It's not all that surprising that the British, as outsiders looking into the racialist fishbowl that is American popular culture, have come up with the first mainstream TV hip-hop documentary that actually respects the controversial art form as a living document detailing the lives and views of the voiceless black underclass.
The Europeans have always been more open-minded about radical American culture than even the Americans. Before jazz and the blues gained acceptability and were every bit as terrifying to mainstream sensibilities as rap music is now, the British and the French looked beyond racial barriers to recognize black music as avant-garde yet substantial.
Susan Shaw's hourlong "Rap Music: Looking for the Perfect Beat" explains the cornerstone elements of hip-hop music, culture and politics by having the actual pioneers of the art form break down the concepts, while also adding invaluable commentary from noted black music historian Nelson George, politicized rappers such as Public Enemy frontman Chuck D and Ice Cube, and even critical statements from hard-core rap foe Calvin Butts.
Using an energetic mix of vintage "old-school" footage, clips of influential musical figures from Sly Stone to John Coltrane, and elegant cinematography sweeping past the side streets of the South Bronx and the train yards of Compton, Shaw moves past the novelty of the clever rhymes, profanity and anti-Establishment themes to demonstrate why, outside of jazz, hip-hop music is the most readily embraced form of uncut urban expression this country has produced in nearly 30 years.
"Rap music," Chuck D explains in a voice-over, "makes up its lack of melody with its sense of reminder. It's linked into a past and a legacy that's been overlooked, forgotten or just pushed to the side amidst the glut of everything else."
"Looking for the Perfect Beat" is a valuable hour of viewing for both the seasoned hip-hop fan and for the curious who know little or nothing about the art form. It can be argued that many names and points of view were left out, but by rounding up some of the most articulate voices in the medium, the program proves that a forgotten generation of kids, left to their own devices on the street, have come up with something that will immortalize their experiences in a manner no less specific than musical hieroglyphics.
* "Rap Music: Looking for the Perfect Beat" airs at 10 tonight on KCET-TV Channel 28.