9 classic hip-hop documentaries to watch online now
Nine essential documentaries, focused on the classic '80s and '90s hip-hop that laid the foundation for rappers to build a world-conquering movement
Hip-hop has been with us for almost half a century. In that time it’s touched almost every aspect of society, influencing everything from fashion to legislation. Because its impact is so vast, there are a near-infinite number of avenues to explore — and indeed they have been. Below you’ll find nine essential documentaries, limited for now to those focused on classic hip-hop — the canonical stuff from the ’80s and ’90s that laid the foundation upon which rappers have built a world-conquering movement.
Whether you’re new to rap or a seasoned head, we’re betting there’s something you can learn from the documentaries on this list, accounting for the style, the music, the politics and so much more that makes hip-hop culture, as well as some of its most beloved characters.
This is your starting point, the entry without which any such list is incomplete. And it’s not even about the music. In the beginning, hip-hop comprised a holy triumvirate of rebellious expression: rapping, breakdancing and graffiti. Set to the boom baps and yes-yes-y’alls of the Sugar Hill Gang, Grandmaster Flash, Fearless Four and more, Style Wars documents the kids who spent the 1970s and ’80s tagging New York city’s trains, children of the same urban decay that created rap. Rarely have sound and imagery combined to such striking effect as in Style Wars, still considered by many to be the definitive classic hip-hop documentary.
2Pac is no stranger to posthumous appearances. His album ‘The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory’ came out two months after his death, its cover showing the rapper strewn on a cross. Snoop Dogg and Dr Dre performed with a 2Pac hologram at Coachella in 2012, 16 years after his murder. Kendrick Lamar conversed with Pac on his magnum opus, 2015’s ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’, chatting through society’s ills as though the MC was alive and well.
While alive, Pac made so many references to his own impending demise that it becomes easy to remember him primarily as a symbol of human mortality, but it would be wrong to forget how full of life he was too. Tupac: Resurrected is a sort of posthumous autobiography, assembled using snippets of interviews, home movies and photographs, with the rapper narrating the story of his own life and death.
Watch this if you haven’t seen any of the docs in this list. Starting with DJ Kool Herc’s Bronx block parties in the 1970s, presenter (and rapper) Shad guides viewers through a near-comprehensive history of hip-hop, securing interviews most journalists could only dream of. Highlights include the elusive street prophet Rakim speaking to Shad from what looks like a secret hideout, a section on DJ Screw — whose impact can now be heard everywhere from Travis Scott to vaporwave — and an overdue tribute to the many women who made hip-hop what it is, starting with the ‘Ladies First’ era spearheaded by Queen Latifah and Monie Love in the late ‘80s. There are four seasons so far, and hopefully there’s more to come, as there’s still a lot left to cover: Chicago footwork, Soundcloud rap, Kanye at the VMAs, Azealia Banks... If he’s really bold Shad may even venture to Britain, where grime, UK drill and more awaits.
“I wanted to give the feeling of New York at night time,” says Nas early on in this documentary, just as the formidable bassline of ‘N.Y. State of Mind’ fades in. It’s one of 10 utterly perfect tracks on the Queens MC’s 1994 debut ‘Illmatic’, an album that remains a high watermark in contemporary music, that made Nas hip-hop royalty the second it was released. Time is Illmatic largely ignores the life of fame and luxury Nas now lives, focusing instead on the environment he came from, and how little it’s changed. While remembering the story of Ill Will, a friend who was shot and killed over a minor disagreement, Nas says: “I represent all my guys that didn’t make it here with me.”
There’s a moment in this documentary where Q-Tip recalls performing ‘El Segundo’ for the first time to a rapturous reception. “I was like wow,” remembers Tip. “If they like this, wait til they hear ‘Bonita’.” Cut to a shot from the ‘Bonita Applebum’ video, showing A Tribe Called Quest in all their idiosyncratic glory: four nerdy teenagers rapping over a psychedelic guitar loop, wearing not chains and tracksuits but harem pants, aztec shirts and string bracelets. This was a rap group unlike any other before it, friends with an interest in jazz who, with their first four albums, rewrote the hip-hop rulebook.
As Pharrell Williams says in the documentary, producers like him, Madlib, J Dilla and Kanye West would never have sounded the same were it not for the sampladelic approach of Q-Tip on Tribe albums like 1991’s ‘Low End Theory’. This beautifully presented documentary also captures the sad moment when tensions between Tip and Phife Dawg, friends since the age of two, finally boil over on tour in 2008. As a post-script to the film, Tribe’s 2016 album ‘We got it from Here... Thank You 4 Your Service’ suggests that, while they may never have completely patched things up, Tip and Phife were at least able to set aside their differences before Phife’s passing that same year.
As this documentary opens, author Rodney King walks along the road where, 20 years previously, he was brutally beaten by police officers following a car chase. Footage of the incident, filmed by neighbours across the street, prompted days of violent riots in Los Angeles among the Black population, who were fed up with years of police brutality. “People said they couldn’t understand where all our rage came from,” says narrator Snoop Dogg. “But if you had been listening to hip-hop, you knew it had been building for years.”
Ice-T, Ice Cube, Dr Dre, Nas, and KRS-One are among the voices in Uprising, each speaking about how police treatment of King and the subsequent riots affected them and their music. Songs like Ice Cube’s ‘Black Korea’ and Ice-T’s ‘Cop Killer’ were directly inspired by the events. Dr Dre’s 1992 album ‘The Chronic’ is “born out of the riots”, as filmmaker Matthew McDaniel puts it. It’s all still depressingly relevant in 2021.
There’s nothing quite like Wu-Tang. Hip-hop groups will always offer something a solo artist can never achieve: a togetherness that, when done well, can mean the music’s impact is multiplied by each added member. The Fugees had three. Tribe had four. Wu-Tang had nine. This is their story, from the shared childhoods of RZA, GZA and the Ol’ Dirty Bastard to their domination of New York hip-hop in the mid-’90s and beyond. Their achievements as friends, musicians, and entrepreneurs are staggering.
The documentary doesn’t shy away from the trickier chapters in the Wu-Tang story either. In detailing ODB’s tragic death in 2004, questions are asked about the behaviour of RZA and his brother Mitchell “Divine” Diggs, who fought to keep ODB signed to the Wu-Tang label against his will. In interviews, other members of the Clan are visibly regretful. Thankfully, as the series concludes, it seems there’s still a great deal of love between them.
“Anybody that’s willing to take something from nothing, and turn it into something: that’s a Ruff Ryder.” These words, spoken by producer Swizz Beats, sum up the spirit of this series, which details the period in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s when siblings Joaquin, Darin and Chivon Dean founded a hip-hop label with a success rate the majors could only dream of. Swizz was the Deans’ nephew, a budding producer brought in to work on DMX’s ‘It’s Dark and Hell is Hot’, the first of many Ruff Ryders albums to go platinum several times over after debuting at number one. It’s not all about DMX: Philadelphia rapper Eve is another vital character, a self-described “pitbull in a skirt” whose debut album shifted 200,000 units in its first week.
Plus, don’t miss the clips of DMX live in concert. Seriously. The prayers. The hits. The tears. It also features some of his final interviews before his death. Not an easy watch, but an essential one.
This episode of Weird Weekends finds Louis Theroux in his younger days, exploring the southern hip-hop industry as it gradually eclipsed those of the east and west coasts. As usual Theroux plays the uninitiated novice, eyes widened by the wealth and excess of the late-’90s rap world. Among his probes are eternal questions like, “Do some rappers feel obliged to live the fast life because that’s what they’re rapping about?” He also scores an interview with Master P in his Scarface-esque mansion. If you like this, watch No Limit Chronicles for Master P’s full story.
Copyright Thrust Publishing Ltd. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.djmag.com as the source.