Set to premiere on Netflix on March 30th, the docuseries Rapture is an ambitious look at hip-hop in 2018, courtesy of eight hour-long stories that each explore the persona of a different modern-day rap star. We see A Boogie Wit da Hoodie riding through his Bronx neighborhood, handing out stacks of dollar bills to children that crowd around his car window. We see Logic bursting into tears, overjoyed at his industry success after a life that began in a broken home and bouts of homelessness. We see Nas talking about his legacy and supporting up-and-comer Dave East. And then there are the small but important cameos, like E-40 cosigning G-Eazy as an artist who breaks the typical hip-hop mold, and T.I. showing off his diamond-crusted jewelry to Harry Belafonte.
It's the brainchild of the New York media company Mass Appeal (Nas is a major investor) and put together by executive-producer/co-director Sacha Jenkins, whose lengthy career includes co-founding the influential Nineties collective and magazine Ego Trip (which he compares to "being in a really good rock band") and making documentaries such as Fresh Dressed and Word is Bond. In a phone conversation, he discusses some of the challenges of creating Rapture, compares A Boogie Wit da Hoodie's car scene to rolling with Juvenile in New Orleans, and explains why he's not mad at the new generation of so-called "mumble rappers."
How did you choose your subjects? What kind of stories did you want to tell?
Well, there's myself, [executive producer] Peter Bittenbender – my partner at Mass Appeal – and this gentleman named Ben Selkow, our show runner. Collectively, we wanted to just have a broad range of voices and perspectives. We just wanted to have a well-rounded representation of hip-hop today, spanning the generations, spanning genders, spanning regions. We did our best to mix it up.
So you've got Rapsody, who is from North Carolina and at the top of her game. Women in hip-hop have been marginalized to a great degree, especially female MCs – but she's someone who a Kendrick Lamar looks to as a collaborator. You have a guy like Logic from Maryland, who has a really complicated life story and background, being biracial and what he's experienced as a poor person whose parents had issues with drugs and alcohol. Then there's Nas and Dave East, coming from the same neighborhood in certain regards. Through telling their stories, you see where Nas was 25 years ago, and you can see where maybe Dave will be in 20 years in terms of his own career.
With the Logic and Rapsody episodes, you made a very strong argument for them as powerful artists. It seemed like you didn't necessarily take that critical approach with others in the series.
That's because [the episodes are by] different directors. I directed the Nas and Dave East episode, and Geeta Gandbhir did the Rapsody episode. Marcus Clarke did multiple episodes, including the T.I. one. I can speak for my episode – like you said, it seems like we made the case [for] Logic and Rapsody, but their artistry is at the forefront of what they've always been fighting for. Not that Nas and Dave East aren't fighting for the same things. It just feels like where Rapsody is right now, and based on the battles she's faced in her career, it seems like the conversation around artistry would probably be the most compelling path to go down.
What about the G-Eazy episode? Music critics have often been unkind to his work.
In that instance, [we wanted] a portrait of G-Eazy where he is now in his career – going along on that ride and what that experience is like. If you pay close attention to what you see, it can help you formulate your opinion on his music. Maybe the episode makes you know him even better, and have a better understanding of where his work comes from. Or maybe you'll watch the episode and feel even further from understanding.
So how did you settle on these specific eight artists?
Don't get me wrong, there's lots of other people we could have gotten. With this first season ... it's a leap of faith, but for those who took the leap, I think the payoff is pretty good. I've been writing about hip-hop and making projects around hip-hop for almost 30 years, and I think what we've done with the series – the look and the feel of it – will hopefully help to elevate the way people look at hip-hop or how hip-hop is treated.
And as someone who is a native of the culture, I feel it's my duty to create projects that are true to where the original language comes from. Now, that language is very broad and global. G-Eazy's dialect resonates with a lot of people. Logic's dialect represents a lot of people. We tried to create a series that could satiate a broad range of hip-hop fans.
Why did you choose to film G-Eazy on tour in South America, instead of depicting him in Los Angeles and the Bay Area?
That's when he was available to us. That's when they gave us access. Based on our timeline and our deadlines, when we have to shoot and get it in the can, that stretch of his tour is what we had access to. And I think the cool part of it is you see how hip-hop resonates around the world. Having a look at that city or those cities through the travels of an American hip-hop artist was interesting to us. But, quite frankly, that's when our schedules aligned.
I take it you don't like the G-Eazy episode, or it rubs you in a way that makes you feel like something is disingenuous?
No, it didn't seem disingenuous. The first episode I watched was the Logic episode, and I was very impressed at how it conveyed why Logic exists – by discussing his background, how he constructs his music and his rise to stardom, why he's so popular. I expected a similar type of approach with G-Eazy, but it seemed to focus on his South American tour.
Got ya. I don't think one person is going to dig every artist in the series. I mean, I'm sure there are people out there who will, but there are going to be artists that some people like more than others. And there are always questions that can be asked, always things in hindsight that you look back and think you can do differently.
Mind you, I was a journalist writing about hip-hop for many years, and it used to be extremely easy to get a lot of these artists to talk. Many of them would love to be on camera 15, 20 years ago. Now, in this era of social media and people being able to control their own platforms, artists take their own careers and perspectives into their own hands. The fact that we were able to get all these people together on a first season – that in itself, the making of the series, is no small feat.
What were some of the issues you encountered in the process of making Rapture?
Schedules can be a challenge because these artists are all over the place. When you have eight different episodes with nine different rappers from different regions who are touring and running around, and have personal lives, drama, y'know, all of that happening at once … obviously we have a great team of people. But it was a lot of logistics, a lot of moving parts, and a lot of rap. And if you know anything about rap, the thing about hip-hop artists is that there's a lot of variables you can't foresee.
Someone like A Boogie Wit da Hoodie – he comes from the Bronx, which most fans will recognize as the birthplace of hip-hop culture. But his music is very postmodern. How did you create his narrative?
What you see in A Boogie wit Da Hoodie is how it always starts out. It starts out in the hood, and all of a sudden things start to happen really quickly. And then you have to figure out how to navigate the entourage, and your personal life, your baby's mama, your child, your family.
There's a scene in that episode where he's literally in the hood in the back seat of his car just handing out hundreds to kids like it's candy. From my experience as a music journalist, I saw that same thing 15 years ago with Juvenile in New Orleans, where he's driving around in a Hummer in the hood literally handing out hundreds to people on the street. So having the opportunity to see that side of where a young artist like that is, you know, it's a narrative someone like myself has experienced multiple times. Not only as someone who grew up in the hood, but as someone who came of age writing about hip-hop, and having the ability to be around a lot of the artists who were still in the hood [then] all of a sudden had bags of money.
I think with A Boogie wit Da Hoodie, you see everything from that to how the corporate world is interested in interacting with him, his performances, his music. In 15 years, y'know, if he's still around, the entourage won't be as big. He probably won't be handing out 100 dollar bills on the streets. Hopefully, he'll make it. But a lot of artists have those same opportunities and are up against those same kinds of challenges don't make it.
So bringing it back to the Nas-Dave East episode, when Dave East asks Nas, "I know when you first started, there was a hundred niggas at your shows. How did you do that?" That's a new artist, asking an icon who's from the same neighborhood: "Hey man ... how did you navigate that?" And then Nas goes to say, "At a certain point, you gotta love people from afar." That's a powerful message that one can only glean from someone who was able to surpass and survive.
T.I.'s life story and career arc are familiar to people, so it was interesting to see the series take a different direction and have him do a listening tour with civil rights icons.
He talks about how he was minding his business and wound up in a (Black Lives Matter) march in Atlanta. Then he joined the march and, because he is who he is, everyone's like, "What do we do next, T.I.?" So he's at a point where he realizes he has some celebrity and power and influence, but he doesn't pretend to be a civil rights leader. He sincerely wanted to have conversations with people he respected, who were civil rights leaders, who were in struggles that young people today know nothing about. And he, in earnest, went about having conversations with all these folks.
I mean, we've seen T.I. in a million ways. We've seen him on local news for doing things that are against the law. We've seen him in films. We've seen him as a dad on reality shows. And now we see him utilizing or looking to utilize his platform as a way to educate and unify people. He talks about an album that he made (2016's Us or Else: Letter to the System) that had a great level of consciousness but didn't have the best reception. So that also speaks to where people's minds might be now in terms of creating conscious music. Obviously, there's always conscious music being created, but maybe people don't want to hear conscious music from a superstar.
Personally, I admit I doubted his sincerity with Us Or Else: Letter to the System. That project dropped during a time it seemed everyone was doing "woke rap." But the episode made me reconsider my position.
I can understand you having the feeling, like, "woke rap" is hot and he's trying to cash in on that. And maybe the audience felt the same way.
I didn't direct that episode, but like you ... when I saw him sitting with Andrew Young, he tells a story in the very church where Martin Luther King's mother was assassinated playing the church organ. A lot of people don't know that story. And Andrew Young actually used the n-word in reference to the person who did it, and then he excused himself. So it's a very intimate look at conversations that black people sometimes have amongst themselves. I pride myself in trying to create programming that has that ability to highlight that dialogue. I think there are some moments like that throughout the series.
What's your perspective on the current wave of mainstream rap, which some old heads have called "mumble rap"?
Hip-hop is very much about-the-moment and about reference points. It was the same for my generation of rappers: They're referencing movies or television, referencing other popular music at the time or fashion. A lot of reference points these so-called "mumble rappers" have, a lot of it is based on cartoons they watch. It's a reflection of what the interests are today. I'm not saying these kids aren't lyrical. I'm saying today, with social media and all these platforms, having a big personality sometimes might trump lyrics, or might trump music. I could just be completely out of touch and out of step – I'm an old man. And that's cool, because I had Wu-Tang, Nas and Mobb Deep. I have my favorites from my era that speak to me and my coming of age. And the music that's happening now, for these kids, is a reflection of where they are today.
So I don't feel like I'm the right judge to weigh in. My ginzu isn't as nice as your ginzu is right now, I'm sure! The music doesn't speak to me, but it probably shouldn't speak to me. It should speak to young people and their experiences and what they're going through now. That's not to say it shouldn't speak to an older person or someone who's not from the hood. It totally can. But for me, hip-hop – the lyrics – can work on so many different levels. One sentence in a song can have so many different meanings on purpose, and sometimes not on purpose. So I don't know the reference points.
But I do know that hip-hop has changed lives. It has taken people around the world. It's given them opportunities. I'm no different: I was a journalist, I wrote about hip-hop and I've had a longer career as a journalist than most rappers. And I respect what these kids are doing – they deserve the platform and it's their time. Hopefully hip-hop can grow in the way that rock and roll has where you have classic rock stations. I'm hearing that some of the classic hip-hop stations are starting to pop up, and they do well. There was so much great music then that people can enjoy, and hopefully this new generation of artists can connect with the music that came before them. But they don't have to, man. They've got their own thing that they should be making and enjoying. God bless them for that.