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TV Review: Independent Lens – “Hip-Hop: Behind the Beats and Rhymes”

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I remember the precise instant when rap caught my attention. It was 1982 and my little punk culture magazine was getting a little buzz. I was deluged with promos of every ilk and hue, all of which got my requisite minimum 30 seconds of attention. The labels were overly generous in those days – times were good.

One day, I received a 12" vinyl single from Sugar Hill, sheathed in a plain white cover. I didn't hold out a lot of hope for it, thinking it would be yet another take on "Rapper's Delight," but I put it on the turntable anyway since you just never know. It was "The Message," by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.

I was blown away. It was a no-nonsense rap that spoke to the desperation of ghetto life and the ignorance of society at large to the plights therein. Mostly it was about self-determination against all odds. It was, in short, about as punk as you could get. I won't bore you with the details of my evolution as a supporter of hip-hop, from Public Enemy to Jay-Z – suffice it to say it's a musical idiom that is not going to go away. At its best, it's street poetry without peer. At its worst, its gangbanga silliness. Sadly, the current trend is leaning towards the latter.

The current installment of Independent Lens, "Hip-Hop: Behind the Beats and Rhymes," examines the de-evolution of hip-hop from an instrument of social change to its current status as a myth-perpetuating machine of misogyny, homophobia, and misanthropy. Filmmaker Byron Hurt, former college quarterback turned activist and avowed "hip-hop head," gets inside these issues through interviews with artists, fans, and social critics in a lively and entertaining discourse.

It's a fascinating look at gender stereotypes and how they've become the norm in mainstream hip-hop culture. Through interviews with sources as diverse as Chuck D and Spelman College professor and author, Dr. Beverly Guy-Sheftahl, as well as wannabe rappers and the women they objectify, "Behind the Beats" poses more questions than it answers – and that's why it succeeds.

It's not a preachy film. It celebrates the accomplishments of hip-hop while serving as a cautionary tale of what could be its eventual downfall. It can't be all about the bling, scantily clad, submissive women, and glorification of violence. Nor can it be the surrender to the record industry pandering to an equally misogynistic white male suburban audience.

"Hip-Hop: Behind the Beats" explores a lot of different issues in an hour, and it does so at a rapid-fire pace that's not only informative, but well, fun. It's the sort of documentary that leaves you wanting more. It's not a film to be lightly dismissed. By going deep within the mindset of hip-hop, Byron Hurt's documentary forces all of us to look at the issues confronting society at large.

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About Ray Ellis

  • http://www.thechurchofanswers.com Heloise

    Hey Ray,

    Glad you did a review of this upcoming movie. I saw him in a CNN interview with Paula Zahn. It looks way way interesting–can’t wait.

    Like they said it started out as an activist: the-revolution-won’t-be-televised type movement and has now degenerated (devolved) into soft-core porn that is acceptable for whites to own and have sex to. That’s a sad state of affairs, but whites are buying like 80% of this stuff?

    I can’t watch the new stuff, it is too sexy for me. When I was teaching back when, students were singing “Tip drill.” By Nelly. I had no idea what it was about. So I asked them, they lied. They made up some fanastic story. I have only recently found out how vulgur this little bit of euphemism is.

    They are brilliant at getting their message across. Who would have thunk that’s what it meant just by hearing the words? Certainly not someone as savvy as myself had a clue. I thought they were lying, now I know they were.

    Heloise

  • http://culturesalad.blogspot.com Ray Ellis

    I appreciate the comment, Heloise– I really do. The next airingon the Dallas PBS station, KERA, will be 11.27.07. I hope you watch it.

    As I said in the review, and as the film states much nore eloquently, it’s not an indictment of any one group. It’s more a look at street level perceptions of masculinity, and the hypocricies they inspire.

  • methuselah

    That hip-hop has lasted this long is testimony less to it’s artistic value, which is almost zero since it has tediously repetitive rhythms, offensive lyrics and non-existent melody, than to the paucity of good work to be created to supplant it.

  • http://culturesalad.blogspot.com Ray Ellis

    I can only gather from your comment, Methesulah, that you don’t get out too often. How much hip-hop have you actually heard? For that matter, how much bluegrass have you heard? or Texas swing? or punk? or jazz?

    Open your ears, and your brain will follow.

  • http://madcashier.blogspot.com/ Joe Harris

    Methuselah, some hip-hop out there is brimming with artistic merit. Only young country deserves such fulminating criticism.

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