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How Some Canadians Figured Out How to Tell the Story of Hip-Hop, the Most American Art Form

The latest episodes of Netflix’s ‘Hip-Hop Evolution’ show the history of rap music in a compelling way devoid of any hand-holding

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Consider the school field trip. The vinyl bus seat sticking to the backs of your legs, the low hum of chaos imperiling the driver’s focus every few minutes, the creeping dread over visiting the World War II museum again—which hid a fragile hope that even well-trodden ground like the carpet of the Road to Tokyo exhibit could still stoke your sense of dupable wonder. This was our go-to when I was in grade school in Baton Rouge; it was only an hour away. The best you could hope for was that standing under the same spitfire for the 100th time might unlock some new truths about the Eastern Theater. If not, there was always food after.

This is how any music fan might approach a hip-hop doc series looking to ferry the genre from its woolly origins in New York to its present-day mainstream dominance. There are a lot of fickle moving parts that might upend a good retelling of the story of hip-hop: It’s the most egalitarian art form going and has led musical innovation from the fore for the better part of the last three decades, which, by the way, is the whole breadth of the genre’s lifetime. Hip-hop hasn’t fully settled into the fine print of history just yet and counternarratives are still emerging, but I’m here to tell you that Netflix’s Hip-Hop Evolution tells itself in a cohesive manner, which you could entertain and even educate yourself with for an afternoon.

Season 4, which debuted on the streaming service last month, touches Southern rap, the rise of super producers, and the boom, bust, and eventual rebirth of the mixtape economy, begins with a brief summary of the past few seasons. Evolution has explored hip-hop’s origins in the South Bronx in the 1970s and the commercial explosion of gangsta rap (Season 1); illustrated how booty club music and the headier, jazzier, lyrical styles are of the same oral tradition (Season 2); and considered the tragic, corruptive force of megacelebrity on creative relationships. Evolution is primarily made by Canadians: It’s mostly written by Canadian music journalists like Exclaim! hip-hop editor Erin Lower and NOW contributor Del Cowie, executive produced by Canadian comedian Russell Peters, and hosted by Canadian rapper and broadcaster Shad Kabango. This gives Evolution a refreshing critical distance, which allows it to do things like focus on the actual human cost of big tabloid deaths like Biggie’s or Tupac’s, rather than the plot-driven, whodunit aspect of the story, which has been endlessly speculated about and turned over by countless production companies not named Banger Films (which helmed Evolution; also Canadian).

Another thing that sets Evolution apart from other music doc series is how well it bottles the anxious, spastic, ecstatic energy of a particular moment in time. If you think about it, a lot of the biggest, most perception-shaking moments in music history have come from small revelations—simple and obvious ideas that absolutely threw people for a loop the first time they encountered them. Grandmaster Flash bumping a turntable and scratching a record by accident, Coke La Rock realizing he sounded pretty fly talking over DJ Kool Herc, New Orleans super producer Mannie Fresh discovering eight seconds of breakbeat in an overlooked song from a New York rap group called the Showboys, unwittingly creating bounce music. The show doesn’t force you to imagine what it was like to experience “Triggaman” for the first time—it gets out of the way and gives the people that were there space to be amazed again. This is how Evolution manages to stoke this Louisiana native’s sense of dupable wonder, even about a place so close to home, that I should theoretically have a better handle on. For instance, at one point, Mannie Fresh talks about working at jazz legend Allen Toussaint’s studio and being commissioned to make a family-friendly record for radio. He came back with “Buck Jump Time,” essentially a ringtone rap record that moved Second Line drum patterns closer to the more aggressive 808s Fresh loved, with a breakdown listing all the Wards of New Orleans so listeners could shout out their neighborhoods, which was meant to foster unity. Instead—and every talking head in the documentary gets a good laugh out of this—it started fights. Almost without fail. I keep thinking about how KLC, a former part of Master P’s main production team Beats by the Pound described it as a “war call.” Meaning if you had beef with anyone, “Buck Jump Time”—a paradoxically fun-sounding song!—was your queue to go looking for them. “Nah, we finna handle this right nah.

If I have a gripe for Evolution it’s that I wish it were longer, if only to make room for more stuff. Considering the range of material to cover, the show is more concerned with the broader strokes, so it doesn’t always take time to introduce or develop some of the characters that didn’t make Source covers. Evolution assumes you know who Beats by the Pound and Partners-N-Crime and Big Freedia and Serv-On are, but then if you’re nerdy and curious enough to be watching Evolution in the first place, you might be inspired to Google some of this for yourself. As the show wades into the stark conditions that bred hustlers like Birdman and Master P, Serv-On deadpans about not seeing much of a difference between the Calliope projects and his tours in Desert Storm. “[Over there] they just had bigger guns and missiles.”

The most important thing about Evolution—which is pretty basic but documentaries don’t always manage it—is that it really does grab you and firmly situate you in the larger context of the story it’s trying to tell. When bounce infects the city, you feel it in your knees and shoulders; when you hear DJ Jimi and then DJ Jubilee and then Cheeky Blakk and then Magnolia Shorty attack the same loop of music for the ensuing 15 minutes you even begin to feel the monotony of it. So by the time Evolution gets around to Master P as an alternative to what was fast becoming the city’s defining sound, you can feel the heat on your face. The show is busy and loud in an engaging way, using hand-drawn animation to accompany a story you had to be there to see, using slam cuts and sheer volume, occasionally, to illustrate importance.

As a point of disclosure, I first heard “Is There a Heaven 4 a Gangsta” on the 2005 Best of Master P compilation album and did not like it. After watching the first episode of the new season, “Bounce To This,” it’s taken on a slightly new meaning; it sounds a little different, a little better than I remember. Which is the most you could really hope for, staring at something you’ve seen countless times before. If not, you’re already in the den, so you can always just get food after.