JON CARAMANICA From “Empire” to ”Atlanta” to “The Get Down,” hip-hop has been the subject of some of the most inventive television of the last few years. Documentaries have been preserving the music through a historical lens, but it’s also being celebrated — and reimagined — through an artistic one.
Credit Quantrell Colbert/Summit and Codeblack Films
SALAMISHAH TILLET Yes, I thought about that trend in June when BET premiered “Tales,” Irv (Gotti) Lorenzo’s series of “song stories.” Each episode is inspired by lyrics from hip-hop songs, like Notorious B.I.G.’s “I Got a Story to Tell.” After the first episode, I realized that hip-hop has been so influential in American culture that it made sense for it to shape the actual format of a television show too. Especially now, as TV networks are trying to appeal to a younger, more diverse audience.
QUESTLOVE I’m so jealous of “Tales,” at least in the concept. Back on “Chappelle’s Show,” one of the ideas we had that never quite panned out was similar in conception. Dave [Chappelle] wanted to make narrative stories out of hip-hop lyrics that, on their face, are just ridiculous. We developed one, based on Nas’s “If I Ruled the World,” where we took the line “I’d open every cell in Attica, send ‘em to Africa,” and built off that. The idea was that 2,000 prisoners in orange jumpsuits were getting off an airplane, and Nelson Mandela was standing there, saying, “What the hell?”
CARAMANICA Not surprising that Chappelle was a decade before anyone else on that — I would have loved to see that through his lens. This conversation is reminding me of an annotation of Biggie Smalls lyrics that ran in Vibe magazine back in 1998. Michael Eric Dyson [now a professor at Georgetown University] likened them to “The Epic of Gilgamesh” and “The Godfather,” worthy of consideration alongside those great works of art. Back then, those were still newish, bold contentions.
TILLET Sometimes it’s easy to forget that the early creators of hip-hop had to prove over and over again that they were creating “music” and not so-called “noise.” But the recent crop of films, like “Straight Outta Compton” and “All Eyez on Me,” nostalgically remind us of those hard-fought battles and prove once again that hip-hop’s original naysayers and censors were dead wrong.
QUESTLOVE For me, I look at music within a 25-year cycle, a way of giving people in their thirties a last go-round of traveling through their childhood memories before they are required to be wise older statesmen and stateswomen. Hip-hop has reached that moment in the life cycle.
TILLET So, does this mean hip-hop is now in middle age? It is clearly the music of grown folks on television — the Roots are the house band on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” Biggie’s “Hypnotize” is selling Oreo Thins of all things, and “Empire” is a hit show. But what are the conditions that make hip-hop’s rising profile on TV possible? There are nearly 500 scripted shows a year now. One way of catering to niche audiences is to hire the kind of showrunners who haven’t been tapped before. In many cases, this means that those of us who grew up loving hip-hop are now both the creators and the consumers of these stories.
Credit G L Askew II, via HBO
QUESTLOVE And the most interesting projects are the ones that have a sense of the history, and sometimes actually dramatize those links. The BET mini-series about New Edition was successful because it understood that history — it staged New Edition’s inspirations and influences as part of the story. All of these kids watching it and hearing “Holding On” came to see, for instance, that Jeffrey Osborne isn’t just the “On the Wings of Love” guy, but that he was in L.T.D., a funk and soul band whose work was one of the main inspirations for New Edition.
CARAMANICA The history of popular music in this country is in lock step with the rest of the country’s history, from the slavery era until now. That’s why it’s so crucial to tell these stories faithfully and from these perspectives. “Straight Outta Compton” is a biopic, but also functions as cultural and political history. “The Get Down” is magical realism, but doubles as a lens onto how the government-abetted devastation of New York City created the space for raw cultural innovation. These aren’t just stories about sounds — they’re documents, biographical or fictional, of our struggles as a nation.
TILLET That recent trio of films about West Coast hip-hop remind us of the underbelly of American history, showing us how police brutality against African Americans in the ’80s and early ’90s — like Rodney King’s beating by the L.A.P.D. — birthed N.W.A’s rage and enabled Tupac’s reign. In a way, the recent back-to-back appearance of these films validates these stories and underscores that their version of racial violence, despite the conservative backlash at the time (and today!), was the truth. These movies carry a political urgency that speaks volumes in our era of Black Lives Matter and of NFL players kneeling during the national anthem.
Credit David Lee/Netflix
QUESTLOVE Now that I think about it, though, it’s also important to note that there’s an element that’s generally missing from this latest crop of films. That’s the drug and violence culture. Crack and guns were central to those movies of the ’90s, like “Juice” and “Menace II Society.” Now, hip-hop movies don’t depict them as much, maybe because the drugs of choice in our moment, like weed, are either accepted as recreational or are legal pharmaceuticals like opioids that are affecting white kids as much as black kids. That’s content rather than style, but it’s another example of how the idea of hip-hop culture has shifted over the years.
CARAMANICA After the 90s — when we had “In Living Color,” “New Jack City,” “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” “Boyz N the Hood” and more — Hollywood’s appetite for black film and TV seemed to dry up. It spoke of a lack of imagination about the sorts of hip-hop-informed films and shows that might be made. “Dope,” which came out a couple of years ago, felt like a sibling to the films you’re talking about, but in a vastly different framework.
QUESTLOVE I really like “Dope,” which is an interesting movie to me, a bridge between the hard-core hip-hop movies of the ’90s and the more aware and inclusive millennial attitude that we have now. There’s more of an openness to sexual orientation, to educational possibilities and to different kinds of diversity.
Anyway, when you look back at all those events from the early 90s, whether the Los Angeles riots or the heyday of “Yo! MTV Raps,” you see a period where hip-hop became the vehicle for rebellion. Back then hip-hop wasn’t just selling like crazy, it was starting to represent the challenge to the established order that rock ‘n’ roll had represented for decades. When Nirvana topped the charts with “Nevermind,” it marked a sea change in American pop music. But, just before Nirvana, you have N.W.A’s “Efil4zaggin,” which was the first so-called hard-core hip-hop album to top the charts. Then you get Ice Cube’s “The Predator.” You have Cypress Hill’s “Black Sunday.” You have Snoop Dogg’s “Doggystyle.” So partly that’s why the nostalgia is coming in hot and heavy in the TV and film world now. That period of hip-hop is still so connected to ideas of challenging power and speaking out. It’s an alternative history.
TILLET “History gets told by the winners,” laments the R&B singer Michel’le in her Lifetime biopic “Surviving Compton,” which came out last year. As the film’s narrator, she is talking about her erasure from the rise of N.W.A in “Straight Outta Compton,” and by extension the absence of other black women from these stories. The movie depicts domestic abuse that the singer has alleged she experienced living with Dr. Dre and also focuses on the importance of her R&B vocal contributions to Dre’s early sound and success. (Dr. Dre has denied abusing Michel’le.) In many ways, the biopic is a corrective to “Straight Outta Compton” and “The Defiant Ones”; both link hip-hop’s maturity as a cultural phenomenon to the story of Dr. Dre coming into his manhood. “Surviving Compton” highlights the sexist challenges that African-American women endured as early producers, singers, rappers, D.J.s or just plain old fans of hip-hop.
QUESTLOVE Here, I want to make a case for “The Breaks,” which started as a TV movie and became a series on VH1 before moving to BET. “The Breaks” is about early ’90s hip-hop, and it’s well-crafted. The writing is great, and the minor details are correct. They get the drum machines right. They get the microphones right. It also helps that it was inspired by “The Big Payback,” a book written by one of the founding fathers of hip-hop journalism, Dan Charnas, who was writing long-form essays about the hip-hop world back before anyone wanted anything to do with it. He’s already part of the culture, and the show respects and extends that.
Credit Guy D’Alema/FX, via Associated Press
TILLET What I like about “The Breaks” is that its central character, Nikki, is a woman who is not a rapper or a D.J., but is the real genius behind the vision, hustle, sound and style of early ’90s hip-hop . (Like Cookie, who finally gets to be the C.E.O. on “Empire”!) She is a descendant of those pioneering female entrepreneurs and executives, like Sylvia Robinson of Sugar Hill Records, who ensured that hip-hop would live far into the future.
CARAMANICA I’m excited by the promise of what happens when the genre’s influence is even more diffuse — when hip-hop is more than just subject matter, or even a soundtrack, but rather serves as a knowledge base, aesthetic framework and value set that shapes all kinds of creative output. Look at Viceland’s slate of shows: You have a talk show, “Desus & Mero,” that’s high-end hip-hop public-access television; “Huang’s World,” in which the chef Eddie Huang reckons with global culture with a politics informed by hip-hop; and loose-format food programming starring the rapper-gourmand Action Bronson. None of these shows are about hip-hop in any real way, but they carry its values out into the world. Also I don’t want to gloss over how integral hip-hop has been in the late-reality-TV era, thanks to the Mona Scott-Young “Love & Hip Hop” empire and its many imitators.
TILLET And of course, reality shows like “Love & Hip Hop” or “Growing Up Hip Hop” have little to do with the music, but are all about interpersonal drama fueled by hip-hop culture. I’m more drawn to the shows and films that revel in hip-hop’s innovation rather than the ones steeped in nostalgia or melodrama.
Credit Tony Rivetti/ABC
QUESTLOVE To me, FX’s “Atlanta” is what would happen if Woody Allen directed Master P’s “I’m Bout It.” It’s one of the first black surrealist hip-hop comedies.
TILLET Set in the here and now, “Atlanta” and “Insecure” have the privilege of not fighting those early culture wars. They simply assume the reign of hip-hop today and are more experimental with how they incorporate a hip-hop aesthetic into their shows. “Atlanta” is the best analogue to hip-hop I’ve ever seen on TV — the storytelling is playful, defiant, dissonant, magical, tragic, decadent and triumphant, all at once. And what’s so fun about Issa Rae’s protagonist Issa Dee on “Insecure,” is that she isn’t a wannabe M.C., but, rather, rap is the art form she turns to on the fly, when she is talking to herself or her friends.
CARAMANICA To me it’s further confirmation of what we’ve known for years already: Hip-hop is lingua franca. On “The Mayor,” the new ABC sitcom, a rapper runs for mayor — and wins — and I don’t find it even slightly fanciful. Mostly I’m just trying to figure out which real-life rapper is going to make this fictional narrative real.
TILLET “The Mayor” feels like a bit of a throwback to me. Like if the “Fresh Prince” ran for public office. But I love the idea that his mayor’s political obligations are now competing with his artistic ambitions. That is the dilemma actual hip-hop artists, like Jay-Z, are trying to reconcile for themselves.
CARAMANICA I found it striking that Courtney Rose, the titular mayor [played by Brandon Micheal Hall], says right off the bat that he wants to perform with Taylor Swift, a gesture seemingly aiming to please people both red and blue. (Though to be honest, it probably would have the opposite effect.) There’s a genteel political toothlessness that you’d expect from an ABC family sitcom, but maybe there’s something quietly radical about hip-hop inserting itself even into that prosaic format.
TILLET On the flip side of family-friendly TV, I’m assuming USA’s “Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and The Notorious B.I.G.” is a culmination of the network’s move beyond blue skies to a grayer, more serious television lineup. Most important, here’s hoping that the slate of programs coming two decades after Biggie’s murder in 1997, including the Johnny Depp movie “LAbyrinth,” pressure the Los Angeles police to finally solve these murders, give the rappers’ families some closure and get all of us who grew up with their deaths as our generational tragedy closer to the truth than ever before.