Film Scouts Reviews

"Rhyme & Reason"

by Liza Bear

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"Hip-hop is how you walk talk act see smell fart shit fuck, you know what I mean," RZA of Wu-Tang Clan tells the camera in the opening sequence of "Rhyme and Reason," Peter Spirer's new documentary about hip-hop. Not a performance film, this is the result of three years spent crisscrossing the country interviewing rappers. It's an upbeat and enlightening, if slightly hypnotic, odyssey and a good introduction to the subject for the general public.

"The key to a good rap," West Coast rapper Ice-T explains succinctly, "is that it doesn't only rhyme but it's clever. And also good rap music doesn't need a beat." To demonstrate, Method Man of Wu-Tang Clan from Staten Island, NY, raps, "Fuck the President/He don't represent/The ghetto resident."

Another rapper adds, more soberly, "If it weren't for hip-hop, I'd still be selling drugs," an observation echoed by many others in this film, who speak freely about drugs and the need to reject them. Yet later in the film, Ice-T acknowledges wryly, "I'm more of a crook than a rapper."

Attitude, humor and insights galore are to be found in this sympathetic, densely-packed, music video-style kaleidoscope. For first-hand reports on hip-hop's beginnings and subsequent growth into a $30-billion industry, the film relies on the people who should know best - its practitioners, rather than Billboard charts. This was a sound directorial decision. The nature of hip-hop itself invites participation rather than a voyeuristic scholarly distance. For the most part, the film's approach is unpretentious, the performers loose, and the language relaxed and friendly - the rappers tell it like it is.

As is well-known, in the beginning rap caught on like wildfire, bouncing from project to project. Its contagious spread through the rest of the teen culture, by dint of its sheer expressive energy, is implied rather than stated in "Rhyme & Reason." The film does a better job at revealing hip-hop's initial raison d'etre and moral force than it does at accounting for its current success. Perhaps it's just that beginnings are romantic by nature and capitalistic take-over isn't. Or it could be that the film's repetitive format itself interferes with the viewer's factual intake.

In less than a quarter of a century hip-hop has exploded from vociferous, empowering Bronx subculture, incorporating scratching, breakdancing, freestyle rap and graffiti, to a dominant style-setter that has seized the imaginations (and pocketbooks) of listeners of all races and backgrounds. For teenage fans, it determines what they listen to, how they look, wear their pants, and talk. But "Rhyme and Reason" is less about the influence of hip-hop on the culture at large than an inside, intimate look at what and who made it happen.

There seems to be a general consensus that hip-hop was a form of spontaneous combustion in the ghetto nationwide. (New Yorker Charlie Ahearn's 1982 "Wild Style", an early breakdance film, was the first to document this.) "Rhyme & Reason" intersperses quotes from such hip-hop masters as Chuck D, the Fugees, Dr Dre, Grandmaster Caz, Das EFX, Salt-N-Pepa, Da Brat, NAS and the highly articulate KRS-One (characterized by my 10th-grade son as the "Statue of Liberty of hip-hop") with appropriate footage. The movie shows clearly that graffiti, for example, while viewed by the mayors of certain cities as vandalism, can be a way of communicating vital information about what's going on in a neighborhood. (One might infer that it should therefore be protected by the First Amendment, just like print and electronic news media.)

"Ghetto kids didn't have the money to learn how to play instruments or take singing lessons, but they found a way, regardless," says Salt-N-Pepa, one of the few women's groups featured. "They just used whatever was around - a turntable, a little nasty mike, old dirty records." In other words, resourcefulness and ingenuity in the face of poverty.

"Rhyme & Reason" takes in both the big picture and small details, examining the major hip-hop venues in New York City, Los Angeles, Oakland, New Orleans, Philadelphia and elsewhere, nailing the music's real-life origins on street corners and at block parties, tracking down and documenting historic sites. Tour guide Grandmaster Caz points out 1600 Riverview in the Bronx, home of Cool Herks, the godfather of hip-hop, and even the lamp post where he got the electricity to jam on an adjacent basketball court.

One of the most fascinating sequences is a demonstration of how "deejays got creative," treating the gramophone needle as an instrument itself rather than a piece of audio equipment. Many see those deejays as the first hip-hop artists. They'd do a kind of live edit by switching from one turntable to another at will, emphasizing selected cuts and often repeating a key phrase. Turning the records manually made a scratching sound that gave an edgy abrasive quality to the music. DJ Rip One of Air Force Crew himself demonstrates "the scratch," a display of impressive manual dexterity. And Ice T explains how breakdancing got its name when people danced in the pauses between musical beats.

"Rhyme and Reason" does a surprisingly good job of staying fresh while avoiding glibness.("Fresh," by the way, according to the film, is no longer an in word. Nor is "chill," or even "cool"). The high-octane format is less well-suited to tracking more complex topics, such as the journey from popular art form to high finance, though the film points out that rather than selling out to the money men, hip-hop enabled a new class of African-American entrepeneurship to emerge.

The movie marks off 1975 to 1985 as hip-hop's early period, and 1985 as the year when hip-hop and rap became separate strands, with the term "hip-hop" being used to refer to the lifestyle and "rap" to the music. With respect to other issues and controversies surrounding rap in the late 80s - blatant misogyny, alleged advocacy of drugs, and incitement to violence - the film's participants mostly steer clear of polemics and ask that the virulent lyrics of gangsta rap not be used to indict hip-hop as a whole.

The film's editing, jumping from soundbite to soundbite, making continuity sometimes a bit tricky, provides enough overlaps in content that you'll catch the drift, and the message comes across anyhow. A strong sense of pluralism is at work here, with the filmmakers anxious to be as inclusive as possible.

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