Emmett Malloy’s new documentary, Biggie: I Got a Story to Tell, made its Netflix premiere on March 1, 2021. The intimate look at the personal and professional life of beloved New York rapper Christopher Wallace aka The Notorious B.I.G. joins a long line of hip-hop documentaries dating back to the early 1980s.

With such recent releases as The Defiant Ones, Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men, and most recently Hip-Hop Uncovered, the musical documentary subgenre has proliferated on the small screen. Some have a narrow focus on one artist or group in particular, while others take a more holistic approach.

10 The Show (1995)

For one of the best hip-hop concert performance documentaries, tune in to The Show. In between electric footage lifted from live hip-hop shows, such esteemed artists as Afrika Bambaataa, Kurtis Blow, Slick Rick, Kid Capri, and more discuss the evolution of the genre.

The history of west coast rap label Death Row Records and its superstar artists, Dr. Dre and Snoop Dog, is juxtaposed with that of such iconic New York rappers like The Notorious B.I.G., Method Man, Raekwon, Craig Mack, and others.

9 Style Wars (1983)

Tony Silver’s Style Wars is an essential documentary for those interested in the history of hip-hop as expressed not only in music but also in terms of breakdancing and graffiti art.

Focusing on the five elements of the hip-hop subculture that grew out of the Bronx, New York, the film features interviews with all the major players who were instrumental in fostering the movement. The film won a Grand Jury Prize at the 1984 Sundance Film Festival.


8 Rhyme & Reason (1997)

With everyone from Kurtis Blow, Chuck D, B-Real, D. Dre, and KRS-One to Nas, Method Man, Biggie Smalls, and more, Rhyme & Reason is one of the first big hip-hop docs to explore the growing popularity of the art form.

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Employing an interview format, the industry’s most celebrated artists of the past and present are on hand to speak about the craft and discuss what the future of hip-hop may hold.

7 Fade To Black (2004)

Jay-Z is often praised as the single-most successful rap mogul in hip-hop history. Before he rose to such untouchable prominence, Fade to Black chronicled his legacy while making his purported last album.

With trenchant insights from super-producers Rick Rubin, P. Diddy, Timbaland, Funkmaster Flex, and rappers Mike D, Q-Tip, Common, and a young Kanye West, Shawn Carter’s monumental impact on the culture is celebrated.

6 Stretch And Bobbito: Radio That Changed Lives (2015)

In 1998, Source Magazine named The Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Show the “Best Hip Hop Radio Show of All Time.” The New York radio program helped shape the culture of mainstream hip-hop by exposing underground artists on the come up.

Directed by Bobbito Garcia, the documentary highlights the major influence the radio show had on the artists and public alike. Everyone from Eminem, The Roots, Fat Joe, Busta Rhymes, Nas, Jay-Z, El-P, Lauryn Hill,  DJ Premier, Pete Rock, and others participate to pay homage.

5 Scratch (2001)

Turntable scratching is a lost art form in current hip-hop music. However, in the 2001 documentary Scratch, the integral part of DJing is examined at great length by some of the all-time best to ever do it.

Featuring such legends as DJ Premier, DJ Q-Bert, Afrika Bambaataa, Mix Master Mike, DJ Rhettmatic, DJ Shadow, the documentary underscores the importance of scratching records as being a unique part of hip-hop that goes underappreciated.

4 Dave Chappelle’s Block Party (2005)

Dave Chappelle’s Block Party is a fun and uplifting live concert-performance film in which the comedian’s friends and personal favorite rap artists come together to throw one big bash on the streets of Brooklyn. The film is dedicated to J Dilla, the beloved producer who passed away a month after the film was released.

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Directed by Michel Gondry, the performers include Common, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Kanye West, The Roots, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, Kool G Rap, Big Daddy Kane, Dead Prez, The Fugees, and more.

3 Something From Nothing: The Art Of Rap (2012)

Co-directed by Ice-T, The Art of Rap takes a granular look at the craft of rhyme writing, as well as a big-picture reflection on the massive impact hip hop has had on the culture since its inception in the late 1970s.

Old-school rap legends like Rakim, KRS-One, Melle Mel, MC Lyte, Kool Moe Dee, and Big Daddy Kane are joined by newer artists such as Kanye West, Xzibit, Immortal Technique to discuss how they approach songwriting. Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Eminem, Chuck D, Common, Mos Def, and many more are also included.

2 Time Is Illmatic (2014)

For the 20th anniversary of Nas’s classic debut album, Illmatic, director One9 fetes the record’s lasting legacy by delving into the process of making the project. Nas was just 21 years old when the album was released.

Nas chronicles the internal inspiration and outside influences that shaped his precocious lyrics on the album, while others celebrate the indelible imprint the album has left on the culture. Marly Marl, Large Professor, Fab 5 Freddy, Pharrell Williams, Q-Tip, DJ Premier, and Professor Cornel West all praise Nas’s intricate flow and profound lyricism.

1 Bears, Rhymes & Life: The Travels Of A Tribe Called Quest (2011)

Directed by actor and longtime hip-hop head Michael Rappaport, Beats, Rhymes & Life charts the epic rise and eventual downfall of jazzy New York hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest.

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Named after the group’s 1996 album, the doc traces the two-decade history of Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Jarobi White, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad as they cultivated their own countercultural sound that promoted positive vibes. Everyone from The Beastie Boys and Questlove to Ludacris, Mary J Blige, De La Soul, Too $hort, Souls of Mischief, and more speak to the staying power A Tribe Called Quest continues to have in hip-hop culture.

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