Wednesday March 5, 1997

     Rap music and the hip-hop culture that spawned it are a $3 billion a year industry, but to most Americans, who hear only complaints about the violence and misogyny of selected lyrics, it's a world so unfamiliar it might as well be on the far side of the moon.
     Ideally, a documentary on this self-contained universe would serve as a guide to the perplexed, introducing a specific sensibility, as "Hype!" did with grunge rock, to a wider audience. "Rhyme & Reason" is a welcome step in the right direction but not as large a one as necessary.
     Directed by Peter Spirer, "Rhyme & Reason" offers tantalizing glimpses of the film it might have been, poignant sequences and pithy quotes that illuminate why hip-hop and rap mean so much to so many people. But finally its approach is too haphazard, its chosen technique too rough and ragged. More than just preaching to the converted, "Rhyme & Reason" seems intent on informing the already educated.
     Part of the film's scattershot quality comes from the number of artists participating--more than 80 according to the press material, far too many for a 90-minute film. Though fans will likely recognize each and every personality, for the non-pro it's a confusing welter of names and faces. Even when people are identified, it's only once, and no attempt is made to provide any clue about reputation or status. If you don't know what separates Heavy D from the Notorious B.I.G., don't look to this film for an answer.
     Maybe because their faces are the most familiar, or maybe because the increasing years made them more thoughtful, the most articulate artists in "Rhyme & Reason" turn out to be the veterans of the business, people like the late Tupac Shakur, Ice-T, Salt-N-Pepa and Dr. Dre.
     The strongest and most powerful points "Rhyme & Reason" makes are about rap's value as a crucial means of self-expression for those who wouldn't ordinarily be heard. "At its best," one performer says, "hip-hop music can grab the nation by the neck and make people realize what's going on. It's a voice for oppressed people who in many ways don't have any other voice."
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     Equally provocative are discussions centering around the considerable sums rappers make, the different ways they're handling their wealth and whether the responsibility many of them feel to "stay real" affects their decision to move out of the old neighborhood once they can afford to.
     Ice-T, for instance, explains the difference between how police treat him now and in the past and talks about what it means to his friends to see "a brother like myself" succeed "without giving in to the man." And his point that "there's no black community, it's a poor community" is echoed by Shakur, almost radiant in a few brief clips, who says that "the same crime element that white people are scared of, black people are scared of."
     But for every strong section in "Rhyme & Reason," like the segment about the performers' devotion to their mothers, other parts, like the attempt to give a brief history of the roots of rap and hip-hop, are too sketchy and insubstantial. It sometimes feels that the filmmakers used whoever was handy to make their points rather than searching out the best and most articulate spokespeople.
     That is especially true for the soft-soap sections on violence and the abuse heaped on women in rap lyrics. Though one performer's point about no one objecting when Arnold Schwarzenegger wipes out battalions of people is a good one, the half-hearted responses female rappers have to unfriendly lyrics feel makeshift and unconvincing.
     "Rhyme & Reason's" anarchic approach to its subject may be intentional, an off-shoot of covering a world that doesn't necessarily value tidy summations. And the film does offer a snapshot, however hurried, of the sense of the moment in the hip-hop scene. But documentary opportunities to examine the subject may not be all that frequent, and it's too bad that this chance was not utilized to the fullest.


Rhyme & Reason, 1997. R, for pervasive strong language and some drug content. A City Block and Aslan Pictures production, released by Miramax Films. Director Peter Spirer. Producers Charles X Block, Peter Spirer, Daniel Sollinger. Executive producer Helena Echegoyen. Editor Andy Robertson, David Wilson. Music Benedikt Brydern. Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes.