Slick, well-packaged docu charts the history of “beefs” –hip-hop battles that made headlines around the deaths of Tupac and Biggie and furnished Eminem’s dramatic centerpiece in “8 Mile.” Though a bit ungainly at 103 minutes, latest docu by Peter Spirer (“Rhyme and Reason,” “Thug Angel,” “Modern Warriors”) boasts clever graphics, well-written narration voiced by Ving Rhames and appearances by just about everyone who’s anyone in rap. Docu should be a hot seller for Image Entertainment, which released the DVD at the end of September. A healthy cable life seems assured.
Docu traces beefs back to the relatively innocuous, albeit far-reaching, confrontation between Busy Bee and Kool Moe Dee on one night in 1981 at Harlem World. Busy Bee was an established celebrity club emcee but did not contribute much in the way of deathless lyrics, while Kool Moe Dee, a more serious, inventive rapper, represented a new generation. Their personal clash proved one-on-one combat could boost sales considerably.
Fueled by record companies, beefs became big business. Albums by warring artists yelled back and forth at one another, each time upping the disrespect ante, and sales went through the roof. Given the economic stakes and the aggressive nature of the form, “playas'” rap was soon busy targeting other performers rather than the powers-that-be.
Beefs began to stretch over many albums and many songs. Here Spirer effectively employs rare clips of club dates to present protracted arguments in the form of extended musical dialogues, often (but not often enough) incorporating graphics, skillfully doing double-duty as subtitles, making it easier to follow trail of dirty disses.
Spirer also uses collage and three-dimensional effects to mime the repetitive, in-your-face nature of rap. The same words or names, excerpted from footage of various superstar rappers, are sometimes edited in rapid-fire succession as a visual form of spin. Montages of quick sound-bites alternate with more extensive combative interviews, as one side of a beef responds to the other via interview clips.
Spirer traces the move away from artistic differences to territorial disputes (Queens versus Brooklyn, East Coast versus West Coast) and the attendant escalation of hostilities followed by uneasy interventions by cooler heads. Some artists proudly recount knife fights necessary to maintain their dignity. Others blame the murderous violence on huge entourages full of home boys fresh out of jail who, in order to impress their idols, take down the opposition unasked.
One “playa” apologizes for past immaturity as he watches a horrifically farcical tape where he and his boys chase a rival group with golf clubs on the 18-hole set of a music video. Ice Cube figures as a volatile hothead in old clips, and the voice of reason in new.
As the film progress toward the present, Spirer chronicles battles in more excruciating detail. The final 50 Cent vs. Ja Rule beef seems to go on forever.
Digital lensing by Jeff Bollman is fine. Driving score by producer Quincy Jones III propels pic without overwhelming sampled rap.