Where We’re From: Rise of L.A. Underground Hip Hop (Shout! Studios)
Diving into LA Underground Hip-Hop with the People Who Lived it: The premise of the documentary Where We’re From is fairly simply — the view of L.A. hip-hop that the larger world was being presented with back in the day was one of gangsta rap. NWA and, later, Cube and Dre. Compton’s Most Wanted. Blue and Red. That’s where the money was. But, as co-producers and directors DJ Bonds and DJ Breeze are keen to point out, there was so much more going on in the underground.
“The first time I ever really knew there was something more out in L.A. besides NWA, Cube and kinda like the gangsta scene was actually watching Rap Mania,” says DJ Bonds, of the Elements Crew, right at the beginning of the film. “It was kinda crazy, because I got the chance to see Divine Styler, the Scheme Team, and Def Jef and the Soul Brothers. Back then, I’m wearing Hammer pants, polka dots — it was just that era. And they were so different than that.”
Elements was an underground club that ran from about 1998 to 2002, eventually finding a home at the El Rey. Bonds and Breeze were the founders, and so they had a front row seat as the cream of L.A., and American, underground hip-hop made it’s way through.
That’s where this movie succeeds. The story is being lovingly told, though warts and all, by people who lived it and breathed it. They suffered, economically and emotionally, when things weren’t going so well, and celebrated together when they were. And now, in retrospect, they’re well aware that they were a part of something incredibly special.
Those of us who were not a part of that scene but are now fascinated with it get to meet underground artists and various characters, and the stories are fantastic. Some are legendary — like the time Eminem got his ass handed to him at the Rap Olympics by battle champion Otherwize. Similarly, Phife Dawg from A Tribe Called Quest showed up to judge a battle, and ended up in one (and losing).
We learn about the success of the Unity club nights – how major labels wanted their acts on the Unity bills alongside local talent because that was the stage to be on. We watch De La Soul racing to finish a festival set (Live at the BBQ 2000) before the sun went down because there were no lights on stage. And we hear from the Freestyle Fellowship, Jurassic 5, Planet Asia, Talib Kweli, Souls Of Mischief, the Beat Junkies, Medusa and Dilated Peoples.
The film ends on a positive note. Most of the artists involved in this wave of underground hip-hop didn’t get rich but they’re justifiably proud of what they achieved. They talk of passing the torch to the next generation. Nothing died, nothing went away. But certainly, the late ’90s/early 2000s was a special time.
Diving into LA Underground Hip-Hop with the People Who Lived it: Where We’re From: Rise of L.A. Underground Hip Hop is available to rent on Amazon Prime now.
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