A beat-driven, inspirational organism that develops and blossoms along with its subjects, “Hip-Hop” tells the story of a once-homeless Brooklynite who prods, pushes and propels his aspiring young rappers to think first and rhyme later. Although the docu may not quite achieve crossover success, it will appeal to a wide variety of audiences, who will find the docu irresistibly uplifting.
With exec-producing support from Bruce Willis (who also appears), “Hip-Hop” tells the story of Chris “Kharma Kazi” Rolle, who was abandoned by his mother in his birthplace of Nassau, Bahamas, eventually made his way to Brooklyn and became homeless there, too, on the streets of Crown Heights. Under the guidance of Art Start, an educational support group founded by the film’s helmer, Scott K. Rosenberg, Rolle found his voice and began the Hip-Hop Project under Art Start’s umbrella.
The thrust of the Hip-Hop project was not simply to enlist young wannabe recording artists, but to refocus their energies and talents away from the gangsta cliches of so much commercial rap and move them toward the real issues affecting the kids’ lives — including family, school and the vagaries of street culture. With illuminating asides into the lives of several key players in Rolle’s posse — notably Diana “Princess” Lemon, Christopher “Cannon” Mapp and Rolle’ fiancee, the ultra-articulate Kheperah Kearse — we get a full portrait of the people and the philosophy behind Rolle’s project.
The initial process involves getting the kids into a sort of acting class that evolves into something close to group therapy. Oftentimes, what helmers Matt Ruskin and Rosenberg give us is emotionally naked, difficult material, but the results are gratifying.
The film develops from a seemingly makeshift production into something stylized and professional, the production values improving as the rappers themselves improve. At the same time, the pic’s rhythm possesses something close to an emotional tidal flow — each time something remarkable happens, the narrative shifts back to the streets and the more mundane concerns of the principal characters. There are no fairy tales here, but no obsessive pessimism either.
In addition to charting the realization of the Hip Hop project’s move into the studio, the film offers an up-close reunion between Rolle and his mother, whose emotional reticence might be attributable to her lack of comfort before the camera. Regardless, it makes the viewer uncomfortable, too — but it’s unquestionably honest, like so much of “Hip-Hop.”