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‘It Was All a Dream’ shows the work of a nascent rap feminist

For most of the film, hampton is a grinning, tomboy femme fly on the wall. She’s much more in documentarian mode than interviewer.
Courtesy of the artist
For most of the film, hampton is a grinning, tomboy femme fly on the wall. She’s much more in documentarian mode than interviewer.

History is never really linear, no matter how nicely it’s packaged. It Was All A Dream, a new documentary by dream hampton, is a collection of archival footage from the famed filmmaker’s early days covering hip-hop. This unearthed material, found in hampton’s home decades later, shows how complicated the gleam of rap's golden age was even before it was minted.

The director’s visual memoir, which premiered at the 2024 Tribeca Film Festival, is a selection of roving snapshots of life from 1993 to 1995, a pivotal period when Dr. Dre’s The Chronic stamped the flag in the West Coast and the Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready To Die was the answer from the East, when the genre itself was transitioning from being a Black cultural dialogue to a money-making, mainstream fascination and when rap feminist foremothers were the fledglings weeding through a messy love-hate relationship timeline with the artform. During this time, new acts were popping up everywhere and hampton was getting all the footage she could. Before they were prolific rap icons or masters behind the boards, they were as hampton writes later, “kamikazee capitalists who just happened to be teenagers,” young men and women making sense out of the world. The film welcomes the viewer into intimate, informal interviews with Notorious B.I.G, Snoop Dogg and Method Man, smirked, bright-eyed faces of artists who would become bonafide stars way before their hip-hop or Hollywood personas were cemented.

With roots in hip-hop journalism, hampton (who stylizes her name in all lowercase as a nod to Black feminist bell hooks) is a writer, producer and filmmaker who's penned influential pieces about music and culture for The Village Voice, Vibe, The Source and more. She has positioned her lens to cover movements of both subjugation and liberation, including the award-winning documentaries Surviving R. Kelly and Ladies First: A Story of Women in Hip-Hop.

Though the exclusivity of the classic material is the draw, It Was All A Dream stands out for another reason. By partially making herself the subject of the doc, hampton does what few artists ever have the courage or humility to do: show their first drafts. Though the narration of the film is pulled from articles she’d written in the same time period — eloquent words that now feel like sacred texts of early hip-hop feminist theory — the footage shows a much less incisive critic. It’s a period when hampton was a film student at NYU and, just as her subjects, still figuring it out as she went.

For most of the film, hampton is a grinning, tomboy femme fly on the wall. She’s much more in documentarian mode than interviewer while in studio sessions, backstage at shows and sharing blunts in the back of Biggie’s Benz. B.I.G’s booming laugh and Coogi-down’d presence is a centerpiece of the visual. (Biggie’s own son, C.J. Wallace, became an executive producer on the project after hampton showed him footage of his late father.) For Frank White fans, it's a treasure trove of material. For hampton fans, it's a window into the complexities — and the complicity — of trying to cover someone as both a subject and a friend.

There are behind the scenes looks at Source photo shoots in progress with Onyx and Cypress Hill; cross-coast studio sessions featuring the likes of Mobb Deep, Q-Tip, Snoop, Dre, Tha Dogg Pound, Lady of Rage and Warren G cooking up soon-to-be classics; and shots of Big freestyling off the dome and his (recently besmirched) Bad Boy exec, Puff Daddy, mimicking his flow. But when hampton does question her subjects or convenes with her editors, she uses her access, intellect and curiosity to not only capture the moment, but really zoom in.

hampton films herself in a brainstorm with The Source associate editor Kierna Mayo and tries to chart when misogyny became so “overbearing” in the music. “We just have to be careful to analyze it wholly,” Mayo says of hampton’s pitch. When hampton hosts a roundtable discussion and photoshoot (attended by now-defamed executive Russell Simmons) with rappers Nikki D, Boss, LeShaun and Hurricane Gloria, the women break down, as hampton writes, having to be “three times as good” in the face of hip-hop’s sexist double standard. “Ain't nobody at this table right here scared of being called a bitch,” says Nikki D, Def Jam Recording’s first signed female rapper. “You can call me a bitch all you want to, but you know what you can and what you can’t do with me.”

In one studio session where Big, bathed in red light, raps lines of what will become a feature on Pudgee tha Phat Bastard’s “Think Big” and freestyles a joke about a “rap rapist,” hampton appears from slightly off to the side to say, while laughing, that she’s offended by the joke. Even more telling, there is a scene about an hour in where Big scolds a young Lil’ Kim, his Junior M.A.F.I.A artist and girlfriend at the time, about her attitude and not taking pictures. While Kim ignores him at first, Big leans over and lifts up a chair, an action that makes Kim visibly flinch. It's no more than a minute, but it's a glimpse of the unspoken dynamic of their relationship, one that Kim would later speak on as being violent, caught on camera by hampton.

During an interview with Guru, hampton follows up a question to the rapper-producer about rap fantasies with a counter about the very real virulence towards women in the rhymes. “Why do n****s wanna kill bitches?” she poses to him clearly. Guru’s expression never changes but he lets out a small laugh as a brush-off. He then flips the question, rationalizing that maybe “bitches wanna kill n****s”; that there’s women who “don’t have their sh** together” and makes the distinction that rappers aren’t talking about women who are intelligent with ambition.

These same themes of exceptionalism and compartmentalization come around often enough that they repeatedly obscure the point hampton is trying to drive in the discourse. Even with her feminist theory and moments of fearlessness, try as she might, her voice is not cutting through just yet. Maybe because her audience never really wants to change or maybe because it's a dichotomous thesis she’s still wrestling with herself. One of the last scenes in the doc finds hampton on-camera, looking downward at the Hudson River as she travels on the Staten Island Ferry. As her eyelashes brush the far-off Twin Towers in the Manhattan background, hampton appears introspective and frustrated. She’d just had a debate with Wu-Tang Clan’s Method Man, whose no more than 23 at the time, about his own misogynistic lyrics. “I don't like when brothers make distinctions between women like some of us are hoodrats and some of us are goddesses. I think that we’re all goddesses,” hampton says to a friend. She remembers her interview with Tupac Shakur, not shown in the film, annoyed with her missed opportunity, admitting, “I don’t know if I was challenging enough.”

Though the film promises never-before-seen footage of hip-hop greats, It Was All A Dream is really a nostalgic, nascent Trojan horse, one that shows the important, imperfect, initial seed-sowing of the deeper questions we’re still tilling as a hip-hop culture today.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Sidney Madden is a reporter and editor for NPR Music. As someone who always gravitated towards the artforms of music, prose and dance to communicate, Madden entered the world of music journalism as a means to authentically marry her passions and platform marginalized voices who do the same.