Thursday, April 10, 2014

Film Review: The Hip Hop Fellow (2014)

The Hip Hop Professor
Picture credit - Price Films
To borrow a line from the BBC, the function of a good documentary should be to inform, educate and entertain.  As much as I love feature films, there is nothing quite like a documentary to inspire reflection and understanding of an idea or an issue.  When a film makes you look at something in a fresh way or from a new angle, it can be the most exhilarating experience.

The Hip Hop Fellow managed to do this to me in two ways: Firstly, it rekindle my love for ‘classic’ Hip Hop and the technical structure of the music, and secondly it explained the history of Hip Hop within a political and cultural timeline in a way that seemed new and exciting (to me).  For fans of the genre, this is mandatory viewing.

Patrick Douthit (aka 9th Wonder) is a thoughtful and passionate ‘vinyl archeologist’ who has spent much of his life crate-digging to create an encyclopedic knowledge of African-American music (Blues, Jazz, Motown, Funk, R’n’B and Hip Hop).  This talent led him to becoming a successful producer working with such heavyweights as Jay-Z, Destiny’s Child, Mary J. Blige and Kendrick Lamar, as well as forming his own group Little Brother.

He became obsessed with old records that had been sampled in major Hip Hop releases and started to think about the genre in an academic way.  This led him to originally teach a course called “Sampling Soul” at Duke University before recently taking up a research position at Harvard to become a fellow in the Hip Hop Archive at the W.E.B De Bois Institute – probably the coolest room in academia.

For his research project he is trying to investigate “the lineage between the use of vinyl sampling and how it joins the generations”.  As an example he cites NasIllmatic, the ‘first record that young black men could listen to with their fathers’ due to it’s excessive sampling of earlier Motown and jazz samples.  So at the institute, Douthit has assembled a team of students to deconstruct 10 classic albums and construct a musical genealogy of every sample – and to explore what these reference points says about African American culture. 

The intelligence and passion with which he approaches these albums is fascinating to watch and gives the music a richness that made me find and re-listen to as many of the tracks as I could remember him talking about.

The film is divided into interviews, fly-on-the-wall footage of 9th Wonder as he creates and listens to music, and then a recording of his thesis presentation where he outlines the nature of his research and why he feels that it is an important area of study.  This provides a fascinating contextual history to the music as he explains the creation of the sound through reactions to government policy - such as the 1965 immigration act and a flyover project that slowly changed the demographic nature of the Bronx in New York. 

He also equates the cut in arts funding in schools in the mid seventies as a direct cause of the increase in graffiti and turntablism (a form of DJing).  This provides more than enough legitimacy for applying an academic framework to Hip Hop culture, an obviously important area for study.

Hip Hop culture has spent years defending itself from controversy in a way that other music cultures haven’t needed to.  American commentators are quick to attack rap for its misogyny and violence, yet rock/metal music can be just as offensive and always gets away with it.  It must be naïve to ignore the implicit racism involved, so any attempts to elevate the music and culture of Hip Hop must be commended and celebrated – and for that reason, this film is exhilarating.

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