We thought the conversation in this week’s New York Times between critic Jon Caramanica, Roots drummer Questlove, and our colleague Salamishah Tillet — on the move of rap into mainstream television and film — was worth reprinting in full, both to draw attention to the piece and to connect to a wider discussion on the social and cultural place of hip-hop. Many (notably Greg Tate) cautioned against hip-hop’s move into the mainstream, suggesting specifically that a move into the mainstream brings with it a kind of capture, where the music industry, broadly conceived, blunts the music’s revolutionary capacity for its black creators and their peers. That concern remains valid and productive, but what it forecloses upon is the space made for black artists and creators who previously had to defend their creative labor as “music” in the first place. Hip-hop can still be a vehicle for revolution, but it need not occupy that role and that role alone. So rather than sustaining old critiques in perpetuity, is useful every once in a while to pause and reflect on how far we’ve come. The most remarkable thing about this conversation might be the fact that it’s happening in the first place.
For decades, hip-hop made it to the screen — big and small — only intermittently. But recently, there’s been something of a boom: a slew of rap-infused shows, movies and documentaries that look back to both the old-school era and the mid-1990s, revisiting the periods when hip-hop was becoming the driving force of pop culture. These projects underscore the music’s role as a social and political bellwether, and some even demand a dive into its hidden histories, like the involvement of women and the ways in which violence has shaped the music.
In the spring, Netflix wrapped up “The Get Down,” Baz Luhrmann’s big-budget look at the birth of hip-hop in the South Bronx. In June, “All Eyez on Me,” the long-troubled Tupac Shakur biopic, finally saw the light of day. In July, Dr. Dre and his musical partner Jimmy Iovine were the subjects of HBO’s “The Defiant Ones,” a four-part documentary. And early next year USA is premiering “Unsolved,” a scripted true-crime series based on the investigations into the murders of Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G.
Meanwhile, a new generation of creators have arrived with hip-hop embedded into their creative frameworks, like Donald Glover, a rapper himself, with FX’s “Atlanta,” and Issa Rae with HBO’s “Insecure.” The new ABC sitcom “The Mayor,” is about a young rapper who runs for office to promote his music but ends up in city hall. Daveed Diggs, the rapper and former “Hamilton” star, is an executive producer.
Recently Questlove, the drummer of the Roots, who contributed the song “It Ain’t Fair” to the “Detroit” soundtrack; Salamishah Tillet, a writer and professor of English and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania; and Jon Caramanica, a pop critic at The Times, got together to discuss how hip-hop dominates, innovates and yet still remains niche in television’s current “golden age.” These are edited excerpts from the conversation.