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Interview with Paul Kell

Scene Writer | Tuesday, February 24, 2004

How did you first get into hip-hop?

In the early ’80s, growing up in a smaller town on the prairies in Canada, north of Montana – at my birthday party one of my friends gave me a K-Tel breakdance record, the ones that had the pullout poster that had step-by-step lessons on how to break. It had classic cuts from Sugerhill Gang, Grandmaster Flash and Furious 5. At the time, me and my friends were really into breaking.From there the seed was planted, I suppose. Over time it grew according to the access I had to hip-hop, which I knew as rap music. Through high school I had a girlfriend who was from Chicago and every time she went to the States, I’d get her to bring me back a bunch of hip-hop tapes.After high school, I had a radio show on community radio that was the first all hip-hop format to hit the airwaves in Saskatchewan, the province I was living in. That’s the long version of how I got into it.

What would you say is the difference between the terms hip-hop and rap?

It’s not that there’s a difference really, rap is just a part of hip-hop – it falls under the hip-hop umbrella. The sad thing is, rap overshadows hip-hop due to its exposure, and this is why so many people have so many misconceptions about hip-hop.

Such as?

They think hip-hop is all about violence, misogyny, drugs, crass consumerism, etc. Even though those things do exist within certain styles of rap, they aren’t what’s inherent to hip-hop.

Was there much of a hip-hop scene around where you grew up?

No. Like I said, I grew up listening to rap. I didn’t really start hearing it being referred to as hip-hop until later on, around the time the Native Tongues crew stepped up. When I first started hearing the term hip-hop, I just thought it was a new way to define rap. At the time I was ignorant of the fact that hip-hop was a culture; it was a way of life. Eventually, thanks to emcees like KRS-One, Chuck D and other conscious brothers within the game, my eyes started opening up to a bigger picture. But even then it was still in the ’80s, and hip-hop as a cultural movement hadn’t really emerged up in Canada – at least not where I was living. I’m sure it existed in places like Toronto and Montreal, but it wasn’t in Saskatchewan.

How did you first get started making this documentary?

I had graduated from university with a degree in film production and after leaving Montreal, I came back to Vancouver, where my family was based. I spent a year knocking around the film industry and I realized I had no interest in climbing my way to the top. I remember feeling a little lost, unsure of how to get to where I wanted to go, which was making films for a living. I took the saving that I had and I invested in a three-chip digital video camera, even though at the time I was a bit of a film snob and wanted to only work on film. My next dilemma was trying to figure out what to do with my camera now that I had it. In the course of being a grad I had a number of friends and colleagues around town who were trying their hand at making feature films, and I even worked on a handful of them as a director of photography. Working on these films I learned a valuable lesson – don’t waste your time making films that nobody is going to want to watch. I racked my brain for months trying to come up with ideas that would marry my interests with something that could be marketable.In the course of waiting for an idea to hit me, I had already started shooting little projects intended to be shorts, and one of them focused on the local underground hip-hop scene in Vancouver. The next thing you know this little idea started to grow. It all started once I landed an interview with Run D.M.C. That happened by chance, but after that happened a light bulb went off. It snowballed from there.It took about a year before I realized that this thing could be full-blown and it was around this time that I started writing proposals for grants to get money to turn it into a feature. Eventually the money came and here we are today, over four years later.

How far back in the history of hip-hop do the artists you’ve interviewed go?

Guys like Kool Herc are credited with creating hip-hop, so it’s safe to say that I go right back to the birth. Although I felt it was important to get guys like Gil Scott-Heron in the film as well, since they helped give birth to the ideas and mindset of what became hip-hop well before Kool Herc started throwing block parties.Arguably, you could go back to the birth of the drum in ancient Africa to go all the way back to the beginning of what we know today as hip-hop. Give me the time and the resources and I’ll do a Ken Burns style, 10-part miniseries on hip-hop. My documentary really only scratches the surface – within 70 minutes, that’s all you can do.

Was it difficult to get interviews with any of the artists?

Some, but for the most part the hip-hop community is really generous.

How long did it take you to collect all your footage?

Probably close to four years since I was still getting pick-ups while I was editing. In the end I think I have around 75 hours of footage.

It must have been hard to choose what to keep.

It was, there’s a lot of gold on the cutting floor. In the end, what determined what stayed and what didn’t was gut instinct. When I would sit and watch the documentary, I would make note of when I cringed. After that I’d go back and axe whatever made me feel uncomfortable. In the end, after many, many uncomfortable viewings, I finally got through a screening without cringing.

What do you mean by uncomfortable?

It didn’t sit right. When something doesn’t work, you know it. When it works, you know that too.

What were some of the most exciting moments in making the documentary?

Traveling around the world was the biggest thrill for me. Up until the making of ” 5 Sides” I had never been off our continent. I had a goal that I would see the world as a filmmaker on assignment or as a director traveling to film festivals. What made is so rewarding was that I wasn’t merely a tourist everywhere I went. In each city that I would go to I had a contact who I would hang out with, someone to show me a local’s perspective of each city. It was a great way to see the world since you get a much more intimate feel for things.

Where did you travel to film?

In North America I spent most of my time in New York City, but also covered Washington, D.C. outside of North America I was in England, Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria, Italy, France, the Netherlands and even Thailand.

So you’ve found hip-hop to be a worldwide phenomenon?

Definitely. Some would argue that it only lives as a culture outside of the United States, at least today, that is.

Why would you say that is?

Money. In the States, hip-hop is an industry. People’s motivation for being a part of hip-hop is clouded by greed. Outside of the [United States] you can’t get rich off of hip-hop, so the motivation for wanting to be a part of it remains pure. In the [United States], rap overshadows hip-hop and because of this everybody wants to be a rapper. In Europe there’s motivation to do everything and anything hip-hop, not just rap.

How would you say the hip-hop culture has changed in the last few years as rap has become more mainstream?

Rap has been mainstream in the [United States] for a long time now. In fact, as soon as records like the Sugarhill Gang’s came out, it changed the face of hip-hop culture forever. A lot of people would argue that rap killed the culture and they might have a point.

Would you say that’s true even considering the underground rap scene in the United States?

A lot of the underground rappers in the States are plotting their rise to the top, so it’s hard to say. Eminem was an underground rapper, Jay-Z was an underground rapper and look at these cats now. There’s obviously exceptions to this rule, but you have to question why people get into things. Outside of the [United States] there is no opportunity to become a media mogul through rapping, so it’s a lot easier to assume that people’s intentions are purer.That’s not to say that there aren’t underground rappers in the [United States] who don’t have good intentions. Of course there are, but eventually their success is going to make things a lot more complicated. Eventually they’re going to have to make some very difficult choices. Mos Def is an example of an underground rapper who is getting up. He’s in movies, he’s on TV, he’s becoming a celebrity. What he does with that celebrity has yet to be determined and only time will tell. He seems like a very conscious individual, someone well equipped to make the right choices, but money can mess with the best, so who knows what’ll happen?

I know this is a big question, but could you describe a little how you’ve seen hip-hop culture affecting youth culture?

What I’ve seen is a generation that isn’t affected by any sort of division caused by race. Personally, I find race divisions a societal construct that has no relevance anymore. Class divisions exist, but race is a moot point. Poor white kids have more in common with poor black kids then they do with rich white kids, so why would there be any racial animosity between whites and blacks?I think the idea of racism is still fueled by people who want to keep people from being unified. This is why hip-hop as a cultural movement might frighten people – it’s unifying white, black, yellow, brown, etc. All over the world, the hip-hop communities are very integrated, and it’s not like they’ve made a conscious decision to be this way, it’s just the way things are. These kids haven’t bought into the idea that they aren’t supposed to be down with each other, they’re all unified under the same flag: hip-hop. I know this sounds a bit idealistic. There are beefs within hip-hop, and there’s a lot of bitterness, but none of it’s racially motivated.Obviously, this isn’t the forum for something like this to be properly articulated – I’m merely riffing off the top of my head. There are bigger and better thinkers out there who have tackled these types of issues; for example: Henry Lewis Gates Jr., head of African-American Studies at Harvard. These guys can do a much better job of articulating race in the United States. I’m just an outsider looking into the fishbowl; most of my knowledge is second-hand. By no means am I an authority, especially when it comes to hip-hop. In fact, this was what made making this documentary so rewarding for me. I had a lot to learn and in many ways making this film was a voyage of discovery for me. I had ideas about what hip-hop was, but until I spent time with the people who lived it, who created it, my knowledge was very limited. In the end, I think this reflects in the documentary. For many people watching it is like a journey. It takes you from where you thought you knew what hip-hop is or was to a point where you feel you have you have an intimate understanding of it. I think that’s what makes me proud. It’s the fact the honesty comes through, the idea that my experience is a part of the documentary that others can share, even if it’s not obvious to them what I went through. I’m not sure if that makes any sense.

Do you know when your film will officially be released, and what will happen when it is?

Actually I don’t. It’s still doing the film festival circuit. What happens [after it’s released] will depend on how hard the distributor wants to push it. So far the press and critics have been incredibly kind and the audience response at festivals has been phenomenal, but the distributor hasn’t really made me feel like the film will do as well as I feel it should. Considering how huge hip-hop is and how well my documentary is being received, I’m not sure why they aren’t more optimistic.

What kind of success would you ideally hope for?

I want [the distributor] to really push at getting it into as many good festivals as they can, which, so far, they have. Once the festival season is over, they’ve told me that they want to do a limited theatrical release, which really excites me. I’d like to get as many people to see it in the theaters as possible. It’s a documentary that has been embraced by people outside of hip-hop as much or more as those within hip-hop, so it really does have that crossover appeal. After it’s released theatrically, 7th Art shouldn’t have any problem selling it to broadcasters all over the world. It’s got so much appeal based on so many different elements within it, that they have no excuse for not moving it as far and wide as possible. It’s an entertaining documentary. If you’re from hip-hop and in hip-hop it automatically qualifies, but the other thing that I’m really proud is that anyone can watch it, from anywhere and they’re going to love it because it’s entertaining.So far, that’s exactly what the response to it has been – people within the game love it and people outside the game love it. I don’t want to be lofty in my expectations, but I’d like to believe that it could help bridge the divide between those that understand hip-hop and those that don’t. In fact, that’s the tag line for the film: “Think hip-hop is ‘rap music?’ Think again.” It’s all about de-mystifying it, shattering the misconceptions. Even for people who think they know hip-hop, I’m sure there’s a thing or two in the documentary that they weren’t aware of.