I remember watching The Show for the first and only time when I was a freshman in high school. I wasn’t very impressed. This was 1995, Biggie was alive, Warren G was the biggest star in the world, Wu-Tang was in the middle of the greatest run in rap history and Snoop Dogg hadn’t yet released Tha Doggfather, let alone Father Hood. The concept of watching a documentary about all my favorite rappers didn’t seem particularly mind-blowing. Like most 14 year olds, I wasn’t really aware of that concept that times and trends change and quite stupidly, I assumed that this was way things always would (and should) be. Sort of like a Republican presidential candidate. Re-watching it a dozen years later, the film is a revelation, at times hilarious, at times chilling (particularly the Biggie interviews), and at all times eye-opening. A time capsule of the hip-hop world circa 94-95, The Show comes highly recommended not just for rap fans but for anyone who likes music.
- The moments between an incarcerated Slick Rick and Russell Simmons’ are among the film’s most poignant. They open and close the film and are the closest thing the often-scattershot documentary has to a framing device. It’s difficult to watch the Ruler behind bars, humbled, stripped of his gold chains and swagger (but not the patch), shuffling in standard Rikers prison garb to Russell, head bowed, eyes lowered. Simmons is visibly uncomfortable and admits he’s only visiting Rick for the documentary. He then gives a weird laugh and starts babbling about how he’s 37 now and all he wants to do is chase models around. “I don’t want drama unless it’s coming from Naomi Campbell.” Rick seems broken, mumbling about how he’s learned to appreciate freedom during his spell for attempted murder. He seems a little off, a fact that Russell confirms when he describes Ricky as being “crazier than a bag of angel dust.”
- The concert footage of Biggie is incredible. You don’t normally think of Biggie in the context of the live setting, but the show staged for the purposes of the film captures his raw power and on-stage magnetism. Granted, Puffy plays the role of hype man, but it’s 94 “Puffy” not whatever GQ, uber-Russell Simmons, Diddy bop he became. Meanwhile, Biggie blazes a ferocious version of “The Warning,” completely in the zone, cap slung low on his forehead, rocking a “B” sweater, spitting syllables like cannon balls, heavy and fast. The crowd just nods, dazed, spellbound.
- The only thing almost as compelling as Biggie on-stage, is watching him talk to the cameras, eyes lazy, tomato-red and swollen, the specter of death haunting his waking thoughts and words. He’s not playing for the cameras either. He’s too high for that. Instead, he lisps in a low, husky drone, describing childhood struggles and knife-fights with his mom when she found his stash. When he speaks about Ready to Die, it’s in almost Rimbaudian terms, confessing that “95 percent of it was the weed, five percent was me.” Though if that were the case, the best rappers in the world would be Sublime fans from Orange County. Just 22, Big seems too young to be this bitter, grumbling about the “ni–z always trying to stress him out over bullshit….this is rap, this is supposed to be fun.” Fatalistically, he adds, “I understand. I used to be “one of the dudes on the corner, scheming to rob the n—a in the Mercedes that pulled up. Now I guess I am that n—a.”
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- Perhap the funniest thing about the whole movie is how Warren G is treated as the god, not that surprising considering the film was the shot the same summer that “Regulate” dropped and thus redeemed the fallen name of Michael McDonald. But in hindsight, it’s hilarious to watch Dre get nervous and awkward when the topic turns to his brother, kind-of-but-not-really joking about how he wished he’d helped him out more along the way. Meanwhile, Russell Simmons spends half of his jail visit trying to convince Slick Rick to make Behind Bars with Warren G. While Ricky Walters fights the good fight, in the end he learns something the documentary repeatedly affirms: Russell Simmons stays winning. Also, Warren G is shown playing dice, proving that he wasn’t just making up the game of dice on 21 and Lewis to serve as a plot point on “Regulate.” Also, also, Warren G berating the 5 Footaz and refusing to pay for their hair stylist is as funny as it sounds.
- Naughty By Nature might’ve been the most hood of any of the rappers in the film. Treach takes the camera crew to East Orange and it looks downright third world, unsupervised kids scattering in every direction, garbage strewn in the streets, surly people screaming at each other. At one point, his pupils dilate and he stares maniacally into the camera and tells the directors that if he wasn’t rapping he’d probably be in their house at this very second tying up their wife and children. The film also confirms something that everyone has long known: Vinnie from Naughty By Nature was a pretty terrible rapper (by nature.)
- The Wu-Tang segments focus on the Clan’s first tour of Japan and it’s everything you’d expect and more. The cameras catch a galactically stoned Method Man ranting to glassy-eyed hotel concierges about how “they better recognize because our numbers are growing every day.” The film also punctures any false impression anyone may have had that things were ever harmonious in the Clan. That summer, Meth was the acknowledged breakout star, effortlessly charismatic, stage-diving into adoring crowds. Tical was the first solo Wu effort set to drop and you can see the rest of the Clan seething with jealousy. At one point, Meth and U-God get into a screaming match after U-God gripes that all Method Man does “is talk talk talk during the radio interviews.” Wisely, Meth retorts, “what kind of answers do you give?” A fine point. I’d rather listen to the sound of a dripping faucet than hear U-God give an interview. At another moment, Meth snaps at Ghostface for treating him differently whenever the cameras are on, something he claims dates back to the Wu’s appearance on Arsenio (watch, trust).
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- As for Starks, he looks disoriented during his few moments of face time, not quite clear how and why he suddenly found himself on tour in a Japan, a famous rapper seemingly overnight. But instead of glowing about his newfound fame, all Ghost can talk about is how poor he was growing up, with 16 people in a three-bedroom apartment and long, frequent stretches of hunger. The fame was new to these guys then, the real money hadn’t yet kicked in, and the memories of project poverty were still fresh. In a way, that’s why the film is as compelling as it is. It doesn’t try to wave some clever narrative or hit home any heavy-handed point, it’s just that moment of accidental brilliance that compelled Russell Simmons to get the greatest rappers of a generation together and see what happened when they pressed record. It’s the chance to watch some of the most talented musicians of all-time, at the dawn of their careers, in the last stages of rap’s chrysalis.
Download from The Show soundtrack
MP3: 2Pac-“My Block”
MP3: Method Man & Redman-“How High”
MP3: Bone Thugs N-Harmony-“Everyday Thang”
MP3: The Dove Shack-“Summertime in the LBC”
MP3: The Notorious B.I.G.-“Me and My Bitch (Live From Philly)”