Why Hip-Hop Is Taking Center Stage On Netflix's Original Music Programming
Nas performs onstage during a scene from his episode of the new Netflix docu-series Rapture.
Upon its exclusive release on Netflix in 2016, hip-hop- and disco-infused TV series The Get Down was renowned not only for its energetic cast and flashy cinematic style—with Baz Luhrmann in the director’s seat—but also for its sky-high production budget of at least $120 million ($10 million per episode), marking Netflix’s most expensive price tag for a single show at the time. Hip-hop veterans Grandmaster Flash, Kurtis Blow and Nas were brought on either as executive producers or as consultants and coaches for the cast, ensuring that the series would pay proper respect to history.
Yet, not even one year after The Get Down’s release, Netflix canceled the show for a myriad of reasons: production delays, financial issues, Luhrmann’s outside film commitments and the departure of original showrunner Shawn Ryan.
That hasn’t stopped the streaming company from producing and distributing several more hip-hop projects ever since. In December 2016, HBO Canada’s docu-series Hip-Hop Evolutiontapped Netflix for international distribution. And over the last two weeks alone, hot off the heels of The Get Down, Netflix has premiered two new, exclusive hip-hop pieces of its own.
First, on March 23, came Roxanne Roxanne, a biopic about one of the first female hip-hop MCs, Roxanne Shanté; then, on March 30, came the docu-series Rapture, each episode of which immerses viewers into the life and creative vision of a different rapper or producer, ranging from T.I. and 2 Chainz to Rapsodyand Just Blaze. Netflix co-created the latter with urban culture company Mass Appeal and its chief creative officer Sacha Jenkins—a veteran filmmaker who also directed the Showtime documentary Word Is Bond about hip-hop lyricism, as well as the 2015 doc Fresh Dressed about hip-hop fashion.
As Netflix plans to spend $8 billion on a whopping 700 original movies and TV series this year, hip-hop culture has taken center stage in the platform's original music programming. In fact, in the wider TV landscape, Netflix is far from alone: HBO made a splash in summer 2017 with its four-part docu-series The Defiant Ones chronicling the relationship between Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine, while the potent success of Donald Glover’s TV show Atlanta on FX is making some local hip-hop stars rethink their understanding of their own hometown.
Out of all genres, why does hip-hop shine so brightly on Netflix? One evident reason is Netflix's global reach, which mirrors hip-hop's continued infiltration into the international mainstream.
“Netflix is a perfect platform for hip-hop, which originated in New York City but now has roots all over the world,” Jenkins told me in Austin, TX last month, ahead of Rapture's premiere at SXSW. “As a musical form, hip-hop is both culturally potent and very technology-friendly: you can make hip-hop in your bedroom, or even in the lunchroom as a kid. And to me, Netflix is setting the standard for immediate, premium access to entertainment and information. The fact that premium storytelling about hip-hop now has access to a platform like Netflix that is super on-time with the way people are experiencing entertainment today is really exciting to me.”
With over 117 million users spanning 190 countries, Netflix has more paying subscribers than any music streaming service today—even market leader Spotify, which currently has around 71 million paying subscribers. Interestingly, investors frequently cite Netflix as a necessary growth and profitability benchmark for Spotify, and the latter has attempted, and failed numerous times, to get a robust original video strategy off the ground. It makes sense that artists and music companies would point to Netflix as a more desirable video partner with proven traction in the marketplace, both creatively and commercially.
The magnitude of hip-hop’s global influence also cannot be understated. It's nothing new that hip-hop and R&B were the most-streamed genres in the U.S. for the first time in music history last year, piquing renewed interest from platforms and brands alike. In response, Spotify is in the midst of expanding its RapCaviar playlist brand beyond the U.S., hiring local hip-hop curators around the world.
“It’s simple: hip-hop is the most influential genre and subculture in the world, period,” T.I. told me over the phone from his home in Atlanta. “We’re not just the most popular genre on streaming services: our concerts and festivals produce larger profits. You have films like Straight Outta Compton and Dope that are generating more interest around hip-hop culture globally than any other music genre or subculture. With that influence comes opportunity—and people want to throw money at opportunity.”
Of course, not all money is good money, especially when it comes to hip-hop partnerships. “Everybody knows that bad business dilutes culture,” said T.I. “For us to remain the most influential subculture and the most lucrative genre, we must make sure we are protecting the integrity of that commodity that is our culture.”
Fortunately, the push for cultural integrity and authenticity pervades all the projects under the Mass Appeal umbrella, in which Nas is an investor. Jenkins likes to talk about hip-hop as having "nutritional value"—implying that the right approach to the genre and culture can be a welcome, healthful addition to a balanced media "diet."
“There’s so much information being thrown at young people today,” Jenkins told me. “The content is cool, but quick. With Rapture, we wanted to do something that was more of a slow burn, a really nice simmer—to focus in on something deeper and more substantial, and to give people a real look at who these artists are. I think that’s why Mass Appeal in general has been able to get some traction recently, because no one’s really doing it the way that we are, with a real dedication to storytelling and to building an immersive experience.”
Mass Appeal's slow-burn approach, and the wider influence of Netflix more broadly, are much-needed jabs at the ongoing debate in media around the "pivot to video." In 2017, several major publishers, including Mic and Vice, laid off dozens of staff members in an effort to reorient their business models toward short-form video, partially to appease ad buyers. Not only did these same publishers quickly come to terms with the expensive, unscalable nature of high-quality video, but there was also little evidence that online readers wanted any pivot to begin with.
"Video storytelling is an actual skill, developed over years of working in the medium, not something you pick up through osmosis by getting stoned in college and watching YouTube videos," Gizmodo Media Group's editorial director Susie Banikarim wrote at the end of last year. "It’s insulting to the people who do it well to assume that it’s a shortcut to success."
Back in September 2017, during the panel “Music as an Original Video Content Strategy” at the annual New York Media Event, The FADER's President & Publisher Andy Cohn discussed how the magazine was disillusioned with its short-form, artist-interview videos, which were generating nearly no engagement with site visitors. Hence, contrary to corporate conventions, they started investing in longer video content: they co-produced Stormzy's 15-minute short film Gang Signs & Prayer, and have since expanded their documentary arm into a series of over 40 films on YouTube, featuring artists from Fetty Wap and to Grimes and Princess Nokia.
This deliberate shift to longform is reminiscent of a key quote that Rapsody says in her episode on Rapture: “Anything that comes quick goes away just as fast.”
“If you don’t understand the culture and the history behind hip-hop, you don’t understand why we tell some of these stories we tell, what these words really mean, and why this genre is so powerful—even before you look at the statistics,” Rapsody told me in Austin. “Rapture humanizes us, and elevates the stories to a whole different level where you appreciate the history and the culture more. It shows viewers that at the end of the day, we’re just humans too, and hip-hop is our way of life.”
Interestingly, Vine, Snapchat and most other influential short-form video platforms count hip-hop artists and fans among their earliest, most fervent adopters. On one hand, this has been a positive force in the artist community, giving them more control over their creative message and their relationships with followers.
"Now, when journalists approach artists wanting to do a cover story or documentary, the artists often respond, ‘What do I really need this story for?'" said Jenkins. "'If I have my own platform now that I control on my own terms, how are you going to represent me better?'"
On the other hand, up until recently, hip-hop stories have still been met largely with resistance from more traditional, more mainstream video distribution channels—including cable TV and even Netflix itself—that have the funds to dive deeper into an artist's life beyond static Instagram photos or ten-second looping videos.
"The fact that the greenlighters have gotten past the misperception that this can’t play to wider audiences, or understand that hip-hop fans are possibly the most diverse demographic there is, they’re like, ‘Oh man, this is some big market,'" Rapture executive producer Ben Selkow told Mic last week. “You can say hip-hop’s in control of the narrative, but hip-hop isn’t necessarily in control of all the platforms. There’s an overdue recognition of the power of the medium."
"When I was younger, there were no documentaries like this that really got into what artists were doing day-to-day, where you could meet the artists’ parents—you only had the music, or the occasional music video,” Dave East, a member of Forbes' Hip-Hop's Future Moguls 2018 who co-stars in his own Raptureepisode alongside Nas, told me. “That was enough for me back then, but I think it’s dope that there’s something like Rapturetoday that takes that fame off of us for a minute, values the lifestyle a lot more and shows viewers that we’re not just rapping. We’re also taking care of our families and holding everything down with the dreams we have."
For T.I., who was approached with a proposal to take part in Rapture during a self-described "metamorphosis," the series provided an apt opportunity for him to document his increasingly political music and activism without succumbing to unpredictable, clickbait-driven news cycles.
"The nature of the episode would’ve been totally different if the opportunity came two years earlier," he told me. “I just felt a lot more socially responsible, given the climate of the nation, to use my influence for more than just business. The director did a great job of taking notice of this period I was going through in my life, and bringing more perspective to the transition such that viewers could wrap their minds more around where I was coming from.”
When I asked Rapsody if she came across any surprises while filming her episode, she insisted that there were none. "My story’s more of a maturation—a journey of grinding and just trying to break through as an artist," she said.
"I’m so thankful to have gotten two Grammy nominations, but that ain’t even the end of it. That’s only the beginning. Dave [East] actually first reached out to me ten years ago, and we’ve been on this journey together in parallel, even though we have two totally different backgrounds and stories. Rapture is an opportunity for us to show just how multidimensional hip-hop is. No surprises there.”
Netflix's value add in enabling musicians and their creative partners to tell deeper stories about themselves arguably reinforces the new, multimedia imperative for surviving and rising above the noise in today's cutthroat music business.
“If you’re a record label without a multi-pronged content approach, you’re irrelevant,” said Jenkins. “Not to say you can’t be a successful indie label that just focuses on making music—if you keep finding amazing artists who are getting millions of streams, that’s great—but the way young people digest content now, you’ve got to be able to deliver the whole package, or else you’re going to lose. You don’t necessarily have to ‘win’ the race, but you have to stay competitive, which you won’t do if you’re not taking all of these elements of how the world moves into consideration.”