Hip Hop Film Fest

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Too often, hip hop activism falls by the wayside, as journalists pay undue attention to one-liners, keep-it-real bromides, and phat beats.


Reviewed by Rachel Swan

Monday, September 22 2003, 11:03 PM

Back in the day, Oakland rapper Too $hort got his hustle on selling mix tapes from the trunk of his car. Having purposefully failed the 10th grade, $hort allowed himself a year to make money and hobnob with other Oaktown scenesters. Thus he embodied the old skool huckster figure who is, arguably, Black folks' answer to the so-called "American dream."

Today, as East Bay director Kontac notes, video is the new hustle. "This is how you make it in the rap game," he advises a mixed-race audience of twenty-somethings at Oakland's Black Box Theater, during a recent showing of the Hip Hop Film Fest. "You make a film on a low budget -- a few Gs for camera equipment, a year devoted to filming and networking, another G to press your tapes up." Audience members nod approvingly as Kontac delivers this new strain of upliftment speech, which puts human avarice ahead of the much-vaunted golden rule. Admittedly, the primacy of marketability over artistic merit may seem off-putting to anyone who hasn't spent a good part of life broke and beset by job discrimination. But for many young African American men -- who are constantly told that the only way out of the ghetto is to become an athlete, a rapper, or a dope dealer- the drive for cheddar is real. Financial success, however small, is a genuine form of empowerment.

In fact, video has become a staple in the underground hip hop circuit: at a given show, you'll see three cameramen clamoring the stage at once, vying for a perfect profile shot of Joe or Joanna MC. It's relatively astonishing, at first, to note how video has been so easily integrated with the other four elements of hip hop -graffing, scratching, MCing, B-Boying- and how the camera person is treated more as a participant than a silent observer or persistent, sinister interloper. In contrast, you'll almost never see a camera in the somewhat-similar underground punk scene --which actually shouldn't surprise anyone, given punk's distinctly anti-hustle vibe.

I always thought the hip hop community's interest in video dated back to the Rodney King beating in 1992, in which case a random camera-person captured an instance of police brutality that would have otherwise been written off as a traffic violation, or worse yet, a Black man's obstinacy in the face of white cops. Borrowing from Judith Butler, the video became a way of "framing" the situation. In this context, it allowed King to leverage his story against the version articulated by his oppressors. Had there been no camera, King's account wouldn't likely have appeared writ large in national newspapers, or on television newscasts. After all, journalists wouldn't have given King more credence than the LAPD: journalists are a lot of things -staid, fact-bent, well-versed in the status quo- but they're typically not African American, or able to wholly identify with a disadvantaged group.

Documentary film is a form of history-writing, if you will: it's a way of framing a story, making it both indelible -- since we ascribe certain notions of "truth" to the visible that don't hold for print media -- and accessible --since film is, for the most part, more comprehensible than print media, and can reach a much larger audience. Local director Yazaboi said his film Sydewayz, which aired at the Hip Hop Film Fest, spawned from his increasing frustration with news coverage of Oakland sideshows. Contrary to press allegations of violence, rape, and general mayhem, sideshows are basically just hype midnight street parties, in which local youth convene to watch low-rider cars out-floss and out-donut each other with Fast and Furious-style bravado. Out in the thick with his camcorder, trundling along the strips of 57th and Foothill, 106th and Macarthur, or Hegenberger Road and Durnel, Yazaboi captures cars with 20 inch rims and t.v.s on their bumpers, passengers hanging out the windows of the swiveling, pirouetting vehicles, and ubiquitous, pestilent cops.

It's a film that occurs in two parts, which Yazaboi splices together to form the contours of his own story. The first part is devoted entirely to true-to-life footage of cop dick-slinging: cats spread-eagled against their cars, a woman begging police to lower their guns so she can safely slide out of her vehicle, and -- in the film's most resonant moment -- a surly officer commanding Yazaboi to put the camera down. "Yeah," he admits, "I was harassed by police quite a few times. I think they feel more threatened when you're the cat with the video camera, documenting their actions. Granted, if you're an urban cat with a camera and a story to tell, police misconduct becomes grist for the mill.

The second part is devoted, entirely, to the carnivalesque world of the sideshow, which brings new meaning to Ludacris's hit song "Move, Get Out Da Way." This grittier, more triumphal segment shows how Oakland's sideshows transform skid row neighborhoods into communal rodeos, usually two hundred-folk deep. As for mainstream newscasters' jeremiads against the sideshow, Yazaboi responds "I'm someone who's been going out there week after week, ever since I moved to Oakland in '93. At the time I was homeless, a student, and working full time. I'd come from San Francisco -where cats haven't gotten beyond their scuffles over who owns which block- and I was like, 'man, it's so cool to see all these brothers gathered in one place, and ain't nobody shooting nobody."

To document, produce, or frame history is to mythologize, which is why PBS American Experience documentarians are so beholden to epic language, swank freeze-frames, and debonair talking heads -- it goes without saying that no hippie in a PBS "Summer of Love" biopic will ever sass a cop without "Purple Haze" playing in the background. Filmmakers of the hip hop generation are no exception to the rule, as they often burden their subjects with a kind of torchbearer role. Too $hort, for instance -- the subject of Renee Moncada-McElroy's Life is...Too Short -- is portrayed in the film as the bedrock essence of Oakland -- or at least, the eighties era 'Cokeland' of Jerry Hodges' 75 Girls Presents, of which $hort was a protege. For all the dubiousness of such a one-sided panegyric, $hort is one of the funkiest rappers the Yay has ever seen: he always played with a live band rather than drum machines, he's got what Wake Up Show host Sway calls a characteristic "sinister beat," and his rhymes often fulcrum around the city and its attendant hustler vibe.

While it's fair to laud $hort for representing Oaktown playas and hustlers -- after all, this is a man who, according to his mother, "always knew how to make people be productive for him" -- to unequivocally champion him as the quintessence of Oakland is to also brook $hort's unabashed misogyny. And we're not talking about a slight smattering of bitches and hoes -- we're talking about whole screeds of lyrics about $hort getting his dick sucked, by "bitches (who) ain't shit," but who are -- in the context of the song at least -- totally disempowered, and often under state of duress. Gesturing to larger issues of woman-hating in hip hop, $hort's lyrics are kind of a sore spot in the film.

Many hip hop intellectuals broach feminism with an embarrassing degree of what Edward Said would call "unthinking cant" -- a specious adherence to political correctness. Kontac and director Bobby Mardis try to gloss over the problem in their film Beats by the Bay by offsetting a whole cabal of bitch-be-gone-oriented male rappers with "respect my shit" flows from harder, more thugly female rappers. While their intent is honorable, this conciliatory gesture becomes a disingenuous way for male artists to get themselves off the hook. Furthermore, it's kind of a cop-out for female MCs to merely appropriate -but not undercut- the declamations of their male counterparts.

Said would also point out that lumping female MCs together as a marginal category, within an already marginal group, amounts to 'Othering.' A hip hop head wouldn't say, in good faith, that OG butch MCs like CMG and Special One belong in the same camp as Lady Lust, or the famously tarty Suga T. It's tantamount to saying that the scabrous rapper Fifty Cent and the brooding Mr. Lif are spiritual twins -- and that's hating. In reality, female MCs are as various, and nuanced, as any other group; some try to be hard, others put it down for girl power, while others shunt gender to the back burner and rap on other topics. Perhaps, by always looking at female MCs through the lens of sexuality, we're missing the point.

But to forever carp on Beats By the Bay and Life Is֔oo Short for their cavalier dismissal of gender issues is to overlook the merits of these films. Most importantly, they re-articulate the figure of the MC: every rapper has a distinct personality -a fact which should be obvious, but seems to elude many detractors who mistake hip hop for 'nigga noise.' While the more philistine MCs treat their ciphers as a form of self-preening -- as in, "You can't find an emcee who's doper than me..." -- genuinely witty cats --like E-40, !Prohezeac?, and Too $hort -- stand out as poets, and wry social commentators. $hort, in a rare moment of candor, ruminates on his persona --both as a flagrant womanizer, and on the flipside, as an Oakland figurehead: "Too $hort is actually my alter ego -- a guy who sits around and raps about getting his dick sucked. In real life, I'm quiet. I'll sit around and won't say nothing. And I get my dick sucked anyway."

Most important, overall, is the Hip Hop Film Fest's way of highlighting the social gains of hip hop, and it's genuine contributions to pop culture. Tom Feiling's film Resistencia documents rappers in Cali, Medillin, Bogota, and Buena Ventura, Colombia, who use the language of hip hop to level a critique against an ongoing civil war between paramilitaries and guerrilla troops, which has resulted in the displacement of 2.2 million rural people. Colombian rappers are portrayed, in the film, as veritable "neo-hoodlum intellectuals" -- borrowing a term from Poetry for the People. A young girl freestyles about ongoing genocide, and the perpetual fucked-uped-ness of the national economy, as Stormbob 75 invokes Nietzschean philosophy to characterize hip hop: "a rapper is like a juggler or a storytellerַith four beats we can condense the whole world."

Too often, hip hop activism falls by the wayside, as journalists pay undue attention to one-liners, keep-it-real bromides, and phat beats. A writer, after all, is a single actor -often an outsider- who assesses the genre from his/her particular -usually privileged- standpoint. The film fest, in contrast, becomes a forum for community members to dialogue about hip hop and its aims -- even if that sometimes amounts to business-conferencey platitudes about the hustle. Like writers, underground filmmakers serve to comment on culture, but their truths are more easily collectivized than those of the writer. Maybe we can chalk this up to video being a new element in the rap game, or perhaps the immediacy of film renders it a more accessible medium than print. Either way, video allows hip hop generationers to pre-empt what could have been the inevitable fucking-up of the movement's history. As Too $hort avers, "one day, folks will read the history of hip hop, and it will go like this: there was this cat named Eminem, and he invented rap music. But then, on the other hand, there was this motherfucker Too $hort."

Copyright © 2003 by Rachel Swan. All rights reserved.

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