I love hip-hop and have since a very early age. I was a young man, barely a man at that, when I first heard the hard beats of pioneering artists like Grandmaster Flash and UTFO. I saw Beat Street when I was 10 years old. I heard Krush Groove in the theater. By the time RUN DMC hit the big time with “Raisin’ Hell,” I already had invested five years into rap music. I was ready, willing and able to drop out of middle school to become a professional breakdancer.
There is so much more to hip-hop than the stereotypes and clichés that exist as part of the modern music scene. There is a culture, a history and an artistry to the hip-hop scene that is missed by so many who think of it as nothing more than “street music.”
Director Kenneth Price has spent much of his career working alongside hip-hop artists, producing a number of music videos from producer/label exec 9th Wonder. He’s a prolific and extremely gifted musical talent who embodies the best of hip-hop, and was the subject of Price’s previous feature-length documentary, “The Wonder Year.” I was a big fan of “The Wonder Year,” which successfully tapped into the personality of 9th Wonder, as well as the dizzying intellect he possesses.
Like any good documentarian, Price is able to spot a good story. When 9th Wonder was offered a teaching opportunity at Harvard University, Price decided to double down and capture the story of a hip-hop pioneer teaching in the Ivy League in the extremely entertaining and educational “The Hip-Hop Fellow.”
At the heart of the documentary is a sense of history. Not just about 9th Wonder himself, but of the music he has dedicated much of his life to perfecting. So many hip-hop songs are about architecture. A composition that features many influences that weave through different styles and eras of popular music. Price parallels 9th Wonder’s own love of music through the songs he deconstructs for his class. It’s a nice device that helps frame the documentary’s easy to digest chapters.
In a day and age where most hip-hop history is devoted to the beef between the East and West coasts in the ‘90s, it’s refreshing to see that there are those out there working hard to preserve the legacy of what the music is all about. “The Hip-Hop Fellow” is a movie that offers some interesting perspectives on a culture that seems bogged down by tabloid-style nonsense and Twitter feuds. The idea of hip-hop as an intellectual pursuit seems antithetical in a world in which the media only portrays the negative aspects and idiotic dust-ups between today’s most popular hip-hop artists.
That’s probably why Price’s work stands out. Much like “The Wonder Year,” there is an easily detectable passion for the work. The importance of the film, and the chief role of any documentarian, is to educate us. To find that new perspective and let the world know about it. “The Hip Hop Fellow” is an illuminating film. It helps that 9th Wonder himself is a likable cat who makes you think. Like his producing style, he is complex, effortless and likes to challenge those around him. If I had one college professor this good, I probably would have studied more and drank less.
9th Wonder spins stories like he spins records, and Price is a deft enough documentarian to follow him into his obsessive, almost molecular love of music. The film is as informative as the class he teaches, and Price is a filmmaker who has found a strong voice in nonfiction films. “The Hip-Hop Fellow” is a movie to seek out at this year’s festival. Prepare yourself to get schooled.
The Hip-Hop Fellow
Starring 9th Wonder, Kendrick Lamar, Henry Louis Gates and Ali Shaheed Muhammad
Saturday, November 15, 1:15 p.m.
Thalian Hall, main stage
310 Chestnut St.