Harvey’s Hellhole: Hip-Hop Edition

Welcome to Harvey’s Hellhole, a monthly column devoted to spotlighting the movies that were poorly marketed, mishandled, reshaped, neglected or just straight-up destroyed by Harvey Weinstein during his reign as one of the most powerful studio chiefs in Hollywood. With this month marking the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, let’s take a look at two documentaries Harvey and them released during rap’s late ‘90s-early ‘00s prime.

The relationship between Miramax and hip-hop was always a spotty one. As previously mentioned in this column, movies made by and for African-Americans were few and far between for the indie-film giant. Whenever Miramax did get a film that could attract an urban audience, it usually featured a soundtrack littered with rap tunes that you could also pick up at your nearest Sam Goody. But while some Miramax films have included hip-hop elements, there were only a couple of instances where the movies were about hip-hop.

1997’s Rhyme & Reason is a fascinating crash course. Director Peter Spirer assembles a diverse collection of MCs, producers, DJs and other rap-industry folk on the record to discuss how hip-hop began, how it evolved, and how it was beginning to take over the world. 

Released two years after director/future Paramount CEO Brian Robbins came with his own hip-hop doc, the Russell Simmons-backed The Show, Rhyme is quite the time capsule. It takes you back to that golden, mid-‘90s era when the Wu-Tang Clan was coming out of Staten Island, while A Tribe Called Quest, The Fugees, and Busta Rhymes were all touring together and selling out amphitheaters (I actually caught that show when they played Houston in ‘96), and a New Orleans hustler named Master P was just about to blow up with his No Limit crew. Old-school forebearers Kurtis Blow (who’s also a co-producer) and Grandmaster Caz discuss hip-hop’s origins in the Bronx, while West Coast playas Ice-T, Mack 10, and MC Eiht talk about how gangsta rap scared everybody with its violent, vulgar content. Dr. Dre (fresh from cutting ties with Death Row Records) drops in throughout to dispense music-biz lessons and advice like a hip-hop sage. 

Spirer crams a lot into the 94-minute running time, addressing the powerful (Black artists addressing Black issues) and problematic (misogyny, materialism, promoting violence) issues that make rap music such a carousel of controversy and contradiction. (If Spirer did this today, it would be a six-part docu-series on Netflix.) Released right in the middle of the preposterous East Coast-West Coast rap war — and the deaths of Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G. (who both get interview time) — Rhyme seemed like a godsend for rap fans. It not only has hip-hop artists candidly expressing what hip-hop means to them and to the culture, but presents these artists at their most casual and vulnerable. Whether it’s the late Craig Mack talking about a failed record deal while washing dishes, Arrested Development frontman Speech trying to make a point while holding an unruly baby, or Da Brat doing her thing while smoking a blunt and sitting on the toilet, Spirer made it his mission to present the hip-hop community as both artists and regular-ass people trying to make it in this world.

The 2000 doc Backstage is the more unruly hip-hop chronicle. Released via Miramax’s Dimension Films wing, it’s a rapid-fire, video scrapbook of the 1999 Hard Knock Life Tour. It had an insane lineup: Jay-Z and DMX (RIP!) — both at the height of their stardom — were the headliners, with Method Man & Redman serving as the opening act. Ja Rule and Jay-Z’s Roc-A-Fella crewmates (Memphis Bleek, Beanie Sigel, female MC Amil) also show up to drop some bars.

The performances are obviously the highlights, as Fiore and editor Richard Calderon splice together footage of rappers performing each tune from multiple tour stops. (I was reminded of how Jay-Z went through a crazy football/basketball jersey phase during this tour.) Of course, as the title implies, it’s the raucous, behind-the-scenes action that takes up most of the running time. We actually hear less from Jay and more from his former Roc-A-Fella partner (and the movie’s producer) Damon Dash, who uses his time berating his crewmates and arguing with higher-ups about being disrespected. One notorious scene has Dash getting a haircut while yelling at Def Jam president Kevin Liles after some Roc-A-Fella artists receive personalized leather jackets bearing the Def Jam logo. “It makes it look like a Def Jam tour,” yells Dash, overlooking that nearly all the artists on the bill are signed to the iconic, hip-hop label. 

Unlike Rhyme, Backstage hasn’t aged well. The Roc-A-Fella clan don’t come out looking so rosy, as several cronies fondle groupies, douse white girls with champagne, and just do a lot of — to borrow a Jay-Z song title — ignorant shit. Jigga’s no saint either; there’s one startling shot where he clearly hits a woman. Meanwhile, DMX is seen playing with either his dogs or his remote-control toy car and Meth & Red are basically the tour’s Lenny & Squiggy, getting hella high and indulging in gross, prankish activity like sticking genitals in people’s drinks. “You gotta get them for the shit they gonna do to you in the future,” explains Meth. 

Both Rhyme and Backstage slipped into theaters with little fanfare, each making a little over $1 million worldwide. It’s more likely people saw them when they hit video shelves, or when some shady character was selling bootlegged copies at your local barber shop. Regardless, these films provide a nostalgic glimpse of how the hip-hop elders of today moved, hustled, and conquered in their younger days. Parents can also show these films to their children to remind them that, unlike most of their favorite, contemporary hip-hop artists, you can actually understand what the fuck these rappers are saying.

“Rhyme & Reason” is currently streaming on Pluto TV, while “Backstage” is currently streaming on Hoopla Digital.

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