The 6-part docuseries Hip Hop Uncovered explores the history of rap and hip hop, told through the stories of five people that worked behind the scenes to manage, direct and protect rap artists of all talent levels, from different areas of the country. The docuseries, directed by Rashidi Natara Harper, gets the life histories and in-depth stories from some high-powered “kingmakers”, without whom hip hop would have never become the big business it is now.
Opening Shot: TI, sitting in what looks like a bar, says, “Bless you guys for trying to explain the intricacies of this thing of ours, because for us it was always something that was on a need to know basis. So forgive me if I dare not share all of our trade secrets.”
The Gist: Eugene Henley, known as “Big U”, is one of the show’s executive producers, and we find out about his upbringing in South Central Los Angeles, and how he became an intimidating force in the drug trade there, as he used his size to his advantage. From Jamaica, Queens, Debra “Deb” Antney and James “Bimmy” Antney grew up in a massive family, and a small house where they often slept 4 to a bed with siblings, cousins, and other people passing through. As the oldest, Deb — now CEO of Atlanta-based Mizay Entertainment — had to help her mother raise the rest of her siblings after her father left, strengthening a resolve that has helped her in the hip hop world.
Christian Mathis, known as “Trick Trick”, grew up in Detroit right as the city got knocked down by the decline of manufacturing and white flight. Of course, gangs and drugs filled in the gaps, especially for young people who felt that was the only way to get out of poverty. Finally, Jacques Agnant, known as “Haitian Jack”, immigrated to Brooklyn from Haiti, and was constantly bullied for his size and lack of English. He ran with the Jamaican crowd that immigrated to New York soon after the Haitians; it was with them that he learned that guns were just as much currency as drugs and cash.
Their experiences are set against the beginnings of hip hop in the 1970s, when The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” opened up a new avenue of music for all of the five people profiled. In examining these lives against the history of hip hop, Harper talks to a who’s who of the genre, from TI to Snoop Dogg, from Ice-T to Dr. Dre.
What Shows Will It Remind You Of? Hip Hop Uncovered has the feeling of other hip hop docuseries, like Wu-Tang: Of Mics And Men and Hip Hop: The Songs That Shook America. But the approach it takes is completely its own.
Our Take: It wasn’t that long ago that docuseries on hip hop were hard to find. Now, there have been enough of them to know the basic beats of the genre’s history. Hip Hop Uncovered goes over those beats. But by focusing in on these five power brokers, Harper is able to tell the story of hip hop from the perspective of people that not only are not well known outside of the music business, but the people who were the real drivers — and protectors — of the artists that would end up making the genre so huge.
Via the multiple interviews, with both the principal contributors plus hip hop royalty, Harper examines all the factors that made hip hop popular, and how it intertwined with gang and drug culture. The five principal contributors all grew up in extreme poverty, with no hope of getting out, unless it was via the route of dealing drugs, which also meant being gangsters. But as Ice-T explains, it’s also a cycle; the money becomes so tempting that it’s hard to get out of that culture even if you wanted to.
But what we’re hoping to see in the rest of the series is the idea that music was the key to get out of that cycle, and how these five power players helped shape the industry via their connections, influence and ability to stamp out any fires that came up. They were absolutely necessary, because as multiple interviewees made clear, when an artist got in trouble, the police were not an option.
Sex and Skin: None.
Parting Shot: Big U: “Every word we heard in rap became personal to us. We was leaning on it.” Deb: “Hip hop became a way out.”
Sleeper Star: All five of these power brokers have equal billing, so finding a sleeper star is difficult.
Most Pilot-y Line: None we could find.
Our Call: STREAM IT. Hip Hop Uncovered has found a great angle to make the history of hip hop fresh again. It doesn’t hurt that the filmmakers get perspectives from so many big names about the history of the genre and the power brokers who made it work behind the scenes.
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, RollingStone.com, VanityFair.com, Fast Company and elsewhere.