How TV learned to take hip-hop seriously

Clockwise from bottom left: Cardi B, Kanye West, RZA and Chance the Rapper appear in a spate of new fall series that rightly place hip-hop at the center of American culture.
(Chris Morris / For The Times)

Break dancing. Boomboxes. Bling. Cardi B.

Television has co-opted, mangled and embraced hip-hop culture through every phase of its history, ever since MTV “discovered” a group called Run DMC and began using the word “Yo!”

From the “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” to “Love & Hip Hop,” the small screen’s relationship with the street style has been filled with as many painfully misinformed moments (“Vanilla Ice Goes Amish”) as groundbreaking victories (“Atlanta”).

“Mr. Robot,” “Creepshow,” “The Crown” and the rest of the 20 new and returning TV shows — on 20 different networks — we’re looking forward to seeing.

The novelty of baggy pants, gold grills, twerking and Lil Jon’s “Oooookayyyyy!” appearing on any sort of series TV has been just that — a novelty. Hip-hop has historically been represented in scripted and unscripted fare alike as a colorful collection of fads, there to sell whatever happened to be the main show. A “dope” dance number in “Full House,” for example, whipped up by white producers for a white audience.

With rare exception (e.g. the groundbreaking sitcom “In Living Color”), the other 90% of the genre and culture — raw social commentary, game-changing production styles, black empowerment — was generally left in the edit bay.

“Hip-hop was often seen as a low-level art form, or not even seen as actual art,” says Questlove (a.k.a. Ahmir Thompson), executive producer of AMC’s forthcoming docuseries, “Hip Hop: The Songs That Shook America,” and leader of the Roots, a seminal ’80s/’90s outfit that became “The Tonight Show” house band in 2009. “People now see there’s value in hip-hop, but I feel like that’s based on the millions of dollars it’s generated. Like its value is like that of junk bonds or a Baltic Avenue Monopoly property. A money generator. But there’s a different story that needed to be told.”

The ceremony for the 60th Grammy Awards is still two weeks away, but already music’s biggest TV night has made history.

Questlove in AMC's new "Visionaries" docuseries, "Hip Hop: The Songs That Shook America"
Questlove in AMC’s new “Visionaries” docuseries, “Hip Hop: The Songs That Shook America”
(Anna Kooris / AMC)

A new wave of storytellers are now building upon the strength of more recent TV series in which rap music is integral to the narrative, setting or tone of the show. “Insecure,” “Power,” “Empire” and “The Get Down” have paved the way for a slate of fall offerings that make the music the center.

Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West and Queen Latifah are among the personalities featured in “The Songs that Shook America” (Oct. 13).

The six-part production is co-executive produced by the Roots’ Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter and Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney. As part of AMC’s “Visionaries” series, it examines the genesis of rap songs that changed the course of hip-hop and influenced just about everything else that qualifies as entertainment. Each hour-long episode focuses on one groundbreaking song key to the evolution of American music and culture, taking a deep dive into the making of tracks while giving a bird’s-eye view of how the songs affected what we hear and watch today.

Wu-Tang Clan’s rich and tumultuous history is chronicled in a new Hulu dramatic series and in an Emmy-nominated documentary.

The production joins two other fall series that approach hip-hop from the inside out, highlighting the compositions that contributed to rap’s role as a driving force in American culture.

Hulu’s prestige drama “Wu Tang: An American Saga” chronicles the rise of the trailblazing clan from Staten Island’s projects to the top of the charts, and in doing so tells the story of hip-hop’s ascent from the streets to the mainstream. Co-created, written and produced by RZA (Wu-Tang founder Bobby Diggs) and Alex Tse (“Watchmen,” “Superfly”), it re-creates an era that gave rise to the golden age of hip-hop.

And Netflix’s first original talent show, “Rhythm + Flow” (Oct. 9), is essentially hip-hop’s answer to “The X Factor.” The 10-episode series, which was co-executive produced by John Legend, celebrates the art of the performance and the quest for fame with judges Cardi B, Chance the Rapper and TI. They search for the genre’s “next big breakout star” by presiding over a competition that includes cyphers, rap battles and sampling wars.

T.I., left, Cardi B and Chance the Rapper, the judges of Netflix's new talent competition, "Rhythm + Flow."
(Adam Rose / Netflix)

The notable artists behind all three projects mean the series arrive with a stamp of credibility that has often been absent when hip-hop and television have tangled — that is, when the genre has even made it on the small screen beyond “Yo! MTV Raps,” “Wild ‘N Out,” or BET’s “106 & Park.”

“Rap was like a thing from another planet, and we were like aliens,” rapper Ice-T (a.k.a. Tracy Marrow) told The Times during a conversation last year, recalling the scarce and clumsy representation of a musical style he helped popularize.

Clearly a lot has changed since the controversial “Cop Killer” artist went on to portray a cop in “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” — and sell lemonade in a Geico commercial.

Pioneers like Marrow represent the beginning in a chain of successes where all the players are linked by the influence they’ve had on one another. “The Songs That Shook America” and “Wu Tang: An American Saga” continually refer to those connections, either through directly mentioning the artists, drawing lines between the sounds, or showing how Grandmaster Flash led to Public Enemy, Ice Cube, Tupac and Kendrick Lamar, or Salt-N-Pepa to Lauryn Hill, Missy Elliott, Eve and Nicki Minaj.

Like “Tonight Show” host Jimmy Fallon bringing the Roots in as his house band, generations who were raised on Cypress Hill and Run the Jewels, Slick Rick and Vince Staples are now in charge of programming. And yesterday’s hip-hop artists are today’s TV producers.

“This is my ‘Actors Studio’ type of thing for hip-hop,” Thompson said of “The Songs That Shook America,” the first project out of his production company Two One Five Entertainment. “It’s not the usual questions like, ‘Oh, so you were married to Brad Pitt for three years and ...’ I really wanted a vehicle that was deep-dish dive for people really into the music then gave everybody else an idea of the bigger picture, of what these songs meant, because I was always told that stuff wasn’t important.”

Siddiq Saunderson and T.J. Atoms in Hulu's "Wu-Tang: An American Saga"
Hulu’s new drama “Wu-Tang: An American Saga,” starring Siddiq Saunderson, left, and T.J. Atoms, takes viewers from the projects of Staten Island to the top of the Billboard charts.
(Barbara Nitke / Hulu)

West’s “Jesus Walks” is explored in the premiere, in which the composer is shown as a young, somewhat nerdy perfectionist rather than the lightning rod who called out President George W. Bush during a benefit for Hurricane Katrina’s victims, the stage-crasher who interrupted Taylor Swift’s VMA acceptance speech or the spectacle who married into reality-TV royalty.

The docuseries shows the artist rather than the circus, chronicling his unorthodox approach and his move away from the vapid club music of the time through footage in the studio and conversations with those who were there. Archival West interviews, commentary from other rap luminaries and expert filmmaking by directors Erik Parker and One9 establish why and how “Jesus Walks” — one of the only rap hits to successfully meld rap, gospel and spiritual lyrics with heavier language — changed the genre and pop music.

Mixing boards, turntables and freestyles are also at the center of “Wu-Tang: An American Saga.” The 10-episode series, out now, opens when the crew consists of teens torn between music and crime. They rely on their raw talent and each other to break out of a cycle of poverty — and into the record business. Wu Tang’s contribution was its eccentric meeting of poetic rhymes with wonderfully warped melodies and oddly timed beats, which flattened the rules of engagement and paved the way for indirect descendants like Earl Sweatshirt.

The period drama is co-executive produced by Wu-Tang’s Method Man (Clifford M. Smith Jr.) Brian Grazer and Francie Calfo. Other Wu members such as Ghostface Killa, Inspectah Deck, Masta Killa, GZA and the estate of Ol’ Dirty Bastard serve as consulting producers. The cast includes Ashton Sanders (“Moonlight”), Shameik Moore (“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” “The Get Down”), Siddiq Saunderson (“Messiah”) and Marcus Callender (“Power”).

The American saga that is hip-hop spans more than half a century. It’s an epic tale that started in the Bronx and wound up on “The Tonight Show.” And the story continues, out there and on TV, where the longest “fad” ever is finally being recognized as the powerful and lasting vanguard of change it is.


12:43 p.m. Sept. 13, 2019: This story was updated to add the names of “Hip Hop: The Songs That Shook America” co-directors Erik Parker and One9