It might seem a slight exaggeration to say that Hip-hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes is one of the most brutal yet skilful attacks carried out on an American institution since 9:11, but at times that is precisely what Byron Hurt’s didactic and sometimes dizzying documentary feels like. And not only is the attack merciless but multidirectional. For in the cutting tenor of his argument Hip Hop is sexist, overly misogynistic, homophobic, infantile and generally misanthropic on the whole. The only thing which withholds Hurt’s debate from seeming like a superfluous and superficial church sermon is the mere fact that, for the most part, he’s right.
After all Hip Hop has carried out some of the most brutal and at times skilful attacks on the ears and integrity of the general public. Beyond Beats and Rhymes offers some of the most notorious examples: In 2004 rapper Nelly is reported to have pulled out of a visit to Spelman College where he was to locate bone marrow donors for leukaemia patients, only to decline because, understandably, some female students were unhappy about his then recent video “Tip Drill”, in which he is seen swiping a credit card down a women’s backside. At a summer jam 50 Cent scolds Jah Rule by showing images of him crying and calls him a “Bitch ass nigga”. These and other atrocious illustrations are presented as specimens for the current condition of Hip Hop. And to be fair Beyond Beats and Rhymes does seem a little like it’s overreacting at times. But to be fairer still Hurt’s report on the genre is more of a personal enquiry than anything else. He wants to know why he has fallen out with the music he loves and why the sound which used to help psych him up before playing in American Football games now merely repulses and disconcerts.
The answer is fifty five minutes of swiftly edited audio-visual samples which range from Biggie Smalls “You’re nobody ‘till Somebody Kills You” to D.W. Grifith’s civil war epic Birth of a Nation, along with a whole batch of interviews that present a broad panoply of opinions concerning what has happened to the music Hurt loves. Chuck D professes that Hip-hop has, “commodified us (blacks) as being a one trick image”, while Dr Jalani Cobb (Spelman College) says the genre exemplifies “a lineage of black men trying to deny their own frailty”. The most damning indictment of all comes from Talib Kweli, who puts it quite simply: “We’ve entrusted the media and corporations to tell us what Hip-hop is”.
The above assertion is without doubt the most telling clue in Hurt’s search for a core truth. If Hip Hop is now a multi-million dollar toy in the hands of corporate puppet masters then surely this is so because someone somewhere is buying into it. Or as one scholar puts it; an artist with the aggressiveness and brutality of ‘50 Cent can only be commercially viable in a nation that supports violence’. For in hindsight Hip Hop (or at least mainstream/commercial Hip Hop culture which is pretty much the only thing Hurt discusses) is ‘pure Americana’. It is ferocious, extreme, money oriented, misguided and ‘hyper masculine’. In short it is all of the negative traits which supposedly sum up the United States, merely symbolised and visualized through a male dominated caricature of black culture.
It seems slightly problematic that Hurt only discusses mainstream Hip Hop and completely overlooks other forms of the genre which are nothing like the hulking demon he describes. He also tends to overcomplicate his points by squeezing in a little too much information, making Beyond Beats and Rhymes slightly bewildering in places. Despite these errors it is Hurt himself who is the most enthralling addition to the documentary. He is presented here as noble but never self righteous and his approach to the subject matter always appears genuine. In fact his representation is quite similar to that of American politician Al Gore in his documentary An Inconvenient Truth, in which he stresses that the planet has been damaged irreversibly by humanities misuse of its resources. In a sense Hurt is making a similar point about our buying into commercial Hip Hop music. Perhaps, he seems to be saying, the collective human psyche has been damaged irreversibly to the point of docility and ignorance by popular culture, of which Hip Hop is a prime constituent.
Find out more about Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes and it’s Director/Producer Byron Hurt at bhurt.com.