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Boyz on the Bus

By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 6, 2000


    'Backstage' (Dimension Films) Memphis Bleek and Jay-Z are among the hip-hop stars followed cross country in Chris Fiore's documentary of the Hard Knock Life Tour. (Dimension Films)
Here's a tip you won't find in a travel guide: If you're staying in a hotel and a busload of gangsta rappers checks in, check out. Fast.

That's one lesson of "Backstage," a documentary of the 1999 Hard Knock Life Tour, which follows a handful of MCs as they rampage across the country groping groupies, pulling pranks and enthralling fans in 54 sold-out shows. Life for these stars–Jay-Z, DMX and Method Man, among others–is grueling at times, but "hard knock" seems an overstatement. Mostly, these guys carry on like spoiled children, complaining, roughhousing and badgering women to strip naked.

In other words, they cavort like every pop star since Elvis. It's a frequently vile display, with the vileness culminating in Method Man's list of stupid party tricks, which includes fooling friends into eating potato chips he's slathered with ear wax. (We'll skip his ice cube gambit, but never ask that guy to freshen your drink, okay?) If Joe Lieberman, hip-hop's highest-profile critic, ever catches an eyeful of "Backstage," the genre is toast. The movie confirms all of his worst fears.

Not quite all, actually. Aside from the occasional shoving and the odd temper tantrum, nothing violent transpires, which is significant. Hard Knock was one of the first successful stadium-size rap extravaganzas, and it was widely watched by promoters skeptical that hip-hop could leap into the big leagues of the concert industry. As it happens, the tour was incident-free and grossed $18 million, inspiring a variety of moguls to open their checkbooks and underwrite other tours. Several of those shows cruised through Washington recently. Hard Knock, it turns out, was truly path-breaking.

"Backstage" was produced by executives at Roc-A-Fella and Def Jam, the labels that oversee the careers and release the albums of every star on the tour. So the film often has the feel of a sanctioned biography, with mostly flattering testimonials by assorted hangers-on about each of the stars. But there's so much grotty exhibitionism and crotch-grabbing low-jinks that the filmmakers either had a largely free hand or didn't care just how repulsive these characters sometimes seem.

Least flattered of the bunch is Damon Rush, a Roc-A-Fella honcho who fulminates for 10 minutes when he learns that Def Jam has provided every MC on the tour with a leather jacket. (The image-mad Rush apparently believes this relegates Roc-A-Fella to junior status in what he desperately wants to portray as an equal partnership.) The groupies fare no better. They hunt these rappers like quail, and need little coaxing to shed their clothes. Director Chris Fiore tastefully blanks out their faces, at least the ones bold enough to strip in front of his camera, including the unabashed young lady who gratifies one time-strapped rapper in the men's latrine. The gal-bashing peaks when Fiore appends witticisms over the blank spaces that pixelate these ladies' faces. One says: "Place ad here."

The performers in Hard Knock realize they are being watched by more than just fans. Raymond "DJ Twinz Z" Grant talks in an on-camera interview about a double standard, fuming that at rock shows fans "break their arms, break their lips, you know they hit the floor. . . . At a hip-hop show if that was to happen, they'd shut it down." By the tour's end, there's a we-proved-them-wrong feel to the festivities. And public relations points are scored when, shortly after the Columbine shooting, Jay-Z announces at the Denver show that the evening's proceeds will go to charity.

Lean and neatly paced, "Backstage" is a sympathetic document of all Hard Knock's zaniness, and nothing more. The movie's ambitions are tiny; it's a souvenir, likely to appeal only to hard-core fans and anyone too wary of rap to attend a live show. Fiore's style isn't flashy, thankfully, and he doesn't indulge in a lot of MTV-style quick cuts, or nauseating hand-held camera work.

Unfortunately, he offers little concert footage, though when he finally turns his lens on the stage, you realize why these rappers get away with their deviltry. Among the highlights: Jay-Z rousing a crowd to pandemonium with "Big Pimpin,'" one of his best-loved hits. Then there are Method Man and his partner Redman, who are strapped to cables that suspend them over the crowd, allowing them to rap, float and twirl at the same time. The audiences at Hard Knock seem to love every minute of the show.

Most of the rappers seem like self-righteous egomaniacs, with the exception of Jay-Z, who perpetually grins like he knows where the dime bags are hidden. By the end of the tour, the stress of sharing an increasingly rancid bus is fraying everyone's nerves.

Meanwhile, the real world, which collides with this entourage, is appalled by its antics. DMX, for some reason, brings a pit bull into the lobby of what looks like a four-star hotel, and predictably, the animal snarls like a junkyard dog while waiting for an elevator. Another MC ignores a concierge shushing him as he heatedly argues with a friend near the checkout desk. Rapper Beanie Sigel, in another scene, recounts how he and a friend took turns tossing water on one over-enthusiastic young lady while she staggered between hotel rooms one night.

Rude? Oh yes, though perhaps not on the scale of a band like the Who, which in the 1970s trashed so many rooms they were banned for life by Holiday Inn. It's almost reassuring: The world changes, morals evolve and music devours its old, but fast money, fame and hordes of women, it seems, can still turn any pop star into an infantilized putz.

BACKSTAGE (R, 87 minutes) – Contains rudeness, crudeness and nude groupies.


© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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