STYLE WARS (1983) - The most essential of the early hip-hop docs, up there with Wildstyle, it exposes the world of graffiti, a culture burgeoning in New York with fresh art and an underground dialogue centered on notions of originality versus biting. An iconic slice of budget b-boy cinema.
Beat This!: A Hip-Hop History(1984) - This takes us through roots of hip-hop culture starting in the late ’70s in the South Bronx and features Kool Herc, Planet Rock, Kurtis Blow, Jazzy Jay, Afrika Bambaataa, Malcolm McClaren and many more. Great vintage footage of Manhattan, the Bronx, beatboxing, graffiti and breakdancing.
Biggie and Tupac (2002) - Beef has long been a staple of the hip-hop diet, but no rap rivalry has got so dark and surrounded by conspiracy theory as that of Tupac and Biggie. nick Broomfield goes straight to the heart of the matter: visiting LA’s roughest hoods, interviewing Biggie’s mum, and even tracking down the infamous Suge Knight in prison.
Fade to Black (2004) - A master at the game on the top of his game. From incredible studio scenes shopping for beats at hip-hops top table with Kanye, Pharrell and Timerberland to running the stage of a capacity Madison Square Garden with The Roots, Mary J, Ghostface & Foxy, Jay-Z is flawless and always the brightest star on screen.
New York 77: The Coolest Year In Hell (2004)- NYC had fallen into decay and chaos. Yet from the chaos sprang one of the most creative times any city ever encountered. Hip-hop was emerging from the South Bronx, punk music was emerging from the Lower East Side, and disco was emerging from Queens and midtown Manhattan.
80 Blocks from Tiffany’s (1979) - A solid documentary covering some of the most notorious street gangs in the South Bronx before they faded away and Hip Hop took over. After peering into this looking glass you will be glad that Hip Hop is here to stay.
Scratch (2002) - In the language of hip-hop, the MC raps on top of the beats. The DJ—supplies the beats. Doug Pray’s doc is a tribute to these unsung heroes of the “scratch. It opens with Grand Wizard Theodore (New York) telling the story of how he first introduced scratching.
KeepInTime: A Live Recoding (2004) - What happens when you put a bunch of classic funk drummers and super skilled break juggling DJs in the same room? This doc shows us that music is a universal language and that ultimately the generation gap closes quickly when funky jam session is on the go. A must for the footage of Axelrod’s drum beater Earl Palmer, who has since passed away.
The Freshest Kids: A History of the B-Boy (2002) - The narrative traces their evolution from the South Bronx 1970s to media-crazed 1980s to today, as the phenomenon has returned to the underground while remaining as popular as ever. The old and new school are on hand to explain and to praise the b-boy; everyone from rappers like KRS-One and Mos Def to breakers like Crazy Legs and Ken Swift.
Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme (2005) - Like preachers and jazz solos, freestyles exist only in the moment, a modern-day incarnation of the African-American storytelling tradition. Shot over a period of more than seven years, the film systematically debunks the false image put out by record companies that hip-hop culture is violent or money-obsessed. Instead, it lets real hip-hop artists, known and unknown, weave their own story.
Rhyme and Reason (1997) - This doc explores the history of hip-hop culture, how rap evolved to become a major cultural voice (and a multi-billion dollar industry), and what the artists have to say about the music’s often controversial images and reputation. Interview subjects range from veteran old-school rappers, such as Kurtis Blow and KRS-One to Ice-T and Dr. Dre to several current rap hitmakers, including Wu-Tang Clan, The Fugees, and Sean “Puffy” Combs.
Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes (2006)- The documentary explores the issues of masculinity, violence, homophobia and sexism in hip hop music and culture, through interviews with artists, academics and fans.
“Style Wars” and “Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes” are required viewing for all potential friends and/or boo interests.
I’m disappointed (but hardly surprised) that not one documentary that focus on women in hip hop managed to make the list. Beyond Beats and Rhymes doesn’t count in my opinion it’s a film produced largely by men that treats gender issues in hip hop as how sexism and homophobia negatively affect Black men’s psyche—which cool someone should be talking about that but isn’t the same thing as what I’m asking for.