Taking on The Field: A Gchat conversation about World Star Hip Hop's new Chicago documentary | Bleader

Monday, January 20, 2014

Taking on The Field: A Gchat conversation about World Star Hip Hop's new Chicago documentary

Posted By and on 01.20.14 at 09:00 AM

A still from The Field
  • A still from The Field
Nearly two weeks ago popular video site World Star Hip Hop released a documentary called The Field: Chicago (A Profile of the City's Hottest Artists, the Violence That Surrounds Them, and the Hope Music Brings to Their Lives). World Star has helped expose rappers such as Chief Keef and Riff Raff to a wider audience, but it's also gained a lot of infamy for hosting raw, user-submitted footage of real-world violence—a clip posted in late November showing a teen girl from Texas beating up one of her peers has garnered more than 22 million views (I won't link to it, but this New York Daily News piece on the viral video can explain more about it). I was compelled to watch the 40-minute documentary given the role World Star plays in culture online (and off), and I wasn't the only one—it's been watched nearly 20 million times since it debuted. Reader film critic Drew Hunt also watched it, so we decided to talk through our thoughts about The Field on Gchat:

Leor Galil: Did you have any expectations of The Field before you started watching it?

Drew Hunt: Honestly, I was expecting it to be a little amateurish, but I was actually pretty impressed by how polished it was. World Star isn't the most professional website (ethically or otherwise), so I was ready to see some cheesy iMovie effects, gratuitous sound bites, and other World Star-esque kitsch. But it had a very glossy aesthetic and some very sharp digital cinematography that kind of hide the fact that the content it presents is, in my opinion at least, somewhat suspect. How about you?

LG: It definitely looked great, and to the point where the cinematography makes it easy to overlook the fact that the narrative is fairly muddled, at times even unwieldy. I had a knee-jerk reaction to this documentary when I first heard about it.

DH: Right, so did I, which was probably unfair.

LG: True, and I think because of that I wound up liking it a lot more than I expected. And it starts off fairly strong by setting up the chaotic violence in Chicago—that it came out of a breakdown of social order after gang leaders were thrown in jail and projects were torn down. There's this feeling of dread and lawlessness that permeates the narrative from the beginning. Unlike some of the videos that World Star usually features on its site—short, gritty, poor-quality clips of intense fights submitted by users—you get a taste for the consequences of violence. At least at the beginning.

DH: Exactly, at the beginning—from there, it starts to head down this sort of murky path where it presents what are essentially character portraits of local rappers and personalities. That's where people like Chief Keef, King Louie, Durk, etc come in. And I think, in some respects, the film was right to focus on the human aspect of where we are today rather than where we were before.

LG: Part of my problem with the documentary is that it doesn't focus enough on the human aspect.

DH: Even when the film was explaining early Chicago gangs, its images are never journalistic. They have a highly subjective nature. I'm thinking of the landscape shots of Englewood and other neighborhoods—they have an anthropological nature and they're presented in a very realistic fashion. In fact, I think learned the most about Chicago gang violence by seeing images of these neighborhoods, which are under-served and worn down yet filled with people—people who fill the streets and seem to be outside all the time.

LG: And who have nothing but time to be outside all the time because there's nothing else.

DH: I think the "human aspect" starts to wain when Durk and Louie and Reese and all of those guys start to be presented as these cult heroes and icons. Eventually the film becomes celebrity worship, which is problematic given the very real circumstances the people in those neighborhoods go through.

LG: And you rarely get a sense of how painful and dire those real circumstances are—at least, not until the very end when you see Rhymefest teaching kids how to rap in his outreach program, Got Bars. The scene where he's telling one of the kids in the program to dig deeper and discuss the pain of losing loved ones is so raw and intimate. It's what was missing from most of the doc.

DH: Really, the only people interviewed in the film are rappers or people affiliated with the rappers. There are so many more voices in this struggle, and it's disappointing that the filmmakers decided to stick to a single angle and present it as if there wasn't more at stake for the residents in those neighborhoods. You look at those shots we mentioned, of people just lining the street and watching from a distance as famous rappers wax poetic about themselves, and you get zero sense of the community, the other people involved in the violence.

LG: Absolutely, but I don't think there was any intention to discuss violence outside of the guise of rap. Music is such an important part of why outlets like World Star decide to cover violence in the city, and it's a shame that it doesn't get beyond covering hip-hop. But even that is shallow: when, say, Durk talks about not knowing what he would be doing if he wasn't rapping, I wish they'd have gone deeper; and he's on camera more than most folks. Then again, it's only 40 minutes long—there's only so much you can do with that amount of time, but not all that time is even spent wisely. I get the sense that the filmmakers treated most subjects with kid gloves—they never pushed them too hard and never really got them to open up. Especially in the case of Lil Mouse, the pint-sized MC who mimics the street raps of other drill artists and briefly became the focus of a little online "controversy" because of his lyrics. He spends most of his screen time either talking about how quickly he can write a song or showing off his baseball trophies (?!), which brings up so many questions.

DH: Yeah, it's celebrity worship, no question. This isn't a film about Chicago street violence, it's a film about the characters and personalities that have emerged from Chicago street violence, which, in and of itself, isn't a bad thing. But as we've said, these issues are so much more complicated and stem from situations that run much, much deeper than rap. And you're right, you can't cover the whole story in 40 minutes, but this movie made Chicago gang violence look exactly like that—a movie. It's co-opting the idea of "Chiraq"—a term I once found apt and even poetic, but now seems as insubstantial to me as "Chiberia"—and turning it into a drama, rather than the real-life crisis that it is.

LG: But even as it makes Chicago gang violence look like a movie, it does a somewhat decent job of giving dimension to real-life violence, better than a lot of videos of real-life violence that go viral on World Star.

DH: I hope I don't sound like I'm moralizing here, I don't want to condescend to Chicago rappers, particularly Durk and Louie and these guys who do come from that struggle and understand the life. They're just not the only ones in the struggle.

LG: Absolutely. But even in that you can get a better sense of their reality from listening to one of their songs than the brief interviews. I get more out of listening to Lil Bibby's "Water" than the brief time he talks on camera in The Field.

DH: Sure. (That's a great song too.) I will say that the filmmakers are given a crazy amount of access to these guys, which lent some authenticity to the film even if it was a little shortsighted. I learned a lot about Durk in particular.

LG: Absolutely. And I love the relationship Durk has with his grandmother and brother, and I wish I was able to see more of their lives. But the same goes for a lot of the people given screen time here. A lot of the rappers have some fascinating stories, and yet the only thing they have time to talk about (or are given time to talk about) is violence. I understand that's a main focus of the film, but there's a lot more to their lives than just that. And I get the sense that many of the rappers are just fatigued from having to answer questions about violence, and in a way it makes it harder to get them to open up.

DH: I think what this ultimately taught me is that a proper document of Chicago street violence has yet to be made. Steve James's The Interrupters came close, but again, it only offered a glimpse. I think the origins of these issues are longstanding and require exhaustive coverage and presentation—and they need to be presented in a manner that doesn't skirt the circumstances, that gets down to the true heart of the matter. Basically, Chicago street violence needs its own Shoah.

LG: With that in mind Noisey, VICE's music site, is about to roll out an eight-part documentary on the local rap scene called Chiraq. This one appears to be much more focused on the city's rap scene—and, again, mostly on those artists making drill tracks—but it's clear that street violence plays a role. I'm slightly skeptical of it as I'm not sure how much it can offer that hasn't already been said, but I'm trying to keep positive. I mean, Noisey is responsible for one of my favorite online music docs in recent memory, One Man Metal, though the Chiraq trailer isn't sitting too well with me.

DH: The trailer is a little disarming, but keep in mind that trailers aren't movies—they want people to watch it, so of course the trailer is going to be over the top. We'll just have to see. At the very least, VICE might employ a bit more nuance in its depiction of Chicago.

LG: Very true about trailers—they can be pretty misleading too. And I do think Noisey has the capacity to bring more nuance and depth to its depiction of Chicago—they certainly appear to be doing that by making it an eight-part series. But I'm also slightly turned off by the lineup of artists involved; it's about the "Chicago rap underground," which is an odd phrase given Keef, Durk, and Young Chop are major label artists and really aren't "underground" anymore. But, that said, Chicago rap is a lot more than those three artists—as interesting as they are the narrative could benefit from looking outside of drill. Fortunately the Save Money army is also included, which gives me hope that maybe some other voices will get filtered in.

DH: True, the Chicago hip-hop scene is extremely diverse. The drill stuff is the lightning rod, obviously, but it doesn't stop with them. The story goes on.

LG: And the story went on last year—I mean, Chance helped people outside of Chicago realize there's a lot more to the city's scene than just drill. And, honestly, there's a lot more to a lot of "drill" rappers than just that sound—I mean, Louie dropped a bop track at the end of Drilluminati 2.

DH: True, plus I know Chance is pretty tight with a lot of the drill guys even though his music is almost the complete antithesis of drill, at least sonically. It's a community!

LG: But Chance has a trap track—"Fuck You Tahm Bout"—that kids still go nuts for. His fans were begging for him to play it at his Riv show the night I saw him!

DH: Good point. That's also a great song.

LG: Such a great song. And it was included on the New Chicago Vol. 1 mixtape compilation alongside tracks from Durk, Keef, Louie, L.E.P., and others. Anyway, I think there's a great documentary that can tie Chicago's violence and hip-hop together, but I don't think World Star was the one to make it. It's admirable, but it comes from a skewed perspective considering how influential that site has been in elevating the drill scene—I mean, two years ago it hosted the video of the kid freaking out over Keef getting out of prison, which introduced the now (in)famous rapper to a lot of folks when it went viral. And World Star's influence is only mentioned once in the entire doc—when Lil Mouse talks about his videos getting on the site.

DH: Indeed. Ultimately its out to serve its audience, the people who visit World Star each day in hopes of getting a glimpse of the drama that unfolds on the streets. But then those people can return to their normal lives—they don't give a second thought to the larger implications, which is the fault of World Star, if you ask me.

LG: Certainly, but that said it does a little more to probe the issue of violence than most videos on World Star that I've seen—it might not do a great job of doing it, but at the very least it says that violence has painful consequences. That's not groundbreaking, but for a website that caters in videos of blunt, graphic violence with little care for what happens to those involved after things have come to blows, it's a start. And considering the man behind World Star, Q, told MTV that he wants to do more "bigger picture" docs, here's hoping it eventually leads to documentaries with a little more weight.

DH: Indeed.

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