The story of hip hop has been told before – a world created by the likes of DJ Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, the Sugarhill Gang and Run-DMC has had its fair share of ink and moving pictures.
Many of the behind the scenes figures such as Sugar Hill Records founder Sylvia Robinson, Def Jam’s Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons and Death Row founder Suge Knight have also been profiled.
However, the story of some of the true power brokers even further in the shadows has never been told. That is the story of Hip Hop Uncovered, a six-part series for FX that launches tonight, Friday, February 12.
Through the lens of five key people – Big U, Deb Antney, Bimmy, Trick Trick and Haitian Jack – the docuseries tells the story of the genre from the streets up, revealing how it shaped culture over the last 40 years.
Beginning in 1979 with the Sugar Hill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight before highlighting how Grandmaster Flash’s The Message was set against the backdrop of the Reagan era, one that saw the CIA flood the streets with crack, fuelling violence and ravaging communities and leading to mandatory minimum laws that saw many, including a number of the contributors incarcerated.
Hip hop was a way out of this life for many including Eugene “Big U” Henley, who managed artists including Kurupt and later Nipsey Hussle, Antney, who discovered Gucci Mane and Nicki Minaj, James “Bimmy” Antney, a former Def Jam employee who manages his nephew Waka Flocka Flame, Haitian Jack, who works with The Fugees and Christian “Trick Trick” Mathis, who helped artists avoid getting ripped off and worked with the likes of Eminem.
It looks at how the genre was impacted by key deaths of the likes of Tupac Shakur, Notorious B.I.G and Nipsey Hussle and exploded across the world, bringing with it issues around corporate greed as well as the current challenges of social change.
The original idea came from Compton native Jimmy “JimBob” Chris, who with his friend Henley came to The Falcoln and The Winter Soldier exec producer Malcolm Spellman, who also worked on Empire, and director Rashidi Harper. Lightbox, the company behind Whitney and the upcoming Tina Turner documentary, founders Simon Chinn, who produced Searching For Sugar Man, and Jonathan Chinn, a producer of LA92, exec produced alongside Spellman, Harper, Henley, Chris, Douglas Banker and BJ Levin.
Hip Hop Uncovered marks one of the first projects for The 51B, a company set up by Spellman and Harper to develop and produce premium documentaries. The pair, who credit Lightbox with driving the project forward, tell Deadline about the challenges of making the series and what they were looking to achieve.
Spellman admits that the pitch process was tricky and a number of buyers passed on it. “The documentary space has been much whiter than the scripted space. The diversity push that began in scripted years ago, is just starting in documentary. I don’t think it’s a fluke that FX was the one company that we went to and the [non-scripted] execs are the same ones who work on scripted,” he said, adding all of the “untapped” stories is “why we’re here”.
DEADLINE: How did Hip Hop Uncovered come about?
MALCOLM SPELLMAN: JimBob came to us with that idea – it just sounded right. These really are official people in the streets and they would have never talked to me [and Rashidi]. Jimmy is a dude with a solid reputation in the community on the streets of Compton and because he and Big U knew each other on a street level, it allowed us to go to Big U and they finished formulating the idea. If you don’t have Big U, you don’t have any other people in the show so we were able to build the element of trust from Jim to Big U to others you see in the show.
DEADLINE: How did you persuade these people to get involved? They don’t strike me as the kind of people who share their story with strangers.
RASHIDI HARPER: It took some time to get everyone fully comfortable to talk about what they had agreed to talk about. I’m a pretty genuine person, so when I would talk to them, trying to build the relationship, I just told them where I was coming from, which was a place of ‘Let’s get these stories out from our perspective’. I basically told them ‘I’m from where you’re from’, I’m not going play you out. That’s what it boiled down to and even then it’s still a documentary and it still takes time like any relationship.
SPELLMAN (right): It was interesting, it got testy a couple of times because they looked at us like we were ‘Hollywood’ and we knew we wanted to show the human side of these people but they were sure that we were going to portray them only as their worst side of their reputation on the streets. Even once the show got going and Big U invited everyone else in, we had to work very very hard to gain their trust and it took over a year. We were filming for a long time. It wasn’t until people started to see rough cuts that they really opened up to us and let us in.
HARPER: You have to remember, we are telling this story over 40 years of music, which is also 40 years of their lives so a lot of the early stuff was all about their youth and that’s when a lot of the wild stuff happened. In their minds, it sounded like we’re about to stick it to them and only talk about the bad stuff but we told them what we were doing with the human story, them evolving as human beings, the same way that the music evolved over time.
DEADLINE: There’s some really interesting scenes between the main contributors hanging out, playing dice. How well did they know each other?
SPELLMAN: Part of what happens in this world, where hip hop and the streets meet is there’s a connectivity between the people who hold these rappers down, and I mean that in a positive way, the people who keep them out of trouble and also help them with the deal-making perspective. They’ve had to call each other because shit gets real and that’s part of what we touch on. There are very real life and death stories that ended up going well because these people could get on the phone and call each other. That doesn’t mean they all have the same depth of relationship but part of what you learn is that when shit gets tricky and tense, these guys represent all of the headlines you’ve never seen because they were able to put out fires so they have a relationship on that level, whether it’s a loose network or a literal network to help make shit work the right way.
DEADLINE: The story of hip hop has been told before, but you’re looking at it from a new perspective. What were you looking to achieve?
HARPER (left): We always had layers that we wanted to present. The first layer was the stories of the people, the second layer being the story of the music and the third being the story of America and what was going on in America. That’s what we were trying to make sure were consistent through the series because they’re all interconnected. You always hear about hip hop being violent or misogynistic, but if you really look, America is violent and misogynistic, these things don’t exist in a vacuum. For us, it was important to just really put everything in perspective. This music is music that no one ever thought would stick around when it came out, commercially, probably for the first decade or more they kept calling it a fad and it’s here and we’re 40 years later and it’s a global phenomenon. Things can go so far that you forget the roots of it, but it was important for us to go back in this moment in time and remind people where this all came from and why the streets are so pivotal in the music.
SPELLMAN: From the very beginning, we had this thesis that the reason hip hop became preeminent around the world and basically drowned out all other cultures, not just music, which it dominates completely – it is the movement in every single country – is because it remained connected to the streets. We felt if we looked at the music through that lens, it would separate us from every other documentary that’s in this space. We knew that this would give this thing a stickiness and a specialness and the three layers evolve in a completely organic way. The evolution of these human beings mirrors the evolution of the streets and mirrors the evolution of the music in a way that’s poetic. We were pretty aware that this made this thing special.
DEADLINE: Were there any stories that people weren’t willing to share?
SPELLMAN: Every single one of these people could be milked individually for probably two or three movies or television series. There’s stuff that was decidedly left out – Deb’s (left) story, for instance. Look at what we glanced over and if she had decided to go there that would have created a whole separate documentary and it’s the same with each and every one of them. They definitely gave us the good stuff, and we had to pick through and keep it focused on the music and how their lives build into that thesis, but those tangents are a whole other documentary or series.
DEADLINE: Have you thought about telling those stories in other forms? Is there a Hip Hop Uncovered universe?
SPELLMAN: We have ideas.
DEADLINE: You’ve got incredible footage, particularly of the early years. How hard was that to track down?
HARPER: It’s a long time ago and we were fortunate enough to get some personal archive from our contributors. When we were going through the stuff that Big U had, we found gold. We found footage of him playing basketball. If you go to your parent’s house and there’s a box of tapes, he had a bunch of stuff that was remarkable and really helped us. We didn’t know that he had that much gold, we figured everybody would have something, but what we realized, he was the exception. These people didn’t take pictures, it’s not really documented in that way because who’s going to take pictures of things that they don’t want people to really know about?
SPELLMAN: There are two interesting things about the archive; that was one of the major hurdles of trust, there was a point where we told we were not going to get this stuff and we’ve got two amazing Black women on our show – [producer] Gioia [Bearden] and [supervising producer] Oby [M. Okoye] – the wives trusted them more and they were able to cut through and get that stuff for us. The other thing was particularly, with Big U, Rashidi, don’t you feel he kind of knew he was a legend and that’s why he kept all of this stuff? The way he walks into rooms, he’s very aware that he is somebody and I feel the reason we had so much archive on him is his reputation – they all have giant reps – was so big and sprawled not just into the streets, but into community service and I felt like he knew he was destined for this doc and a couple of others. We’ve been around a lot of cats who are certified streets, but he doesn’t repeat any stories, every time you sit with him, there’s a story that’s bigger and crazier than the old one. In the scene, where you hear him going to LA’s county jail which is worse than a prison, the guy standing next to him is a legend and ran prison yards from the Crips perspective so when you hear Big U telling his story, understand it is being stamped by another legend, Joe Rock Head, that we didn’t even have time to go into.
DEADLINE: Rashidi, how did you want this to look?
HARPER: What we were attempting to do was create a situation where it spoke to the people that enjoyed music, music videos and are in the culture, we wanted to have a familiarity in terms of a certain attempt of style and slickness as well as substance, not to make it boring or a regular documentary. We kept talking about innovating in the space, which I’m sure was very pretentious to all of the people we worked with who have been making documentaries for years. We wanted to try to make this feel different. One of the biggest things we did was not to give in to the easy way out of shooting against a black void, we wanted to be in the world when we made the film. All of those things give you information whether you notice or not.
DEADLINE: How much of filming was interrupted by Covid?
HARPER: We shot a lot before the pandemic, but we only got the skeleton of what we were trying to say up through episode four before it hit. Once the guidelines came out, we shot in LA, we went down to Compton. We were out there filming and we knew we were taking some risks, even though we’re all masked up and everything, there were a lot of people, but luckily we were outdoors. At that point, we needed to go to New York, Atlanta and Detroit again, and Malcolm said ‘I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to get on any airplanes’, but I’m such a filmmaker and I have blinders on. We then had to do remote shoots and that was new for us, for me and my DP, he really stepped up in the way that he communicated with every DP in every city that we used to help get what we wanted. When you see the driving shots of Deb in Atlanta, that’s all done remotely. I’m talking to her over the phone while she’s driving.
DEADLINE: Did it change the quality of interviews? Some people have said they’ve found people are more willing to open up.
HARPER: I felt that the interviews that we got with the contributors driving around, they opened up and that was deep enough into the shoot, the trust was there. Deb had gotten a sense of what we were doing and she knew we weren’t going to do anything to make her look silly or crazy, and it worked out and she opened up.
DEADLINE: Malcolm, you’re known for your work in the scripted world and Rashidi, you’ve worked in music videos and commercials. Was this your first documentary?
HARPER: I’ve actually shot a doc before, I was one of the DPs on the Venus and Serena documentary and before that I had been traveling the world with Earth, Wind and Fire working on a documentary that we had never finished so I had some experience. I had also worked with Dr. Dre and Snoop, when they performed at Coachella in 2012, that was something that ended up for Dr. Dre’s personal archive and whether it comes out is a whole another thing. I had played around in the space but not to the extent that we did on this.
SPELLMAN: When we formed the company, I don’t think Rashidi had realized how much work he’d done in the documentary space. The spark for us moving in here, was he was with Dr. Dre and LL Cool J showed up at his studio and hadn’t rapped in a long time and Rashidi got it all on camera. There was something visceral about it and it was huge, it felt authentic. With my storytelling sensibilities, if we could combine that we had a very acute awareness that it would be creative and documentaries were really starting to rise as the hottest form of storytelling. The deck that we put together, with the help of Lightbox, who were instrumental, combined the idea of narrative story and character arc, the shit that I bring from scripted, I was able to look at the real life people through that lens and Rashidi, who has also worked in music videos and film, we were able to have a creative conversation that added something big before we ever set out. That’s something that we wanted to carry forward with all of our other projects. Documentaries that are 100% authentic, with no fudging on them, but the execution of them is just really classic, mythical storytelling.