Two new films prove hip-hop can address middle age gracefully

In a year that’s given hip-hop fans so much — 50th anniversary concerts, a themed cruise and even a coffee-table book — gift-giving season has delivered two more presents in the form of unexpectedly powerful documentaries that showcase what the art form can be as it pushes past 50.

In both “May The Lord Watch: The Little Brother Story” and “The Choice Is Yours,” viewers come for the nostalgia and to find out why members of seminal groups Little Brother and Black Sheep went their separate ways. They leave with their emotions wracked, pondering grown-up relationships and music-business pressures. Hip-hop was celebrated in 2023 for all it has become, a message echoed in the documentaries’ depth, and they way they show how those in the genre evolve with age.

“Of course people come for the salaciousness of ‘Why’d they break up’ … but we wanted to tell a story that would resonate beyond just fans of Little Brother,” Thomas “Rapper Big Pooh” Jones, who makes up the group alongside fellow MC Phonte Coleman, told The Washington Post. “Even if you’ve never heard of Little Brother, if you don’t even listen to rap, you can still have a story that captivates you.”

“It keeps you in it all the way through,” Yoh Phillips, writer of “May The Lord Watch,” said. “Once it gives you everything you came for, it gives what you don’t expect, which is a story about brotherhood.”

Each film debuted in late November — “The Choice Is Yours” on Paramount Plus and the self-produced “May The Lord Watch” on YouTube. The latter, an hour-and-40-minute film, surpassed 100,000 views in a week. Paramount Plus wouldn’t share viewership numbers on “The Choice is Yours,” but Andre “Dres” Titus — the Black Sheep MC who the documentary follows — said he’s pleased with the reaction.

“I’ve personally had several people tell me it was something they didn’t expect,” Dres said. “That they were blown away the places it took them as a viewer. … I’ve had people tell me they watched it five times. I’ve had dudes tell me they cried.”

“The Choice Is Yours” in some ways is several mini-documentaries woven into one. It follows Dres in his offstage life as he continues to perform, without original DJ/producer Mista Lawnge. But it centers on a chance opportunity Dres is provided with when he meets Ma Dukes, the mother of revered hip-hop producer J Dilla, who died of complications from Lupus in 2006. Dilla’s mother gives her blessing for Dres to make music from the producer’s catalogue. Along the way, there’s a trip to Detroit to meet Dilla’s surviving friends, legal tension over the music itself and Dres passing the torch to Lola Brooke as the young female artist samples Black Sheep’s monster hit.

The film reveals much, such as what drove Mista Lawnge from the spotlight, but as it ends, the Dres-J Dilla album is unreleased. Dres said this week that he remains encouraged fans will eventually get to the hear the project.

Likewise, the Little Brother documentary explains what drove producer 9th Wonder and his North Carolina-based groupmates apart, what eventually came between Big Pooh and Phonte, and how they mended fences. The movie ultimately tells a story about grown men and communication, forgiveness, family and fame, and delivers a gut punch with about 12 minutes to go.

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“This film is a story about Thomas and Phonte, with Little Brother as a part of their story” Big Pooh said. “I’m over the moon at how people are responding. For the most part, they got it.”

The MCs reunited for a 2019 album also titled “May The Lord Watch.” The documentary digs into how a 2018 performance with all three members at Durham’s Art of Cool Festival played a role in getting the documentary made. A chance meeting between filmmaker Holland Randolph Gallagher and Phonte in a line at LAX also helped.

The choice to release it on YouTube started as a joke between the MCs and Rap Portraits partners Gallagher and Phillips. But as they pondered it, the format felt on brand for “LB Business,” since much of the group’s tension came from differing opinions on whether to release music independently or with the backing of a major record label. Little Brother funded the documentary itself to maintain creative control, similar to Ava Duvernay’s recent choice to do the same with “Origin,” and are soliciting donations post-release, 10 percent of which go to the North Carolina Arts Council.

“The Choice Is Yours” filmmaker Clark Slater, who previously chronicled DMX shortly before his death, and Dres agreed that they wanted to capture a sliver of time, not Dres’s entire life. Yet they manage to pack a bunch into 1 hour and 49 minutes.

“One of the dopest things about it is it’s not a typical anything,” Dres said. “I felt like this process was so organic, so willed to happen … We started years ago, and for it to line up this year is perfect.”

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For Little Brother, releasing the documentary in the year of hip-hop’s 50th anniversary was a must. It’s also the group’s 20th anniversary.

“Once we came out of covid, Te and I understood this was the year to deliver this movie,” Pooh said. “The block party we did and now this movie allows us to turn the page toward the next 20 years of Little Brother.”

Similar feelings resonated with Slater when his 77-year-old father watched “The Choice is Yours.”

“[You take away] that it’s not over until you say it’s over, and you’re done with your artistry.”

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