Things I Learned Watching the Official Smack DVD

smack.jpgIt's way too hot outside to look at a picture of someone wearing a parka

Street DVDs are sort of like the deformed mutant cousins of mixtapes; they're long and boring and incomprehensible half the time, and they never fail to bring out the absolute worst in rappers. And so we end up with platinum-selling millionaires pointing Uzis at the camera and random-ass end-of-mixtape rappers no one's ever heard of dissing each other and threatening to kidnap each other's grandmothers and disheartening shit like that. And it doesn't help much that they're always filmed with grainy-ass camcorders, that the camerawork is always horrendously shaky, that the editing is nonexistent. Anyone who's ever seen the infamous Stop Snitching DVD, the one that dominated Baltimore's local news TV for about a year and a half and launched a thousand T-shirts, knows that the real bad thing about it isn't Carmelo Anthony's apparent complacency with dudes who sit around threatening to kill Larry Brown; it's that the thing is pretty much unwatchable. But somebody must be buying and watching these DVDs; they always get an entire shelf to themselves at mixhuts citywide, and they're always playing in the conference rooms of rap-dependent indies whenever I go to interview someone there. The 500-pound gorilla of the street DVD game is the Smack series (it stands for Street Music Arts Culture & Knowledge; I'm not even joking), and someone at Koch has just decided to put up the money for the Smack guy to do a version of his series that you can actually buy in stores, printing up promotional posters and throwing together an accompanying compilation CD and everything. So the question is whether the Smack series will step up its everything now that it has the chance of reaching outside the obsessive-Gravy-fan demographic or whether it'll wind up like the official Funkmaster Flex and Kay Slay albums, diluted simulations of the real thing totally neutered by licensing problems. Well, the first official Smack DVD doesn't really go either route; it's pretty much the same as its predecessors in every way, except that now we get a few more actual big stars chopping it up alongside the endless parade of NY mixtape nobodies.

The weirdest and most annoying parts of the DVD are the "street videos," which are basically budget-ass music videos with rappers lip-syncing badly to terrible non-album songs while lots of people stand behind them. They don't have any sets or girls or production values, but they do have cusses left in and guns. They all pretty much follow the same formula with slight tweaks. Shea Davis ("your neighborhood hood nigga") has a skit where he robs someone's apartment and then shoots the guy when he gets recognized; it's like a deleted scene from Killa Season, if you can imagine that. Red Cafe and Mack-10 lip-sync in letterbox, and they share this priceless back-and-forth on the hook: "I'm the owner of the strip club," "And I'm the co-owner of the strip club" (they say this about 42 times). Maino lip-syncs while driving a car. Bun B lip-syncs in front of Screwed Up Tapes & Records. Juvenile lip-syncs in a living room. Everyone else stands in front of corner stores. They're not all terrible; the DMX video is OK because it's DMX and the song is pretty good, and the Def Squad reunion joint works because those three guys all come from the hoodies-and-Tims era of rap videos and because it's great to see Redman ripping a verse and Keith Murray making crazy facial expressions again. But we still haven't seen anyone fully exploit the artistic possibilities of the street video. In fact, we haven't seen whether those possibilities even exist.

The disc's interviews are generally more watchable, but they're all pretty much just standard rap interviews, the sorts of things you can read every day on Allhiphop. The DVD format doesn't really give us any further information beyond the knowledge that E-40 says "you smell me?" whenever he finishes a sentence-fragment. There are some intriguing moments (Juvenile and B.G. separately painting a picture of Baby as the worst boss ever, Mannie Fresh saying that he only takes between thirty minutes and an hour to make a beat and then showing us, E-40 bringing some guy on camera who then says "I don't really like the camera"), but there's nothing revelatory here. The only truly fascinating interview is the one with Bun B the afternoon before Pimp C got out of prison. In the interview, Bun is wearing the same shirt that he's wearing in the photos of him greeting Pimp at the prison gates, which makes me wonder whether he just stayed up all night beforehand. He's visibly anxious and jumpy and happy, especially when he talks about what's going to happen when UGK gets back together. It's a nice moment, but nice moments like this aren't enough to make wading through Stack Bundles street videos worthwhile.

There's only one thing that makes the DVD worth Netflix queue space, and that's the closing segment, the battle between Serius Jones and Murda Mook. Jones and Mook are pretty much made for street DVDs; they're both funny and charismatic and convincingly hard, and they're both willing to stand a foot away from their opponents and brutally disparage them instead of doing it from a safe distance the way all the other featured rappers do. The format of the segment is pretty much exactly like the Fight Klub show on MTV2, with the two rappers standing in a room surrounded by their friends and throwing a cappella jabs at each other for three rounds. It's a great format, totally conducive to great TV, which is why Fight Klub is pretty much the best show on MTV2 even though it has a deeply annoying host and no production values whatsoever. The episode of that show where Jones totally crushes Jin is a classic. Jones doesn't rap, exactly; he just tells loose and laser-targeted jokes and throws in a few words that rhyme. Mook does pretty much the same thing, except his stuff sounds slightly more like actual rap. And so the opening round has the best jokes, as it always does. Jones: "This nigga a shame / I mean, he can't even get in the game for a slave deal, a whip and a chain," "Talking about coke, the last time this nigga shaved a onion / He was in his kitchen on Thanksgiving making stuffing." Mook: "I'm furious; I'll slap you delirious, Jones / Make you bleed like a bitch with a period, Jones," "He's an act, he don't rap; he's a comedian, dude / You make niggas laugh cause, well, that's just what comedians do." There's also some stuff about how Mook went to a private school and how Jones never dealt drugs. And so the charge in the room escalates, the two of them basically screaming at each other by the third round. The DVD ends without anyone announcing a winner, but that's fine; the joy is in seeing two born battle-rappers just going at each other. Those fifteen minutes have some are some of the tensest, most compelling thing I've seen on my TV since game seven of the Spurs-Mavericks series. The rest of it is just two hours I'll never get back.

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