The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences will be presenting their “Spotlight on Music & Sound” series this summer. This year, the series will focus on hip-hop’s influence on cinema. With the retrospective “Made You Look: Four Decades Of Hip-Hop’s Impact In Cinema,” which is being co-presented with Martha Diaz of the Hip Hop Education Center, the series will look back at 40 years of hip hop’s musical influence on film history.
The four films in the series, Wild Style, Menace II Society, 8 Mile, and Nas: Time Is Illmatic, will track the genre’s emergence from street art to its current mainstream cultural presence. Recently, EBONY.com spoke with Martha Diaz and Patrick Harrison, the Director of New York Programs and Membership at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The pair discussed the importance of hip-hop as an educational tool; it’s profound influence on the cinema medium and the driving force behind “Made You Look: Four Decades Of Hip-Hop’s Impact In Cinema.”
EBONY: What was the inspiration behind the Hip Hop Education Center when you founded it back in 2010? What inspired you to do something so massive and profound?
Martha Diaz: I am a community organizer. I have been trying to use hip-hop culture to empower my community, and it started with a film festival that I launched in 2002. The H2O Hip-Hop Odyssey International Film Festival. As a filmmaker, I felt that we had the potential to counter narratives that were already being broadcast in Hollywood and movie theaters. We had that power to tell our stories. It began there because I started to see filmmakers create education lesson plans for their films. They were going into the community and talking about themes in the films and issues impacting us. I felt like, “Wow, this is amazing, that we are taking things to a whole other level now. Not only are we filmmakers, but we’re also educators.” I started to think about technology and how we could develop our community. Then I realized, there was no research whatsoever that showed we were making a difference. That’s why funders were not taking us seriously. While I was a student at NYU, I teamed up with Dr. Pedro Noguera who is this education, reformist crusader, superman. I said, “You’re studying urban education but you’re not using hip-hop, that’s crazy. Why would you not include hip-hop? You mentor hip-hop scholars. Why don’t you do a study with me on hip-hop education and non-profits? Let’s see what you get out of it.” He was down, and that’s how the Hip Hop Education Center started. This idea that we needed to have some evidence to show that we are making a difference in the community, and not just in the community, in the schools, in correctional facilities, in museums, and libraries. We impact every part of society. Also, I began to envision a field that would help transform and modernize traditional education. That is why I reached out to Dr. Noguera. I knew that hip-hop could captivate and engage young people into learning not only about themselves but the different subjects taught in school. If we could formalize and professionalize hip-hop education, we will decrease the dropout rates, increase job opportunities, and develop our communities from within — facilitated by our hip-hop pioneers, teaching artists, scholars, activists, entrepreneurs, and industry professionals. The ultimate goal of the HHEC is to be an online 21st-century communiversity, where you can learn, teach, and build a legacy.
EBONY: Patrick, what inspired you to do a “Spotlight on Music & Sound” series at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences?
Patrick Harrison: Well, you know I have to tell you, as a person who loves film, wants to study film, always finding something new in film, there was this big question I used to have. It was, “How do they do that? How does that happen?” When a film sounds good, is directed well, what does that mean exactly? So this entire spotlight on craft series was born out of those questions. We were thinking, what is it that the Academy can do to educate and inspire and inform motion film lovers, and Academy members, for that matter. What can we do to educate them on the craft of making a motion picture? So we built this idea, “Spotlight On Craft,” and every year we try to select one of the craft branches of the Academy. Our first year we focused on animation, and that was a really fun because we looked at the three techniques of animation: hand drawn, CGI, and stop-motion. Last year we looked at screenwriting. All about original screenplays and adapted screenplays. This year we decided to kind of combine two and look at what makes up the sound of a film. So, we’re talking about sound engineers, and the prerecording mixers, and the ADR, and the music editors, and really discussing what they contribute to the overall picture. So that’s how we changed the program this year. If we can educate filmgoers and film lovers, on the various crafts and the various departments of making a movie, then perhaps we can have a really educated and informed public, and they’ll sit and actually watch the end credits. People do not care about credits, which is so unfortunate.
EBONY: No one ever sits and watches them unless it’s a Marvel film and they are expecting to see a scene from the next film.
PH: Well you know if you’re watching an animated film, those credits go on for days.
EBONY: For years.
PH: You’re like, “Why are so many people in the storyboard department?” Well, because it takes a lot. I have the overall strategy with the Academy and our program, but also there’s this little strategy in my brain, like, we can have an educated public.
EBONY: Was there a moment or a period in your life when you realized how profound hip-hop was and how it had impacted you? Was there an aha moment for you?
MD: I wasn’t always a community organizer, and I still don’t even consider myself a real hip-hop activist like others that are in the community doing the work. I am a first generation Columbian American. I grew up with no family members in the United States. I was a latchkey kid, and I was isolated for a long time. If it weren’t for hip- hop, I wouldn’t have discovered how cool I was, and I felt that hip-hop helped me develop my identity. It created a family, a community; a network. When I started at Yo! MTV Raps in the ‘90s, that’s what really helped me understand that hip-hop is not just in Paterson, New Jersey where I grew up, it’s global. It has a history; it has pioneers, it has a community that is striving to empower and grow into this utopian society where we could meet our potential through hip-hop culture. That’s where it all began. Then in the ’90s, just understanding my role as a producer. I started out as a PA working for Ted Demme, I became his assistant and then I worked my way up. I realized that I was also special because I am a woman.
MD: Counteracting these narratives of misogyny I just felt like, “I’m going to contribute to hip-hop in this way.” I’m going to be purist about it. As I filmmaker I felt like creating a platform for other filmmakers was the best way to help hip-hop culture.
EBONY: Patrick, did you realize that hip-hop could be an educational tool? I think people are just now realizing that this late in the game.
PH: You know what? I don’t know if I ever thought about it that way. I was just out enjoying it with the rest of the community. But Martha knew. To be perfectly honest with you, for me I don’t know if I ever really thought about it that way, but I would say definitely maybe the mid-90s. Or maybe even the early 2000s, in the last 17 years, I could see that there was a shift, and we started to see it more in film and on television too. People were writing about it more. The music changed, the recording artists … So, yeah in the late ’90s, early 2000s I did see a shift and thought to myself, hmm, hip-hop is here to stay.
EBONY: For sure.
PH: You know, a lot of people didn’t think it would last. When you first started listening to it, I don’t think people thought that it would actually last, so once it took that turn, then it was like hip-hop is here to stay and it’s more than just a type of music, it’s a cultural phenomenon.
EBONY: Why did you choose these particular films for the “MADE YOU LOOK” series? In the ’90s we really had this burst in the hood homeboy genre. There are so many to choose from, so why these four films in particular?
MD: It was hard, but I started, of course, in the beginning. In 1983, Wild Style and Style Wars came out during the same time. Wild Style was the first feature narrative; it was an independent indie film. It was screened on 42nd Street, and it ended up becoming the classic, the blueprint of hip-hop cinema. Style Wars, a documentary started by Henry Chalfant, it premiered at Sundance, it aired on PBS. I just felt like, okay, let’s start with Wild Style because that was a blueprint. That’s what Beat Street was based on and everything else that came after. That’s why I chose Wild Style. The ‘90s was more difficult. Boyz n The Hood was the film that got the Oscar nominee. John Singleton became this prominent director, and he got his start in Hollywood. He was one of those rare filmmakers. Most of us felt during that time, although Boyz n The Hood really was a great film, it didn’t really depict the hood as it really was. I felt like Menace II Society was that film that kind of left us shell shocked and really showed this is what’s really happening in the hood. You have Jada Pinkett, Tyrin Turner, you have you have so many amazing actors and then, of course, the soundtrack QD III, Quincy Jones’ son, did the soundtrack. The Hughes Brothers went off to do amazing work, and they’re actually continuing to do amazing work, and I felt like let’s definitely give Menace II Society some props. But more than anything, I think Menace II Society really reflected the change in narrative. In the ’80s you have hip-hop as peace, unity, love, and having fun; kids figuring out who they are. But in the 90’s, Black men became a problem. All of this gangster rap, all this NWA sh*t, this was a “Black male problem.” I think Menace II Society really showed that and allowed us really to reflect on what was happening in the community. To this day it is very relevant. During the post-screening, we’re going to discuss Black Lives Matter. It’s about what has changed since Menace II Society. I think that’s also another reason why I selected Menace. In the 2000s, we begin to see another change in narratives. Now this Hollywood film with backing from Brian Grazer and Jimmy Iovine with major celebrities, A-list actors are in the film. All of the sudden hip-hop cinema crosses over because we have a white rapper. This could have been the first time hip-hop is introduced to white America, and they love it. They’re like, “Oh my gosh, Black and white kids are not the only one that love hip-hop, white kids love hip-hop. All of the sudden the Black man’s supporting the white rapper. Again, it changes the conversation about who is impacted by hip-hop and why we are more similar than different. 8 Mile won the Best Original Song at the Oscars. It broke records as far as ticket sales. It just set a new standard in the early 2000’s. The last film that I selected … I’m a little biased because I was the associate producer, but I felt that it was necessary to highlight a documentary that did something that no other documentary has done which is open a major film festival. We had Sundance and Tribeca. It opened Tribeca. It opened at the Beacon Theater. We not only screened the film but Nas performed the whole Illmatic album, which has never been done before.
EBONY: Nas: Time Is Illmatic is amazing.
MD: The presentation alone was groundbreaking. Visually these filmmakers put their heart and soul into it, and the craft was just spectacular. The standard, again, they raised the bar, and you can see the quality of documentaries changing. Now you have a cinema verite look here. You don’t know what’s real, what’s archival. It’s all so beautifully intertwined. I think for filmmakers that came after, they were like, “Wow, this is my inspiration.” And after that Straight Outta Compton came out and now you have Roxanne Roxanne coming out and documentaries that are being made. I’m happy to hear Steve McQueen is doing the Tupac documentary.
MD: It’s exciting to see what a documentary can do for a genre. That’s why I chose Time is Illmatic.
PH: Hip-hop has influenced film and art and culture, and we’re seeing hip-hop on Broadway now, with the great success of Hamilton. So it is a global phenomenon. This month long history of hip-hop in film, it’s different. No one else is doing it. I don’t think anyone else is taking a look at it, and as far as the Academy is concerned in our programming, we want to make sure that we’re being all inclusive. We want to make sure we’re asking those questions: “Is this series balanced? Have we hit everything? Is there something new that we can introduce?” We could’ve just done movie musicals, and that would have been fine, but the history of hip-hop takes it to another level, and it’s opened people’s minds to really understand the full impact of how hip-hop has its own culture.
EBONY: Very good. Martha, why is it important for you to partner with the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences for this retrospective?
MD: It’s important because the Academy is the highest standard in the field of Motion Pictures. For the Academy to acknowledge the genre as an important contribution to cinema in general, that speaks volumes. It really gives all these filmmakers a validation, that we are important, that our stories are important, that we are contributing to the economy of filmmaking. And that we are trailblazers too. Next year, Belly will celebrate its 20th anniversary, I believe.
EBONY: Already?! That’s crazy.
MD: Hype Williams. When he did this film, he got critiqued. Everybody was like, “Oh my god, this is a long music video.” He hated Hollywood and the movie industry because they didn’t understand him and now we’re partnering up with the Academy, and we’re saying, “No, this is our own style. This is their style; this is how they do things, and there are certainly filmmakers that are a part of a creative process that we all can appreciate.” This is a form of validation for us, for sure.
EBONY: How do you think that hip hop has changed cinema? We can see on a really broad scale how it’s changed the culture and style, and obviously music. But how has it impacted cinema itself?
PH: I think that it has impacted film in probably in the types of films that are being made, the new generation of filmmakers that are being hired to make them. I think that it’s definitely having a crossover appeal where hip-hop artists are going from the recording studio to the film set. So yeah, I think that it has influenced bringing the music industry into the film industry and introducing us to different kinds of filmmakers with different stories to tell.
EBONY: What do you want people to take away from, “MADE YOU LOOK: FOUR DECADES OF HIP-HOP IMPACT IN CINEMA?”
PH: I want them to come away with a deeper understanding of it, and not push it off as a specific genre, I’m hoping to achieve something that is bigger and broader and all inclusive, as opposed to “oh, that’s Black music.” What I want people to come out and think of it is not to just marginalize it, and put it in one category, but I want them to look at it as something that has a broad, general population appeal.
EBONY: Fantastic. Well, thank you so much.
“MADE YOU LOOK: FOUR DECADES OF HIP-HOP’S IMPACT IN CINEMA” is co-presented with Martha Diaz of the Hip Hop Education Center. The retrospective will run Tuesday, June 6th, 13th, 20th & 27th, at the SVA Theater, 333 W. 23rd Street in New York City. For more details click here.