dream hampton’s Compelling Hip Hop Memoir 5

Early in the documentary It Was All a Dream, the veteran music journalist and filmmaker dream hampton (stylized in lowercase as an homage to the scholar bell hooks), moseys around the offices of The Source magazine, filming her colleagues. The hip hop periodical was, in its early days, a wellspring for understanding the nascent genre. “I learned to be a fan and a critic of some of the greatest artists of a generation,” hampton says in a voiceover that accompanies brief scenes of debate among writers and interviews with editors. The Detroit native moved to New York in 1990 to study film at NYU and a few months later, she joined The Source’s staff. 

Premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival, It Was All a Dream chronicles hampton’s early years in New York. The Surviving R. Kelly (2019) executive producer culls footage from her personal archives (shot between 1993 and 1995) and sets those clips against poetic excerpts of pieces she wrote for The Source, Spin, Village Voice and Vibe between 1993 and 1999.

It Was All a Dream

The Bottom Line

Affirms the importance of archival work.

Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Spotlight Documentary)
Director-screenwriter: dream hampton

1 hour 23 minutes

As a young hampton cruises through the streets of Brooklyn with Biggie Smalls, her present-day self recites early musings about hip hop as a genre of “kamikaze capitalists” and young Black boys “who quickly expanded their tightly wound worlds then set them afire.” Her meditations are drafts, evidence of a feminist thinker and genre custodian in the making.

Hampton wrestles with the reality of hip hop’s commercial traction and misogynistic impulses. The doc is buoyed by her unbridled enthusiasm for tackling big questions of gender, capital and craft. She interviews Biggie, Method Man and Snoop and holds court with Nikki D, Hurricane G and LeShaun. On the table for discussion: albums, aspirations and the unrequited love between men and women in the genre. 

More than a time capsule of an exciting moment in hip-hop, It Was All a Dream makes a compelling case for fastidious documentation and preservation, especially in music journalism. (Hampton recently directed an episode of Netflix’s docuseries on female rappers, Ladies First.) The film is a trove of information about some of the earliest days in a genre some people thought wouldn’t survive. It shows how contemporary conversations about distribution and misogyny extend into the past, where they were also topics of fervent debate.

When hampton convenes with rappers like Nikki D, LeShaun and executives like Tracey Waples to talk about fortifying a community of women in hip hop, it adds a thrilling layer to the current landscape, which includes, for example, new-gen collaborations between Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B.

An interview with Richard Fulton, owner of the coffee and jazz house Fifth Street Dicks in Los Angeles, about who will own the distribution rights of hip hop records in the future connects to Vince Staples and other rappers’ ongoing reflections on the insatiable greed of music labels. It Was All a Dream, like so many archival works, reminds us that the past is the present is the future. 

As a window into the past, It Was All a Dream contextualizes parts of hip hop and pushes against convenient amnesia. Hampton takes us around the country, from Bedford Stuyvesant to Venice Beach, to show how rappers in different locales experiment with rhyming styles and samples. She loosely organizes her doc around geography, using title cards with neighborhood names to demarcate a new section.

Hampton also digs into modes of self-expression and coastal beefs; she lets artists wax poetic about what their music will help them achieve. Hip hop, then and now, was a site of play, a political tool, a repository for hopes and dreams. 

It Was All a Dream also offers rare perspectives from some of the genre’s greatest acts and enduring villains. Biggie freestyling in the studio; Lil’ Kim leaning into the window of his car in one scene; Diddy, whose recent sexual assault allegations have shaken the industry, grooving to a beat. The grainy, shaky and occasionally underlit footage gives It Was All a Dream a coarseness that makes the doc feel more intimate. 

In The Source office, hampton interviews managing editor Chris Wilder, who doubles down on the importance of the publication: “Thirty years from now, if hip hop comes and goes, people will look at The Source to see what happens,” he says.

Listening to Wilder’s words and watching hampton, armed with her camera, confidently interviewing friends and observing mundane moments in the lives of these artists, inspires questions about the current music media landscape. Some of the magazines hampton wrote for still exist in theory, but many have been gutted by lack of funding, venture capital shuffling, the dramatic shift from print to digital and the ease with which charlatans can cosplay as journalists on social media.

Still, a record must be kept and someone must do the keeping. Driven by an awareness of hip hop’s profundity and a commitment to how its story should be told, hampton documented, becoming a custodian of the genre’s history. It Was All a Dream brims with the green energy of an enthusiast and affirms the power individual archives play in building a community narrative.

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