Livin' Ghetto Fabulous
Backstage opens with a quick look back at 1993. The camera, situated amid a crowd, looks up at a scrawny kid, freestyling like nobody’s business. The folks on screen respond enthusiastically: he’s got obvious skills. As the image fades out, this scrawny kid declares himself: “Jay-Z, the greatest nigga.”
Cut to 1999. Jiggaman’s all grown up and headlining the Hard Knock Life Tour. The camera still looks up at him, but now the image is high-resolution, the lighting is designed, the stage is huge, and Jay-Z is The Matrix, a bonafide superstar flashing Roc-A-Wear clothing and serious ice (Roc-a-Wear being the clothing line attached to Jay-Z’s label, Roc-A-Fella: anyone who’s anyone in hip-hop these days has a clothing line). And here, as the documentary Backstage introduces the tour, Jay and DMX are performing “Snoopy Track.” Larger than life, Jay raps, “Here’s to the black culture.”
Named for Jay-Z’s first crossover single the one that samples from the musical Annie the Hard Knock Life Tour was a smashing and surprising success, being both peaceful and profitable (to the tune of $18 million). Backstage, directed by Chris Fiore, tracks the multi-act show as Jay-Z along with fellow headliners X, Method Man, and Redman pack arenas, travel on buses, roll dice, smoke dope. The documentary’s look approximates a raw and honest insider’s view of life on the road, powered by handheld video footage, fast-cuts, and commotion in the frames. But after a few minutes, it’s clear that what you’re watching is not some wild and unpredictable mix-up of events and people, but a careful construction of image and effect.
This construction occurs by way of standard concert film techniques interviews with performers (Jay-Z, X, Meth, Redman, Ja Rule, DJ Clue, Amil, et. al.) and managers (Jay’s road manager Ty Ty Smith, tour manager Ron Byrd), a brief moment with that funny little guy named Pain in The Ass, who does the skit voices on Jay-Z’s records (and who, once on camera, reveals he can rhyme some as well), as well as some clips from performances on stage and even a couple of impromptu rhymes on the bus or backstage. Most of the interviewees predictably give major props to the principals (everyone loves X, don’t even look for a hater) and a few allude to beef, in particular, those interviews with Roc-a-Fella CEO and co-founder (and this film’s producer) Damon Dash. He’s what you might call a “forceful personality,” plainly proud of his accomplishments and ever-ready to take on anyone he thinks might be disrespecting him. And so, you see Dash chew out Kevin Liles from Def Jam (co-sponsoring the tour), whom Dash believes is hogging PR limelight. One of his more memorable tirades comes over the fact that Liles has provided the tour members with swank jackets featuring the Def Jam logo, meaning that said logo will be featured prominently in photos and personal appearances. According to Dash, this leaves Roc-A-Fella at a disadvantage, promotionally speaking. (Presumably, Roc-A-Fella jackets would have been fine, had Dash or someone else thought of the idea first.) Memorably, Dash makes his case loudly, at times while being barbered, his bald head popped up from a protective cape, the camera maintaining a deferential distance and sometimes swinging to catch Liles’ relatively subdued rejoinders.
On one level, this footage suggests Dash (who undoubtedly had some say in the editing room) is candidly revealing a moment of vanity and/or weakness, like when you’re listening to Madonna complain about Warren Beatty in Truth or Dare or Biggie recall being suicidal in The Show. But there’s something else going on here, in that Dash resembles one of those movie mafia dons who get manicures while planning their insidious business. Looked at from that angle, the scene seems less an instance of brutal honesty than part of an elaborate process of self-invention: Dash is transformed almost from behind the scenes wheeler-dealer to movie star, rehearsing his part for a straight-to-video gangsta picture. Of course, this kind of self-love is not news in the music-celeb biz: Puffy Combs and Jermaine Dupree used to be producers, too.
At the same time, Backstage is coming up on a wave (mainstream interst in “hip-hop,” however it’s conceived, has penetrated Nightline, running a three part series beginning on the night that Backstage and Turn It Up open). But this wave is incessantly, increasingly complicated: “keeping it real” isn’t what it used to be. The film offers up some real-life stories, mostly about success. Taking you through brief histories of the up-and-coming stars, like Memphis Bleek and Beanie Sigel (he of “The Truth,” here deemed by Jay “the next one”), the film also grants some (subtly? inadvertently?) ironic distance on the hype. Peep Bleek, riding in his limo, as he’s proclaiming, “I live what I’m talking about, makes my music more real.” Or check Beanie Sigel’s manager, asserting that he was instantly impressed with his man’s skills: “He was signed twelve hours after I met him. True story.” Cut to Sigel, who, for his part, maintains that, beyond his own “good-ass looks,” it takes hard work, long hours, and perseverance to make it: “Go to them labels. Keep bangin’ on them niggas’ doors.”
Of course, ambition, talent, good luck, and effort can only take you so far. The film addresses racism in the business by underlining the tour’s lack of “incidents.” This stands as proof to the rest of the planet that it’s possible to mount an expensive, large-venue hip-hop show. “Everybody expects violence,” says Ty Ty Smith during his interview. But, he notes proudly, on the bus they’re watching Good Will Hunting, not some gangster movie. DJ Twinz Z adds that, at white rock shows, mosh-pits are “normal” and “bloody,” but if a similar violence were to happen at a hip-hop show, “they’d shut it down.” The point is well taken and far too familiar to anyone who pays attention to such things, and it’s sad testament to current media culture that it has to be made at all. Given the subsequent success of last year’s Cash Money-Ruff Ryders tour, and the so-far-so-good behavior of those involved with Up in Smoke (excepting Eminem’s arrests on assault and weapons charges and one or two other altercations), we might be looking toward the day when such over-determined mainstream anxieties about hip-hop tours per se (i.e., shows featuring young black males wearing baggy jeans and bandanas) will subside.
Aside from such testimony, the film offers precious little evidence of how the shows actually go down. The actual concert scenes are, in a word, brief. There’s a limit to how “live” a filmed show can seem, certainly, but the long tradition of concert docs includes some unforgettable and thankfully recorded performances Biggie or Run-DMC in Brian Robbins’ The Show, Dylan in D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back, David Byrne in Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense. It’s almost frustrating to see the legendarily charismatic DMX do less than a minute of “Slippin” or “My Niggas,” or to watch the jump-suited-and-harnessed Meth and Redman fly over viewers’ heads in a series of different performances of “How High.” You believe X when he asserts, his head down and his body pressed against a wall, “The only part of the tour I like is the one hour I’m onstage.” Frankly, it would be great to see a little more of that hour.
Still, the film’s onstage moments are the precious few where the two women on the tour Ruff Ryders’ First Lady, Eve, and Roc-A-Fella’s Amil get a chance to say much of anything. Amil appears on camera a couple of times to attest to her boys’ prowess and loyalty, but other than that, the girls don’t get much play or more accurately, the female MCs don’t get much. To illustrate the full fun and glory of life on a music tour (and we all know this is true for rock and hip-hop shows alike), Backstage offers repeated images of the apparently always-available hoochie-mamas, their identities blurred out by yellow smiley faces or signs that say “Your Ad Here.” While this cutesy device is startling at first, by the time you see the fourth or fifth anonymous-mama offering some crew member a lap-dance or heading off to a rapper’s hotel room, you’re way too used to it.
The most insistent note struck by Backstage in interviews and performances is that everyone is glad to be there. They have flashes of homesickness and boredom, silliness and tension, but according to the film, these were more than made up for by the sense of camaraderie, mutual respect, and the genuine thrill they all developed during their months on the tour. And if you don’t walk away from Backstage feeling like you know more about these performers than you did before, you have probably seen them as they imagined themselves at this moment, real or not.