Ava DuVernay fills an important formative gap in California’s hip-hop history through Netflix documentary This Is The Life

Ava DuVernay's This Is the Life is a refreshing portrait of a 1990s California hip-hop subculture that thrived separately from gangsta rap

The New York Times February 24, 2021 11:45:53 IST
Ava DuVernay fills an important formative gap in California’s hip-hop history through Netflix documentary This Is The Life

Ava DuVernay’s 2008 debut feature, the documentary This Is the Life, is a refreshing portrait of a 1990s California hip-hop subculture that thrived separately from gangsta rap.

DuVernay’s documentary, now available to stream on Netflix, is a personal project. She performed as part of rap duo Figures of Speech at the Good Life Cafe — a South Central Los Angeles health food cafe that became a mecca for the underground rap community.

Throughout the ’90s, the modest space’s open-mic nights fostered a bevy of young, raw, untainted lyrical voices telling stories of everyday life in LA. DuVernay combines performer interviews with VHS footage and audio clips of their shows to retell a magical period in the hip-hop scene.

In its intertitle graphics and visual typography, This Is the Life often mirrors VH1’s Behind the Music documentaries. When staging her interviews, however, DuVernay imprints unique compositions onto the familiar music-doc style by using the respondents’ spacious surroundings to frame them. To paint the cafe’s milieu, she identifies the institute’s stalwarts, such as supportive fans lovingly referred to as “Jean in the front row” and “Big Al.” Not only does DuVernay feature the cafe’s Black male emcees like Abstract Rude and Chillin Villain Empire, she underscores the white, Latino and female artists who also appeared on the Good Life stage.

The venue’s traditions are also outlined: No leaving gum on the floor; no leaning on the paintings; avoid the phrase “wiggidy wiggidy” in freestyles; and no profanity — meant to ensure a clean space and substantive rhymes. Audiences at the Good Life wanted to hear idiosyncratic freestylers using distinct techniques to tell unique stories. Rappers who failed to meet crowd expectations, in scenes akin to an amateur night at the Apollo, were booed off the stage. In recalling the night rapper Fat Joe bombed at the cafe, DuVernay creatively soundtracks the audio from the event over a time lapse of a chalk artist sketching the scene.

Word-of-mouth inspired record deals for some Good Life performers. Jurassic 5, for instance, became gold record-certified in Britain. By 1994, the cafe had built such a reputation that artists like Ice Cube and Bone Thugs-n-Harmony came to listen. And it is claimed (by rapper Abstract Rude) that those artists incorporated the underground style into their work. When DuVernay plays Good Life emcee Myka Nyne’s verse on Freestyle Fellowship’s Mary (1993) next to Bone Thugs-n-Harmony’s Tha Crossroads (1996), it’s a difficult assertion to dispute.

Outside of the film’s director, however, few from the Good Life became household names. But in the illuminating This Is the Life, DuVernay not only fills in an important formative gap in California’s hip-hop history, she displays the inventive eye that would later lead to her future cinematic successes.

This Is the Life streams on Netflix.

Robert Daniels c.2021 The New York Times Company

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