More than any other genre, hip-hop was the most documented from its inception, thanks to the increased availability of recording equipment. It allowed the kids who went from drawing on walls to spinning on floors and trying out their first few rhymes to commit their experiences to cellulose in a way that wasn’t possible at the outset of rock ‘n’ roll or jazz. As engrossing as rock and pop tales can be, with rap and rappers, there are often heightened levels of drama based on the biographies of the artists and the environments that bred the genre due to the addition of guns, gangs, and organized crime that often predate or inform rap stardom.
Jay-Z was a flashy drug dealer before Reasonable Doubt gave him a route to legal money, 50 Cent was shot nine times before his resounding comeback mixtapes led to a deal with Shady/Aftermath, and Murder Inc. was shut down by an investigation into the company’s supposedly shady seed money. Meanwhile, the Notorious BIG and Tupac were granted legendary status by their untimely — and spookily timed — demises. Some stories are less dramatic, but no less earth-shaking, like the story of A Tribe Called Quest’s decade of squabbles or the foundations of hip-hop culture itself. These are some of hip-hop’s most essential documentaries; whether you’re a student of the game or just curious about how this global phenomenon became so huge, these films have something for everyone.