Questlove, famed drummer from The Roots, producer, television personality, podcaster, music journalist and so much more, is a self-proclaimed “hip hop nerd.” And even he was surprised by the things he discovered as an Executive Producer of AMC’s Hip Hop: The Songs That Shook America.
That’s the power of the new six-episode docu-series, in which each episode focuses on one song that shifted both musical and social consciousness when it hit the airwaves. But the first step in the making the show — choosing the songs to create six hour-long documentaries about — wasn’t easy.
“I kinda said that the basis of the show, the format that I personally wanted to go by, was ESPN’s 30 for 30,” Questlove says on his inspiration for the series. “I’m personally not that much of a sports addict, but I am a fan of ESPN’s 30 for 30, so the way that I’ve been immersed and engaged in that particular show… I wanted this show to reach out and grab not only its target audience – classic hip hop heads – but I wanted them to also reach non-hip hop heads, hip hop heads of younger generations that don’t know about these songs. [I wanted to] do it in a way so thorough, you just leave no stone unturned.”
When it came time to choose which songs to focus on for Season 1, Questlove jokes, “For the first two weeks of meetings, it was like CSI, like cops sit with their charts and their graphs, and the blackboard.” We used Shea Serrano’s book [Rap Yearbook] as a blueprint, and he wasn’t choosing the song that sold the most… A lot of us gave our sentimental favorites. We had to dissect every song and see how deep was the well for a story to be told.”
Hip hop fans and newcomers alike will have plenty of story to dive into, as the show explores six game-changing songs that defined a cultural shift in hip hop culture and musical history at large, including Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks,” Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright,” Run-DMC’s “ROCK BOX,” OutKast’s “Elevators,” Queen Latifah’s “Ladies First,” and “The Bridge” by Marley Marl and MC Shan.
Featuring first-hand accounts about the creation of these pivotal moments in music from the artists and producers themselves, Hip Hop: The Songs That Shook America brings viewers directly into the heart of the music with the small human moments that changed the course of history. “That should be the goal of every documentary,” Questlove says. “Every documentary I’ve seen, nine times out of 10, I’m not too well-versed in that particular subject — but it’s the documentary’s job to teach you what it is, and to suck you in, and to bring you in.”
So why is now the time bring people in? “In the past two years, I’ve been seeing little experiments of established hip hop experts playing, or “testing” millennials, on their knowledge of hip hop, and being disappointed in the results,” Questlove says. “One particular case was MTV, back in 2009, where they played De La Soul’s debut album, which is known throughout history as a seminal classic. They played the ‘3 Feet High and Rising’ album for them. The reaction of course, which I expected — if you give somebody something without any context whatsoever, you don’t know what you’re gonna get. Without context, history is a dangerous thing. We’re seeing that right now in our political world, and just the spouting out of anything without education or context or anything of that matter.
“The kids were like, ‘Well, we don’t get it, it’s not that interesting,’ or at best, ‘I guess we had to be there in 1989 to see why this was so wonderful,'” Questlove continues. “Without all that context — the production value, the sample history, the rhyming, the education on their rhyming style, or how they changed fashion, or how they changed even the idea of networking, or any of those things, you’re kind of in the dark. So, of course they were less than enthusiastic about it.”
Questlove says it’s up to those endeavoring to preserve musical history to not only share the art and artists of the past, but also why the work mattered. However, he believes that is rarely happening, which is why he’s excited for fans to experience Hip Hop: The Songs That Shook America. “I think it’s because many of us just assume that we will know what’s so great about it,” he says. “I tell this story all the time. My last year teaching at NYU, I was teaching about Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller,’ and my first question to my students was, ‘How many of you are familiar with this record? How many of you have even heard it?’ And of the 30 students, only six raised their hands. And for a majority of them, they said, ‘Yeah, our grandparents had that record,’ or ‘My parents listen to it all the time,’ or ‘They used to play it with me when I was in kindergarten. For me, that’s the most important thing of all. If you want to preserve hip hop history, you have to make it interesting and engage people. And that’s what I’m about.”
So keep the classics alive and dive into the deep well of hip hop classics with the artists who created them this Sunday at Midnight/11c. Can’t wait? Stream the Series Premiere early, with no login required, and discover the genesis of Kanye West’s transcendent “Jesus Walks.”
Plus, unlock more with AMC Premiere: the Full Season 1 will be available Sunday night for AMC Premiere subscribers.
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