Thirteen years after the media's declaration of the crack epidemic, one of the greatest storytellers to touch the mic rapped about the parallels of the only two foreseeable choices for the future if you were young, black and living in the ghetto.
"If I wasn't in the rap game. I'd probably have a key (kilo) knee-deep in the crack game. Because the streets is a short stop. Either you're slinging crack rock or you got a wicked jump shot."
Biggie's sentiment in his 1993 track "Things Done Changed" was shared by peers as close as neighboring boroughs and as far as the west coast. It was the language of the youth born in the 70s, coming of age in the 80s. This year's 15th annual Urbanworld Film Festival showcased Planet Rock: The Story of the Hip-Hop and the Crack Generation directed by Richard Lowe and Martin Torgoff. The documentary explores hip-hop's intrinsic relationship with a generation growing up during a time crack was ruining families. In 84 minutes Planet Rock narrated by Ice-T, examines hip-hop's role as savior to the rappers fortunate enough to make it into the music industry.
Rappers Too $hort, Snoop Dogg and B-Real of Cypress Hill recall their days of selling crack as a means to put money in their pockets. Flipping burgers at a fast food chain wasn't going to buy the thick dookie gold chains. Dope boys quadrupled their revenue by selling crack as opposed to remaining unemployed or working for minimum wage. It was that sense of hopelessness along with limited options and resources that ignited a life few would choose if they felt there was another way out of the 'hood.
Wu-Tang's emergence from unknown street hustlers to an iconic rap group whose indelible impression on hip-hop is undeniable, is only one example of hip-hop being a vessel that transformed lives. Seven of Wu-Tang's nine members were felons living a life of crime as the crack era flourished. Planet Rock shed light on the government's alleged role in distributing crack in black communities with the help of the CIA and police force. Former drug lords claimed from personal experience they knew for a fact police departments profit from the sale of illegal drugs. Those in the crack game during the 80s, as well scholars such as Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness discuss how the war on drugs was used to persuade political policy and had very little to do the actual drug problem. In the midst of crack spreading throughout urban ghettos in America, hip-hop was finding a different voice. Fun party records were slowly changing into the story of the hustler.
Planet Rock contextualized a culture and its correlation with the crack generation. While informing and captivating, it was not without its comedic moments. The real kingpin "Freeway" Rick Ross speaking on the rapper Rick Ross was classic. Diverse thought including author and filmmaker Nelson George, Sandra 'Pepa' Denton of Salt n Pepa, Chuck D, Azie Faison Jr. (one of the largest drug dealers in NYC who the movie Paid in Full was based off) and others helped carry the narrative alongside Ice-T.
What was moving about the documentary was the ability of the filmmakers to push the envelope. The writers of the film boldly called out the media for sensationalizing the crack era by using words such as "epidemic." And to verify their claims they interviewed veteran journalists and scholars. It was important to also notice the way in which stereotypes have played a role in the typical conversations about crack. It was refreshing for the documentary to remind viewers that cocaine usage by upper class whites had been going on long before crack hit the 'hood. But the most memorable take away was hearing personally from the men and women whose lives were affected by crack, and those stories of hip-hop saving young black males from what could have been a life that only leads to incarceration or death.
The biggest example of this parallel between the crack generation and hip-hop is one of the world's biggest rap stars. Because of hip-hop a former dope boy from Marcy Projects was able to transform into the man standing next to Warren Buffet on the cover of Forbes magazine. Imagine: a former drug dealer by the name of Sean Carter had better seats at President Obama's 2009 inauguration than Al Sharpton. What does that say about hip-hop? From the corners of Brooklyn blocks to inaugurations, hip-hop saved a number of youth from the slums of America where they believed there only two options were the rap game or the crack game. Perhaps the poet Lupe Fiasco was onto something when he eloquently said, "hip-hop has saved my life."