclear. Big Pooh and Phonte suggest some factors, including inflated egos and emotional immaturity, but ultimately acknowledge that it might be a private matter.

Perhaps it’s just none of our business. Despite the ambiguity, May The Lord Watch: The Little Brother Story remains an inspirational and invigorating presentation. Its release directly on the Little Brother YouTube channel perfectly aligns with these artists' self-made spirit. DIRECTOR: Holland Randolph Gallagher WHERE TO WATCH: YouTube



 

DEAR MAMA: THE SAGA OF AFENI & TUPAC SHAKUR



A deeply personal five-part series, Dear Mama, defies the conventions of traditional documentary storytelling. It shares an illuminating saga of mother and son, Afeni and Tupac Shakur.

The series takes an unique approach in handling its subjects. Throughout the five parts, Allen Hughes of the Hughes Brothers tells the stories of Tupac and his mother Afeni Shakur thorugh the interviews with them, their closest friends, and family. Tupac’s story has been told so many times, it’s hard to imagine myself watching yet another thing on Tupac and learning something new. However, Dear Mama more than makes a case for itself. The best idea is to tell their stories side by side. For me, the Afeni Shakur side was incredibly powerful. It informs us about her life and provides a reference point for Tupac's character and motivations. As for the Tupac we know as a pro-Black revolutionary, that was largely influenced by his mama and the Black Power movement that surrounded them. Sadly, both Afeni and Tupac are no longer here to speak for themselves. However, we gain valuable accounts and analysis from friends, family, politicians, and artists like Shock G, Mike Tyson and Jasmine Guy. The result is a poignant and powerful series that sheds light on the lives of two people who directly and indirectly impacted so many lives to this day. This one is a must watch!


DIRECTOR: Allen Hughes WHERE TO WATCH: FX Networks



 

LADIES FIRST: A HISTORY OF WOMEN IN HIP HOP



Ladies First: A Story of Women in Hip Hop is a Netflix documentary that highlights the often-overlooked contributions and challenges faced by women artist in Hip Hop. Through insightful interviews with the women themselves and incisive social commentary from industry insiders, the film provides a powerful exploration of the role and impact of women in this influential genre.

Netflix delivered one of the most well-made documentary series on Hip Hop in 2023 with Ladies First: A Story Of Women In Hip Hop. This series takes us on a journey, starting with Sha-Rock, the first woman MC, and continuing all the way through to present-day stars like Rapsody, Kash Doll, and Tierra Wack. The structure is commendable, taking the time to highlight significant moments from different eras such as MC Lyte's debut as the first woman to release a full length Hip Hop album and Sista Souljah’s battle with Bill Clinton in the early 90s. While men still greatly outnumber women artists in Hip Hop, this documentary does an excellent job of reminding viewers that women have been there from the beginning, offering significant contributions to both the music and the culture that continue to this day.


DIRECTORS: Hannah Beachler, Dream Hampton, Raeshem Nijhon, Giselle Bailey, Carri Twigg WHERE TO WATCH: Netflix



 

ALL UP IN THE BIZ



Celebrity interviews and rare archival footage provide valuable insight into the life and legacy of hip-hop icon Biz Markie. All Up In The Biz, the latest film from documentary specialist Sacha Jenkins (Wu Tang Clan: Of Mics And Men, Fresh Dressed,) chronicles the life and times of hip-hop legend Biz Markie, who tragically passed away in 2021 from complications related to diabetes. Through a combination of past and present interviews, photos, and his music, the film meticulously details how important Biz Markie was to the world.

Rap icons like Rakim, and Big Daddy Kane appear in the film, highlighting his pivotal role in their discovery and careers. Firsthand accounts from Dapper Dan, Doug E. Fresh, DMC, and Fat Joe further paint a full picture of Biz Markie's influence and the love he inspired. The film features wraparound reenactments featuring a Crank Yankers-styles puppet of Biz Markie in a hospital during his final months. While jarring at first, these scenes eventually resonate as Sacha Jenkins brilliantly captures Biz's warmth and spirit thought this unconventional medium. These reenactments provide a few more precious moments with a remarkable man who lived a beautiful life. DIRECTORS: Sacha Jenkins WHERE TO WATCH: Showtime | Paramount+ | Amazon



 

THE CHOICE IS YOURS



A story of rapper and artist Dres, part of the iconic 90's hip hop duo Black Sheep, chronicles his amazing journey from the top of the game to facing the challenges of civilian life and pursing his last chance at creative success.

This documentary traces the rise of Hip Hop duo Dres and Mista Lawnge, collectively known as Black Sheep. What makes it interesting is its focus on Dres in the present day. Despite his enduring love and respect within the industry, his creative spirit years for more. He grapples with anormal life while harboring the urge to take one last artistic shot, especially as Black Sheep has faded from the limelight. Additionally, the film explores his years-long estrangement from Mista Lawnge after a failed attempt at a third Black Sheep album.

Another compelling layer comes in Dres' personal quest to seek approval from the late J Dilla's mother to utilize some of his unreleased compositions for a new album. The film's deliberate pacing, bordering on a Dres' reality show at times, allows viewers to connect with him on a more personal level. This approach makes it understandable why peers like Posdnous, Jarobi and Mareen Yancey readily share stories and shower praise on him and Black Sheep. Ultimately, The Choice Is Yours offers a heartfelt exploration of history, legacy, longevity, purpose, and aging within the world of Hip Hop.


DIRECTOR: Clark Slater WHERE TO WATCH: Paramount+



 

CYPHER


Tierra Whack rose to fame rapping on a Pennsylvania street for a YouTube channel. Years later, while documenting her astronomical rise, questions arise about who is filming whom and whether being seen is a desirable and unavoidable part of fame.

Cypher is a mockumentary-style film that aims to chronicle Tierra Whack's rise while casting a cautious lens on the entertainment industry and fame itself. It’s a unique blend of traditional serious documentary and fictional, found-footage horror/suspense narrative, aiming to satirize entertainment conspiracy theorist and their claims. This experimental approach mostly works, successfully showcasing the talented Tierra Whack while creating a spooky and voyeuristic atmosphere.


DIRECTOR: Chris Moukarble WHERE TO WATCH: Hulu










 

WU-TANG: AN AMERICAN SAGA SEASON 3



Following six months after the season two finale, we find RZA and the Wu-Tang Clan settled in a New Jersey mansion, far from the streets of Staten Island. Despite their recent album's massive success, Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), they're nowhere near finished.

Season 3 of Wu-Tang: An American Saga sees the clan at its peak. Their debut album is a commercial and critical triumph, and most members have secured lucrative solo deals. As a viewer, the season was bittersweet. Watching the series come to life and showcase the potential of Hip Hop-based TV was exhilarating, but knowing it's over with so much more to tell about the Wu-Tang Clan was saddening. It wasn't a perfect ending, with some allegorical episodes about solo projects being more successful than others. Ultimately, though, I believe most appreciated the creative risk regardless of the outcome.

Wu-Tang: An American Saga stands as a milestone for Hip Hop in other mediums, opening the door for similar shows based on real-life Hip Hop history. A biographical series about A Tribe Called Quest or Queen Latifah would be incredible. The door is open, and I don't see it closing anytime soon.


DIRECTORS: Mario Van Peebles, Nefertite Nguvu, RZA, Matthew Ross, Janice Cooke, Eif Rivera WHERE TO WATCH: Hulu



 

RAP SH!T SEASON 2



In the second season of Rap Sh!t, Shawna, Mia, and Chastity, continue their journey toward Hip Hop success as a group. However, their rising success is threatened when situations in their personal lives, and industry pressures threaten to derail them.

Rap Sh!t returned for a second season, retaining the fun, drama, and exceptional production value that captivated audiences in its first outing. Our main trio embarks on a tour, navigating industry politics, financial hardships, and personal difficulties. This season builds upon the show's foundation, deepening our connection to the characters. The series' social media-infused presentation effectively creates a setting that mirrors our own time. It offers insightful commentary on social media, mental health, relationships, business, para social relationships with celebrities, morality, and crime, making it some of the best writing currently on television.

despite packing impressive depth int its 30-mnute episodes, the show never feels overwhelming. Unfortunately, HBO Max canceled the series, leaving its cliffhanger ending unresolved. While some attribute this to the SAG-AFTRA strike and lack of promotion, viewership might not have been strong enough even prior to those factors. Perhaps it didn't spark the same level of discourse as Issa Rae's other project, Insecure. Regardless of the reasons, I highly recommend watching the series despite the lack of closure, as HBO Max can still choose to the remove the episodes at any time.

Overall, Rap Sh!t remains a highlight of 2023 television and represents a significant contribution to the world of Hip Hop / Rap.


DIRECTORS: Ava Berkofsky, Lawrence Lamont, Ami Aniobi, Calmatic WHERE TO WATCH: Max | HBO



 

HIP HOP TREASURES



Hip Hop Treasures, a captivating documentary series hosted by LL Cool J and Ice-T, delves into the cultural phenomenon of Hip Hop. The show follows a team of field collectors and museum curators on a nationwide quest to gather artifacts for the upcoming Universal Hip Hop Museum (UHHM) in the Bronx, New York, slated to open in 2024.

Limited to a single season, this series explores Hip Hop history with the goal of curating the UHHM located in its birthplace, the Bronx. Throughout the season, field curators like DJ Cipha Sounds travel the country, acquiring artifacts that will eventually be displayed in the museum. The "magic" truly happens when the curators meet the artifact owners, not only securing the items but also learning and sharing their rich histories. Witnessing Biz Markie's wife, Tara Hall, discussing her husband and revealing the rhyme book containing the iconic "Just a Friend" is heartwarming. Similarly, watching Yo Yo's charismatic persuasion in acquiring Coolio's prized lowrider bike for the museum brings a smile. The A&E-style presentation, complete with engaging editing and music between segments, evokes a feeling akin to a Hip Hop version of Pawn Stars. Overall, Hip Hop Treasures represents a valuable expansion of the types of TV content exploring Hip Hop culture.


DIRECTORS: Pulse Films, Rock The Bells WHERE TO WATCH: A&E




 

In conclusion, 2023 was a solid year but it could have been better considering it was the year where the “Hip Hop 50” branding was everywhere. Ultimately it’s up to the culture to tell it’s own stories via film and TV. Looking for corporations and media conglomerates to do it just doesn’t work because you can’t rely on consistent support unless it’s something in it for them. As far as what we can expect in 2024 it’s mostly up in the air, but there are some Hip Hop offerings to watch immediately out the gate such as Peacock’s Kings From Queens: The Run DMC Story, and Netflix’s Champion. Stay on the look out for reviews of these and any upcoming Hip Hop films and series we think are worth watching.   




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