In the late 80s, it was impossible to not notice that hip-hop was everywhere. Ed Lover and Doctor Dre provided the scoop on the music and fondly clowned the artists on the popular Yo! MTV Raps for seven years. Who doesn't remember the infamous Ed Lover dance? There were good movies ( Beat Street and Krush Groove) and what-the-hell-were-they-thinking movies (the dreadful 1985 Rappin' and two Breakin' sequels).  You had to sport the thick gold dookie chains and girls proudly wore the bamboo doorknocker earrings. In the last 20 years, hip-hop has gone through a major physical and monetary renovation.

Christopher 'Cannon' Mapp recording his rhyme for the first time.


 

Gone, but definitely not forgotten, were the slick rhymes of RUN DMC, the political voice of Public Enemy and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five with Melle Mel as the lead spokesman of brutal truth in 'The Message'. Now, it's all about the cars with the latest gadgets, having an entourage as big as a tribe, and spitting loud and proud your need to get that money. Well, rapper and activist Chris 'Kazi' Rolle saw how detrimental the material possessions got in the way and people forgot what was real in hip-hop.

The Bahamian native came to New York at 14 to live with his mother who promptly kicked him out. Kazi lived on the streets of Brooklyn surviving on his own. He came across an educational support group, Art Start.  It was there that Kazi found his niche in the creative atmosphere. In 1999, he started The Hip Hop Project reaching out to kids who were either high school dropouts or living on the street likes Kazi. The goal was to get the kids together and make a record. But first, they had to be taught that education is important and music is secondary.  The Hip Hop Project movie, directed by Matt Ruskin, chronicles Kazi's involvement and determination to make the venture viable.

Cannon and the rest of THHP crew performing live in NYC


On this remarkable journey, music mogul Russell Simmons gets involved and pulled in actors Bruce Willis and Queen Latifah as producers for the documentary. What does Bruce Willis know about hip-hop, you ask while scratching your head. He and Simmons were able to secure free recording studio time that Kazi desperately needed. After the money part was locked in, it was time to get the kids to work. The central focus is on 17-year old Cannon and Princess whose lives are split between making the record and dealing with the commotion in their personal lives. Cannon, who lives with his cousin and grandmother Ivy, are being threatened with eviction. Meanwhile, Princess visits his father in the penitentiary and the emotional toll it takes on the young woman is so catastrophic.

The pain and agony that Cannon and Princess and the other members go through make their lyrics real and affecting. These kids release all the hurt bottled inside for so long with tears and all. Cannon deals with the loss of his mother and Princess talks about her decision to have an abortion. The pain in this girl's eyes is very poignant and real. Even Kazi goes through his problems. One of which is finally connecting with his detached mother, who lives in Queens, on why she never came back from him when she left the Bahamas. 

Artist and director of The Hip Hop Project organization Diana 'Princess'Lemon in deep thought.


That reunion left me reeling at how cold Imogene, Kazi's mother, appeared. All these vulnerable components are the heart stone to THHP. This is what is missing in the culture today, the reason why hip-hop was born. Kazi describes hip-hop as 'an American sub-culture and form of artistic expression, born of poverty, oppression and disenfranchisement'. The break dancing, spitting rhymes, graffiti writing, spinning the records are the main elements of the genre but it's the people behind it that make memorable and lasting. Kazi brings all that back and reminds everyone why, even though hip hop is extremely different now, the organic roots need to be revived and honored.

THHP is similar to the 2005 documentary RIZE about the phenomenon of krumping giving the kids and teens a purpose in life. Kazi provides the same gift and renews a healthy amount of optimism that their lives can be turned around. All it starts with is a beat, a rhyme and an honest genuine love for the art.

The Hip Hop Project opens Friday, June 11


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