First released in 1997 and now streaming on VOD, director Jesper Jensen’s documentary Beat Diggin’ is ostensibly about the interlocked processes of crate digging and beat building, cornerstones of rap music and hip-hop culture. What it ends up doing is capturing age-old tensions between art and commerce as those tensions get a hip-hop remix. A time capsule filmed in New York, and largely set in home studios and record stores (including the defunct, much-missed Bleecker Bob’s), it’s primarily a point-and-shoot affair, with the camera zooming in and then pulling back again as iconic indie beat-makers — Mr. Walt and Evil D of Da Beatminerz; Showbiz, Buckwild, and Diamond D of D.I.T.C.; Godfather Don; Paul Lepe — flip through record bins or turn knobs in their studios.
The film clocks in at just under 30 minutes. The first half is filled with fairly generic, familiar (at least to heads) observations about the art of looking for records or rare tracks no one else has, the importance of staying ahead of the cultural curve, and so on. It’s when those observations sharpen into conversations about mainstream vs. underground, pop vs. indie, and how the demands of the market shape culture that the film gains some gravitas. At one point, one of the speakers says, “I’m not mad at Puffy or Trackmasters. But I’m not trying to find the easiest record to loop.” A short while later, someone else says, “When the person looks at my name, he knows what he’s getting. He knows he ain’t getting no record from the ’80s that was popular and then somebody just singing or rapping over it. No disrespect to anybody who does that.” (It’s interesting to note that even before the moronic term “hating” infected conversation, figures in hip-hop had to couch valid critiques in terms — “No disrespect,” “I’m not mad” — that wouldn’t wound someone else’s ego.)
Arguably, it’s the pop chart success of mid- and late-’90s hip-hop that led to the culture’s simultaneous ubiquity and artistic doldrums today, with the tensions between mainstream and indie fare — which are less about chart success or name recognition than politics and aesthetics — still in effect.
The film gets into even more interesting, complex ideas when Showbiz, explaining why he loves working with records from previous eras, says of the original players, “They was musicians then, first of all. Second of all, they were much more creative. They played. Now everything is all computers. We don’t want computers. We like it when it was raw. We like talent. You can’t copy the bands they had then [by making music on computers].”
There’s no small irony in the fact that he’s not only giving voice to the concerns of (and sounding just like) longtime hip-hop detractors, but that he is also validating those detractors’ criticism of his own creative process. The film doesn’t really delve deeply into what he’s primarily doing: talking about spirit, about those indefinable qualities of soulfulness that old-school musicians and producers — working across genre and eras — put into the grooves, and that he and his fellow beat-makers try to siphon into their own work.
As it finesses the distinctions between art and commerce, illuminates the differences between looping and programming, and makes clear that someone who makes dope beats is not the same as someone who is a dope producer, the film demonstrates that the best hip-hop artists, working with new technologies and techniques, are consciously aiming for that same space of spirit.