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.