20 Years Later, Rhyme & Reason Remains Rap Music’s Ultimate Backstage Pass (Video)

During the late 1990s, Hip-Hop was a seismic force that garnered mainstream recognition as a billion-dollar industry. The culture had invalidated scores of critics who dismissed it as a fad during the previous two decades. Hip-Hop achieved this while rewriting the rules of the music business and redefining the American lifestyle.

Taking a deeper look at Hip-Hop’s booming business and incredible diversity, Miramax released the documentary Rhyme & Reason 20 years ago. Directed by Peter Spirer (who later worked on Beef and Tupac: Thug Angel), the film examined Hip-Hop’s boom through covering more than 80 MCs, producers, dancers, DJs, and executives. Heads and those simply curious showed up, as the film made more than $1.6 million at the box office.

Looking back 20 years, Rhyme & Reason examined an astounding cross-section of ’90s Rap. A Tribe Called Quest, Busta Rhymes, Def Squad, Dr. Dre, Tha Dogg Pound, E-40, The Fugees, Guru, Ice-T, Lost Boyz, KRS-One, Mack 10, Master P, MC Eiht, Nas, The Pharcyde, Puff Daddy, and Wu-Tang Clan all appear in the feature film. Spirer’s documentary reflects the diversity and solidarity of the community. Besides just New York and Los Angeles, R&R covered the bay area, New Orleans, Atlanta, and Houston. It also looked underground, beyond the charts and videos. One vignette had radio giants Stretch Armstrong & Bobbito featuring a fresh-faced Xzibit freestyling on the air, promoting At The Speed Of Life.

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The film was released during shifting plates for the tone and feel of Hip-Hop. Gangsta Rap boomed for much of the decade, as had beef. In early 1997, the dust was settling from the East vs. West civil war, and the murder of Tupac Shakur. Among the most compelling interviews is from The Notorious B.I.G. At a critical juncture in his career, Biggie discussed why being an MC and a role model are not always synonymous, and how Rap afforded him a pathway out of drug-dealing. He also spoke about biters and sellouts, and why they have existed in Hip-Hop. Sadly, the same year Rhyme & Reason reached theater-goers, Christopher Wallace’s life was taken, also.

Like it was for one of the last chats with B.I.G., Rhyme & Reason‘s lens happened to be there for so many pivotal moments. It included Oakland legend Too Short’s 10th album release Gettin’ It, and short-lived retirement. The doc’ also showed Master P hard at work on branding No Limit Records. While so much of the map was still hipping itself to Percy Miller, this film somehow knew that Rap’s sound was heading south. R&R also followed Redman through a Jack The Rapper convention. Despite three successful albums, Reggie Noble rapped at the conference like he must have done before the Def Jam deal. The MC with multiple gold plaques showed that status could not interfere with his passion to spit rhymes. Months before Moment Of Truth was released, Puff Daddy and Gang Starr’s Guru appeared politicking during a party. In another memorable sequence, Westside Connection’s Mack 10 bickers with police officers after he’s stopped for recklessly operating his ’59 Chevy lowrider. In its day, Rhyme & Reason was an issue of The Source in living color—and just as gratifying, comprehensive, and informative.

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Long before social media gave fans all the access they want and more, Rhyme & Reason showed Hip-Hop’s artists up close and personal. Families, friends, and pre-MTV Cribs glimpses into home-lives are featured. On its cover, the film was billed as “The Ultimate Back-Stage Pass,” and it delivered during a very pivotal season for Rap music. At a time when ages, coasts, styles, and paychecks seemed to divide the community, R&R highlighted the commonalities within the culture.

Additional Reporting by Jake Paine.