3 stars (out of four)
Whatever you do in life, plan on 80 wrongs for every 40 rights. So says Chris "Kazi" Rolle in the slick new documentary "The Hip Hop Project." Like most hip hop practitioners Kazi knows how to frame an idea as an easily absorbed either/or. Take pressure, for example: "Pressure either busts pipes or makes diamonds," he says.
In 1999 the Bahamian-born, Crown Heights-raised Kazi began a program within the Manhattan youth assistance group Art Start called The Hip Hop Project. His goal was to attract some at-risk kids, not much younger than himself, looking for an artistic outlet and the right mentor. It took four years, but Kazi and his after-school teenagers wrote and produced a hip hop compilation album with a little help from Bruce Willis and Russell Simmons. Director Matt Ruskin's documentary, which has the aura of a fundraising project but is worth seeing anyway, shows us how the record got made.
Kazi (whose earlier handle was a lulu: "Kharma Kazi") very nearly didn't make it off the streets. Born in Nassau, he was abandoned by his mother, who left for America before his first birthday. At 14, Rolle went to New York to find her; a year later, she kicked him out. A few arrests later, he discovered youth theater well before getting into music.
Ruskin is working two angles here: The stories of Kazi's students, and Kazi's own story of reconnecting, warily, with his birth mother after many years of estrangement. The young man's determination to forgive and move on is formidable. (They'd be even more compelling if Ruskin had given us more details about Kazi's dangerous early years.)
The film works best when it pays specific attention to how hard it is to write a rhyme worth hearing. Ruskin's camera catches the project's participants as they try out new material on their peers. The interplay in these scenes is charming. When they first came on board, one songwriter says, the raps tended to be about the usual commercial preoccupations: guns, sex and what he characterizes as "yo mama this, yo mama that." Kazi got them all reaching higher.
"The Hip Hop Project" originally received an R rating from the Motion Picture Association of America because the queen mother of sexual euphemisms is heard here and there. As with an earlier documentary, "Gunner Palace," the producers won a less restrictive PG-13 on appeal. In both cases the MPAA did the right thing. Our guardians of movie morality do the wrong thing so often, going criminally easy on violence week after week, so it's a lovely shock to see them exhibit a little common sense.
'The Hip Hop Project'
Directed and edited by Matt Ruskin; photographed by Ari Issler and Ruskin; produced by Scott K. Rosenberg. A ThinkFilm release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:25. Featuring: Chris "Kazi" Rolle, Christopher "Cannon" Mapp, Diana "Princess" Lemon and Robin "Kheperah" Kearse. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for strong language and some thematic material).Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times