Arts·Black Light

Watching Hip-Hop Evolution...with my mother

"My mum is probably not the target audience," writes Amanda Parris. But they've bonded over the award-winning docuseries.

'My mum is probably not the target audience,' writes Amanda Parris — but they've bonded over the docuseries

Shad and Snoop have almost as much fun as Amanda Parris and her mum. (Courtesy of Netflix)

Black Light is a weekly column by Governor General Award-winning writer Amanda Parris that spotlights, champions and challenges art and popular culture that is created by Black people and/or centres Black people.

The first show I ever binge-watched from beginning to end with my mum was The Wire. Watching a borrowed DVD box set that was making the rounds at my old workplace, we stayed up night after night laughing, crying and debriefing.

At the time, I was working as a community educator in a non-profit field that would probably never yield financial stability. My mum frequently expressed her doubts and misgivings about my professional choices. At one point while watching the show, she turned to me and said: "Now I get why you do the work that you do."

It was a pivotal moment. Thanks to Season 4 of The Wire (the season that kept my mum up all night worrying about Randy and Dukie), she finally understood and appreciated the importance of the work I was doing.

We've watched a bunch of shows together since then, but there's only one other series that deepened my mum's understanding and appreciation of my world: Hip-Hop Evolution.

I started watching the docu-series by myself — but once I realized how good it was, I strategically put it on when I knew my mum would be around, hoping she would get sucked into this wide-reaching history of rap music's origins.

My mum is probably not the target audience for this show. Although she was partying at nightclubs during the years hip hop was formed, she was doing it in London by way of Grenada. Her music of choice was soca and reggae, disco with a bit of R&B. Rap was never part of the equation. When I was growing up, I had to hide my rap tapes because music with swearing was a no-no. She would watch my VHS tapes of music videos with ambivalence, unimpressed by the bravado and posturing that dominates the genre.

And yet, my plan worked. My mum was seduced into watching Hip-Hop Evolution thanks to the eye candy of Big Daddy Kane and nostalgia-inducing archival footage from the '80s. Before long, she was calling me to hurry up and sit down so that we could watch another episode.

Grandmaster Flash illustrates his DJ technique to Shad as part of the documentary Hip-Hop Evolution. (Hip-Hop Evolution Inc.)

My mum and I aren't the only fans of the show. Hip-Hop Evolution is one of the most successful Canadian music docu-series in recent memory. It has won an International Emmy, a Peabody Award and two Canadian Screen Awards. Hosted by rapper Shadrach Kabongo (a.k.a. Shad), the homegrown production initially began as a stand-alone season on HBO.

Impressive as that initial season was — featuring interviews with indisputable pioneers like Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash and OGs like Marley Marl and Rakim — it felt incomplete, particularly due to the absence of female voices.

12 episodes later, the show has travelled to Miami, Atlanta, New Orleans, Memphis, Houston, Detroit and Virginia. It's covered the rise of gangsta rap, recalled legendary venues like the Latin Quarter, immersed itself in the tragic loss of Pimp C and J Dilla, celebrated the business savvy of Master P as well as the creative genius of Missy Elliott, and outlined the industry shattering impact of the mixtape. Hip-Hop Evolution is without a doubt one of the most comprehensive documents of the culture to ever be created.

Earlier this week, my mum and I settled in to watch Season 4 of the show, which was released last Friday on Netflix. As we watched the first episode on the rise of New Orleans bounce music, her eyebrows shot to the top of her head and a smile came over her face as footage of people dancing in the second line appeared on screen.

"Eh, eh! But that's a Soca move!" she said. Watching my mom make diasporic connections between NOLA traditions and Caribbean culture was a thing of beauty as she found familiarity between her home and a place she's never been before. Of course, that didn't stop her from chastising Mannie Fresh for chewing gum while doing his interview or querying, "Do you think this boy has ever worn a pair of pants that fit?" when Lil Wayne appeared on screen.

The most recent seasons of Hip-Hop Evolution boast some of the biggest names in the industry: Diddy, T.I., Big Boi, Snoop, Lil' Kim and Timbaland. However, one of my favourite aspects of the show is the fact that these heavyweights share the spotlight with culture builders who may not be household names. It covers DJ Toomp's pivotal role in a generation's worth of down-south talent and the innovation of Houston's DJ Screw in creating a new slowed-down sound. We get the story of DJ Spanish Fly pioneering hustle and the mind-boggling freestyling talent of Supernatural. It's so fun to watch Shad geek out over these undersung legends — a reminder that this is a show made by hip hop heads for those who love hip hop in honour of those who created it.

(L-R) DJ Paul and Shad, behind the scenes of Hip-Hop Evolution. (Courtesy of Darby Wheeler)

Although she's definitely not a hip hop head, at least once an episode, my mum would say something along the lines of, "Isn't it amazing how these young people taught themselves all these things?" 

She may have scrunched up her nose at the description of The Dungeon as though she could smell Rico Wade's basement through the screen. But she marvelled at the discipline of these teenagers who spent every waking moment there creating a new sound for OutKast and Goodie Mob. It sounds hella corny, but I felt affirmed and validated as I watched my mum develop an appreciation for a culture that has defined so much of my life. Hip-Hop Evolution makes it impossible to deny the literal genius of individuals rarely given the title.

While watching, I tried to imagine the incredible feat it must have been to get music rights to the songs in the series. The absence of certain key acts makes me wonder about how much access to music played a part in storytelling decisions. Can you imagine how difficult it would be to get the rights to Lauryn Hill's music, for example?

It's impossible for one series to capture an entire culture, and as it evolves from the genre's earliest origins, it's clear that Hip-Hop Evolution could go on for years, capturing what has now become a global culture. Although there has been no word on whether there will be a Season 5, it would be a shame if this production had to end before it covers Canadian hip hop. I know that if it comes, my mum and I will be ready and waiting to watch.


Amanda Parris writes a weekly column for CBC Arts and is the host of Exhibitionists on CBC Television and Marvin's Room on CBC Radio. In her spare time, she writes plays and watches too many movies. In her past lives she wrote arts based curriculum, attended numerous acting auditions, and dreamed of being interviewed by Oprah.