"Beef," an engrossing new documentary about the history of high-profile rap feuds, opens with old-school Bronx rapper KRS-One explaining that back in the day, a rap "beef" was a substitute for physical confrontation, a battle fought with the pen instead of the sword.
The film closes with new-school superstar 50 Cent declaring that his much-publicized feud with rapper Ja Rule is more than a war of words -- and no cheap publicity stunt. "This ain't the WWF," 50 says with grave sincerity. Implicit in this framing is a contradiction that begs the question that lords over "Beef," which will have a short theatrical release in New York and Los Angeles and is out nationwide on DVD on Tuesday. It's the same question facing contemporary hip-hop itself, which, two-plus decades into its existence, turns like a middle-aged suburbanite increasingly to nostalgia and navel gazing: What happened to the way we were? When did all-in-good-fun lyrical battles in the park turn to hyper-serious, revenue-generating rap warfare?
"Beef" answers with a moving lament for the way hip-hop once was. Part public-service announcement, part cultural studies class, part VH1 "Behind the Music," the film is perhaps the first dialectical history of hip-hop, brilliantly detailing how a culture evolved -- and sometimes devolved -- from cycles of conflict and resolution.
"Hip-hop didn't start the whole 'beef' thing; it goes at least as far back as Michelangelo," says "Beef" director Peter Spirer. "What hip-hop did, though, was embrace competition between artists and make music out of it."
Narrated in solemn tones by Ving Rhames, "Beef" -- whose executive producer is Quincy Jones III, son of the Grammy-winning musician and producer -- neither glorifies nor condemns, weaving its way through decades of rap feuds that produced hit records and sharp lyrical barbs.
There's hip-hop's first big-time battle, Busy Bee versus Kool Moe Dee, and the battle of the New York boroughs, between the Bronx's Boogie Down Productions and Queens' Juice Crew. There's the East Coast versus West Coast, and LL Cool J versus just about everyone.
And of course, there's the feud, the one all of "Beef" -- much like all of hip-hop, post-Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur -- seems a mere prelude to: the battle between 50 Cent and Ja Rule. The film's intimate interview with 50, shot two months before the rapper conquered pop radio and topped the national sales charts, is a crowning achievement.
Jones conceived of the film as an installment in his ongoing 12-part hip-hop series, which he hopes will do for hip-hop what Ken Burns' documentary did for jazz: capture the spirit of an entire musical culture.
After seeing "Rhyme & Reason," a 1997 Miramax documentary about hip-hop culture, Jones was impressed by the way its director, Spirer, "went beyond a two-dimensional portrayal of rappers and instead humanized them." He approached Spirer about collaborating. Spirer -- whose 1993 documentary with Steven Cantor, "Blood Ties: The Life and Work of Sally Mann," was nominated for an Academy Award -- agreed to direct the first in Jones' hip-hop series: "Thug Angel," an intimate glimpse at hip-hop martyr Tupac Shakur, released on DVD last year. But one thing, Jones says, was left unexplored by "Thug Angel" and thus planted the seed for "Beef": Why did Tupac's rap feuds grow so tragically out of hand?
Launching production in the pre-50 Cent era, Spires and Jones focused on the feud making headlines at the time, the battle between Queens' Nas and Brooklyn's Jay-Z. "That feud was the archetype, the way it ought to be," Spirer explains. "Each rapper produced great battle records and grew more successful from them, and each knew to back away before anything could turn violent." But as the 50-Ja battle intensified, co-opting headlines and airwaves, "Beef" -- like hip-hop itself -- took a turn.
"It was like doing a documentary about twisters, and you end up getting caught in the biggest twister of all time," Jones says. Production time stretched from three months to nearly a year, and the film's tone grew increasingly urgent.
The film has final words from Afeni Shakur, mother of Tupac and living legacy to the feud between her son and Notorious B.I.G., whose deaths gave hip-hop a reality check. "I miss my son," she says.
Spirer and Jones are already at work on two sequels to "Beef," which they hope will serve as therapy for an ailing hip-hop industry. "Like any recovery program, you have to work in steps," Jones explains. "Step one is admitting there's a problem -- that's what 'Beef' is for. Next, you work toward a solution."