Hip hop is a multi-billion-dollar musical movement that is now at the center of mainstream culture.
It’s grown into something bigger than anyone who attended Cindy Campbell’s 1973 end of summer party at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the West Bronx – widely considered ground zero for hip hop – could ever have expected. That night, Campbell’s 16-year-old brother Clive, otherwise known as DJ Kool Herc, was behind the decks and is credited with kicking off the genre.
Now, Showtime is celebrating nearly 50 years of hip hop with a three-year project that will bring together numerous films, documentaries, television series, podcasts and digital projects exploring the history, the people and the music.
It is a partnership between the ViacomCBS network and Nas-backed film, TV and music company Mass Appeal.
The project is being shepherded on the Showtime side by EVP, Non-Fiction Programming Vinnie Malhotra, who grew up listening to artists like Tribe Called Quest.
“Can you believe it’s been 50 years since the birth of hip hop?,” he asks Deadline. “A lot of music storytelling in the world of documentary has mostly been centered around one genre of music – everyone delving deep into classic rock. It’s not to say that I don’t have an appreciation for classic rock but I felt that genre and that time in music history has been very well documented, to the point that they started to feel similar. Hip hop wasn’t being explored with the same veracity.”
Malhotra partnered with Mass Appeal and its Chief Creative Officer Sacha Jenkins, who had previously created Showtime doc series Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men and worked with him on various other projects.
“Hip hop is turning 50 in 2023 and people don’t realize how broad the influence of the culture is, so we wanted to create something leading up to it and beyond that gives people a baseline education and also helps people understand how prominent and dominant it is in our everyday lives,” Jenkins tells Deadline.
Jenkins, who grew up playing in hardcore bands, says that hip hop is the new classic rock. “If you’re an average white American kid in the 1970s, maybe Led Zeppelin was the staple of your musical diet but if you are a 23 white American [now], DMX might have been the first cassette your mom bought for you. It’s so mainstream in many ways but… hip hop in documentaries was way behind rock n roll for years. When you think about how limitless it is in terms of where hip hop gets inspiration, you can only imagine how limitless the galaxy of hip hop is when talking about the films and television projects that you can make.”
The first project in the partnership is You’re Watching Video Music Box, which launches tonight, December 3 at 8pm. The film tells the story of the longest-running music video show in the world, which introduced viewers to artists like Jay Z, LL Cool J, Nicki Minaj and Nas long before they were stars.
It marks the directorial debut of the latter – Nasir “Nas” Jones – and follows creator Ralph McDaniels, who opened up his archive of videos, most of them for a defunct local New York TV station, to help tell the story of the early days of hip hop.
Jenkins calls the show, which started in 1983, “foundational” to the genre. “I was your average New York City latchkey kid before I became a journalist and a filmmaker, so I too would run home every day after school. Ralph McDaniels and Video Music Box was everything for us. If the sixth grader in me was told by the 50-year-old me that one day I would have a hand in making a film about Ralph McDaniel, I would not believe it. He was for many of us, was the first celebrity that we ever met or saw.”
McDaniel, who is the process of transferring his archives, shares this journey with Nas, who himself is seen at the start of the film rapping with The Notorious B.I.G. “Nas’ career starts with Video Music Box, so for him to direct this film, it’s a beautiful full circle moment for him. You can see the look of wonder on Nas’ face when Ralph would just pop in three quarter tapes, they’re like candy and magic, these things that are forgotten. It’s an amazing feeling to be able to go through this footage.”
Ricky Powell: The Individualist, which premieres on December 10, tells the story of New York City photographer Ricky Powell, who rose to fame taking pictures of the Beastie Boys, Run DMC and LL Cool J as well as Madonna and an infamous shot of Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Directed by Josh Swade (One & Done) and produced by Swade Films and Time Studios, the film looks at the highs and lows of The Rickster, who was namechecked in the Beasties Car Thief from their Paul’s Boutique record. Jenkins says that Powell was “part of the milieu” of hip hop.
The last film to air this year is Rolling Like Thunder, which looks at the secret underground world and history of freight train and graffiti culture, highlighting the artists, competitive graffiti crews and battles with the institution. Airing on December 17, the film is directed by Roger Gastman (Infamy) and produced by Mass Appeal.
Malhotra says that the whole project will tell the origin story, the stories of those around the culture as well as tales of particular artists, but it’s not designed to go through artist-by-artist.
“The idea was let’s let others go and make the $20M Kanye West project. For us, hip hop was so much deeper than that. How do we tell the stories about the icons in the world of hip hop, not just the artists, but everyone around them. Ricky [Powell] and Ralph McDaniels are great examples of people that defined the culture for us. We’re going to do profiles but we’re also going to get in and tell the origin story. That’s where we want to go over the next three years, it’s about the producers, the DJs, the artists, the photographers, even in some cases about the more infamous.”
Other projects include Hits from the Bong, featuring Cypress Hill and Push It, about the women of hip hop. Malhotra tells Deadline that Nas is also set to direct a project about Supreme Team, there is a project about the rise of the DJ, and there is an animated short in the works about DJ Kool Herc’s parties as well as other podcasts and digital series. Jenkins adds that the Mass Appeal is also curating existing documentaries as part of the initiative including legendary graffiti documentary Style Wars, and scripted features Charlie Ahearn’s Wild Style and Stan Lathan’s Beat Street.
Malhotra says that given this is a three-year project, there are still plenty of opportunities.
“There’s a lot of content and we didn’t want to jam it all in one year, that would be intense and unfair to the stories. We wanted to give them some breathing room and space them out over three years, all leading up to a really big event in the opening of the Hip Hop Museum in the South Bronx,” he says. “We wanted it to grow organically over the next three years, as stories emerge as more detailed, nuanced stories emerge, there will be a mix of very big tentpole stories and then some of the more nuanced stories. We’re going to leave ourselves a little bit of breathing room to craft that but at the same time we already have in production a good pipeline of good content.”
Jenkins adds that there will be more contemporary stories as well and is still in development on a number of projects that will be relatable to a new generation of hip hop fans, for those that “Run DMC is like Chuck Berry”. He says it will also not be a hagiography of the genre.
“It all starts with journalism and balance, Mass Appeal and I have no interest in making anything that is just straight pom poms and cheerleaders. People in hip hop demand the truth and honesty. There’s always going to be balance [in our projects]. People appreciate it’s always fair, even if it’s something that makes an artist uncomfortable, they can’t say we weren’t fair. We’re of it. We want to celebrate it and feel proud of it but if you can’t criticize yourself and look at yourself in the mirror and be honest, who can? For so many years, outsiders have made these projects and we feel very privileged to have the position and power to be able to tell these stories in the best possible way. No one is going to get it totally right but when you have people that are of it, it’s going to be the best possible representation it can be and we pride ourselves on it,” he says.
Malhotra agrees, “We’re not just going to show you the rose-colored glasses version of these artists that we love, part of telling the story of hip hop is not just telling the triumphs but the pains and the struggles and it eventually takes us to a contemporary place.”