(KGET) — Eugene Henley – who is better known in the music world as “Big U” – had two very serious reasons for wanting to make a documentary that took a deep look at the men and women who helped shape the world of hip hop music. He wanted the project to be a tribute that fans would appreciate while also being a learning tool for those not familiar with the musical genre.
“I really wanted it to be informative and really give people and idea of what it takes to sustain and be in music. It would be a behind-the-scenes look at the grittiness of where we got to,” Henley says.
He has accomplished his goals as the executive producer of “Hip Hop Uncovered,” a six-part documentary that begins at 9 p.m. Feb. 12 on FX. The episodes will be broadcast on the cable channel over three weeks.
“Hip Hop Uncovered” is an examination of power brokers who operate outside the spotlight. Rashidi Natara Harper directs this look at 40 years of music history that examines the paradox of America’s criminalization of the genre and its fascination with the street culture that created it and still exists within it.
Harper’s approach started with the basics looking at how hip hop was born in the streets of major cities across the United States. It is the untold story of how America’s streets helped shape hip hop culture from an expression of survival and defiance into music’s most dominant genre.
That approach made Henley’s the obvious person to be the force behind getting the docuseries made as he has been a towering champion (standing 6-feet-5) for the genre since it began in the late ‘70s. He’s used his place as the owner of the record label Uneek Music to both launch musical careers and to work as a community activist. Among his long list of credits, Henley is credited with jump-starting the careers of West Coast legends Kurupt and Nipsey Hussle.
The product of South Central, Los Angeles, knew there was an important story to be told but the trick was getting television executives to see his vision. Henley spent years trying to get the documentary made. The biggest wall he faced was finding those who saw the same vision for the project that he did.
Henley’s persistence paid off and he finally got the project off the ground. His next big hurdle was how to tell the story of hip hop in six hours.
“We fought with how many people we wanted to bring in to the documentary,” Henley says. “The good thing was that I had footage that goes back to the beginning. So I always had a vision we would make a documentary one day.
“I was so in love with hip hop that I wanted to make sure to document the growth of it.”
Henley knew from the start that hip hop was not going to be a passing musical fad but because it has roots that go so deep into the streets it would endure.
That documentary focuses on five main contributors: Henley, Deb Antney, Christian “Trick Trick” Mathis, James “Bimmy” Antney and Jacques “Haitian Jack” Agnant. It begins in 1979, when The Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” introduced hip hop to the world and follows their lives from that moment.
The series takes a revealing look at how the musical genre was emerging at the same time the heroin epidemic sets the streets, the music and the contributors on their journey. It continues to the present where hip hop has become the dominating musical force in the world. The contributors who once embraced the streets now find themselves a part of the establishment.
In the case of Henley, that means being an advocate for literacy and a major force in assisting young black men in going to college. His non-profit organization, Developing Options, was started in 2004 after his incarceration and as part of his mission to impact the community beyond gang violence, drugs and crime.
In recent years, Henley has been working hard to get the documentary series made. The key element that Henley wanted to make sure the product shows is how hip hop has become such a major force because of the hard work, sacrifice and commitment of so many people.
“Hip hop is such a cultural thing,” Henley says.
And, that story is told in a very honest manner as those who participated never hesitated to talk about the good and bad of the hip hop world. Henley knew that the complete story of hip hop could not be told unless it was approached in a deeply truthful manner.