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Rappers’ delight as TV buys into hip-hop

Urban music has a long history of generating reality shows, but now it has inspired major drama series

It has been written about in lengthy academic tomes, debated in the US Senate and been the subject of numerous documentaries. Now television executives are betting that hip-hop is still where it’s at.

From Street Dreams, a half-hour show based on rapper Nas’s life and set in the Long Island housing estate where he grew up to Empire, a Lee Daniels-directed family drama about a rap mogul starring Terrence Howard with a script by The Butler’s Danny Strong, hip-hop dramas look set to dominate next year’s television schedules.

Baz Luhrmann, the director of The Great Gatsby, apparently still inspired by that film’s Jay Z-produced soundtrack, spent the period before Christmas pitching an epic hip-hop drama set in late Seventies and early Eighties New York to executives at Netflix, Amazon and FX; superstar producer Dr Dre is reportedly still working on an hour-long drama for FX which will cover the music industry in LA and newly minted best buddies Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill are collaborating with rapper Q-Tip, a longstanding friend of DiCaprio’s, on a drama set in the late 1980s/early 1990s which takes inspiration from Q-Tip’s early experiences in the industry.

Meanwhile DiCaprio and Hill’s Wolf of Wall Street collaborators Terence Winter and Martin Scorsese will touch on hip-hop in their long-gestating HBO music drama starring Bobby Cannavale as an A&R man on the make.

So why hip-hop and why now? In part it’s the setting – as we stride further into this shiny new century there’s a growing nostalgia for the period from the late Seventies to the early Nineties, which is increasingly seen as a more authentic musical era when a DIY ethos still prevailed.

This nostalgia is most prevalent in New York where long-time residents look at monied Manhattan and remember a very different, less safe era with a surprising degree of warmth. Thus the Nas show, Street Dreams, will be written and directed by Jonathan Levine, who made his name with The Wackness, a coming-of-age drama set in New York in 1994, that is just at the moment Rudy Giuliani became mayor and began his controversial city-wide clean-up.

Yet while a nostalgia for times long gone undoubtedly fuels some of these shows, making them period dramas, they also reflect the changing times on US network television – and not just because Street Dreams is being developed not for a traditional studio but for X-Box Entertainment, whose young users will presumably be interested in tuning into a tale of rap and reward. A new generation of television viewers is demonstrating an increased desire to see their younger, less white, America reflected back at them.

It’s also the case that the new dramas may be less risky than they initially appear. In recent years a host of hip-hop and rap stars from Run DMC’s Rev Run to Ice-T and Coolio have remoulded the reality TV show format in their own image, creating hip-hop reality TV. The popularity of this – and of recent hit Love & Hip Hop, which pulled in an average of three million viewers for music channel VH1 – has demonstrated that there’s an audience out there for hip-hop-related shows.

Yet will that audience follow from fact to fiction and is the power of hip-hop enough to overcome the curse of the music drama on television? While films from Singles and 8 Mile to Almost Famous and 24 Hour Party People have adeptly captured different musical scenes, small-screen attempts to “do music” have largely faltered. Most recently the disastrous (and disastrously named) Love Monkey, a comedy about the dating life of a New York record exec, stuttered across US screens for three episodes in 2006 while AMC recently dropped plans to develop their own version of Danish record-executive tale The Man with the Golden Ears.

By contrast, television’s only recent music hit, Nashville, currently airing its second season on More4, works because it trains its eye on the acts themselves, letting us see what it takes to be a star in country music. If they focus on the players as much as the game the new crop of hip-hop dramas should have similar levels of success.