Two years ago, I wrote an article for this site in which I professed my undying love for Fade to Black, the 2004 documentary chronicling the making of JAY-Z’s The Black Album. In the piece, I broke down the various moments that make this documentary feel so special, like the footage of JAY-Z hearing Timbaland's instrumental for "Dirt Off Your Shoulders" for the first time, and immediately raising from his seat, "as if the chair itself was somehow encumbering his overflowing inspiration."
However, there was a detail I neglected to mention in the piece: Fade to Black kicked off a lifelong, love-hate relationship with behind-the-scenes hip-hop content. Setting an impossibly high bar to clear, it instilled within me a voracious appetite for glimpses behind rap's creative curtains, but it also made it difficult for anything else to compete, creating an untenable situation.
In the years that followed my budding obsession, I clicked on every relevant post I came across, labeled "behind-the-scenes," "explained," "breaks down," "deconstructed," etc. in hopes of eventually recapturing this feeling. Nothing ever bested Fade to Black, but I gradually made my peace with this disparity, growing equally obsessed with everything else I happened to be seeing and learning during my ongoing search for the Fade to Black thrill.
I continued this search until a few years ago, after which point the proliferation of social media finally forced me to admit defeat. A decade ago, if you’d told me I’d regularly have the opportunity to watch recorded footage of my favorite artists’ studio sessions and that I’d scroll past them in the same breath as pictures of acquaintances’ babies and friends’ vacations, I’d have told you that you were crazy. Yet, on social media, all this content blurs together into an indistinguishable mass of fleeting narrative-creation, making it all feel disposable.
As we all do, artists have now begun saturating the web with details about their lives at every conceivable turn. By virtue of who these people are, the details they share online quite often function as behind-the-scenes glimpses into their creative processes, but so little of this feels like it's meant to illuminate anything profound. Traditionally, artists hired videographers intending to capture moments in the studio, but today, they do so for a different purpose entirely, recording this footage and posting it online strategically in hopes of creating moments they can market.
Naturally, the ubiquity of this footage has proven problematic in the way imbalances between supply and demand always do. When I first watched Fade to Black 15 years ago, it felt like a singular achievement in demystifying the creative process. Conversely, if you search the phrase "rapper studio sessions" on YouTube today, a gigantic six-part compilation pops up, featuring indistinct footage of everyone from Young Thug to Playboi Carti, to Future laying down tracks.
Mined from across the internet, this compilation of material barely scratches the surface of all the Instagram videos, Snapchat clips, tour documentaries, and interviews rappers participate in to round out their public images. Rather than a collection of inspired moments, these compilations function as a testament to the tedious nature of the recording process, with a significant portion comprised solely of rappers recording their vocals, or listening to a beat on loop while staring mindlessly at their phones.
The underlying problem with this footage, though—the one I alluded to earlier—is how cynical it all feels.
Watching DJ Khaled’s recent documentary, Father Of Asahd - The Album Experience, for example, it’s clear the entire thing was shot for promotional purposes, to serve as part of the album’s rollout. Even if there were a ton of insights to be gleaned from the documentary’s copious footage of DJ Khaled vibing to his music, this would feel almost incidental to the point.
Not dissimilar in its intentions, Bun B and Statik Selektah’s April 2019 album, TrillStatik, felt like an even more clear example of this approach. When the pair opted to live-stream the album’s creation, a process which took approximately 12 hours, the stream seemed more like a stunt to draw attention to the album’s release than a documentation of the creative process meant to live on forever.
Of course, timelessness isn’t a quality we can discern right away, so it’s entirely possible—though highly unlikely—that years from now, Father of Asahd or TrillStatik may experience a second life, causing the footage of their respective recordings to feel vital. Such is the contradiction of using behind-the-scenes content to drum up excitement for the material it’s meant to illuminate. For behind-the-scenes footage to feel profound, so, too, must the scenes themselves.
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Above all else, this is the sentiment I was overwhelmed by watching Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men, Showtime’s recent documentary series chronicling the rise and fall of the legendary collective. Seeing footage of the group recording, "C.R.E.A.M,” I felt oddly like a voyeur, sneaking a peek at a scene that was too sacred for my eyes. Devoid of historical context the actual clip itself is unremarkable—a few seconds of rappers laying down their vocals—but in context, “C.R.E.A.M.” has been part of our cultural tapestry for so long that it’s downright surreal to see evidence of its creation.
Existing in a similar vein is HΘMΣCΘMING, Netflix’s recent documentary/concert film, tracing the lead-up to Beyoncé’s legendary 2018 Coachella performance. If the performance itself hadn’t been universally considered an instant masterpiece, the footage of her rehearsing for it would feel insignificant. Instead, even adjusting for Beyoncé-related inflation, it’s jaw-dropping and inspirational, a testament to the power of choreographed effort and hard work.
In studying similar cases, it strikes me that a manner of mythmaking is the intangible x-factor that distinguishes whether behind-the-scenes content feels disposable or earned. As always, we exempt Beyoncé from such worldly limitations, but for the most part, the speed and volume of today's content cycle is not conducive to the formation of such legends.
In 2019, an artist releases an album, and within a few weeks’ time, many of their lyrics are verified on Genius, multiple producers will have deconstructed its instrumentals, and there'll be enough explanatory content floating around online to build a decent oral-history, even though the artists themselves would much rather the release still feel linked to the present.
The most compelling behind-the-scenes content released today is that which embraces the fleeting nature of the content itself. The most compelling content is intended to live and die on its own merits, rather than alongside the corresponding music it’s meant to demystify.
Producer Kenny Beats’ popular YouTube series, The Cave, is the perfect example of this. Focusing more on the banter between Kenny and his collaborators, like Rico Nasty and Vince Staples, each episode of the series is fun to watch, even when the actual music Kenny builds with these collaborators feels like an afterthought. Knowing this, Kenny edits each episode down into 5-10 minute clips, compiling a highlight package, rather than forcing viewers to witness the technical minutiae they may find uninteresting.
As we speak, NBC is taking a massive swing on a similar formula with its new show, Songland. In each episode, aspiring songwriters workshop original compositions with professional songwriters, like Ryan Tedder and Ester Dean, to pitch the polished versions to recording artists, like John Legend and will.i.am.
Few of the songs featured in this show are good. Many are downright unlistenable. Nonetheless, the show’s editors seem to possess a keen eye for depicting the process by which these songs are transformed from point "A" to point "B," giving viewers a fascinating glimpse into the machinations of the music industry.
The importance of a thorough editing process—like the one which allows Songland to function as an entertaining television show—can’t be overstated here. The best music carries with it a magical quality that behind-the-scenes content works to demystify, and when this content is poorly edited, it runs the risk of ultimately killing this magic. If a song has you on the verge of tears, the last image you want running through your mind is that of the producer painstakingly clicking through thousands of snare drums in search of the right one, because this undercuts the catharsis.
The most exceptional behind-the-scenes content preserves this fantasy without doing a disservice to creators. It can entertain us, increase the depths of our fandom, and inspire young creatives, without killing our emotional connections to the music it's meant to demystify. When I first watched Fade to Black 15 years ago, I didn't just love it because I loved The Black Album (though, I do) but because it checked all four of these boxes, making me feel less alone in endeavors—like fandom and creative aspirations—that can occasionally feel alienating.
When I lament the lack of compelling behind-the-scenes content that exists today, I'm not just bitterly criticizing live-streamed studio sessions for being boring; I'm mourning the loss of this more profound emotional impact. We're well past the point of no return now, but it's worth remembering there was an era, not too long ago, when this content mattered. In writing this article, hopefully, I've done my part to commemorate it.
[Editor's Note: Michael John Warren, director of Fade To Black, weighs in on the impact accessibility has on impact of behind-the-scenes content.]