Ambrosia For Heads wanted to meet the creators of the documentary, as well as its host, award-winning veteran MC, Shad K. Filmmakers Darby Wheeler and Rodrigo Bascuñán tell us about how this incredible body of work began somewhere else, and fans made more seasons unfold. The trio also touches on some of the highlights of season 4, and the care that has gone into making something that is entertaining and educational, to Hip-Hop Heads and newcomers alike.
Ambrosia For Heads: As a Hip-Hop fan, and somebody working in the space for nearly 20 years, I can often be cynical about documentaries. I’m sure all of us can; we think we’ve seen it all, and there are so many out there. However, Hip-Hop Evolution felt new and different. It actually reminded me of Ultrasound, an MTV program I loved 20 years ago. What’s the origin story of Hip-Hop Evolution?
Darby Wheeler: It’s funny you mention Ultrasound. I used to work on a show, and so did Rodrigo at one point, called The New Music, which was on Much Music, our Canadian equivalent to MTV. We predated it, but that show started with the same idea: a journalistic look at music. That’s our background.
Banger Films do a lot of music documentary space stuff. They were fairly new when I actually started working with them, which was maybe five, six years ago. They had done Metal Evolution; they were head-bangers. They wanted to keep being in the music space, but they just kept hearing from people, “you should do a Hip-Hop [one].” They’re not [Hip-Hop] Heads, so they approached me. I had worked at Much, and I’d also produced our version of Rap City for a while on Vibe, which is like the urban music channel. Like you, I’d interviewed a million rappers in my day, etc. So I came on board with the intent of getting it off the ground. Then I brought in Rodrigo fairly early in the process—it took forever, literally two years to get people interested. It was an HBO Canada project at first. We did the first season [for them]. Then Netflix picked it up; Rodrigo basically walked it in and sold it to Netflix. He had a really great pitch.
I’ll back it up though: Rodrigo and I really started to develop it and think about who the host would be. We wanted to have a host who was respectful, knew the culture, but wasn’t super “I have to be front-and-center.” Reluctantly, Shad agreed to do it, after [discussing with management]. He’s a musician, and he’s a perfect fit for it. [People like him]. It’s a part that he didn’t bring a lot of baggage to, which was really, really great. But he also brought interest, curiosity, and he also trusted Rodrigo and I. Rodrigo and I [had a vision] to really let the pioneers—and everybody tell their stories. That was a challenge for us, because broadcasters typically want to [say], “Well, what does Drake think of this?” Or A$AP Rocky or Kendrick [Lamar]. So we were up against that; I understand that. That’s a typical thing in the industry [to get an audience]. We fought really hard to avoid that. It was a bit of a scary moment for [Netflix] and even Banger, when we were trying to do it that way. They let us do it, and it worked. That’s sort of one of the more validating things. Russell Peters, who’s a comic, he’s an executive producer on [Hip-Hop Evolution], was a really, really big help in getting the early guys for me—getting their [phone] numbers. I have this memory of being in Russell’s bedroom, and him pacing around on the phone with Kool Herc on speaker. [He had me cold-pitch Kool Herc on the idea of the srtoes]. Once we got Kool Herc, everything lined up.
Shad: The only thing I’d like to add is that it was initially just season 1; we didn’t know we’d make more.
Darby Wheeler: That’s very important. We would have approached it a lot differently [had we known that]. We went back in season 2 and talked to KRS-One and did the Latin Quarter. If you’re really doing it properly, that probably lands in season 1. No one seems to notice. [Laughs]
AFH: Rodrigo, what was the tipping point for you Hip-Hop Evolution to get more seasons?
Rodrigo Bascuñán: We didn’t know what was gonna happen after the first season; we purposefully ended season 1 that way, where we could jump off from that point. We did have ideas of what could come, we just didn’t know if we could have a chance. The show series premiered on Netflix on December of 2016. In January of 2017, the first week back after the holidays, we got a call from an exec at Netflix named Devin Griffin. He said that the show is performing, which at the time was like an incomplete sentence to me—it means a lot, apparently. He said, “If you had a chance to do a Ken Burns version of this, how many episodes would you need?” [I asked for a week to get back]. We wrote an outline for seasons 2, 3, and 4, and spoke to him a week later, [saying] we need 12 more episodes. [They later agreed]. It was amazing; we didn’t expect that. To put it in perspective, the first four episodes we finished in three years. The next 12 episodes, we did in less than two years. It was definitely a grind.
AFH: Shad, were you always thinking about expanding your portfolio?
Shad: No, I really respect the journalistic space. I was a fan of both Darby and Rodrigo’s work, which is actually why I agreed to do it. So that actually wasn’t an aspiration of mine. Although I did have this sense—at that point, I’d made three or four albums. I was interested in just doin’ different stuff. I’ve always been a curious person and someone who’s interested in doing different things. [I did it more out of respect]. Like you said, we’ve seen so many Hip-Hop documentaries not be done right. After my first meeting with [Darby and Rodrigo], I told my first manager right away, “Those two guys are gonna do it right.” It’s been an incredible experience, as you can imagine. I’ve met more people than I haven’t met as far as my heroes go.
AFH: To Darby’s point, you’re not a dominating force on screen. Instead, you’re a phenomenal listener on screen. In the rhythm, there are these powerful reaction shots where you look at the guests the way a respectful fan might. There are also these sequences of you walking through New York City, taking the subway, or driving other places. You represent the culture as well as the Hip-Hop listener in that artful character. To all of you, how did you create that hosting identity?
Shad: I appreciate that. One thing people would ask me is, “Is it hard not to be starstruck?” [I would answer], it’s actually not bad to be starstruck is what I’ve found. If someone is telling you about how they invented Hip-Hop, it’s okay to be like, “That’s amazing!” [Laughs] It is amazing. It helps the guest understand that their life is amazing, and the things that they’ve experienced are remarkable. I tried not to hide that. I tried to be present and be reactive in a way that was how I feel, and I’m a fan of Hip-Hop. If Busta Rhymes is telling me a story about Q-Tip, and it’s amazing, and I love [the work of] both of those guys, I think it’s okay to show that. It doesn’t make you somehow partial or uninformed. It’s honest, and I’m glad you said that: it makes me appear like a proxy for the fan.
Rodrigo Bascuñán: Shad is the stand-in for all of us. I don’t mean just the three of us, I mean literally every Hip-Hop fan. “What would you do if you had this opportunity to talk to all the pioneers and legends of Hip-Hop? How would you be in that room? What would you ask? What would you want to know?” His approach, as far as the interviewer asking the questions, was harder to land on. Even though it’s probably not that obvious, it’s probably a pretty subtle thing, that’s something we struggled a lot with in the edit. “What does Shad know? What does he not know? What does he know at this point?” We made a lot of edits. It got really confusing—I think we actually confused ourselves at some points. Then we landed on the simplest, most logical thing—which is “Shad is who he is. He obviously knows certain things. Let’s not get caught up in trying to create this false narrative of Shad discovering who Kool Herc is; he knows who Kool Herc is.” At a certain point, the [executive producers] wanted it to be this journey. We went really back-and-forth on that.
AFH: I commend you on the balance of appeasing the Hip-Hop Heads, but also being approachable to those new and outside the culture. I’ve spoken to so many people, including in my family, who treat Hip-Hop Evolution like an interesting documentary for something they want to learn about. You’ve appeased both audiences. I learn things that I never knew, and others get the building blocks.
Rodrigo Bascuñán: That was super intentional. It was always about, “We can’t lose an uninformed viewer, but we also have to provide nuggets for people who really know their stuff.” Paradise Gray, in season 2,is a good example of trying to approach it differently. We’re talking about that golden age in New York where it’s Rakim, and [KRS-One]. You could’ve that story a bunch of different ways; that’s true for almost any given part of the series. We just wanted to go with something different, and [decided on] the Latin Quarter and Paradise Gray. I think the Roosevelt Hotel [record conventions] is another example, talking about crate-digging and producers, but coming in from, “Hey, what about this place where everybody linked up in and was influential?” And then using that as the jump-off point.
AFH: Place is important, especially in the Internet age. Artists are talking about their feelings in new ways, but they won’t let you into their home with cameras. Hip-Hop Evolution has tremendous visual settings and whatnot.
Darby Wheeler: I’m happy you noticed that. We don’t point it out, but some of the locations are where people hung out. I always think about season 3, the [“Dirty South”] episode. When Shad’s doing the intro to the Dungeon Family, he’s walking by The Dungeon [house]. It’s funny; we don’t ever say, “Hey, there’s the Dungeon.” But it’s that organic thing. Yeah, we want to interview [Afrika Bambaataa] in the Bronx River projects. Even if you don’t point it out, you’re trying to establish a feel. Rodrigo and Shad know that I’m a nerd for that stuff. There’s a lot of stuff. I could go through the whole series and do a pop-up of stuff that we don’t even point out [about geography].
AFH: This will be used in classrooms as a teaching aid.
Darby Wheeler: That’s happening already, actually. Sadat X teaches a class, and he told me he’s using it.
AFH: You have some incredible archival video and photographs—things that I had never seen before, anywhere. Can you speak to that effort?
Darby Wheeler: Rodrigo and I are real Rap nerds. [He] ran Pound magazine in Canada for 10 years. So visuals are something that he always thinks about a lot. We had a really great team that were there—not Hip-Hop Heads, but more so somebody you could picture doing visuals for film archivals. They’re very diligent. We would send them on paths and give them names; I think we were the real architects of what we wanted to get. But the other side is just thinking outside the box, and talking to people. I’d ask everybody [what they had]. What was always the best is if we could license stuff that had never been seen. I think about the JAY-Z piece in season 3. There’s footage of him on stage with [Big Daddy] Kane, and I got that from Kane and his brother. Tapping into that stuff, it’s hard because people have to transfer [it]. Not everybody’s organized like Paradise Gray. It’s sort of being extra about it [and] not being lazy.
Rodrigo Bascuñán: I collect Hip-Hop magazines. I have about 1,500 of them. So we would go through them and look at credits [to understand who was there]. They weren’t always well-known photographers. With OutKast, this happened. We some pretty early photos of them in The Source. [We] reached out to that photographer, who happened to be the staff photographer for LaFace [Records] at the time. He’s like a teacher now; he wasn’t actively shooting anymore. He’s like, “Oh yeah, I’ve got boxes of this stuff.” He sent all these photo-slides of all this LaFace stuff that he had. Most of it had never been seen before. It was just a combination of digging a little more and wanting that extra piece—all within a budget, of course.
AFH: You do a great job, collectively, of being objective. You look at the origin story of Hip-Hop, and even today, there’s debate over who did what, when, and whatnot. This history is a living, breathing thing. Sometimes who has the microphone tells the story that becomes record. How did you navigate those sensitive issues without forcing your hand as trying to be the authority or confusing the viewer?
Rodrigo Bascuñán: When we were digging in the history, there were points where we definitely wanted to clarify, because there were competing narratives. There were points of, “Well, let’s find out what really happened. When was this date? Who really did it first?” Then we got to the point [of realization] that it’s too muddy. It won’t really benefit anybody that much. Like you pointed out, it will be so focused on chronology that it’ll make the storytelling more clumsy. It might confuse the viewer even. We just decided in the end that we’ll ask a lot of people the same question. Whatever seems to be the consensus is what we’re rolling with. With the pioneers, we talked to everyone.
AFH: In season 4, you dedicate an episode to the physical mixtape. I think that “Street Dreams” episode can be eye-opening for younger viewers who are used to streams and downloads.
Darby Wheeler: That was the most exciting time for me, in decades. Still, I think about [Lil] Wayne and [DJ] Drama and those tapes—then 50 [Cent] too. It’s unfortunate [that] we didn’t get a chance to talk to [Lil Wayne and 50 Cent]. I always feared this about going further into the series that we’d start to have a [hard time getting new talent]. Everyone controls their message, so they don’t really need to do stuff. The other thing we were up against is that I think we awakened a bit of a giant with Hip-Hop Evolution. People started to think, “Oh, I’m gonna do my own doc.” That’s what I started to hear. So we didn’t get to talk to [some] people, which for me, is unfortunate. It’s a bummer, and we tried really hard. I think what we ended up being able to do is to tell the story by using the people who were involved in it and relying on archival stuff. “Street Dreams” [the episode] falls into that. T.I. was obviously really gracious. Props to that guy.
Rodrigo Bascuñán: [In telling the story of Hip-Hop], when you get to the 2000s, you can tell the story a lot of ways. So you had to look at what were the bigger trends. What unifies 50 Cent and Lil Wayne and T.I.? You could split them all up, you could group them differently, but it’s important to remember some of the big-picture stuff in Hip-Hop. The big picture things [we focused on throughout Hip-Hop Evolution] are what are the rappers doing? What are the producers doing? What’s happening in the culture? And what’s technology’s role in all of this? The mixtape is a part of that story, the tech part. We have MP3s taking over, it’s hurting the music industry, and rappers adjust to it. How does it affect Hip-Hop and vice-versa? So that was how we came up with that particular theme for that episode. We can actually unify all these [artists] who are very different from each other but have one common element, and that’s using a new technology to find a different way to promote themselves. [It also] gives them this space to operate in, outside of the labels, which is really freeing to them as rappers. What [happened was] that they all became trendsetters.
Shad: That’s what I always say when people ask me what I’ve learned making the show. [I say] that I never thought of Hip-Hop as the story of technology. Through doing these interviews, that’s what I learned—exactly the way you put it, Rodrigo. From the turntables to MP3 and mixtapes, it’s evolved. [Also], talking with Q-Tip about the [A Tribe Called Quest] albums, and how sampling technology changed. Through that process, the sound completely changed.
AFH: I like the parsing out within the South. You have a whole episode dedicated to Bounce music, which is so important. You’re individualizing the Tennessee movement, the Texas stuff, which is so often lumped together with Atlanta and Miami.
Rodrigo Bascuñán: I think that’s one of the benefits of having time and distance from a subject. I think if you had done a Hip-Hop documentary in 2000, the influence of both [DJ] Screw and Three 6 Mafia would not be that evident to you. You might not say, “Oh, this is super important.” But now, here we are 20 years later, and you can really see what the effect of that was. We’re lucky in that we have that time to actually witness all of the ripple effects of those movements. Again, we just want to be as truthful and honest about the story of Hip-Hop music as possible. I think the distinctions between the scenes are pretty large. The influences that they had are quite different.
AFH TV: As you told me, Hip-Hop Evolution began as a freestanding one-season series. The way that the early enthusiasm from viewers prompted three additional seasons, what can we do, as fans, to make more seasons a reality?
Rodrigo Bascuñán: We don’t know if there will be another season. Again, we left it open-ended. We end season 4 in a way that leaves space for more seasons—or season; I don’t think there’s that much more to go, where we would feel comfortable [taking that space and distance to understand the subject]. I think the closest we’d feel going is maybe 2014, 2015—which would give us basically one more season to do. We would do it, but yeah—if the people want to reach out to Netflix and start some great, viral hashtag, we wouldn’t be mad at that.
Darby Wheeler: Rodrigo and I have started a production company called Scenario Productions. We’re staying in the space, so we’re working on related topics. If [people] want to support, that’s always an avenue too.
AFH TV: There has to be so much footage that we’ve not seen. Do you think Heads may ever get the chance?
Shad: A lot of the conversations are like an hour or more. [Sometimes they] are edited down to 30 seconds for one quote. Getting to do more seasons has been a surprise [as well as] having this trove of interviews—this bank of resources.
Darby Wheeler: We don’t own any of it. But you’re right, Shad, we know what’s in there. I hope someone if they do do anything, they look to us to help. That’s all I gotta say.
AFH TV: As we close, do you personally have favorite moments from Hip-Hop Evolution?
Darby Wheeler: When we went to Port Arthur to [cover] UGK, it was a pretty crazy day. Bun B obviously was there. He was sort of the caretaker, but all of these guys came out of the woodwork [for Pimp C]. It was this whole community. I could relate in a way, ’cause I came from a really small town. You drive to the city for anything exciting. But you knew that this group was [bigger]. There was more to it. There were guys in the background. They were all sort of coming together for Pimp C. We had this really good interview with Bun. That part where he talks about Pimp C [so powerfully, his friends] were all like that. He was this lightning guy; you could feel what he meant to them, and the weight of his loss. Bun gets emotional on camera. We have a rapper crying on camera. It’s rare, but I love the emotion of that moment.
Shad: The feedback I love hearing from people is [about] newfound respect. There was a lot of that, for say, a Shock G. People watching him on camera and learning a little about Digital Underground and going, “Man, I love Shock G. I didn’t know Humpty [Hump] was that deep, musically or that deep of a person.” We get those comments about Bun B [and] Grandmaster Flash [too]. Those are the comments I love hearing: people getting a deeper appreciation for how inventive and brilliant some of our artists are.
Rodrigo Bascuñán: There are a lot of those. I think any time there’s a bit of an unsung hero on the screen, I’m really happy. First season: definitely Coke La Rock and [DJ] Hollywood. Those two are so important to the early history, but they’re seldom seen. I mean, that’s the first real interview on camera that Coke La Rock had ever done. He did one with Steven Hager, but it was like a Skype interview. I’m not talking about properly shot. It was cool, and his energy’s great. He’s such a character. It’s just amazing to let [viewers] see who these people are and feel their energy. I hope that people can connect, especially with the pioneers. Who they are as people and the energy they have influenced how the culture is. These are the guys—literally who they are as people—that created the energy that the culture carries to this day—that freedom, that going against the grain [attitude], that rebellious spirit, the [innovation], the refusal to be held down by your circumstances. That’s who they were as people, and that turned into a culture. I love when you can see the people.
[Grandmaster] Caz is another great example. Caz has been in docs before, but we gave him so much shine, especially with the Cold Crush [vs.] Fantastic Five battle. People can see. [Grandmaster] Melle Mel said it best: “If Caz had been on ‘Rapper’s Delight,’ people would consider him the greatest rapper of all time.’ He had the catalog on the streets, he just never had it on vinyl—and that’s what kept from that conversation. [In the documentary], people can really see his personality. Caz is truthfully an all-Hip-Hop guy [across the elements]. Any time we could translate that to the screen was very rewarding.
All four seasons of Hip-Hop Evolution are now streaming on Netflix.