In a New Doc, dream hampton Looks Back at the Hip-Hop She Fell in (and Out) of Love With

In an interview with Jezebel, hampton spoke about hip hop's "golden era," breaking up with the genre, and whether or not anyone can actually separate art from the artist.

In a New Doc, dream hampton Looks Back at the Hip-Hop She Fell in (and Out) of Love With

Not so long ago, there was a time in which Peabody Award-winning filmmaker, producer, writer, and noted not-music journalist, dream hampton, loved hip-hop. It was a moment before artists could simply sound off on social media; when storytelling and hard stances were reserved for records, and before she began studying feminist theory.

Now, hampton doesn’t care much for the genre. She’s never heard a Kanye West album, nor does she have an opinion on the Kendrick vs. Drake feud. In fact, she doesn’t think much about hip-hop at all. The one exception is her new film, It Was All A Dream, which sees a 22-year-old hampton filming a few old friends on the cusp of becoming some of the greatest artists of a generation—namely, Christopher “Biggie Smalls” Wallace. The film takes place from 1993-1995, after hampton took a documentary filmmaking class at NYU and began to realize her own potential as a passionate—and later, principal—critic of the genre. Since its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, It Was All a Dream has been lauded by critics as “the right documentary for right now” and a “nostalgic, nascent Trojan horse” for the questions no one can easily answer about hip-hop.

By now, it’s well-documented that asking audiences to sit with such exacting questions is one of hampton’s skills as a storyteller. In 2019, she received acclaim as a producer for Surviving R. Kelly, the six-part series that drew in over 26 million viewers with its debut and ultimately, played an undoubtable role in holding its subject to account once and for all. Long before that though, hampton cut her teeth writing about the evolving landscape of the hip-hop genre in the nineties and its heavy hitters for publications like The Source and The Village Voice. Her incisive essays, like this one on Dr. Dre’s 1991 assault of singer Dee Barnes, or her memoriam of Tupac, laid bare the genre’s sins while simultaneously challenging its arbiters to be better for those who loved it as she did.

In It Was All a Dream, you won’t find any one meditation on misogynoir, or the myriad ways Wallace, Snoop Dogg (Calvin Cordozar Broadus Jr.), Diddy (Sean Combs), or any other rap titans were toxic, however. There is, quite notably, no hand-holding narration or over-produced confessionals. Only an intimate, informal, and occasionally unflattering snapshot—overlaid with excerpts from hampton’s illustrious body of work for The Source—of some men she grew up with and ultimately, without.

On a recent Zoom call, hampton spoke to Jezebel about revisiting the “golden era,” breaking up with the genre, and whether or not anyone can ever really “separate art from the artist.” This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

I read that you found all this footage in a storage unit while moving your daughter across the country. What was your first reaction while rediscovering these memories?

So many of our memories are connected to photographs, or video, if you’re a certain generation. It’s like, “Do you remember that birthday party? Or do you remember the pictures of that birthday party?” That’s one of those existential questions that I’m constantly thinking about when it comes to documentation and memory. The truth is, until I saw some of this footage, I forgot that it happened. Of course, I remember being in the studio with Snoop when he was working on Doggy Style. Of course, I remember Biggie because I’d licensed some of that footage before, but only in snippets. Even looking at that footage of Biggie–which I absolutely did not forget I had–I forgot what our back and forth was like. Friends become that way when they pass on. It’s like, you have these 10 stories that you tell over and over again; then you begin to question those memories. So, to see our relationship preserved–we had an everyday, six-year-kind-of-conversation happening–I think the familiarity that we have is there, but you can also see that he’s very aware of being filmed in some moments. Like, he doesn’t want me to call him Christopher on camera. I forgot about all of that back and forth. So, there was a discovery process for me. I certainly haven’t looked at 22-year-old or 23-year-old dream since like…ever. To go back and revisit her was awesome. It’s its own journey.

It’s important to note that though you’re often mischaracterized as a “music journalist,” you’re actually a filmmaker–and a filmmaker who just happened to come of age with all of these rap gods. As someone who’s a multifaceted storyteller, the level of intimacy seen in It Was All a Dream between you and these artists is kind of unprecedented today, no? 

This [filmmaking] is what I’ve always thought of myself as. I never went to J school; I had a class at NYU–a documentary class–and I was going to do a project on The Source. You can hear Snoop at one point later in the film tell Warren G, “Man, she’s doing a documentary about The Source,” like he’s so happy to be in it. Of course, he’s gonna have his album come out and it’s going to blow up. But this is where it’s about the dawn of the golden era. This is that in-between time when his career was still a dream. With Biggie, same thing. Biggie used to go to film school with me. He was my friend who had a record deal and then Puff got fired and then he was in limbo for a couple of years. Maybe when I’m filming him in ‘93, he had a remix out but he certainly is not an artist who’s established. His first album hadn’t come out. So, he’s someone who would go to class with me, and watch like, German films from the 1920s. 

At the time that we’re talking, the film is about to premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. What are you feeling in anticipation of audience reactions?

Well, you know how this is. By the time your piece on me comes out, you’ll be working on the next one. That’s how it is with this, too. I’m already working on my next project. Of course, I’m excited. I’m nervous. I’m all of the things. I’m happy that it’s happening in New York because even though this film takes place in New York and Los Angeles, it’s clearly, in so many ways, a New York film. It’s also coming home for me. I started this film when I was at NYU, and we did our first assemblage in an NYU editing lab because Emir Lewis, my producer and the one I first sent the footage to, teaches editing at NYU. He wasn’t a student back then, but he used to hang out with us. So, this film came full circle from like, a class assignment for my documentary class at NYU to me being up at Tisch transferring this friggin’ footage. 

Ironically, you’ve said for the last several years that, at some point, you “broke up” with hip-hop. When? And is there any renewed hope for reconciliation one day–especially after revisiting this golden era?

I mean, I just grew up, in 1998. I don’t call hip-hop a culture. It’s a genre of music–another expression of black, working, and poor folks. It’s another way of storytelling from neighborhoods like mine. That is what I was in love with–this form of expression that seems to want to break rules, that seems to want to push the larger American culture past some things–but in particular, racism and in some ways, classism. It wasn’t until hip-hop that I stopped being ashamed of being poor, because here were these dispatches and these stories, again, from neighborhoods like mine–the east side of Detroit–that made me feel seen, quite frankly. So, that was beautiful. But at the same time, as you can tell from that footage, I’m this budding feminist who’s reading bell hooks, Paule Marshall, Toni Cade Bambara, and learning about Laura Mulvey and the male gaze for the first time. So, I outgrew it [hip hop]. I quickly understood that, sadly, these boys that I grew up with were going to remain committed to patriarchy and misogyny in a particular kind of way. 

When David Feinberg, my producer and editor, found articles on my website archive that overlaid with the film completely, it was deep and a little sad because it’s like, a lot of the things I’m talking about then, are so relevant today. Even though I’m not listening to hip-hop anymore, the issues seem to have remained static. I always say, “I grew up but hip hop didn’t.” This is kind of the evidence.

Biggie Smalls and dream hampton in a still from It Was All a Dream.

Speaking of, you recently wrote a really powerful tweet thread in response to a Rolling Stone piece about the federal investigation of Diddy. It touched on so many things, but I think really captured the complicity—and complexity—of the behind-the-scenes dynamics in the industry.

I push back on this enabler thing. I certainly dealt with enablers when it came to R. Kelly. There were people who were involved in not feeding the girls as a part of punishment. There were people who were in the studio who witnessed the fact that the locks to these rooms where the women were sleeping were on the outside. There were people who were flying girls across the country and knew their date of birth because they were literally booking tickets for them. Those are the kinds of things I learned as I was making that documentary. He had an abortion doctor who would come to the Trump Tower and handle pregnancies for him. I don’t know that other people have a system like that. We’re still going to learn what was happening with someone like Diddy.

Diddy and I were friends 30 years ago. And really, I didn’t even know Diddy, actually. I knew Puff, you know? But you know what blows about this is that I’m doing this film…and this motherfucker…all his dumb shit comes out and now this will be your pull quote. Whatever I say about Puff is what your editors are going to want to use as the pull quote. And he’s in the film for less than two minutes.

Since the Me Too movement, there’s been a lot of talk about being able to “separate the art from the artist.” Do you think that’s even possible in some of the most egregious cases (R. Kelly, Diddy, etc.)?

I haven’t figured that out. I love Jack White, and I suspect that all these marriages might be evidence that he’s actually a Polish Catholic who might be a little conservative, and maybe I don’t want to know what he thinks about Roe v. Wade, you know? Because I want to go on loving Jack White. I took a break from Radiohead when they played in Israel even though we’d asked for a boycott because Palestinians couldn’t attend that concert. So, I don’t know. I just saw Anthony Kiedis courtside at an L.A. game with his newest 18-year-old girlfriend and it’s such a gross picture. She’s clearly a teenager. She’s younger than you are. And he’s 61 and has been doing that for the past 40 years. But I also love Flea and I don’t know if the next time the Chili Peppers come on KCRW, that I’m going to turn it. Someone like Puff—I don’t take him seriously as an artist, so there’s nothing to stop listening to. Some of this stuff sticks to people and becomes their main narrative and some of it washes away. But I’ve not answered that question. It’s a lifelong one. I don’t know that my life is some testament to having some strident position on something and being able to stick to it.  

It doesn’t have to be the artists. It really comes down to like, what are you doing about it in your real life? You don’t have access to Diddy or to R.Kelly or whomever, but this behavior is in your own world and family and community. So, after we call people out, what can be done?  I don’t want celebrity to be a place where we’re trying to look at these issues. My film, by the way, isn’t looking at any of that shit. There are times when I’m bringing it up, but I made a real decision to keep that film in the era.

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