There have been a lot of hip hop documentaries over the years but few have been as extensive and with such a variety of interviewees as The Tanning Of America: One Nation Under Hip-Hop. Shown in four hourlong parts on VH1 earlier this year, the docu from former music industry exec and marketing man Steve Stoute is truly a wide ranging and deep cuts examination of a culture and how a genre that originated in the Bronx in the 70s has come to influence American life more than musically. A producer on 2013’s Ron Howard-helmed docu Made In America, Stoute reached into his extensive network for Tanning to get not just the director plus Dr. Dre, Russell Simmons, Mariah Carey, Jimmy Iovine, Rick Rubin, Brian Grazer, Fab 5 Freddy and Norman Lear among others on camera. Hosted by Stoute and based on his 2011 book of the same name, the Billy Corben directed docu with narration by Scandal’s Kerry Washington mixed in the high profile interviews with comprehensive footage tracking the evolution of hip hop. An evolution that brought down racial barriers in America and helped elect a President, says the EP.
DEADLINE: Steve, you’re a busy guy. Why add a documentary series to the workload? And not just a documentary but a 4-hour, 4-part documentary.
STEVE STOUTE: Well, you know, Dominic, what happened was, when I wrote the book, I was inspired by the response that I’ve gotten from a lot of my peers in the recording industry. They really wanted to see the book be able to reach more people, and felt like a documentary was the best way to do it. So, as a result of that, I decided to go, you know, take them up on it and see how many of them would come out in support.
DEADLINE: A lot of them did, from different eras but how did you connect with VH1 and their Rock Docs spot?
STOUTE: In the beginning, I first spoke to the History Channel. To be honest, they didn’t understand the concept. They didn’t understand the significance of it all. Then, when I went to VH1, they got it immediately. I mean, like, lightning-quick, they got it, and they understood it. And they were, you know, we were waiting for you. We’ve been waiting for this doc, because there’s been a lot of documentaries about hip hop, and hip hop culture, but none of them that were deep and intense around the value that it played in shifting and changing global culture.
DEADLINE: Was there more to closing the deal than their enthusiasm?
STOUTE: From my relationships with the record business, I knew I was going to get the licenses for the songs, but licensing for the footage was going to be owned by, you know, a Viacom of the world, a media company. So, I figured the best media company to do a partnership with was the one that was strategic, that had the footage I needed. And that informed the Viacom decision and going with VH1.
DEADLINE: So with that, you went double duty and hosted Tanning as well?
STOUTE: You know, this thing has to be told accurately. When you’re dealing with something so sensitive, which is about culture, and its effect on a generation, you don’t want any stones not to be turned over. I felt like it was going to be a lot of heavy lifting for me, and I had to find the comfort and discomfort to do it. But it was important to get the facts right and I felt I could do that from a dual position.
I didn’t want this whole thing to go by, Dominic, so this generation that we were all part of. It gets looked at as bling and hip hop, but it doesn’t get looked at as a contribution to society, and what hip hop has done to change the world. I have said, and I don’t take this back, and that hip hop culture has done more for race relations in American than anything since Martin Luther King. And I really believe that.
Also, unlike the book, with a documentary, I got a chance to show much more texture and color. Film gives you get a chance to focus on much more individuals who are pivotal in changing the landscape of American culture.
DEADLINE: One of the individuals you focused on, that might surprise many, is Norman Lear.
STOUTE: Well, what I feel about Norman Lear is because he’s one of the few guys put what was happening in society and had the courage to put it on screen. A lot of writers and a lot of producers at that time back in the seventies, and still to this day, put a very polite version of it on screen. They don’t put the truth of it. They put a user-friendly version of it. What Norman did was he said, “You know what? I’m going to tell the truth. I’m going to do it in a crafty storytelling way, and I’m going to use comedy to lighten it, but I’m going to tell, but it’s not going to change the truth. I’m going to use comedy so that people can digest it, but I’m going to tell the truth.”
A lot of people don’t connect the dots. They don’t even realize that there’s a connection between Norman Lear and the aspirational African-American characters that he created, and showed. He was holding a mirror up to society. From gentrification and All In The Family to that guy who leaves that neighborhood from the gentrified Queens, and ends up becoming an entrepreneur. And George Jefferson’s an African-American entrepreneur living in a high-rise on Park Avenue.
DEADLINE: It makes Norman Lear sound like one of the godfathers of hip hop.
STOUTE: It makes Norman Lear not one of the godfathers of hip hop, but it makes Norman Lear’s message resonate highly with hip hop culture. That Norman Lear’s honesty and truth resonated very strongly with hip hop culture. When you look at the interviews In Tanning and you ask guys what they watched when they were growing up, whether it be Dr. Dre or Rick Rubin or whoever it was, what they watched, they all said the same television shows. They named a bunch of Blaxploitation movies, and then they went right into The Jeffersons, Good Times, All in the Family. All Norman Lear shows.
DEADLINE: Were you worried that the more rock-oriented crowd on VH1 and wider wouldn’t relate to Tanning?
STOUTE: No, I just hoped that people didn’t look at this and see Tanning of America and think that it’s a title, or it’s about hip hop, and it is not for them. I hope that they get a chance to look beyond the title, and get deeper, and say that this is an analysis on culture and how music has played a role in culture, and therefore affected politics, affected purchase decisions, affected consumption. What I want to do is basically tell our generation’s story about how music and culture helped affect a generation, and a generation that’s so profound, that it went on to elect the first African-American president.
DEADLINE: With that said, what’s next for Steve Stoute?
STOUTE: I’m not sure if the next thing I want to do is going to be in film or not. But I will say to you that Tanning has opened up a lot of opportunities. Right now I’m in discussions with the Lyndon B. Johnson family about making a documentary on President Johnson and his role in Civil Rights, which is exciting.