Hip Hop: Poison, Art or Slam-Dunk Sweeps Stunt?

Every February, TV producers line up their “Black History Month” specials and, when it comes to music, that means several Hip Hop-related programs get aired. February also coincides with sweeps, so Rap and Hip Hop’s popularity and often controversial nature make it ideal subject matter.

Last night, the dreadful Paula Zahn Now on CNN pulled their Hip Hop sweeps stunt with the latest installment of her “probing” series, Out in the Open, which, in the promos, featured the baiting tag line, “Hip Hop. Is it art or poison?” I didn’t watch (can’t stand Paula Zahn, was turned off by the sensationalistic presentation of the premise, had better things to do), but I imagine there was the usual “Rap music is killing America” rhetoric, balanced by the “Rap music just tells it like it is” side. And throughout it all, I’m guessing there was the gratuitous booty-shaking videos run non-stop, an amusing media double standard, like the annual “Let’s talk about the hard issues surrounding the atrocities of college spring break” pieces, which are always backed by a montage of wet t-shirt contests and bikini-clad students doing beer bongs.

But I won’t comment on the actual Zahn show, since I didn’t see it (who knows — maybe she’ll get a Pulitzer for it). I DO know that Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes was an extremely entertaining and informative documentary, airing earlier this week on PBS’s amazing Independent Lens series. The film was made by Byron Hurt, who pulls himself into the story as a lifelong Hip Hop fan who feels betrayed by the direction in which the industry and many artists have taken his beloved music (much like CityBeat scribe Kevin Britton’s old column, The Ledge). The personal touch sets it apart from other like-minded docs — Hurt really gets his conflicted feelings across well and he cleverly incorporates his own life experiences into the narrative.

Beyond Beats and Rhymes intelligently examines issues like misogyny, greed, homophobia, corporate influence and sociological/economic factors, with commentary from artists like Mos Def, Fat Joe, Chuck D and Jadakiss, as well as writers like Kevin Powell (who magically transformed from Real World cast member to one of the great minds of Hip Hop punditry), fans and industry moguls, who noticeably squirm when asked questions about the promotion of negative stereotypes in Rap and Hip Hop. Hurt doesn’t exactly offer answers, but perhaps simply pointing out some of the problems so elegantly and provocatively is the best first step towards a solution.

My favorite scene comes when Hurt is talking with a small group of rappers in a recording studio. Among them are Talib Kweli, Mos Def and Busta Rhymes. As Hurt begins to ask the MCs about homosexuality in relation to Hip Hop and Rap (there’s also a great bit about homoeroticism in Rap culture), Rhymes stops the conversation and tells him he refuses to comment on anything to do with homosexuality … and then exits the room promptly. It recalls Tim Hardaway’s recent comments about gay people and is a stark reminder that bigotry against homosexuals thrives in many aspects of black (and, frankly, all) culture.
Beyond Beats and Rhymes airs again late Saturday/early Sunday, at 4 a.m. on the local CET PBS channel, and again Sunday night at midnight. It’s well worth staying up late for (set your Tivo or VCR, if you must). I also highly recommend the PBS Web site set up for the film, which features some great resources. Check it out here.

Meanwhile, VH1 is presenting Bling’d: Blood, Diamonds and Hip Hop tonight at 8 p.m. The previews look pretty intriguing, as the film examines the despicable diamond trade in West Africa and its relationship to many Hip Hop and Rap artists’ love affair with the jewels. Vh1 was done a surprisingly good job with its specials on Hip Hop (the annual Hip Hop Honors awards show is always entertaining, while last year’s mini-series And You Don’t Stop — which still airs on VH1 Classic occasionally — is a great historical overview of Hip Hop history). Guess they’re feeling some “programming guilt” over their vomit-inducing string of Flavor Flav reality shows.

The Bling’d film follows artists Paul Wall, Raekwon (of Wu Tang Clan) and Reggaeton performer Tego Calderon to Sierra Leone as they learn about the dirty business, which has resulted in war, death and poverty (see the Leo DiCaprio flick, Blood Diamond, for a better explanation). The main focus of the film seems to be to get these artists and others to understand the direct results of their actions. Looks promising. Oh, and along with Kanye West, Jadakiss and Big Daddy Kane, Mr. T is also interviewed. Always must-see TV when T’s on the scene.

I won’t be watching tonight, but thankfully (in this case) VH1 reruns their programming constantly. Leave some comments below if you happen to see it.

— Mike Breen

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