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The Hip Hop Project

Urban Documentary About Hopeful Rappers Soars

In 1999, Chris “Kazi” Rolle, a former performing arts student, rapper and one-time street hustler, created the "Hip Hop Project" under the auspices of Art Start, a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing art and inner-city teenagers together. The Hip Hop Project was an outreach program for inner-city teenagers interested in becoming hip hop artists or joining the music industry. Over the next six years, it became a surrogate family, with the youthful Rolle as a surrogate father figure. Remarkably, Rolle was only in his early twenties when he started the Hip Hop Project.

Director Matt Ruskin follows Rolle as he sets up the Hip Hop Project, introduces teens involved in the program and eventually settles on two inner-city teenagers, Diana "Princess" Lemon and Christopher "Cannon" Mapp. The only woman in the group, Lemon emerges as a strong-willed and dedicated. With her father in jail for selling drugs and high school as a daunting prospect, Lemon initially sees the Hip Hop Project as a place to hone her rapping skills, network, and launch her music career. The Hip Hop Project eventually becomes more than that, giving her purpose, direction, but most of all, giving her a stable support group.

Mapp shows the rhyming skills necessary to become a successful rapper, but as we learn more about him, we learn that all that bluster hides an insecure, sensitive young man. Abandoned at an early age by his father, Mapp suffered a devastating blow when he learned that his mother had multiple sclerosis; his mother passes away during production of The Hip Hop Project. Mapp's maternal grandmother then becomes his legal guardian (and his younger sister's), but Mapp and his family face a new crisis when their landlord attempts to evict them from their apartment. Like Lemon, the Hip Hop Project ends up providing Mapp with emotional support otherwise missing from his turbulent life.

The Hip Hop Project also follows the group's first tentative steps toward creating rap lyrics and developing their performing styles. Rolle pushes his students to find their own voices, their own stories and to avoid clichéd stories about money, cars, and women. It takes a while, years actually, but Rolle gets through to them. Eventually, Rolle faces the prospect of finding studio space and time with limited or non-existent resources. Luckily, a fundraiser helps to spread Rolle's efforts through the local media and just when everything looks bleak, a high-profile celebrity unexpectedly steps in to guarantee studio time for the Hip Hop Project to record their CD. While success seems assured for the Hip Hop Project, Rolle's story takes a personal turn when he decides to renew contact with his biological mother. It doesn't go as well as he (or we) hopes, but Rolle pushes forward.

Ultimately,The Hip Hop Project demonstrates how important after-school outreach programs are and can be, especially in inner-city neighborhoods where unstable families are the norm. Without the Hip Hop Project, it’s hard to say where Lemon, Mapp, and the others would have ended up, by choice or by circumstance. Led by the dynamic Rolle, whose simple life philosophy is to move forward and always give back, the Hip Hop Project is the kind of model program needed in inner cities. Thanks to first-time documentary filmmaker Matt Ruskin and his producers, The Hip Hop Project gives us a chance to see the positive, potentially long-term effects of youth-oriented outreach programs in action.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars