Hip hop has been the subject of numerous films, both fiction and nonfiction, but there’s never been a documentary series quite like FX’s Hip Hop Uncovered. It takes an innovative approach to telling how the art form emerged and went on to become the dominant genre of music.
“It was important to…hit it from an angle that felt fresh and like something that no one had really seen before or taken the time to really think about,” director and executive producer Rashidi Natara Harper explained during Deadline’s Contenders Television: Documentary + Unscripted awards-season event. “The biggest thing we wanted to communicate was, ‘You guys think you know this music but you literally have no idea.’ ”
The six-part series doesn’t ignore the famous names behind hip hop’s success, like Dr. Dre, Suge Knight and Russell Simmons, but its primary focus is on lesser-known but critically important figures who helped develop artists, set standards for integrity and authenticity for the genre and came up with financing and muscle as needed to launch labels and protect performers. Among the series’ stars are Eugene “Big U” Henley; brother and sister Deb Antney and James “Bimmy” Antney; Christian Mathis (aka Trick Trick); and Jacques Agnant, known as “Haitian Jack.”
“Many, many people don’t know who they are and have never heard of them, yet they’re each connected to artists that the whole world has heard about,” Harper said. “That’s fascinating, from my viewpoint.”
Hip Hop Uncovered makes it clear the music emerged as social protest and commentary, and reflected the harsh realities of the environment in which it was made.
“It comes from hunger, it comes from starving, it comes from pain,” as one industry veteran says in Hip Hop Uncovered. Adds executive producer Malcolm Spellman, “Hip hop music is the music of the streets.”
Executive producer Jonathan Chinn, an Oscar nominee and Emmy winner, says it was the chance to work with Spellman and Harper that drew him to the project.
“Their perspective and point of view and what they wanted to accomplish creatively was incredibly exciting to me,” Chinn said. “There was something about the way that they were talking about hip hop which, for a white man who didn’t grow up on hip hop, was really eye-opening to me. … When they mentioned these characters [Big U, Trick Trick, et al], that just struck me as a really unique and fresh way to look at something that has got a lot of airplay, but not at this level.”
Episode 6 of the series examines hip hop at a crossroads—hugely popular, but in danger of losing the connection to its roots and willingness to confront issues facing Black America.
“Right now, it’s in an existential state..hip hop has become a commodity, it has been so commodified that it almost is more of a product than an art form sometimes,” Spellman said. “If you’re making a product for white people, is it best to be talking about voting rights being rolled back to pre-civil rights? No, you want to say sh*t that excites white kids.”
Check out the panel video above.