Rock documentarian shifts focus to hip-hop

Grandmaster Flash in Hip-Hop Evolution
In the music documentary series Hip-Hop Evolution, Grandmaster Flash gives host Shad Kabango a lesson in scratching. Photo courtesy of Hip-Hop Evolution Inc.

Filmmaker and UVic grad Sam Dunn creates hit documentaries using an anthropological lens—and never forgets that the music comes first.


“I let it go. Stopped it. Let it go. Stop it…I said to myself, ‘I have absolute control of the record.’”

Those are the words of DJ and rapper Grandmaster Flash from the Netflix series Hip-Hop Evolution, describing how he breaks a taboo by touching the middle of the vinyl. In a Bronx studio, Flash uses “Good Times” by Chic to demonstrate the scratching technique to host Shad Kabango.

This was a favourite scene for filmmaker Sam Dunn. “It’s a rare moment in the series, and in documentary filmmaking, where you actually get someone to show you a true moment of innovation,” says Dunn, speaking from the Toronto office of his company, Banger Films. “I think it was good for the viewers who weren’t the hip-hop heads, who didn’t know about the creativity and the manipulation of technology that Flash brought to two turntables and how it literally created a musical revolution. It helps that he’s kind of an eccentric dude. It makes it all more entertaining.”

Banger Films has produced successful features on artists like Rush, ZZ Top, Iron Maiden and Triumph—as well as series on metal, pop and K-pop—all the while racking up Grammy nominations and other accolades. The hip-hop series, now streaming on Netflix, earned them an International Emmy and a Peabody—and was a big hit.

Sam Dunn
UVic anthropology grad and filmmaker Sam Dunn. Photo courtesy of Banger Films. 

“I think it was the fact that we approached it the same way we’d always approached metal and rock, and that’s with a lot of care and never really dumbing it down for the audience. Something we learned from years of working in metal and rock is that you never want to talk down to the fan base, at the same time you want to try to bring in a broader audience.”

The UVic anthropology grad and his team show how a range influences—sociological, political, technological, economic—caused our favourite forms of music to emerge, adapt and grow. They also deliver some comic moments—such as when Shad has to bring Philadelphia gangsta rapper Schoolly D a cake bearing his face as a pre-condition to the interview.

Dunn’s first film, made with Banger co-founder Scot McFadyen, was Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey. They launched the Metal Evolution series in 2011. They’d planned to do a “big anthology music series” on other styles—and hip-hop seemed an obvious choice.

While Banger may have been early on the music-doc scene in 2005, the field is now as crowded as a festival beer tent. “Now it’s a genre.  We’re living in a much more competitive world than when we started.”

Dunn says he particularly enjoyed the recent Billie Eilish documentary, The World’s a Little Blurry, and the intimate perspective on the young musician. “Now that these films are so tightly intertwined with the business plan of many artists, it is increasingly difficult to portray artists in that up close and personal way.”

Dunn, a musician himself, says their success may lie in the authenticity of their storytelling. “Whether we’re working in hip-hop or metal, K-Pop and pop music, we really care about the music. We never forget that the music is the reason why we’re telling the story in the first place.”

—Jenny Manzer, BA ’97