“Here comes the brand new flava in ya ear.” The rousing start of The Show throws all kinds of newness your way, from Craig Mack’s glorious anthem to the preparation of Nation security guards backstage (“All the wannabes tonight, coulda-beens, has-beens, gonna go in the pen. Asalaam aleikum!”), to Dr. Dre’s smug self-assertion (“Fuck what people got to say, I don’t give a fuck”) to Method Man’s sage self-analysis (“When money get involved in this shit, that’s when niggas start makin’ mistakes,” which looks almost painfully prescient now that he’s lost his way on that mess of a Fox sitcom he’s hitting every week) to Treach’s self-styled threat: “If I was not in the studio and not doin’ this shit right now, in this motherfuckin’ trailer, you know what I’m sayin’, and doin’ this positive shit, I’d probably be right in your motherfuckin’ house, right now, tyin’ your ass up, in your fuckin’ safe, slapping your kids around, on the real.”
Back nine years ago, such gangsta talk was emphatic and pervasive. Now, knowing the many, ongoing and shifting phases of hip-hop, it sounds puffed up and, in hindsight, even tragic, as when Biggie suggests that someone might “get him,” though it will be “hard as fuck” to do it. Still, Brian Robbins’ documentary, newly released on an extras-less DVD, holds up, if only because the sentiments seem so, for lack of a better term, “real.”
Featuring a pile-on of interviews with producers (Suge Knight, Russell Simmons), fans, and artists (Ghostface Killa, Puffy, Afrika Bambaataa, LL Cool J), The Show focuses on hip-hop’s paradoxes and intersections — art and business, fantasy and reportage, naïveté and cynicism. It opens as Simmons (founder of Def Jam in 1985, then CEO at the multi-threat Rush Communications) is on his way to Rikers Island to visit inmate Slick Rick (convicted of attempted murder). “I always tell artists,” he says in his car, “It’s all right to be, you know, real. Real is, you know, everybody says, “I wish I got to where you got. If I got to where you got, I would not be throwin’ no guns in nobody’s faces or robbin’ nobody or none of that… I’m only going to see Ricky ’cause of the movie.”
At the prison, Rick appears with his trademark eyepatch and without ice. Rick notes the importance of maintaining an image in hip-hop, and the film cuts to Biggie, Puffy shimmy-shadowing him on stage: “Damn,” they rap together, “Niggas wanna stick me for my paper.” Cut to Biggie at home, his mother Voletta testifying to his younger-days hustling and her persistent worrying about him. She insists that radio edits leave out the language in her son’s songs that tells what it is: “You don’t even know what he’s saying.”
The film’s interest in what he’s saying, however, is sincere and assiduous. Namely, The Show explores the ways that money affects every aspect of life, before and after making it in the industry. Warren G’s fretting that his opening act, a pair of girls called Da Fros, want him to pay for hairstylists. Snoop’s got gang-related homies who want allegiance even now that he’s left the hood. “The life that we lived was rough,” he says, slouched low on a couch, his unbraided head in a frenzy. “And there was nothing we could do to change it and we trying to figure out how to change it by expressing it, and then lettin’ y’all know that we done did it already.” Suge (whom Simmons admiringly calls a “street nigga”) too has ideas about what’s real, and therefore, valuable. “I ain’t with that Hollywood shit. I like these little niggas [Tha Doggpound] because they’re gangsters… They ain’t with all that punk shit, they don’t care about trying to have their hair done a certain way.” Little did anyone know, how “real” Suge would get.
The film cuts between black and white show footage (various 1994 dates in Philadelphia and Wu Tang in Tokyo) and interviews (one features a little history lesson, in a diner where Kurtis Blow, Kid Kreole, Raheem, and Whodini discuss the origins of the “terminology,” “Yes, yes, y’all”), suggesting formally that there is a distinction between performance and experience. The interviewees suggest there are distinctions between the East and West Coast styles, generations, uses of the word “bitch” (“I mean sophisticated bitches, the kind of hos you wanna marry,” explains Simmons, “I love women”), and Joey Simmons’ initial, innocent use of Adidas (“Walk through concert doors, and roam all over coliseum floors”), and the overwhelming commercialization of all things remotely hip-hop that would soon come to pass.
Stardom is, at this still early stage in the industry, only vaguely a curse; for the most part, artists are thrilled to greet fans, behind fences, in record stores, in parking lots, and in malls. Among the film’s “real” moments are Treach visiting Brooklyn’s 14th Street, where fellow Naughty By Nature MC Vinnie grew up; the Wu Tang Clan arguing over publicity maneuvers on the train in Japan (I’m sick, insane, crazy, Drivin’ Miss Daisy out her fuckin’ mind, now I got mine,” exhorts Meth on stage); and Warren G looking for Zig-Zags (“Oh, they hear me say that?”), throwing dice on the sidewalk, and vacuuming his bus (“I clean my shit up”).
At this point, Simmons’ Phat Farm is well on the way to the bijillionaire business it is today. Originally “like a hobby,” the business is in mid-takeoff in 1995, as the movie illustrates via Simmons flirting with his models, seated by the runway, on his cell. “The difference between what we did and what they doin’ now is,” insists Kid Kreole, “It was a form of entertainment. When you came in the concert… you seein’ a show. You see a Grandmaster Flash show, you seein’ a show.” Now, he complains, the performers aren’t “pullin’ no weight.”
As if to contest this point, the film shows some of the liveliest performers of its day, Biggie (who thrilling on “Big Poppa”: “Straight up honey, really, I’m askin’ / Most of these niggas think they be mackin’ / They be actin’ / Who they attractin’ with that line, ‘What’s your name? What’s your sign?’ / Soon as he buy that wine, I just creep up from behind and ask you what your interests are / Things to make you smile, what numbers to dial”).
“Hip-hop to me,” says Dre, “is a way out.” At the same time, “To me,” offers Extasy of Whodini, “Hip-hop is a way of life.” For the subjects in The Show, hip-hop is that and more: it’s a means of self-expression and self-definition, to be known and wealthy. “It’s what you wake up in the morning,” continues Extasy, “And it’s who you are, and it’s representing what I am and what I feel inside.” The slipping of pronouns is telling here — hip-hop is about reflection and soul-searching, a big business that allows cronyism and expansion. Simmons wants to see hardworking artists who blow up, and then have “rich little black babies,” breaking the cycle of hardship and hopelessness. Opening doors, hip-hop makes its creators visible. What they do with that visibility is what matters now.