Canadian-produced doc series tells a very American story – the 90s east coast/west coast rap rivalry – but adds an impressive level of insight
HIP-HOP EVOLUTION: SEASON 3 (Darby Wheeler). Streaming now on Netflix. Rating: NNNN
You wouldn’t know it if you stumbled upon Hip-Hop Evolution on Netflix, but the documentary series is mostly made by Canadians. It’s helmed by Canadian music doc production company Banger Films, exec produced by Canadian comedian Russell Peters and hosted by affable Canadian rapper/broadcaster Shadrach Kabango (aka Shad). It’s also written by a handful of Canadian journalists (including Exclaim! hip-hop editor Erin Lowers and NOW contributor Del Cowie).
But the story they’re telling, an ongoing history of hip-hop, is a very American one – especially in the four-episode season three, which devotes most of the first two episodes to the infamous early 90s East Coast/West Coast rivalry that led to the murders of both Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. There’s arguably no genre more tied to its specific regions, and it’s impossible to talk about those years without delving into the cultural climate of New York City and Los Angeles – more specifically Brooklyn neighbourhood Bed Stuy, the Bronx, Long Beach and Compton.
Hip-Hop Evolution never set out to radically reinvent how the history of hip-hop is told. Instead, its big strength is turning a multi-faceted, geographically disparate story into a coherent episodic narrative. It’s zippy and entertaining, packed with well-chosen archival footage, and filling in the gaps with illustrations that create a distinctive visual style. Most importantly, it lets the people who were there tell the story themselves.
These first couple of episodes get good interviews with Lil Kim, Sean “Diddy” Combs and Snoop Dogg, who delivers some of the early highlights. The Compton MC explains why he stoked the fire of the East Coast/West Coast beef at the monumental 1995 Source Awards and gets emotional when talking about the death of Tupac at age 25, realizing that the rapper died at the same age as his oldest son is now. After watching him turn into a famous-for-being-famous celebrity in the last decade or so, it’s refreshing to see Snoop talking about hip-hop again.
And though he’s not the focus, Shad, too, looks much more in his element hosting Hip-Hop Evolution than in his somewhat stiff tenure as host of the CBC radio show Q. It’s obvious how stoked he is talking to his heroes, especially in the third episode’s exploration of alternative hip-hop, when underground cypher legend Supernatural drops a spontaneous freestyle. You can tell the series is made by legit music fans, which is not always a given in documentaries about marginalized communities or artists with notorious reputations.
Maybe the unique perspective that Canadians bring is the ability to approach this history with a healthy critical distance. Rather than further sensationalize the violence or territorialism that lurked underneath the creative vitality of gangsta rap, Hip-Hop Evolution lets the music dictate the action. The Biggie and Tupac story has been told many times before in more detail, but rather than focus on the nitty-gritty of who-started-what-when the series looks at what it meant to the culture: the danger that happens when posturing and machismo infiltrates a positive movement and reaches a boiling point. (After season one was criticized for leaving out women, the series has corrected course and this season includes interviews with talented women like Rah Digga, Faith Evans, TLC’s Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins and the aforementioned Lil Kim.)
In that context, Tupac and Biggie are just two talented musicians who needlessly got caught up in something bigger than themselves. Puff Daddy’s pop chart-conquering, shiny suit-clad Jiggy Era that immediately followed was a sort of lighthearted cleansing for the genre, before Jay-Z and his label Roc-A-Fella took over and brought a hustling business ethic to hip-hop and transformed it from music into empire. The rise of alternative or “true school” hip-hop, as represented by Mos Def and Talib Kweli, is positioned as a reaction against hip-hop’s overt commercialism and a return to its roots as a culture.
Amidst all the narrative-making there is plenty of revelatory footage, including a young Jay-Z opening for Big Daddy Kane and rapping at lightning speed, which we haven’t seen him do in decades. We also get a detour to Detroit and plenty of accounts of the dumbfounded reactions to upstart white rapper Eminem destroying everyone on the battle rap circuit before going into heavy rotation on MTV.
Some of the series’ most original episodes are those that branch out from New York and L.A. into cities like Oakland and Houston. Episode four focuses on Atlanta and the early rise of southern hip-hop. In these episodes, Shad is like a musical Anthony Bourdain, travelling to culturally important spots like The Dungeon – the literal basement of producer Rico Wade’s mother’s house where luminaries like OutKast, Killer Mike and Goodie Mob (including Cee-Lo Green) created hip-hop classics like Player’s Ball.
That episode ends with a teaser that the next season will start with the South’s evolution from down-and-dirty sidebar to major rap player. Most likely we’ll get a future episode devoted to New Orleans and rappers like Master P and Lil Wayne. That should take us into the early 2000s, which has plenty of threads to follow, including the introduction of Kanye West. Still, it’s hard not anticipate a season beyond that when the agreed-upon story becomes a bit murkier and producers are free to follow their own whims. Just imagine what this show could do with an episode about Toronto.
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