Updated: Jun 5, 2020
Sometimes, you pick up a pen to begin writing your next song and run into an absolute stalemate. Inspiration can strike by listening to your favorite artists, but a documentary provides something so much more personal to the artist in question. Learning about the history of rap and the creative process behind some of the best albums to date can spark an initiative in you to be the best possible version of yourself.
Luckily, there is no shortage in documentaries about hip-hop’s upbringing, and depending on the artist you look up to the most, you’re likely to find something to watch that details their life and career. In this post, I mention 12 of the greatest documentaries, and that’s only scratching the surface. So when you’re feeling stuck, read this post, research for more, and take a look at some of the greatest inspirational hip-hop documentaries.
1. Style Wars (1983)
Directed by: Tony Silver
Tackling the bustling streets of New York City, Style Wars offered a look into not only MCs and DJs, but graffiti artists as well, truly capturing the culture of what hip-hop was derived from. Following great success on PBS and at film festivals, it won the Grand Jury Prize for a documentary at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah. This documentary was revolutionary in that it explained graffiti as an art form rather than an act of vandalism, and it showed the local government try to find ways to stop it.
When the age of media took off in the 2000’s, the owners of Style Wars tried to recover the documentary and release it as a DVD, but the price was outrageous due to water damage that had occurred to the original negative. In 2011, fans, actors, and musicians gathered together to raise the money needed to restore the film. It is now available for purchase on Blu-ray here.
2. Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme (2000)
Directed by: Kevin Fitzgerald
This documentary features a smorgasbord of artists such as The Roots, Pharoahe Monch, and Mos Def. Taking seven years to complete, it features the history of freestyling as well as commentary and performance tapes showing the art form in action. It shows how freestyling started as spoken-word poetry from the likes of preachers and jazz musicians, and transitioned into what we know it as today.
At the time of release, this film grossed more than $12,000 in its first two weeks and went on to receive awards from Woodstock Film Festival, Los Angeles Independent Film Festival, Urbanworld Film Festival, and more. It is available for purchase on DVD here.
3. Nas: Time is Illmatic (2014)
Directed by: One9
Nas’s debut album Illmatic is considered a legendary piece of work by critics and fans alike, even more than 20 years after its release. On the album’s 20th anniversary, this documentary was released, detailing Nas’s creative process behind what is now considered to be one of the most lyrical pieces to ever liberate in rap’s history. Nas and members of his family including his brother and father are interviewed in the documentary as well as other east coast rap figures.
Discussing his life growing up, who influenced him, and the obstacles he had to conquer to succeed, Nas offers a view of Illmatic from his own perspective. After debuting at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2014, this documentary received a 100 percent rating from Rotten Tomatoes. You can buy it on DVD here.
4. Welcome to Death Row (2001)
Directed by: S. Leigh Savidge and Jeff Scheftel
If you’re a fan of rap, chances are you’re familiar with Death Row Records and ever-controversial Suge Knight. This documentary details the rise, fall, and some key moments that shaped the label’s history, but it also focuses on some of the best talent rap has ever seen: Tupac, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and more. Focusing on corruption in the industry, it shows some of the shady things Knight did during the label’s reign, such as hiring criminals and practicing less-than-legal business deals.
Currently, Suge Knight is serving 28 years in prison for killing one man and severely injuring another when running over them in a parking lot in California. It was ruled that Knight did this intentionally after being outraged over his depiction in 2015’s Straight Outta Compton. A mess in his heyday and still a mess today, those interested can learn about him and the label in Welcome to Death Row.
5. The Defiant Ones (2017)
Directed by: Allen Hughes
Four HBO episodes combined to make an excellent documentary, The Defiant Ones talks about rap moguls Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine. Interviews include not only the two of them, but also Eminem, Nas, Kendrick Lamar, Snoop Dogg, and a plethora of other stars who have been involved in the pair’s career at some point or another. This documentary talks about NWA’s success, Interscope Records, and finding Eminem. It also shows a bit about the two’s headphone company, Beats Electronics, and selling it for $3 billion to Apple.
Although it aired in July of 2017 on HBO, those interested in watching it don’t have to miss out. If you’re outside of the United States or Canada, you can simply watch it on Netflix. If you’re in one of the aforementioned countries, you can buy it here.
6. Tupac: Resurrection (2003)
Directed by: Lauren Lazin
This documentary is unique as it features Tupac’s own voice, telling the story from his own words years after his death. It has earned more than 7 million dollars since release, making it the most successful hip-hop documentary of all time. Director Lauren Lazin does a remarkable job piecing together recordings and unseen footage to make this documentary seem personal, and it works. It chronicles Tupac’s life, his death, and his legacy he’s left behind.
Its soundtrack is a slew of previously released songs along with never-before-heard verses that were puzzled together to make new tracks. The executive producer of this album is none other than Afeni Shakur, his mom. It features collaborations from Eminem, Outlawz, and even his enemy, The Notorious B.I.G. If you’re interested in the movie, you can buy it here.
7. Beef (2003)
Directed by: Peter Spirer
Feuds in rap are not an anomaly, and this documentary brings into light some of the most notable rivalries that took place up until its release. Tupac and The Notorious B.I.G., Dr. Dre and Eazy-E, and Jay-Z and Nas are just a handful of the beefs accounted for in this film. If you’re not interested in the drama, it is worth watching just for the interviews and never-before-seen performances alone.
In the coming years, this documentary would be continued into two more movies and a TV series on BET. These are useful to watch if you’re interesting in the beef between 50 Cent and The Game or LL Cool J and Canibus. This documentary is available on DVD, and if you’re interested in the impressive soundtrack, you can find that here.
8. Beats, Rhymes & Life (2011)
Directed by: Michael Rapaport
When A Tribe Called Quest reunited for a tour almost a decade after their last album, director Michael Rapaport came along to document every moment. Having broken up in 1998 due to some differences in opinion between Q-Tip and Phife Dawg, this documentary showed that tensions were still high, and there were still a lot of unspoken issues holding them back from reaching their full potential.
Long after the release of the documentary, the group reformed to release their final album We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service. Unfortunately, Phife Dawg died during the creation of this album, and it was finished without him. The amazing journey of the group can be seen in Blu-ray form by purchasing the movie here.
9. Fade to Black (2004)
Directed by: Patrick Paulson and Michael John Warren
Meant to be Jay-Z’s final performance before retiring, this film accentuates the New York rapper’s live concert at Madison Square Garden. The name, although seemingly a nod to the Rolling Stone hit Fade to Black, is in reference to Jay-Z’s The Black Album. Not only does the documentary give viewers a backstage look at the MSG performance, but it also gives a perception into the creation of The Black Album.
As time would tell, Jay-Z did not retire for long. In 2006, he released Kingdom Come, and even in his retirement, he stayed busy as he became an owner of the New Jersey Nets and CEO of Def Jam Recordings. Today, he is no longer Def Jam’s leader, and he sold the New Jersey Nets, now called the Brooklyn Nets, in 2013. Still, the documentary about his almost retirement is interesting to watch, and you can buy it here.
10. And You Don’t Stop: 30 Years of Hip-Hop (2004)
Directed by: Richard Lowe and Dana Heinz Perry
Released as a five part series on VH1, this documentary covers everything from rap’s beginning to its global success. It has interviews from the Beastie Boys, Run-DMC, Eminem, and Pharrell Williams. This documentary is aptly named after lyrics from Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five’s The Message, which is a monumental record that is largely responsible for propelling rap to its mainstream status.
This documentary basically covers everything, from New York City rap all the way to the west coast. Because it is so in-depth, it lasts a total of five hours. Those interested in watching it can view it piece by piece on YouTube.
11. Dave Chappelle’s Block Party (2005)
Directed by: Michel Gondry
When comedian Dave Chappelle threw a block party in Brooklyn, New York City, cameras were sure to capture it. The party wasn’t a traditional backyard shindig, however, featuring performances from Kanye West, Mos Def, The Roots, and more. The comedian himself performed stand up acts, and a marching band from Central State University made an appearance as well.
The documentary premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and grossed $12.1 million. It was filmed just before Chappelle decided to step away from his show on Comedy Central. If you’re interested in watching the rap show mixed with a little bit of comedy, you can buy it here.
12. Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats & Rhymes (2006)
Directed by: Byron Hurt
This essential piece of work focuses on the dark side of the rap industry, such as homophobia, sexism, and violence. Weighing in on these issues are artists such as Talib Kweli, Busta Rhymes, Jadakiss, and Fat Joe. One of the major points of the documentary occurs at BET Spring Fling in Daytona when men are inappropriately touching women and blaming it on the way they dress. The director, Byron Hurt, felt hypocritical by supporting both social issues and the rap genre, which caused him to make this documentary.
Premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, this documentary won Best Documentary at the San Francisco Black Film Festival as well as the Audience Award at the Roxbury Film Festival. It is popular today because it portrays a message that is very important when talking about the early hip-hop community.
Inspiration can strike from anywhere, especially for writers. Movies and documentaries about rap show what some of the most successful musicians went through to get where they are today, which can spark a passion in up-and-comers who want to continue to build on its legacy. If one of these inspirational hip-hop documentaries helped you pick up your pen, please let me know. Also, if another one I didn’t mention brought you inspiration, let me know in the comments! I could always use a little spark of creativity, and a push that what I’m doing is a part of something bigger.
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