"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
"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
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
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
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