Hip-hop is continually changing and evolving. In his new Netflix docuseries Rapture, director and executive producer Sacha Jenkins examines hip-hop as we know it today through the eyes of some of the genres biggest artists. The eight-episode series follows Nas, T.I., 2 Chainz, Rapsody, Logic, G-Eazy, A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie, and Dave East -- lyricists with different legacies and at various stages of their careers.
In his episode, Jenkins follows Illmatic legend Nas and his protégée Dave East. Fifteen years apart in age and from different boroughs in New York City, the two men speak about their respective come-ups and all they’ve encountered to get where they are today. Ahead of Rapture’s Netflix debut, Jenkins and I spoke about the series, how technology has transformed the music industry, and why artists must speak for themselves.
For Jenkins, Rapture was about looking at hip-hop from a new perspective. "I was a journalist writing about hip-hop for many years," he explained. "To see it first hand and to have the kind of intimate access that we had, I knew that was something that hip-hop could use right now. I know that hip-hop is the most streamed, most popular form of music in the world, and it's very easy for people to be into hip-hop just on the strength of the way it sounds, (and) the way it feels. But, I know as a native that there are so many things that get lost in translation, and I felt that a series like (Rapture) would give people a real window and therefore a deeper understanding of what hip-hop really means, (and) where it comes from."
It was essential for Jenkins and his team to examine hip-hop from the perspective of a diverse group of MCs – really diving into just how multidimensional the genre has become. "We wanted to create a show that was representative of where hip-hop is today," the Mass Appeal creative director emphasized. "There are multiple generations of hip-hop artists. When you think about where hip-hop comes from and where it has gone globally -- and then you think about a platform like Netflix where your show is premiering around the world, we wanted to make something that would speak to the breadth of where hip-hop is. We wanted to have a real strong, diverse balance that's representative of the artists who are doing their thing today."
Rapture is certainly coming at an interesting moment for hip-hop. We're at a time where many feel the new generation is corrupting the authenticity of the genre. For Jenkins, the current sound of hip-hop is simply representative of where we are as a culture and society overall. "Hip-hop has always been based on technology," he reflected. "You're dealing with turntables and samplers, and computers and things to make music. In a lot of ways, one of the reasons why I believe hip-hop is so popular is because it speaks to people in general and young people in particular -- the way their world moves, and their world moves through technology. In terms of the sound of hip-hop, has it evolved? There's just such a broad range of artists. It's easy for me to say as an older gentleman that some of the stuff that's happening now isn't for me, but it really shouldn’t be for me, it should be for the folks that are living it right now. Hip-hop is very heavily tied to cultural reference points. Different generations have different cultural reference points, and those cultural reference points become language. The language of what's happening now isn't necessarily for me, but it's easy for me to hear someone like Kendrick (Lamar). I listen to Kendrick's music, and I'm blown away by it. There are many artists who are lyrical, who are wanting to use music as a platform to say things. That's what I need in the music that I listen to at this point. There's nothing wrong with music that you can turn up to or get lit to or whatever, and if that's what they're playing, that's cool."
As a filmmaker, writer, critic, and chronicler of hip-hop, not much surprises Jenkins anymore when it comes to the industry. However, after turning his lens on the artists in Rapture, he did marvel at how much their familial ties influenced their lives and work. "You'll notice family is a heavy part of it," he said. "When we get to see T.I. with his family, or 2 Chainz, or you see Nas being a mentor for new artists like Dave East, it's just a family community that a lot of people either don't acknowledge or don't see. I wanted people to understand. I tell people all the time, the only way to really understand hip-hop is to understand the climate and the environment from which it was born. In (Rapture), we had access to a lot of intimate moments, and a lot of those moments involved family. Outsiders have all kinds of perceptions of who your average hip-hop artist is, but at the end of the day, it's everyday people with families, with a level of sensitivity, with aspirations. These people are not dummies. It's not a fluke. They work hard. They're superstars not because they're in the right place at the right time. They're superstars because they are intelligent, they are creative, and they work really hard. Hopefully, people will be able to see that in the series, as well."
Jenkins and Mass Appeal have been documenting the narrative of hip-hop since ’96, but in Rapture, they wanted to elevate the legacy of the genre. "You know, if you look up the meaning of "rapture," there's sort of a biblical sense, the sort of really life-altering moment," Jenkins articulated. "Hip-hop has changed the lives of a lot of people, mine included. I wasn't a rapper. I tell people all the time, and I told Nas this, I'll battle any rapper when it comes to writing, but I have a horrible voice. I was able to make a career as a writer, someone writing about the culture, and it's changed my life. It also references the Blondie song, which was a classic song wherein Debby Harry herself raps, and that was a very big pop moment. That was a moment where hip-hop crossed over in many ways, and into a bigger audience. Also very simply, the word "rap" is the first three letters of the title of the show. You got a million ways to go with it.”
Though hip-hop has naturally morphed into something very different than how it was originally conceived, I wanted to know what responsibilities if any Jenkins felt artists had to the genre. "I grew up with this thing happening in parks," he recalled. "There wasn't really a music industry that supported hip-hop, but my hip-hop is different than the hip-hop of today. The hip-hop I grew up on — we had breakdancing and graffiti and all these things that are completely foreign to a new generation. I think hip-hop, has become a platform for self-expression that in some ways if you're lucky can make you rich, or it's just a platform that I find to be very therapeutic. To me, that's where the value will always be, beyond the money. The cultural expression and the therapeutic nature of the act of rapping and writing rap, especially because so much of it is supposed to be tied into how you really feel and who you really are. If you're doing that, if you're using the platform to express yourself, then that's the only real truth to me that matters. In terms of whether or not people are serving the culture, that's an individual decision, I guess. I think that for me anytime I have a platform to tell a story, it's gonna be something that says something, because who knows how long people like me will have a platform from which to express particular ideas. But does everyone have to somehow be conscious of the culture? Other people aren't always held up to those standards. I would hope that young folks who are making the art would be making art that is reflective of what's happening in society and the things that need to change, and I hope there are more people who are like that.”
One of the reasons why projects like Rapture are so vital are because they immortalize the art, honing in on the moment and capturing it just as it is at this present time. "Hip-hop has become very disposable because of the platforms, and everything is about now, now, now, what's the next, what's the next, what's the next," Jenkins reflected. "I think history is one of the most important tools anyone can have for survival, but for some reason, there isn't as much of a premium on history, particularly our music. Hip-hop has changed the way people communicate; it's changed the words that they use. It's changed the way people dress, it's changed the way people see the world, and it has served as a conduit to bringing people together who typically aren't together. I think that is the ultimate commodity, this idea of folks who don't really have much relying on their creativity and their drive to create a universe that becomes universal. If you look at the breadth of the artists that we feature in the series, there's a broad range of people from a broad range of perspectives, and hopefully that will connect with all these people around the world who look to hip-hop as something that is the soundtrack to their lives, as something that continues to inspire them."
All episodes of Rapture premiere Friday, March 30th on Netflix.
Aramide A Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her Master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami