This past weekend a new Hip-Hop documentary titled The Hip-Hop Project hit theaters. The film chronicles the founding of a group called The Hip-Hop Project and their development both as people and as artists, diving deep into the lives of two of the members, Cannon and Princess, as well as the founder, Chris “Kazi” Rolle. According to Kazi the goal of The Hip-Hop Project was, and still is, to “raise the standard of creativity that’s in Hip-Hop,” and this week he’s sitting down with us at RapReviews to discuss the film, why he feels it’s different from other Hip-Hop documentaries, and what he feels everyone from artists to non Hip-Hop fans can gain from it.
Adam Bernard: There have been a lot of Hip-Hop documentaries made over the years, what makes The Hip-Hop Project different?
Kazi: I think a lot of it, beyond just the fact that it’s a beautifully shot movie, there are so many stories within the stories within the story, but it’s also the timing. I think that the world is ready for a movie like this. So there are multiple levels including just being entertaining for those people who want to see a good movie, the love story within it, the inspirational stories within, the music that’s within it, the superstars that are in it, there are so many layers to this that I don’t think that there’s been a movie that’s been done that can really reflect or encapsulate what this movie brings to the table.
AB: Why did you feel this was a story that needed to be told?
K: I think it needed to be told one, because so many young people love Hip-Hop and I think Hip-Hop has been marginalized through the media. I know that they know the drama and dysfunction that is connected to where a lot of these rappers come from is something that sells newspapers, it brings up ratings, but it also perpetuates a certain type of mindset and it gives the people who listen to the music just one view, so I think it’s a very important story to be told to balance the images of Hip-Hop out there in the world, beyond the United States, too, because globally young people listen to Hip-Hop. If all everyone had was BET and MTV to see what Hip-Hop is, at this day and time it does Hip-Hop a disservice and that was one of our goals. Another reason this story had to be told is that all across this country and I figure in other countries, as well, young people are dealing with more stuff than they’ve ever had to deal with. In connection with all the images there are also the things that are going on within their homes, and the things that are going in within their communities and their schools. From Columbine to Virginia Tech to 9/11, there’s no way to process all of this stuff that’s all around you and stay sane. I know for a fact through the schools that I brought The Hip-Hop Project to and the young people that I’ve worked with, the main thing that impacts them is that one thing they love that is the quickest thing to reach them and allows them to get their pain out and express things they’re going through, and a lot of people don’t really understand that about Hip-Hop. This really ABC’s it for anybody that doesn’t understand that.
AB: You opened the doors to a few people’s lives with this film. Along with yourself, two of the MCs from the group, Cannon and Princess, were featured prominently. The reasoning for focusing on Princess is revealed at the end, but other than that why were those two singled out as the ones whose stories you decided to dive deepest into?
K: Scott Rosenberg and Matt Ruskin are the filmmakers on this and documentaries are very much about collaboration. My guess would be Cannon is one of the most articulate young men in the program, his story is definitely gripping and it also just reveals itself over time in the spirit of what The Hip-Hop Project is about. Princess, like you said for obvious reasons, also she was the leader in the group. A leader always emerges and she was the leader, she was my second on command, she was the one who asked me questions that I couldn’t answer, that I had to go find the answers to, and she really stepped up to the plate on many many fronts, and that feminine aspect had to also be told, so I’m guessing that was the angle that they saw. Me, my only contribution was the idea to do it in the first place and to open the doors of my life and the reason why the kids in the program opened their doors was because that was the whole philosophy and method in the program which is to really go inside of yourself, stop looking outside of yourself, stop listening to the radio, go inside of you and as artists just express that and you’d be surprised just how much the world will respond to it and they were surprised.
AB: And you practiced what you preached because you revealed a lot about yourself during the film.
K: Yeah that was also the reason that I left to pursue my music and my other aspirations. A lot of times we say we know what needs to happen, and it’s easy to tell somebody what they need to do, but it’s hard to look in the mirror and even though I’m still on the board, I’m still connected to the program, I’m still working with Princess to keep it going and manifest the vision, I’m definitely going full force and trying to be a shining example of what I think the new MC, or the new rapper, should be.
AB: I want to get back to that in second, but first I have to know how did Bruce Willis get involved? He seems like a pretty random guy to just show up and support a Hip-Hop film.
K: Every person I’ve met, every opportunity that fell in my lap came out of nowhere, it only came based on just doing the work. Russell Simmons was my biggest supporter since day one. He was the first person to sign a check to support the program and he was the first person to open the doors to his office and say yeah, come on up, I’ll talk to the kids and teach them about the industry. He was the first person to have his whole record label, when he was the chairman of the board, open their doors, come into the conference room, stop all the work for an hour, and teach these kids about what they did. When Bruce Willis came to him based on the work that he was doing with his Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation the first program that he thought about was us. And they could have just sent us a studio, but Bruce Willis got on a plane, Russell Simmons got in his car, and they came down to the program and brought the lights and the camera to highlight the work we were doing down there. So big shout out to them, I really appreciate what they have done.
AB: What do you feel can be gained from a film such as this one?
K: The tagline to this movie is “If you had the whole world listening what would you have to say?” One, that tagline is for all of the artists out there who somehow, maybe because of the power of the media, have become like our new parents or our new leaders almost, they tell us what to wear, what to buy and how to live. I think one thing that can be gained is artists could be more inspired to recognize the power that they have because they have the whole world listening. There are people in China and Africa that will just walk up to you and say “Hey Nigga!” “What’s up, hoe?” And they don’t mean no disrespect, they just say the things that Hip-Hop says and they speak in that language just out of love. If artists experience that they’ll have a different outlook. So I think this is very vital for them and also for all the record labels. We don’t A&R anymore and we don’t develop our artists and prepare them for that world stage. We take the drama and dysfunction and just put it out there to sell records and to shock people, but it doesn’t have any other purpose. The third thing that is to be gained is that for people who don’t understand Hip-Hop this really tells them how Hip-Hop can be used to reach young people and in conjunction wit the other messages in the movie I think they’ll appreciate Hip-Hop more. We deal with love and relationships in The Hip-Hop Project. We deal with the fulfillment of dreams, mental health, emotional healing, being steadfast in the face of all obstacles, and many more things that are just so powerful that we were even able to overturn the R rating by the Motion Picture Association of America because they saw those things and the board came back with a six to two vote in favor of changing it to PG-13.
AB: Finally, bringing it back to a previous comment, you noted that you want to be a shining example of what the new MC should be. Describe to me what you feel that will encompass.
K: I think that the new MC is well rounded. I think they recognize their power and I think, recognizing their power, they’ll will be more involved in their community. They’ll listen to the people and try to echo what the needs of the people are on multiple levels. I think the new MC will inject more truth and honesty in their music. They’re going to be more responsible. And I think the new MC is going to push the bounds of Hip-Hop further. We’re really going to broaden and balance out this thing called Hip-Hop so that the world appreciates the good and the bad of it because really Hip-Hop is a reflection of the world that the artists come from and the world around us. So I think that’s the new MC.