Top of the Docs #14 – ‘Hip Hop Evolution’ and the Documentary Epic Part 2

The idea of an epic documentary, one that though it often splits the topic up into chapters or segments, still maintains a core subject, is one discussed previously in this column. In our piece on Ken Burns’ Baseball, it was said that the length of a documentary epic allowed Burns to pack in as much as possible about the history of the game. This week, we are turning to another example of an epic documentary, however one that employs elements of oral history, and an example of a doc that manages to get the most out of talking heads. The doc in question:  Hip Hop Evolution.

Hip Hop Evolution is a series that started its life at HBO Canada, following a screening at Sheffield Hot Docs Festival in 2016. Since then, the show has been picked up internationally by Netflix and has recently put out its fourth season. The show tracks hip hop from its formative years in the mid-70s, right up to the age of super producers in the early to mid 00s. Each episode tends to focus either on a particular moment, be that an event or a certain sound, allowing the evolution of hip hop to be traced geographically as well as chronologically. What we get is a relatively comprehensive look at the rise of US hip hop.

The way in which the show structures its episodes is through rapper Shad, the series’ host. Shad journeys to the locations where major events or scenes in the history of hip hop took place and proceeds to interview those who were either present, part of the scene, or closely associated to it. The talking heads in this series transcend our expectations, instead giving an oral history of hip hop. From figures such as DJ Kool Herc, to the Sugarhill Gang, to NWA and Daisy Age rappers, to Outkast and Lil Kim, the series uses the accounts of these incredibly important cultural figures to illustrate the complex history of a genre that, despite being just as old, subversive, and influential as punk, has only been given mainstream acknowledgment of this within the past 15 years.

Hip Hop Evolution is a real treat to dive into and explores the history of a musical genre that has without a doubt shaped  our culture and the way in which we think of a modern sound. As an epic, the series delves into various different avenues, often jumping slightly forwards and backwards in time in order to check up on certain scenes or locations, but never loses sight of its core theme. A hidden gem of a Netflix series, it is well worth seeking out.

Trailer for Hip Hop Evolution

Header image courtesy of Netflix