My origin story with hip-hop still burns in my brain like it happened yesterday. Run-D.M.C.’s Raising Hell had just been released, and for me — a white suburban kid who’d been raised an only child in a house full of outlaw country and ‘beautiful music’ — it seemed like something being beamed at me from a different planet. It wasn’t like anything I’d ever heard before: there was no melody, no hooks, no riffs, barely any instrumentation outside of a loud, crushing snare and bass. There was no singing, just two guys from Queens, not too many years older than me, doing some kind of call-and-response rhyming slang. It didn’t resemble anything in my entire life that I’d come to think of as music at all.
And yet I couldn’t stop listening to it. I wore out my first cassette copy of Raising Hell, driving my old man nuts by rewinding it over and over again trying to memorize the amazing lyrics. I was absolutely mesmerized. I had to have more. By the time “Walk This Way” — a song I considered the weakest on the album, because it sounded too much like conventional rock — became a massive hit and turned hip-hop into a crossover sensation two months later, I had thrown myself into rap music with wild abandon. I got into Doug E. Fresh, Schoolly D, the Boys Fat and Boogie — anything I could find in the lily-white Dallas suburb to which I had been exiled. (It wasn’t easy. Crossover or no crossover, I got ranked on by the jocks and heshers more than a few times for liking “that nigger shit”.) Today, I’ve got a good 30 years of loving hip-hop of all kinds behind me, but nothing will ever match that electric moment when I first heard this alien transmission from a stranger, and better, world.
Hip-Hop Evolution, the documentary series currently airing on Netflix, isn’t particularly original. Its four parts — dealing, respectively, with the origins of hip-hop, its mainstreaming into American culture, the rise of the second-generation acts like Run-D.M.C that took it to a new level, and the birth of gangsta rap on the West Coast — are full of stories, anecdotes, and histories that, if you’re any kind of a hip-hop head, you’ve probably heard a hundred times before. It’s full of spot interviews with familiar figures, recitations of well-known figures, and snippets of songs that play just long enough to meet licensing requirements. Even the interstitial artwork is pretty clearly cribbed from Ed Piskor’s brilliant Hip Hop Family Tree. (Piskor ought to sue the makers of this and of The Get Down for lost revenue.) Its primary saving grace is that it’s a Canadian production, and its host, rapper and CBC arts broadcaster Shad, carries with him both youth and foreign origin (yes, Canada is technically a foreign country). Born in 1982 of African immigrant parents, he grew up when hip-hop was already a major cultural presence; he recorded his debut over ten years after the Wu-Tang Can released. While this hardly gives him a newcomer’s perspective, it does lend him enough freshness that the old stories are still relatively unknown to him, and watching him hear them for the first time gives you a spark of that old electricity.
He also manages to secure some pretty big interviews. A few people (particularly Rick Rubin and Dr. Dre) are notable for their absence, but for the most part, he gets to speak with most of the movers and shakers of the hip-hop scene who are still around. Some of these interviews seem like they must have been hard to get, but this results in some genuinely entertaining moments: Grandmaster Caz of the Cold Crush Brothers has clearly been saving up some real juicy stuff for the first person who’d listen, and Shad gets an interview with the notoriously press-averse Schoolly by bringing him a Schoolly D cake. He also gets what must have been one of the last interviews with Afrika Bambaataa before the sexual assault allegations that cost him his leadership of the Zulu Nation. Ice-T is his usual gregarious self, and is accompanied by his late bulldog Max. D.M.C. makes you wonder why he’s not the reality-show star instead of Run. And, let’s face it, I will never, ever get tired of hearing old school rappers talk about how much they hated “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang, no matter how many times I hear it.
There’s also a few moments of genuine insight in the documentary. Grandmaster Caz plays a part in one of the most memorable: recounting the familiar story of the infamous club battle between the Cold Crush Brothers and the Fantastic Five, he notes that the latter group won the thousand-dollar prize largely because they were polished and well-dressed, with slick dance routines and accomplished stage presence that largely appealed to the multitude of the women in the crowd. When tapes of the battle began circulating, though, you couldn’t see either group, and listeners — mostly male street kids who couldn’t afford to go to the fancy discos in the first place — could only focus on the lyrics. Caz was a far more accomplished and original rapper, and hip-hop fans wondered how the Fantastic Five could possibly have won. Almost immediately, clever rhymes and forceful raps became more important, and the ’70s-style stagecraft and showmanship in rap largely disappeared. In one anecdote, we see the profound differences between live performance and recorded music, as well as the way early adopters of a musical genre can sexually segregate due to unpredictable factors.
There’s also lots of enjoyable footage of the early days of hip-hop, most of which I’ve seen before (though I’m always happy to see it again) and some of which, surprisingly, was new to me. It’s probably impossible for anyone to fully reproduce the indescribably newness that rap once possessed now that it’s become a ubiquitous global phenomenon, but give Shad and his crew credit for trying: his fresh eyes and ears make the old seem at least a little new, and elevate an otherwise tired documentary approach to a somewhat higher level. He hasn’t made something out of nothing, but he’s made something.