Big U, Deb, Bimmy, Trick Trick, and Haitian Jack sound like the names of members of a hit squad—a title that’s not totally out of place; the venerated quintet are survivors and major hip-hop moguls. They began their lives in Crenshaw, Queens, Brooklyn, and Detroit, rising from the streets to boardrooms, while the crack epidemic, poverty, violent reprisals, and the prison industrial complex threatened them with looming death. To many, they are legends: The last of an old guard who rule their lives by a street code, tenets for settling disputes that would fuel the early days of hip-hop and transform it into gangsta rap, trap music, and the biggest economic engine in music.
From executive producer Malcolm Spellman and director Rashidi Natara Harper, the six-part FX docuseries Hip Hop Uncovered charts the rise of rap from its humble beginnings to its superstar stature in conjunction with the political events and little-known power brokers who shaped the genre’s biggest names. While the series talks a big game, its lack of focus ultimately obscures the importance of the music and its people.
See, the five men at the heart of Hip Hop Uncovered are simply addictive. Big U, Deb, Bimmy, Trick Trick, and Haitian Jack all carry an aura that feels ripped from a crime thriller yet is wholly natural to them. Haitian Jack especially, with a bandana wrapped around his neck, sitting in his luxe tropical home, is larger than life. Each share their respective tragic backstories—losing loved ones to addiction and street violence—and the events that have shaped them into the people they are today, with an enviable openness. They also discuss their wild younger days, when they were involved in tussles, shootings, and intimidation, with an equal frankness that disarms the viewer into laughter. One can easily see why the filmmakers chose to frame the docuseries around them.
They give us eyewitness testimony to the explosion of hip-hop. The energy each subject shows when sharing the first time they heard The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” is infectious. How they recall the growth of Run-DMC, Tupac, and Nipsey Hussle, and the aspirational fashions, lifestyle, and talent they engendered, is equally immersive. But their biggest contribution comes by way of their survival. They lived through the militarization of the police, jail time, the gangsta rap bloodshed between Death Row and Bad Boy Records, and the crack and heroin epidemics, and are able to share how those trials influenced the environment from which hip-hop would arise. Each subject relates how street life offered an escape from economically depressed neighborhoods, and how music offered them a second chance. That’s what Hip Hop Uncovered does well.
Films that unearth the legends behind the music—The Wrecking Crew, Muscle Shoals, 20 Feet From Stardom, Standing In The Shadows Of Motown—are successful due to their ability to adroitly shape talented figures into a larger cultural and artistic narrative. Hip Hop Uncovered fails to accomplish the same. While the central message holds that hip-hop, a uniquely Black enterprise, is a genre born from both street code and socioeconomic disparity, the way the filmmakers weave the art form into its historical context is often perfunctory. Take how the docuseries covers Rodney King, Ronald Reagan, the 1994 Crime Bill, and George Zimmerman. The filmmakers maintain considerable distance between the music and these events, which should be framing the narrative. Instead, they are attached as tidbits.
The same can be said for how the docuseries covers COVID, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden’s 2020 electoral victory. It’s as though the filmmakers feel they should explore these topics, but they’re not sure how. Which might explain how one shot, clearly filmed during COVID, shows Bimmy walking down a crowded street maskless while others are protecting their faces.
It all makes the series unnecessarily drawn out, with several points where it could have naturally concluded. Instead, the subjects spend two hours bemoaning how the internet seems devoid of street code—the way anyone can say anything while searching for their viral moment without considering the broader repercussions. They also reject how the new school has forgotten the lessons of their forebears and appears to disregard their advice. Each person paints their generation with a doe-eyed nostalgia and much of their bemusement, even in some of its correctness, can feel self-righteous due to the repetition of the message.
A myopia pervades Hip Hop Uncovered. Although Deb Antney briefly discusses the toxic environment for women in the music business, the subject receives short thrift. Russell Simmons is praised by several interviewees, as is Suge Knight by Snoop Dogg. A general lack of awareness prevents the series from taking a step back and analyzing the genre beyond its empowerment of Black men. Such introspection wouldn’t require filmmakers to unduly demonize hip-hop. But the way a documentary like On The Record has expanded the conversation, to ignore that discussion entirely gives the docuseries’ title a cruelly ironic twist.
Hip Hop Uncovered doesn’t pack a punch. It might have had the series been streamlined by either shortening the bloated runtime or dedicating each episode to a single subject. The chronicle each person provides never coalesces into a satisfying whole. There’s a lack of context for how each episode connects to the subjects’ lives and how they all fit into the series’ larger timeline. Consider how the second episode briefly mentions Jam Master Jay, only to conclude his arc with allusions to his 2002 death, or how the fourth covers Eminem’s burgeoning career, then jumps ahead to his 2002 hit “Lose Yourself.” In both instances, the filmmakers must double-back years into the past to pick up the story again. The whole six-hour series suffers from such ramshackle editing.
The wild stories of Bimmy, Big U, Deb, Trick Trick, and Haitian Jack; the needle drops; and the litany of rap royalty who appear here will be enough to sustain some through the first couple of chapters. But between the messy editing, a generic brooding temp score, and its lack of focus, Hip Hop Uncovered wastes the opportunity to unearth the major power brokers behind the genre’s biggest names and memorialize the generations of Black folks lost under the unforgiving weight of the prison industrial complex and other socioeconomic barriers instigated by racism.