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The song is bigger than the sum of its parts. But, each part has a story. The bass may have started as a fart sound before it was turned ominous with some reverb. The superhuman singing solo may be six different vocal takes from six different days stacked on top of one another. You could deconstruct a song down to its multitrack session genome and still wouldn’t get all the stories that went into its creation. Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter aim to change that with their upcoming AMC docuseries, “Hip Hop: Songs That Shook America.”
The show is designed to be a hip hop nerd’s dream where minutiae are significant and historical context takes precedence over hype. For six weeks, six songs will be broken down and explained by the people who helped the music come to be, and those impacted by it. Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks,” Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright,” Run DMC’s “Rock Box,” Outkast’s “Elevators,” MC Shan’s “The Bridge” and Queen Latifah’s “Ladies First” were selected for the first season.
“These songs that shook America are our heroes. It is like the origin story of how these songs got their superpowers,” Black Thought told REVOLT TV on the red carpet of the Tribeca TV Festival.
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Ladies & Gentlemen, judge for yourself. The entire pilot episode of #JesusWalks is up and running on @youtube. Just go (& follow) @twoonefiveent & @songsthatshook & please let us know whatcha think. It’s been our dream to make a @30for30 like music doc series. Please watch y’all and spread the word!
However, its world premiere at the fest belonged to the queen. The first 20 minutes of the episod didn’t focus on Latifah’s 1989 classic “Ladies First,” as it was spent explaining how Octavia Butler and Nikki Giovanni were the rap legend’s idols. Furthermore, it detailed how revolutionary poet Amiri Baraka was like an uncle to her; and how her mother, Rita Owens, made her walk with a book on her head to instill graceful posture. Her mom is even why she chose to have “Queen” in her name instead of “MC.” The sexist limitations on the signing and promotion of women who rapped during the 1980s were attested to by Latifah, herself, and her peers Monie Love and MC Lyte. All of this, plus the weight of Latifah’s decision to drop out of college to pursue a career in a male-dominated industry was eruditely explained before a single note on “Ladies First” was examined.
Just how its creators envisioned it.
“It’s our job to educate [the younger generation]. You can’t assume the joy that you had -- discovering what this culture is all about -- is just going to resonate for generations to come,” Questlove said at the post-screening panel discussion.
The “Ladies First” episode showcased the six-episode series at its best: A treasure trove of music knowledge that can unite generations in discovery. Latifah made the song, but it wasn’t until she was presented with the “track sheet” of the Oct. 13, 1989 studio session that she finally discovered the tempo. The song’s engineer, Shane Faber, found out the song’s producer, 45 King, had scratched in the horn cuts instead of sampling them for the song, from the same track sheet.
And without a single second of archival, in-studio footage, “Hip Hop: Songs That Shook America” was able to recreate the back-and-forth collaborative energy between Love and Latifah with quick cuts of their energetic retelling of the song’s creation.
The episode feels especially relevant now — at a time when Cardi B and Lizzo have had No. 1 singles on the Billboard charts. Latifah even returned to the mic this year on Rapsody’s “Hapshepu” song from her album Eve. In the track, she states: “Though we sit on thrones, we don’t look down on each other.” Rapsody is even mentioned in the episode as a descendent of Latifah’s influence. But, the “U.N.I.T.Y.” lyricist’s relationship with the new generations of women who rap is a bit vague at best.
Latifah’s longtime friend and Flavor Unit Entertainment co-founder, Shakim Comperer, recollected with the queen about a recent request from someone to recreate “Ladies First.” What was the outcome of that request? Let’s just say that they both declined. Latifah’s reasoning was that someone should make their own “Ladies First” instead of remaking hers. Moreover, no artists from the generations that followed her reign spoke about the rap icon or her song’s influence. When we asked if they tried to get in touch with anyone from the later generations, Black Thought told REVOLT, “Yeah, um, no. The focus was on Latifah.”
Today’s generation of women in rap was discussed quite disparagingly near the end of the episode. Former Tommy Boy Records president Monica Lynch chuckled after stating the “queenliness” that Latifah brought to the game is missing. Dungeon Family singer Joi claimed: “There’s a lot of camera unity you see now,” implying the public solidarity of women who rap in today’s age is more of a performative than genuine. For Latifah, she views her contribution as a foundation for generations to build upon.
“I can’t take responsibility for the female MCs that came after me,” Latifah revealed on the show. “What I can say is I made it OK for a lot of females to not be afraid of talking about uplifting themselves, uplifting other females, changing the world.”
This episode is set to premiere Nov. 17 as the inaugural season’s finale. Questlove hopes the show shakes things up and “the ripple goes far on social media” by inciting debates and lively discussions, as hip hop heads are known to do. Also, when the show debuts in October on AMC, you should consider this season the EP before the album.
”We just wanted to put a little appetizer out there and do half [of] a season. Get a lot of good buzz on it, and then come with what we really wanted. A lot of my favorite songs... I want to hold for season two and season three,” Questlove told the Tribeca TV Festival crowd before the night ended.
Check out an exclusive clip from the show below.