Even now, 30-plus years down the line for hip hop, you can still find the odd person who’s convinced that rapping is somehow not a real art form. I mean, they’re just talking, right? It’s not like they’re singing or anything. How hard can it be?
The next time someone offers up that glib opinion, perhaps you could refer them to an electrifying moment in Made In America, the new documentary covering Jay Z’s two-day festival of the same name – directed by the surprising figure of Ron Howard, who made Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind and is possibly still best known to British readers as the actor who played Richie Cunningham in Happy Days.
It’s a few days before the Made In America festival is due to take place in the centre of Philadelphia, a major gamble for Jay Z who has staked a hefty slice of his credibility on an event that will bring together hip hop, rock, black, white, male, female, old school and new school in an event symbolically staged in the City of Brotherly Love.
In a large but windowless room the MC otherwise known as Shawn Carter is rehearsing his band, a full-service live outfit with guitars and drums. Everyone’s a little fatigued and fractious. In a brief lull someone asks Jay Z if he knows what track they’re going to do next.
Maybe it’s his tone or maybe Jay Z doesn’t hear him right, but instead of issuing a simple instruction the rapper goes straight into the flow of “Murda Marcyville”, the words tumbling out in an unstoppable torrent, too fast for me to scribble them down, walloping consonants and stretched vowels building up a boom-bap rhythm that’s unmistakably hip hop and inimitably Jay Z. It’s both an example and a challenge.
At a purely technical level his discipline and depth of recall is astonishing. These are packed, dense verses with no room for flubbing, sequences that he must dredge up from memory in real time with no errors, thinking three or four lines ahead. But what really strikes you is the strength of personality.
Jay Z’s eye contact is as much a power in the room as his voice. It’s like watching a great player-manager in action, and another small proof that he didn’t get to be the biggest name in hip hop because nobody else wanted the gig.
When he finishes his verses the band, chastened, don’t need to ask to know that they need to tighten up.
In hip hop it’s the words that create the music and the words must come from one mind, which is why it has been the perfect music for three decades of self-actualisation, self-aggrandisement and self-made men and women. It is the original Big I Am. Is Jay Z just talking over records? No, he really, really isn’t.
This moment is one of most striking in a movie whose strengths and faults flow from the same starry-eyed can-do naiveté that Americans excel at, and we in Britain tend to find suspect. At the end of 2012, Jay Z corralled a spread of artists – Pearl Jam, Run DMC, Santigold, Odd Future, The Hives, Jill Scott and more – together for an avowedly political show. Not just a corny celebration of diversity, Made In America would draw attention to the growing inequality that’s putting the American dream out of many people’s grasp.
Though a multi-genre bill is not such big a deal here, where we expect to see acts of every colour and stripe at Glastonbury and beyond, Made In America’s success suggested that the US live music industry lagged behind a modern multiracial audience that’s equally happy freaking out to Miike Snow and Janelle Monae.
MIA perform at the Made In America Festival
In the movie we see dubstep pop star Skrillex give director Howard a comical DJ lesson, learn that obnoxious Odd Future MC Tyler, The Creator is actually a natural comedian and pretty charismatic too, and witness some properly heartwarming fanboy-fangirl excitement as Jay Z and wife Beyoncé watch their heroes Run DMC tear it up in their first reunion show.
We also hear quite a lot of guff about empowerment. “I believe that every human being has genius-level talent,” Jay Z declares at one point. “You just have to find what it is you’re good at, and tap into it.” Easy for you to say, Shawn.
This is a very American idealism and perhaps we’re the ones who are wrong to doubt.
It flows partly from the fact that Ron Howard, who’s directed everything from nerve-shredders like Rush to Frost/Nixon, was a stranger to both music festivals and documentaries. Howard told Jay Z that he knew next to nothing about the contemporary music world at all – but like a lot of people it fascinated him. That’s why we wanted you, the rapper replied, giving Howard their manifesto for the festival: if all walls are breaking down in music, there ought to be a festival that acknowledged that too.
“They were looking for that stranger-in-a-strange land thing,” explains Howard, a relentlessly good humoured guy whose middle-American friendliness seemed to charm the rapper’s coalition of rock singers and urban stars. “I only had a couple of weeks to prepare, so I had to just leap – which was a good thing, because otherwise I’d have talked myself out of it.
Having never made a documentary before, I had to approach it as an unscripted movie. We put half a dozen camera crews in there on the day of the shows, with tremendous access, and discovered the themes as we shot. We didn’t have a mandate – we had to just experience it, and then make sense of that experience.”
As well as operating his own camera – “some of my shots even made it into the movie!” – Howard also had to play the interviewer, his outsider approach eliciting a surprising openness from acts who are used to predictable questions from music writers.
When he asks Janelle Monae about her trademark monochrome outfits, she comes back with an unusually moving story about her parents, how they paid the rent with low-end manual jobs, and how that made Monae want to wear a uniform to work too. Howard’s meeting with Run DMC’s surviving members, on the other hand, is startling. The diffident and slightly camp Reverend Run and the frighteningly intense Darryl “DMC” McDaniels are still clearly trying to come to terms with the death of their murdered DJ Jam Master Jay, an unsettled question that puts the fire into their reunion show at Made In America.
But some of the best conversations are with the festival fixers, roadies and food service people – the ones at the receiving end of modern America’s raw deal. One security man delivers a heartfelt declaration of what work means to him, and how you can make it if you really try.
It’s all a little sensitive and idealistic and nobody wants to say anything mean until his buddy asks him “Did you read that on Facebook?” and everyone starts laughing.
“What emerged from all this was a story about how music can transform you as a person,” says Howard. “To me, the stories we found of young rappers trying to get their first big show, or a food truck lady gambling on the festival to finance her business, are as important as the main storylines. They were very optimistic and unsentimental stories. I wasn’t expecting to find that at all.”
At the climax of the movie, Jay Z headlines Made In America. What’s the point of having your own festival if you don’t top the bill? Down in the pit, shooting around the pyrotechnics as Jay Z rapped over his head to an audience of tens of thousands, Howard realised something: Jay Z is a modern Sinatra.
Ron Howard, Beyonce and Jay Z behind-the-scenes at the festival
“The thing about him is, he’s an incredible communicator,” says the director. “I didn’t understand Sinatra till I saw him perform, towards the end of his career. I’d heard Frank Sinatra’s records – everybody has. But when I saw him in Las Vegas I realised just how alive and present he was onstage.”
Sinatra told stories that connected directly with the audience, just like an actor. Onstage in Philadelphia Jay Z was doing exactly the same thing. “I hadn’t even gotten that same feeling when I watched him rehearse,” says Howard. “Onstage, it’s a different thing. It’s direct communication and it’s powerful.”
But this is not the film’s most insightful moment. That comes in a cutaway in the middle of Made In America where Howard follows Jay Z back to his old apartment in Brooklyn’s Marcy Projects. It’s no longer quite the ’hood death trap that it used to be, but it’s still modest by the standards of Shawn Carter’s current lifestyle.
In the street, disbelieving fans call out and Jay Z seems rather bashful. Back inside this claustrophobic walk-up he goofs around, tells stories of what he had to do in order to get out and into the hip hop game, and climbs up onto the roof from which, amazed, he can clearly see his own 40/40 Club in the gigantic Barclays Centre which has landed in Brooklyn like some gentrifying spaceship.
How far you’ve come, the film says. But Howard has the wit to keep the camera rolling for the funniest and most touching moment in the whole picture: the world’s biggest rapper playing peek-a-boo with the baby who now lives in his old apartment, for all the world like he still lives down the hall.
Made In America is released on DVD and Video on Demand on 19 May
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