Photo Credit: Steven Ferdman/Getty Images
Sacha Jenkins on the Importance of Documenting Hip-Hip's History
We caught up with Sacha Jenkins and spoke about the power of storytelling, helming the Mass Appeal’s #HipHop50 initiative on Showtime, and the importance of documenting hip-hop culture.
Sacha Jenkins has spent his life documenting hip-hop. As a teenager, he published his first magazine, Graphic Scenes & X-Plicit Language, a ‘zine about the graffiti subculture. By age 20, he co-founded Beat Down, the first-ever hip-hop newspaper. In 1994, Jenkins founded ego trip and would go on to produce two books that would become crowning achievements: ego trip’s Book of Rap Lists and ego trip’s Big Book of Racism.
Over the last decade, Jenkins adjusted the format of his storytelling — he zeroed in on documentaries. In 2012, he joined Mass Appeal brands as Chief Creative Officer, releasing Fresh Dressed, which tells the story of hip-hop fashion. In 2017, he directed Burn Motherfucker, Burn!, which chronicles the Los Angeles uprising of 1992.
He directed the highly-acclaimed Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men, a four-part doc series that covers 25 years of one the most iconic groups in hip-hop history and the 2021 documentary Bitchin’: The Sound and Fury of Rick James detailing the life and times of the funk legend.
Currently, Jenkins is curating Hip Hop 50, a collaboration with Mass Appeal and Showtime that will bring together numerous films, documentaries, television series, podcasts and digital projects exploring the history, the people and the music that has had global impact.
“Hip-hop is turning 50 in 2023 and people don’t realize how broad the influence of the culture is, so we wanted to create something leading up to it and beyond that gives people a baseline education and also helps people understand how prominent and dominant it is in our everyday lives,” Jenkins said about the project.
Over the course of his remarkable career, Sacha has been a true renaissance man of the culture by embodying artistic brilliance in his own unique way, From his time as a graffiti artist, filmmaker, journalist, and leader of his band White Mandingos, Jenkins has always endeavored to pus the culture forward.
Okayplayercaught up with Sacha and we spoke about the power of storytelling, helming the Mass Appeal’s #HipHop50 initiative on Showtime, and the importance of documenting hip-hop culture.
When did you first discover that you had a knack or a passion for being a storyteller?
Sacha Jenkins: Well, my mom is a painter and my father was a filmmaker and television producer so the arts have always been in my blood. When you're a painter, you tell stories. When you're a filmmaker, you tell a story. So I would say my biggest influences were my parents. I was lucky to be exposed to a lot of art and culture at an early age. When I was 16, I published a zine when I was a graffiti artist in New York. I took my interest in publishing my little zine and that led me to publish other things. So my interest in graffiti also had a heavy hand in wanting to tell stories on a larger level.
Were there any other creatives that helped you to discover your own artistic voice and vision?
I’m using the term aerosol artists because he hates being called a graffiti artist but Phase 2 was one of the most important figures in hip-hop culture. He did a lot of innovations with spray cans as a teen that is still being represented around the world today. What Phase 2 did on the side of a subway car in 1973 is still having an impact.
Back in the day, he published a zine called the International Good Hip Times and it focused on art and some politics. Before I published my first magazine, I wrote him a letter and I said, “I'm a huge fan of his magazine... I want to do one.” He wrote me a seven-page letter completely encouraging me to do it. I was like, “Wow, Phase 2 is telling me that I can do it.” At that point, I didn't even fully understand how influential and how important he was but at a young age, I sought out mentors who were trailblazers in their disciplines.
Also, Henry Chalfant, who wrote the book Subway Art, and also directed the film Style Wars. I wound up becoming an intern and a PA for him working on a film called Flyin Cut Sleeves, which is about gangs in the Bronx in the '70s. Later, I went to Henry for a loan to start ego trip magazine. So Henry got me my first gig in filmmaking and he wound up supporting me with the funds to start ego trip. So in most cases, my education and my opportunities came from my intense desire and interest in the subject matter and seeking out the leaders in those fields. I formed alliances with them and learned from the masters.
As Chief Creative Officer of Mass Appeal, you are currently producing several documentaries marking 50 years of hip-hop. Who came up with the idea of #HipHop50?
Our partner at Mass Appeal, Peter Bittenbender, had the idea for hip-hop at 45 five years ago but then he realized the 50th anniversary would be an even bigger celebration. To give him his flowers, as they say, we as an organization, realized that it would be a huge opportunity for different practitioners in the field to come together with a lot of ideas and help people celebrate the 50th anniversary. So we've partnered with Showtime with #HipHop50 with Video Music Boxwith Ralph Daniels and Insane in the Brainwith Cypress Hill. We have another film called A Madrina: The Savage Life of Lorine Padilla, which is about a woman who's one of the founding members of the “Savage Skulls” gang in the Bronx and talks about how her life has changed. She's become an activist for our community. Also, we have a documentary coming out about Bushwick Bill. So we've been doing these projects that speak to hip-hop culture in the broadest way possible.
In addition to #HipHop50, you premiered the docuseries Everything’s Gonna Be All White on Showtime earlier this year. I read previously that it took years for you to get the series green-lit. How do you feel it was received?
I took about three or four years to get it up. I mean, nobody was really interested in it and I don't think people are interested in it now, to be honest. Luckily, I had someone who believed in it but it's hard getting things made and it's even harder to get things made that have that kind of point of view. It’s a whole series about the history of America, from the perspective of people of color, at least our history in America, and how some of us feel about it.
I realized after it came out, that so many Black people are conservative, Republican, and we're some of the wildest, loudest people on the internet, some of the biggest dissenters and I was like, “Wow, this is crazy to me.” So it was a lesson for me to understand where the world is now, where Black people were, and where I am, in terms of what it is that I make. I just have to believe in myself and I can't expect support or I can't expect people to always have the same thought patterns that I do and it's cool.
Whether it’s Rick James, Wu-Tang, or Cypress Hill, you've been prolific over the last few years in producing in-depth documentaries. In your opinion, why are documentaries needed and why are they such an effective tool to tell stories about the culture?
Well, you know, there's a huge void, right? There weren't a lot of documentaries about hip-hop for the longest time. I think hip-hop generated some of the strongest, most powerful storytellers of our generation with the music so it's only natural that we would create projects in the film and television realm that would have resonance. I mean, I saw the first episode of Atlanta and I was blown away. I had chills thinking about where we are as a community and the stories we’re telling now.
I preach this all the time but whether it's jazz, hip-hop, blues, rock and roll, it's the same story every time. It's the same people, just different generations and different modes of expression but it's still coming from the same place. It's coming from oppression, it's coming from pain, and it's coming from the pursuit of joy and hip-hop is all of that and it's the most relatable form culturally right now. So it’s a great time for me, you know, as a journalist or one time journalist or sometimes journalist. To me, I’m doing journalism with cameras and little art sprinkled in. So when people ask me how did you transition into filmmaking, I always say that I feel like I'm doing what I was doing when I was writing for Vibe or ego trip. It's the same idea just with more people that help execute what you want to do.
Rashad Grove is a writer from NJ whose work has appeared on BET, Billboard, MTV News, Okayplayer, High Snobiety, Medium, Revolt TV, The Source Magazine, and others. You can follow him at @thegroveness for all of his greatness.