Hip-Hop Vérité 

Beats and rhymes are just the starting point for a new generation of independent filmmakers.

It's a cool, crisp evening in March at San Francisco's Red Vic Theater. As a crowd of folks pours through the doors of the famed rep house, 23-year-old Joslyn Rose-Lyons watches nervously from the second-floor projection booth. The occasion is a sneak preview of her new documentary Soundz of Spirit. The film is being presented as part of the Hip Hop Film Festival, a program of independent films put together by the filmmakers themselves.

Despite very little in the way of promotion -- flyers, a few Web site listings, and some community radio ticket giveaways -- word of the premiere obviously got out. The line at the theater stretches for a couple of blocks. As many as three or four hundred people are turned away after the venue reaches capacity. Rumor has it that this crowd far exceeds the one across town at the Roxie tonight for Daughter from Danang, the moving Oscar-nominated documentary from Berkeley.

It's easy to understand why Rose-Lyons might have a few jitters about her film's first public showing. Just a few days earlier, the first-time director had been holed up in her small South Berkeley studio, frantically editing the final cut of a project she had worked on almost daily for the past three years. Consequently, although normally outgoing, she has a bad case of the shys tonight.

Down at floor level, people greet each other, say their "whassups," and work the room before settling into their seats. A few reporters and well-wishers want to meet the director, but she won't budge from her upstairs perch. How will people respond to the images, words, and sounds before them on the screen? What if everybody hates the film?

Still, the outpouring of support is heartening. The audience includes many members of the Bay Area's hip-hop community, several of whom are featured in the documentary. Zion and Amp Live of East Bay duo Zion-I are there. So is SF rapper Pitch Black, looking natty in a camel-colored leather jacket. Oakland neo-soul sensation Goapele shows up, accompanied by members of the Local 1200 DJ crew. Ms. Little is in the house, along with a fairly deep posse of B-girls and B-boys, representing the Fillmore Rocks dance crew. Oakland-based performance artist Hanifah Walidah makes the scene. Many young poets from the Youth Speaks organization are present as well. And several graying audience members have turned out, some perhaps parents of artists featured in the film.

Once the lights dim, it quickly becomes clear this isn't your typical hip-hop documentary about wreck (fame), cheddar (money), and beef (conflict). Those themes are noticeably absent, which makes Soundz of Spirit something of a departure in the world of hip-hop film. From its New Age-y opening montage straight through to the closing credits, the film depicts hip-hop culture as a creative outlet for positive, conscious, and inherently spiritual artistic expression. Any negative aspects are, for the most part, absent.

Soundz of Spirit depicts a very different set of concerns from the ones portrayed in Straight Outta Hunters Point, the movie that put the Bay Area hip-hop film scene on the map a few years ago. That film's subject was seemingly ripped right out of San Francisco Chronicle headlines -- at least 63 homicides have occurred in Hunters Point in the last two years alone. But statistics only told part of the story. As the newspapers were reporting the gruesome details of a gangsta rap-related gang war between two rival Hunters Point neighborhood factions, first-time filmmaker Kevin Epps was documenting the drama as it happened. Epps, who grew up in the Harbour Road projects alongside pioneering San Francisco hardcore rappers RBL Posse, had access to that community no outsider could have obtained. Armed with only a digital camera and his wits, he documented the reality of life in the 'hood in a way rarely captured before on film.

From the yin of hip-hop's spiritual side to the yang of gangsta life, Straight Outta Hunters Point and Soundz of Spirit represent opposing ends of the increasingly vital spectrum of Bay Area hip-hop film. That they were born of such radically different inspirations speaks to the breadth of both the local scene and hip-hop itself. Both films reflect the personal experiences of their makers. They also hint at the dichotomy between mainstream and underground rap, going behind the scenes to present a viewpoint often overlooked or ignored by the music industry's more commercial side.

Epps and Rose-Lyons are far from alone in the local hip-hop cinema scene. The range of films being produced locally runs from tour diaries to long-form music videos to full-on documentaries and features. There is a wide range of cinematography as well, from jittery, hand-held camera work to jump cuts and split-screen images, with busy, MTV-style graphics. Some of the more ambitious fare tackles complicated political and social issues. Others are low-budget productions that don't say more than "Look, Ma, I'm at the sideshow." Not all of these films are masterpieces by any means, but what's significant is that not only are they being made independently, but they are connecting with a "reality"-hungry audience, weaned on everything from Rodney King to The Blair Witch Project to Survivor. And while the filmmakers' backgrounds vary as much as the themes they take on, their experiences personify the essence of the underground hip-hop experience.

Freestyle, directed by Hip Hop Film Festival co-founder Kevin Fitzgerald, addresses the improvisational aspect of MC rhymes, an art form that has little or nothing to do with the commercial rap industry. The Freshest Kids, by the filmmaker known as Israel, takes a fresh look at B-boy and B-girl culture, suggesting that the dance-oriented aspect of hip-hop culture has been revived by a younger generation. Joey Garfield's Breath Control documents hip-hop's often-overlooked "fifth element," human beatboxing, contrasting historical footage of Doug E. Fresh and the Fat Boys' Buffy with newer vocal percussionists such as Scratch and Radioactive. The short "Keepin Time," directed by hip-hop photographer B+ -- who has shot album covers for artists such as Dilated Peoples, Mos Def, Jurassic 5, and Q-Tip -- depicts a jam session between turntablists DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist and the legendary breakbeat drummers they idolized. And Rachel Raimist's Nobody Knows My Name zeroes in on just what it means to be a woman in the male-dominated hip-hop industry.

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