In October of 2019, AMC aired a six-episode series called Hip Hop: The Songs That Shook America. That series is being released on DVD and Blu-ray as a 2-Disc set featuring the episodes and extras including commentary, additional interviews, and a Barbershop freestyle. Each episode is structured in a similar way. There’s a cultural context of what was going on in society and popular culture at the time of the song’s release. There’s a persepctive of what the artist had done up to that point and how their careers changed because of the release of the song. And there are interviews with current artists to show some lasting impact of the songs. The songs are to varying degrees deconstructed and the lyrics are examined. All of which happens over the course of each hour-long episode.
There’s two ways to go about critiquing these episodes. One is the choice of songs. If you are going to spend an hour on a song, is it a worthy choice and does it fit the criteria that you have established. In this case the songs chosen are “Jesus Walks” by Kanye West, “Alright” by Kendrick Lamar, “Rock Box” by Run-DMC, “Elevators” by OutKast, “The Bridge” by Marley Marl and MC Shan, and “Ladies First” by Queen Latifah. The other critique would be regarding the presentation of the episodes. Are the songs presented in a context that makes sense and doesn’t leave out important details or over-inflate the impact of the songs.
When you subtitle your program “The Songs That Shook Amerca”, you better come through with some of the top songs of all-time. If your program is “The Songs That You Might Not Know Shook a Small Portion of the Hip Hop Community”, then I have a lower expectation of your song choices. Even the most ardent fans of Hip Hop wouldn’t come up with more than maybe three of these songs on their list if they were challenged to make a list based on the title. Maybe the existence of other movies and documentaries scared the producers away from choosing songs by N.W.A. or WuTang Clan. Maybe there’s a licensing issue that caused the series to only be able to choose from certain labels.
You can have a pretty solid argument that Run-DMC needs to be represented on here and I’ll even acquiese that “Rock Box” was pretty important even if nothing changed their careers or the arc of Hip Hop as much as their “Walk This Way”. I think that “The Bridge” is probably the best choice of these six songs because of what it meant to the evolution of the art. This is a song that addresses important developments such as sampling, the role of the DJ / producer in the production, and the role of regional loyalty in Hip Hop. I would make a case that “Ladies First” is important in the evolution of the Native Tongues movement but you are telling a story that starts in the second chapter when you start with Queen Latifah. But it’s an important story in the evolution of Hip Hop because of what came afterwards for women in the industry.
I’m less impressed with the “Shook America” aspects of “Alright” by Kendrick Lamar. The importance of this era of Hip Hop is interesting as its role in society has changed as it has become more of a mainstream genre but this doesn’t feel like the right pick. Same goes for OutKast and “Elevators”. There has to be at least five other OutKast songs that I would love to see featured. Even as they talk about this song, you realize that there are far more interesting options. This is a group that made a huge impact on popular culture and should have had a better song featured. The only problem with Kanye’s “Jesus Walks” is Kanye. It’s an important song and Kanye is an important figure in that early 2000s scene. But no one loves Kanye songs more than Kanye and this breakdown of the song comes across as way too much of a love letter to the man which takes away from the role it played in changing the sound of Hip Hop.
What’s missing? We can argue for days about the songs that should be featured but to leave out Grandmaster Flash “The Message”, anything by Wu-Tang, Notorious B.I.G., and Public Enemy ignores the times in history when a song/group came along and changed the trajectory of the genre. There’s some forgiveness if this is a multi-season project but it doesn’t feel like that is happening here. I appreciate that these are all good songs. They have all played important roles to many people’s lives. But when Dr. Dre drops “Nuthin’ but a G Thang” you hear it once and you know the rules have changed. When Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” drops that first beat and Chuck D says, “1989, the number another Summer…”, you know that people will be gathering in the streets for over 30 years to that anthem.
The presentation of these episodes is first class. There’s a challenge to present a song over the course of an hour and not have the viewer get tired of hearing the song over and over after 30 minutes. So as the history of the song is discussed and the initial influences they are careful not to play more than snippets of the song. Once the song is introduced and the beat and lyrics are broken down, then the song is dished out in smaller bits until it is presented in longer breaks as they talk about the popularity of the song. The producers and executive producers like Erik Parker, One9, Questlove, and Black Thought are very knowledgeable about the history of the genre and tell interesting backstories that even ardent fans might not be aware.
The series is an interesting presentation of six documentaries about specific songs. There isn’t a connection of one to another as there could have been. But each story stands strong on their own if you enjoy the song. If you don’t like these songs, nothing here is going to convince you to change your opinion. It leaves you with a taste to see documentaries on some of the more influential songs. If you are going to shake America, if you are going to shake the windows in the back of America’s car, then bring the beats. This just falls short of a braggadocious title.
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