In the summer of 2015, Swedish music streaming service Spotify created a live musical map of the world that analyzed listening trends for over 1000 different cities around the globe. One of the bigger takeaways from the data presented was that hip-hop stood as the world's top genre, regardless of geography. But while it was indeed a best-selling music genre in the mid-'90s and the top seller by 1999, the current entrenchment of hip-hop within popular culture is even deeper today — not to mention the incredible breadth of its subgenres.
And yet, whether you're focused on figuring out which rising young rapper is next to blow or pining for the golden age of beats and rhymes, the story of how hip-hop evolved from soundtracking New York block parties to becoming one of the most popular artforms on earth is usually glossed over or abridged. Enter Darby Wheeler's Hip-Hop Evolution, a film that explores hip-hop's genesis in detailed fashion, bringing to light what documentary host, MC and CBC personality Shad calls "a history that's been forgotten."
Taking to the streets of New York, Shad meets and speaks with key figures forever enshrined in the genre's creation story for valuable firsthand insight: DJ Kool Herc recalls throwing DJ parties in his apartment complex at 1520 Sedgwick Ave, while Coke La Rock explains how shouting out friends on the mic at parties evolved into poetic phrasing more akin to rapping. Afrika Bambaataa speaks on the parties he held in the South Bronx, while Grandmaster Flash demonstrates the creation of his innovative DJing techniques.
Beyond exploring the aforementioned stories, which remain recognizable to plenty of hip-hop heads, Wheeler and company also dig deep in detailing the genre's movement from the underground to the mainstream, and everything that came with it.
The film explores the wave of arson the Bronx dealt with in the '70s that lead to a rash of lootings, in turn giving rise to a surplus of DJs and MCs who made art with stolen gear. The idea of putting hip-hop on wax is tracked from stories of a legendary battle tape between MC groups the Cold Crush Brothers and the Fantastic Five to the formation of Sugar Hill Gang. Examining the success of their "Rapper's Delight" recalls the history of the music industry treating the single as a novelty, and other people trying to cash in on what they saw as a fad.
Bambaataa and Flash also describe how their music began to resonate with a different demographic upon beginning to book sets in predominantly white Manhattan, while the film closes with a look at Flash and the Furious Five's "The Message," the social-minded track that birthed hip-hop paradigms of lyrical depth and subject matter, standing out in its time for not being a "party record."
Sparing no small detail from primary sources, and driven by a knowledgeable host in Shad who has a vested interest in the subject matter from being "an MC, but a fan first," Hip-Hop Evolution speaks of hip-hop's multifaceted creation in unprecedented detail, and is necessary viewing not only for music historians, but for anyone who considers themself a student of the game. (Banger Films)