Tariq Nasheed

‘Microphone Check’ Documentary Prepares to Dive Deep Into Hip-Hop History

Historian and director Tariq Nasheed has put together an engaging documentary about the impactful origins of hip-hop that we won’t soon forget.

Although the media spent the last few years highlighting the origins of hip-hop, much of the public is still craving to see who else was involved in the genre’s beginnings over 50 years ago. Some of those who are featured in Nasheed’s documentary (entitled Microphone Check: The Hidden History of Hip-Hop) are Coke La Rock, Trixie and Sasa, Sha Rock, Melle Mel, and Grandmaster Caz, among others. By coming together and speaking with Nasheed for Microphone Check, the documentary came to life, and it tells a story of all the figures who put hip-hop on the map back when it was born in the Bronx over five decades ago. 

Microphone Check is set to debut this Saturday in New York City. The doc includes rare footage and new interviews while covering the origins of hip-hop. The Aquarian’s Robert Frezza was lucky enough to sit down with the film’s director, Tariq Nasheed, to discuss current affairs in the world of rap (beefs and all), how women have paved the way in the genre, and how come the Grammy Awards still haven’t gotten it right when it comes to the sounds of hip-hop and style of its artists. 

How did the Microphone Check documentary come to fruition?

I am a historian and I’ve done a lot of other documentaries about history. I’ve done a documentary series on Hidden Colors, which was about the untold story of global Black History. I did movies like 1804 about the history of Haiti, and American Maroon about runaway slaves. I am also a big hip-hop fan, and a lot of people wanted me to cover hip-hop from the historical point. That’s what we did with Microphone Check, which is the first time a documentary film [goes] into the historical origins of hip-hop. 

You mention in the doc that the founding fathers of hip-hop didn’t just start with three artists. There were a few key players.

There was a narrative that started with The Source magazine back in 1992/1993 that made Cool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, and African Bambaataa the basic trilogy of hip-hop. The Source said those three were the founding fathers of hip-hop. That is a half-truth, because there were so many other people who were just as instrumental in the creation of hip-hop – many who we talk about in the film. One person was Disco King Mario, who helped spread hip-hop across the Bronx. There were a lot of dangerous gangs at that time in the Bronx in the 1970s. In order to go around the Bronx with music equipment, you’d have to be cliqued in with gang members and the streets. We are talking about a lot of unsung heroes that are often omitted in the story of hip-hop. We wanted to give everybody their just due. 

You started off as a rapper. What does hip-hop mean to you?

Hip-hop culture shows how people can get something and do something, but come out of nothing. The people of the Bronx were denied so much at the time coming out of the sixties and seventies civil rights movement. There were drugs and heroin in the streets. You had landlords torching buildings for insurance money. There was a deprivation of resources with music in the schools. The youths looked at the situation to get our parents records, catch the funk break, and rhyme over the breaks while we danced to that in the streets. They weren’t allowed in the Studio 54s and everything was about locking them out. It was about deprivation. That whole thing has become the most influenced culture worldwide known as hip-hop. 

The music has changed, especially since the nineties. Would you agree?

The music changed, which is good. Dance moves changed. Rhyme styles change all the time. Hip-hop has evolved and it’s very fluid. It’s all about innovation and it’s very competitive. It’s about evolving from the old thing, but paying respect for the fore-bearers.

The music is more corporatized. Labels put money behind someone sounding like the next artist. There’s nothing wrong with trap or drill, but the thing with hip-hop is that everyone created their different styles to the genre and that’s what made it fly. The golden era of era of hip-hop was aorund 1988. The reason why is because everybody went out of their way to be innovative and different and more unique from the next person. You had Kid ‘n Play, RUN DMC, Eric B. & Rakim, N.W.A, etc. – it was a whole roster of different hip-hop artists and that made it interesting.

Today’s big beef is between Kendrick Lamar and Drake. How did this start and where will it end?

I think there were jabs and that’s how it started. A lot of the battles you have to put it on wax. Busy B and Kool Moe Dee had the first rap battle; it was very vague at first, but Kool Moe Dee made it personal. Kool Moe Dee blew up after that. It’s all about clout. With the Drake and Kendrick beef, Kendrick was somewhat of an underdog and now Kendrick has the number one song in the country. Kendrick’s “Not Like Us” is in the clubs now. Hip-hop is the same. Things change, but things remain the same. 

Hip-hop just celebrated its 50th. Did you think it would have lasted this long?

That’s a phenomenal and beautiful thing. They said hip-hop was going to be a trend like disco. When something is youth-driven, it’s not so much of a trend. There are so many different elements of hip-hop, too – fashion is another element. These things are always changing, and they grow and evolve in time, so that’s a good thing. 

What are your thoughts of women in hip-hop today?

In the nineties, Lil’ Kim did the raunchy thing as did Foxy Brown. There has to be balance to it. Lil’ Kim walked so Nicki Minaj can run. Now you have Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion. What kills the culture is everyone doing the same thing. You did have a balance in the nineties with Queen Latifah to Lauryn Hill. Now you have no balance; it takes away from the innovative spirit of hip-hop and that’s what kills the culture when everyone does the same thing… but that comes from the corporate side a lot. 

How much influence do the record labels have on the genre?

They have a lot of influence on the radio, but luckily we still have movements that go on underground. The labels will take control of that and mass produce that, though. It’s a very interesting dynamic. In most documentaries about hip-hop, they will talk a little about history and then they go into the corporate side of things like their roster. What we did with Microphone Check was that we stuck to the pioneers of the genre. 

Hip-hop and the Grammys: why can’t a rapper win Album of the Year?

The Grammys are still very political. Beyoncé had a song with The Chicks and they didn’t want to nominate it for a country category. Back in the late eighties, rappers boycotted the Grammys because the Best Rap Album category album wasn’t televised. That’s when hip-hop would police itself and stand up to the industry. 

Will Lauryn Hill ever make another album?

I hope so. Lauryn Hill was such a phenomenal talent, and that album [The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill] was a game changer. She had a massive amount of success, and sometimes that throws a lot of people off and it’s hard to top that. Just like with Andre 3000 and Outkast – we want this guy to get back in the studio and he comes out with an album with the flute! We don’t want to hear the flute! Artists are afraid that their next album will not live up to the next one and they be looked like as a failure. That happens with a big successful album, and just like with Michael Jackson, every album after Thriller people were saying it was a failure. However, I want Lauryn Hill to come back and do her thing.