Since the early 80s, documentaries that capture hip-hop artists, culture, and music, have dropped steadily, often shedding light beyond the surface of popular, genre-defining albums, and the artists who’ve made them. Hip-Hop has birthed some of the most fascinating figures, not only in music, but in entertainment, and its influence on pop culture worldwide makes it all the more compelling to explore and capture on film. Since the early 80s, when films like Big Fun In the Big Town (1986) dropped, to the more recent sprawling documentary series, Hip-Hop Evolution on Netflix, Hip-Hop documentaries have occupied an important space in Hip-Hop’s landscape, offering a glimpse into intricate moments and decisions that propelled some of its biggest trends and groomed some its major stars. Here are 11 Hip-Hop documentaries that should be on your must-watch list.
Biggie: I Got a Story To Tell (2021)
So, what exactly separates Biggie: I Got a Story to Tell from the umpteeth other Notorious B.I.G. documentaries that have been made since his untimely death in 1997? Perspective. This isn’t another story detailing his unsolved murder. Instead, director, Emmett Malloy digs deeper, with never-before-seen footage from one of Big’s longest, closest friends D-Roc (Damion Butler) when Big was just 22 and on the Ready to Die Tour. The clips and revealing interviews offer insight into the things that made Biggie, who was only 24 when he was killed, so talented and personable. And unlike other Biggie docs, I Got a STory to Tell takes a deep-dive into Big’s Jamaican heritage, with blips from his 94-year-old grandmother and candid footage and photos of his mom, Voletta Wallace’s, early life. These bits add dimension to Biggie’s story that haven’t previously been explored, and makes it even more heartbreaking.
The Defiant Ones (2017) - There’s no shortage of documentaries detailing Compton native, Dr. Dre’s tenure at Death Row Records— and with reason. The Death Row story and its stars are among the most fascinating in all of rap. But HBO’s four-part documentary, The Defiant Ones takes a different turn. Instead, the camera is focused on Dr. Dre and Brooklyn record executive Jimmy Iovine, and their individual relationships with one another, first at Iovine’s Interscope Records and then with Dre’s Beats By Dre headphones, a creation that gave him billionaire status. The Defiant Ones is glossy in execution but just honest enough to be engrossing.
The Show (1995) - The Show strives to encapsulate the elements that made Hip-Hop a worldwide phenomenon. Directed by Brian Robbins, Russell Simmons narrates while everyone from Afrika Bambaataa to LL Cool J, Wu-Tang Clan, The Dogg Pound, Snoop Dogg, and Slick Rick take the spotlight in the documentary’s ode to Hip-Hop.
Style Wars (1983)- One of the early hip-hop documentaries to be released, Style Wars takes a look into graffiti artists, or “writers” as the comb through New York, tagging trains, and expressing themselves during a time when it seemed as if nobody wanted to listen to what they had to say. While the focus here is mostly on graffiti, Style Wars offers insight on an important element of hip-hop culture.
The Art of Organized Noize (2016) - Rico Wade, Pat “Sleepy” Brown, and Ray Murray known collectively as Organized Noize helped change the sound of rap music, and their journey is well-documented in The Art of Organized Noize. From their days Rico’s basement in East Point, GA aka The Dungeon, to the making of some of The Dungeon Family’s game-changing albums, including OutKast’s 1996 album, ATLiens and Goodie MOB’s 1995 album Soul Food, the film focuses heavily on the musicality of the trio, and circumstances that birthed not only their sound, but their perspective, which they infused into their work. Featuring interviews from L.A. Reid, Andre 3000, Big Boi, Cee-Lo, and the trio themselves, the film explores Organized Noize’s early days, their fateful hook-up with LaFace Records via L.A. Reid, and their production beyond the Dungeon Family for artists including En Vogue and TLC.
Nas: Time Is Illmatic (2014) - Written by music journalist Erik Parker and directed by One9, Nas: Time Is Illmatic takes a close look at the time surrounding Nas’ explosive debut album, Illmatic in 1994. Featuring interviews from his brother and his jazz musician dad, Olu Dada, the film explores Nas’ upbringing in a Queens housing project, drawing a portrait of a man who’s smarts and innate artistic ability was almost swallowed up by lack of opportunity and the disenfranchisement of black people in his community. Poignant and thought-provoking, the documentary is a solid starting point for anyone looking to delve into Nas’ music and why he hold space as one of the greatest rappers of all-time.
Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels Of A Tribe Called Quest (2011) - Tribe Called Quest is one of the most revered acts in hip-hop, credited with playing a major in role in introducing zany, astute, often self-deprecating lyricism that was fused with jazz-laced production. But Tribe’s story goes well beyond the music, and Michael Rapaport’s Beats, Rhymes & Life takes a close look into the complex relationship of the group, exploring the bond and the tension between Q-Tip and Phife, and how that impacted Tribe and its music.
My Mic Sounds Nice: A Truth About Women And Hip-Hop (2010) - Directed by Ava Duvernay, BET’s My Mic Sounds Nice takes a quick dive into the space women have occupied in rap since the 1980s. With interviews from Salt-N-Pepa, MC Lyte, Eve, Roxane Shante, and The Lady of Rage among others, the documentary aims to shed light on the issues women have faced in a male-dominated genre, while taking note of their accomplishments and impact on rap.
Fade to Black (2004) - In 2004, high off the release of his now-classic, The Blueprint, it was the perfect time for Jay-Z to release a documentary. At the time, Jay claimed he was retiring, and so capturing the making of The Black Album (released in 2003) and his much-hyped performance at Madison Garden certainly made sense. Fade to Black, directed by Patrick Paulson and Michael John Warren, offers glimpses into Jay’s life with Beyoncé, his focus when he’s in album mode, and now that infamous clip of the first time Kanye West played the “Lucifer” track for him.
Tupac Resurrection (2003) - Although there are a never-ending supply of documentaries and retellings of the enigmatic figure’s short life, Tupac Resurrection, directed by Lauren Lazin and produced by Amaru Entertainment and MTV films, might offer the most intimate portrayal of Tupac’s complexities and subsequently, his humanity. Narrated by Pac himself, the documentary was nominated for an Academy Award, and stands as a must-watch entry in the many tellings of Pac’s life.
The Carter (2009)
The Carter takes a sharp look into the complicated, sometimes messy life of one of rap’s biggest stars, Lil Wayne. Filmed during the time leading up to, and following the release of The Carter III, Wayne’s inner-demons (and drug use), work ethic, and magnetism are on display in the film directed by Adam Bhala Lough. Although the film was eventually subject to a lawsuit from Lil Wayne, it stands as one of the most critically-acclaimed Hip-Hop docs to date.