You may know AMC from producing some of the most culturally relevant shows of the past decade from Breaking Bad to Mad Men to The Walking Dead. These are shows that have made an indelible mark on television history from a channel that has not been producing original content for very long. What you may not know is that the channel has been quietly creating some of the most engaging entertainment-based documentary series around. Genre fans have had a blast checking out James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction and Eli Roth’s History of Horror, among other series, but music fans have also found something to celebrate. In the fall of 2019, AMC debuted Hip Hop: The Songs That Shook America from producers Questlove and Black Thought of the Roots, as well as Academy Award–winning documentarian Alex Gibney. The series gave an in-depth look at six groundbreaking hip hop songs that had a seismic impact on the genre with participation from important industry figures. While a real treat for fans of the songs, this series provides an excellent gateway for newcomers just as well.
The range of songs that the series tackles spans from the earliest days of hip hop to newer classics that have already become entrenched in the culture. The six episodes of this series are devoted to MC Shan and Marley Marl’s “The Bridge,” Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks,” Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright,” Run-DMC’s “Rock Box,” Outkast’s “Elevators,” and Queen Latifah and Monie Love’s “Ladies First.” For old school hip hop fans that want a down and dirty history of one of the early feuds, you cannot go wrong with the episode covering “The Bridge.” In this episode, you get to delight in the history of the genre, as the song showcases one of the earliest examples of song sampling in hip hop. You also have both sides offering up their reasoning for the escalating wax battle that sprang forth from a bombastic declaration that did not sit well with certain New York boroughs. This is information that could easily have been confined to obsessive hip hop fans that actively seek out this type of lore, but the series lays everything out in a compulsively watchable way.
Every episode has something significant to say about the history of the song, even if you do not have a personal connection to it. Kanye West has alienated a lot of people in the past several years, but the story behind “Jesus Walks” is bigger than him. When you get the behind-the-scenes details of the choir that West sampled in his song, you are given a beautiful portrait of overcoming individual struggles that should move even the most steadfast Kanye West hater. “Ladies First” offers up an amazing look at Queen Latifah as an artist and a person, all the while delivering fun tidbits about the song. Apparently, the world got so close to having the incredible MC Lyte appear on the song alongside Latifah and Love, but her record label’s shortsightedness prevented this epic pairing. The look into Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” feels prescient to the time we are living in with all of the protests going on now. Lamar did not fix the world with his music, but he offered up something that people could rally behind and use as a symbol for survival.
If there is any flaw to find with the series, it would be the way in which the show occasionally tries to make the song in question more historically relevant than it needs to be. In the dissection of Outkast’s classic “Elevators” that show blurs the timeline a bit to make it seem that this was the song that launched Outkast. While they actually had experienced success prior to this, it does not take away from the power of the song. There are likely other ways in which the show manipulates things a bit to build up each song to greater importance, but every song demonstrates a reason that it should be showcased in multiple different ways. Fans of the genre will appreciate being able to hear the stories behind these iconic songs from those intimately involved in the process as well as famous fans of the music. Figures such as John Legend, Rhymefest, Pharrell, LL Cool J and even Al Sharpton, along with many more, give very enlightening thoughts on these tunes. I could watch series such as this one all day, and I hope to hear one day that there will be a continuation with so many more stories just waiting to be told.
Hip Hop: The Songs That Shook America comes to Blu-Ray featuring a lot of different material in varying degrees of quality. It can be said with certainty that the show itself and everything within it looks as technically excellent as it can look in high definition. This can partly be attributed to the fact that RLJE Films spread these six episodes over two discs, giving them plenty of room to breathe. This company has been so great in this respect, and it is always appreciated. The archival clips used seem to be the best versions that were available when this was made, with most of them looking pretty excellent. Interview segments look incredibly sleek and clear with natural skin tones and detailed facial features. There is no evidence of compression artifacts or other digital nuisances of the sort. I do not see how this set could have been improved visually. It’s a real stunner as is.
This Blu-Ray disc comes with a DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio track that perfectly suits the source material, but is understandably restrained. As this primarily acts as an interview show with talking heads abound, dialogue is the focus right up front in the center channel. The archival clips do not feature much in the way of age-related wear, thankfully. Since this is a show focused on music, the sound quality of the songs themselves is pristine and fills the room in a powerful way. The two-channel presentation is enveloping in its own way, and it maintains the artistic choice of the series. For that reason, this is a very worthwhile audio track.
- Barber Shop Freestyle: A three-minute clip featuring “Jesus Walks” co-director Coodie Simmons going to the barbershop where patrons discuss their history with a young Kanye West. Simmons also drops a fun freestyle that is worth a watch.
- Rooftop Redemption: A three-minute clip with Scott La Rock Jr. meeting with D-Nice to discuss his late father with someone who knew him best. This is a really touching exchange.
- Sound of the South: An extended three-minute clip in which Questlove goes in depth into how the southern hip hop sounds differs from that of other regions of the country.
- Basement Tapes: Ten additional clips totaling nearly 22-minutes featuring additional interviews with Chuck D, Darryl “DMC” McDaniels, Big Boi, Funkmaster Flex, Queen Latifah and more. There’s a lot of great stuff here, from DMC discussing how comic books gave him confidence to Big Boi detailing how they took over Bobby Brown’s studio.
Hip Hop: The Songs That Shook America is a series that should appeal to established fans of the genre, as well as newcomers looking to discover some of the more historically notable songs they should know about. The production value of this series is incredibly high and the interviews are very fun and informative. The Blu-Ray from RLJE Films provides an excellent A/V presentation and some really excellent special features. This is the type of comfort series you can revisit again and again. Highly Recommended
Hip Hop: The Songs That Shook America is currently available to purchase on Blu-Ray and DVD.
Note: Images presented in this review are not reflective of the image quality of the Blu-Ray.
Disclaimer: RLJE Films and AMC has supplied a copy of this set free of charge for review purposes. All opinions in this review are the honest reactions of the author.
Dillon is most comfortable sitting around in a theatre all day watching both big budget and independent movies.