Wide Angle

A Wave of Rap Docs Shows the Genre Has Entered Its Classic Rock Phase

Netflix, Showtime, and now AMC have all have series chronicling hip-hop history. Which are actually worth watching?

Jay-Z and Kanye West performing on stage.
Jay-Z and Kanye West as seen in the first episode of AMC’s Hip Hop: The Songs That Shook America. AMC

Hip-hop has long been infatuated with its own history. “You love to hear the story, again and again/ Of how it all got started, way back when” declared the Juice Crew’s MC Shan at the beginning of his 1986 classic “The Bridge,” a song made when recorded rap music was a mere 7 years old. “The Bridge” was a landmark recording for a number of reasons: For starters, Shan’s producer, DJ Marley Marl, used his Korg SDD sampler to lift drum hits from the Honey Drippers’ 1973 “Impeach the President,” one of the earliest uses of a sampler on a hip-hop record. (“Impeach the President” is now one of the two or three most exalted breaks in all of hip-hop.) But it also reached the ears of a young MC from the Bronx named Kris Parker, aka KRS-One, who heard those opening lines as Shan claiming (wrongly) that hip-hop had started out in Queensbridge. In response, KRS and his crew, Boogie Down Productions, released “South Bronx,” an obsessively detailed tour through that borough’s hip-hop history, kicking off what would come to be known as “the Bridge Wars.” Thus, one of the music’s earliest and most storied wax battles was born, at least superficially, out of a historiographical dispute.

MC Shan and Marley Marl’s “The Bridge” is the subject of the fifth and best episode of AMC’s new documentary series Hip-Hop: The Songs That Shook America, which premieres on Sunday at midnight EST with an hourlong retrospective on Kanye West’s 2004 hit “Jesus Walks.” Recent years have seen an explosion in mass media forays into hip-hop history. The 2015 NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton grossed more than $200 million and received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. That same year writer, Shea Serrano and illustrator Arturo Torres’ The Rap Year Book, a funny and argumentative year-by-year tour through the music’s history from 1979–2014, became a surprise New York Times bestseller. (Serrano is a producer on The Songs That Shook America, which is inspired by his book.) Netflix has jumped feet-first into the hip-hop history business, with documentary series like Hip-Hop Evolution and historical fictions like The Get Down. And of course there’s been no shortage of acclaimed works on individual artists, including this year’s superb Showtime series Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men, directed by the veteran hip-hop journalist Sacha Jenkins.

The popularity of the above works (and many, many others) is the clearest indication yet that hip-hop has comfortably settled into what might be considered its classic rock phase. This isn’t to say that the genre has lost any currency or relevance—it remains the most innovative and vibrant sphere of contemporary music—but rather that its past has now become a lucrative commodity unto itself. On some level, all of the above endeavors are canon-building projects, curious blends of history and ideology, nostalgia and marketing.

Grand narratives such as these love bright lines and turning points, moments of genius after which Nothing Was the Same. The Songs That Shook America, which is produced by Questlove and Black Thought of the Roots, along with Academy Award–winning documentarian Alex Gibney, is a proud exemplar of this tradition: Here are six songs, the show’s subtitle suggests, that offer gateways into critical moments within hip-hop history. Aside from “The Bridge” and “Jesus Walks,” the other four episodes are devoted to Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright,” Run-DMC’s “Rock Box,” Outkast’s “Elevators,” and Queen Latifah and Monie Love’s “Ladies First.”

The show is frequently terrific, and it works best when it’s diving headlong into the granular details of a song’s origins and compositional history. The “Jesus Walks” episode features a moving segment on the choir that recorded the original recording West sampled for his track. The “Rock Box” episode includes a fascinating disquisition by Questlove on the drum sounds that Run-DMC used in its 1980s heyday and how different they were from many of the music’s classic breaks. The “Ladies First” episode reveals that the incomparable MC Lyte was originally supposed to appear on the track alongside Latifah and Love, before her label barred her from participating.

It’s when the show steps back to attempt to paint a bigger picture that Songs starts to lose its footing. One somewhat paradoxical downside to the show’s format is that the specificity of its content forces it to make some perilously broad statements about musical history more generally. It can’t just be that these pieces of music are all great. They also all have to be important, immensely so, if they are to rise to that breathless level of “shaking America.” (The methodology behind the individual selections is unclear, particularly since none of the six songs that the show is based around actually received entries in The Rap Year Book.)

For instance, Outkast’s 1996 masterpiece “Elevators” is, quite simply, one of the greatest hip-hop records ever made. But Songs needs it to be more than that, so at the beginning of the episode, it’s implied that it was Outkast’s breakthrough (it wasn’t), that it was the song that put the South on the map (it wasn’t), and that it was the record that finally got the gatekeepers in New York and the West Coast to take Southern hip-hop seriously. (To drive home this last point, we’re predictably shown the boos that Outkast endured when the group won Best New Artist at the 1995 Source Awards, an ugly moment that only works as proof of universal disrespect if you ignore that Outkast had just won the Source Award.)

The reason to make an hourlong show about “Elevators” is that it’s an absolutely incredible piece of music. You don’t need to claim that it was some epochal watershed in a way that diminishes the work of the Geto Boys, UGK, and even Outkast itself, which’d already had a platinum-selling, critically acclaimed debut album in Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik before it released “Elevators.” (Songs does get into some of this background, but only after it’s hooked the viewer in with “Elevators”-related hyperbole; a viewer who wasn’t already familiar with Outkast’s discography might be understandably confused by the episode’s structure.) Similarly sweeping claims are made for West’s “Jesus Walks” (“Hip-hop hadn’t seen nothing like that,” “Rap music was about to change”). But hugely popular rappers had embraced religious themes prior to West, and it’s not as though “Jesus Walks” prompted some flood on theological hip-hop in its aftermath. (We can safely say that enthusiasm for West’s recent return to religious material has been muted, at best.)

These types of totalizing declarations tend to occur at the beginnings and ends of episodes, and if you can take them with a grain of salt, the material in the middle offers no shortage of rewards. Songs also makes a nice companion piece to Netflix’s Hip-Hop Evolution, which is hosted by the amiable Canadian rapper Shad. Hip-Hop Evolution is immensely watchable and offers whirlwind tours through various topics in hip-hop history via an impressive number of interviews with assorted musical legends. That show’s flaws are in many ways the opposite of Songs’: By trying to cover so much ground, there’s barely enough time to catch your breath and enjoy the music. (The show also has an oddly blasé approach to chronology, particularly for a work with the word evolution literally in its title.)

Like Evolution, Songs tends toward triumphalism, a mode of history that flatters the consumer by highlighting the things we want to remember, which often have less to do with what was actually happening and more to do with what’s aged well. For instance, an argument could be made that 2 Live Crew’s 1989 hit “Me So Horny” was actually a more consequential hip-hop record than “Elevators,” even though the latter is musically superior to the former in every imaginable capacity. But 2 Live Crew was a truly important group in terms of bringing Miami bass to the national mainstream, and “Me So Horny” was the first record by a Southern act to top the Billboard Rap charts. The song also featured prominently in 2 Live Crew’s landmark obscenity trial, in which the group’s album As Nasty As They Wanna Be was declared legally obscene and banned from stores until the ruling was overturned by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (a decision ultimately upheld by the Supreme Court). Finally, there’s the song’s undeniably despicable misogyny, a hallmark of 2 Live Crew’s music that fed into an already-existent cultural stereotype of hip-hop as morally debased that persists in some quarters to this day.

I choose this example for a reason: Right now this very story is being told, wonderfully, on the second season of Mogul, a podcast created by the late Reggie Ossé, aka Combat Jack, that’s currently being hosted by journalist Brandon Jenkins. The entire season is devoted to the life and times of 2 Live Crew and Luther Campbell, and it’s a shining example of the benefits of focused and nuanced historical storytelling. This, among many other things, was also what made Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men so rewarding: a filmmaker with an intuitive grasp of the magnitude of his subject, and the cooperation of artists who were open, generous, and unflinchingly honest in the sharing of their story. If you’re someone who needs to be convinced that the Wu-Tang Clan is important, then you’re probably not watching a four-hour documentary about them in the first place. (You should also seek help.)

Music history is a diffuse and unruly thing, full of fits and starts and weird connections and accidental breakthroughs. It’s not some perfectly linear, lofty staircase made out of Great Records. If there’s one thing that Songs repeatedly reminds us, it’s that hip-hop has always had a big tent, musically, demographically, and philosophically. The industry of hip-hop history will always be at its best when it follows the music—and the music’s example.

This post has been updated to clarify the time and time zone when Hip-Hop: The Songs That Shook America will premiere.