Who Got the Camera?
Hip-hop documentaries have preserved some of rap's most precious stories. These 29 essential films paint a full picture of the music and culture's history.
Words: Keith Murphy
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of XXL Magazine, on stands now.

Documenting hip-hop on the big and small screen can be a roll of the dice. In contrast to the culture’s older peers like gospel, blues, jazz, country, R&B, rock and pop, this street movement that ballooned into a billion-dollar industry still thrives on authenticity. As a whole, hip-hop is the ultimate underdog story. The tales that make up its composition often reflect that idea of unlikely triumph and humble beginnings taken to unbelievable heights.

As such, a project like Sacha Jenkins’ four-part documentary, Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men, which debuted on Showtime in May, is a difficult premise to pull off. The original nine-member rhyme collective—idiosyncratic Wu-Tang leader and producer the RZA, GZA, late wild man Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Method Man, Ghostface Killah, Inspectah Deck, U-God and Masta Killa—artfully engaged in some serious myth making from the start of their careers.

Their hard-scrabbled, oft-forgotten home base, Staten Island, was renamed Shaolin. Ghostface wore a mysterious mask. Five-Percent Nation ideology was thrown out to listeners like codes to be decrypted. By the time Cappadonna officially joined the Wu in 2007, they were hip-hop superheroes. But when Jenkins takes the crew back to its Stapleton Projects roots and old Shaolin haunts, they transform back to the hungry, everyday kids from around the way that never dreamed of making it big. And that’s what makes for a great hip-hop documentary: pushing the subject beyond his or her cozy confines and stripping away entrenched personas.

Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men is part of a distinguished lineage of rap documentaries that have touched nearly every corner of the culture. There’s the 1984 BBC film, Beat This: A Hip-Hop History, one of the genre’s earliest insider views into rap. The Show is a snapshot of hip-hop’s mid-1990s all-stars in their onstage element. The Carter captures rap megastar Lil Wayne up close and personal during the apex of his historic run. Lifetime’s six-part docuseries Surviving R. Kelly, which first aired in January, casts a light on decades of alleged criminal and unsavory behavior by R. Kelly. The film has renewed efforts to boycott his music and bring him to justice, showing how powerful a hip-hop doc can be.

There’s no shortage of documentaries that retell hip-hop’s most important stories. In addition to the aforementioned Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men, watch these 29 films for a holistic crash course on the culture.

Check out more from XXL’s Spring 2019 issue including our Dreamville cover story featuring interviews with J. Cole, J.I.D, Bas, Cozz, EarthGang, Lute, Omen and Ari Lennox; Show & Prove interviews with Flipp Dinero and Blueface, a look into how Hot 97's Ebro Darden went from fish mascot to hip-hop gatekeeper, Maury Povich in Hip-Hop Junkie, our interviews with Rich The Kid and Zaytoven, and more.

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