"I'll tell you personally that Murder Inc. -- the people that you see like Irv [Gotti], Ja [Rule], the people that are involved in the business aspect -- are bitches. Like, these niggas don't got no hood in them... Come on, give me a kiss, you little faggot. That nigga's a sweetheart, for real. He's a fruit pot, for real. I can't even see how a kid could look at Ja Rule and want to be like Ja Rule. This nigga wants to be Tupac Shakur. This nigga's doin' duets, but you call yourself a "murderer" the whole time. C'mon, he's a pop artist. Grease video. Like, you might as well just go over there and hang out with Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears and them, if they'll accept you. That shit is crazy. I really don't like that guy. I really don't like Ja Rule."
-- 50 Cent
I thought Beef was just going to be a list of some of the more prominent spats in hip-hop, delving into their origins and pointing out some of the events that defined them. A DVD like that would've been a decent way to kill an hour, and I still probably would have enjoyed it enough to give it a pretty positive review. A good documentary should tell a story, though, and Beef isn't about why one particular rapper has it out for another so much as it is about the source of that aggression, as well as how that aggression has been reshaped over the past couple of decades. In the space of twenty years, on-stage boasts and lyrical jabs on vinyl have devolved into brutal beatings, stabbing, robberies at gunpoint, and even murder.
After an introduction comparing rap rivalries to similar assaults seen in other forms of art, Beef chronologically follows these wars of words beginning in New York at the dawn of the 1980s. The earlier battles are explored in detail, starting with Busy Bee vs. Kool Moe Dee, widely acknowledged as the first such battle, and continuing with the back and forth rants by the Juice Crew and Boogie Down Productions on wax, the rift that developed between Ice Cube and N.W.A., and seemingly everyone tearing into LL Cool J and Hammer, to name a few. Beef then moves into the '90s, where there was so much aggression that many of the battles are mentioned only in passing, preferring to focus first on the emerging East Coast/West Coast rivalry that culminated in the murders of Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur. 50 Cent also gets quite a bit of attention, particularly his disgust with Murder Inc. poster boy Ja Rule.
A couple of weekends ago, I subjected myself to the "Origins of a Hip-Hop Classic" documentary on the Scarface DVD, which kind of tainted my expectations for Beef. The comments on that vapid Def Jam-produced documentary offered little insight beyond "Tony Montana off da hizzy, yo" or whatever. Beef is immeasurably superior in every respect: its message is more clearly defined and presented better, the editing is more cohesive, and its participants actually have something to say. In particular, the more screentime KRS-One had, the more I liked him. Beef must have been a clearance nightmare, but every point it makes is accompanied by an excerpt from a song, news clippings, archival video footage, or newly-recorded interviews. Some of that footage ranges from rappers ribbing on one another on-stage to threateningly firing a pistol in the air to beating the hell out of each other with a golf club. Another strength is the astonishing number of MCs featured in one form or another, a list that includes KRS-One, Busy Bee Starski, Ice T, Kool Moe Dee, Big Daddy Kane, Flavor Flav, Warren G, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Tech N9ne, B Real and Muggs from Cypress Hill, Mobb Deep, 50 Cent, Common, DMX, MC Shan, Nas, Ice Cube, Cadillac Tah, Black Child, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Eazy E, Mack 10, Snoop Dogg, Tupac, Biggie, Ja Rule, Kurupt, Jay-Z, Tru Life, and Nate Dogg. There are also comments from scores of record label execs, journalists, and DJs. Hell, Jim Brown and Dolemite even chime in. The one glaring omission is Eminem, whose lyrical assaults could easily fill another 100 minutes on their own. Maybe Quincy Jones III and company are saving him for the already-announced follow-up.
Despite the fact that I wouldn't consider hip-hop to be my primary musical interest, rap rivalries make for compelling subject matter. Beef takes full advantage of the possibilities the topic offers, resulting in a feature-length documentary that shows respect to both the subject and the viewer. I really enjoyed Beef, and this DVD definitely comes recommended.
Video: Beef is presented full-frame, which the packaging states is its original aspect ratio. The quality of the video understandably varies, considering that the documentary includes a bit of twenty-plus year old archival footage, excerpts from glossy music videos, what looks to be some multi-generation video interviews, and some scattered portions shot with camcorders. That's to be expected, but the meat of Beef consists of newly-taped interviews, which appear sharp and detailed. The documentary is spread across a dual-layered disc, giving the bitrate plenty of room to breathe, and I didn't spot any unexpected video noise or compression issues at any point. A nice presentation.
Audio: The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio (448Kbps) is fairly standard-issue documentary material. The surround channels are primarily used to reinforce the music interspersed throughout, occasionally featuring an effect like a whizzing airplane panning from the front to the rears or crowd noise. The focus of Beef is the conversations with its participants, and accordingly, most of the action is anchored front and center. The speakers are always clearly understood, though the quality is somewhat variable as well. Kevin Powell in particular has a hollow, echo-ey sound because of the way his portions were recorded. Hip-hop music plays for much of the documentary, and it's integrated into the mix well, never drowning out the interviewees or presenting any sort of a distraction. Also perhaps to keep the music from dominating the rest of the audio is the near-total lack of low-frequency effects. Ving Rhames' narration seemed to offer more bass than the majority of the songs featured in the movie. Definitely serviceable.
A Dolby Digital 2.0 track (224Kbps) has also been provided, and no subtitles or closed captions are included with this release.
Supplements: The extras kick off with two freestyles by MC Supernatural on 'beef' (2:16), followed by an extended look at Nate Dogg whacking one of Eazy-E's boys repeatedly with a golf club (4:06). The segment begins with some additional comments from Nate Dogg before diving into the shaky, uncut video footage. Finally, there's a bit about Damon Dash in Paris duking it out with a bunch of French pimps (6:12). Afterwards is a slideshow of rappers wearing Christmas hats, I guess just in time for the holidays. "Special Thanks" is a nod to Afeni Shakur, including an address for donations to the Tupac Amaru Shakur Foundation. There are also trailers for other QD3 Entertainment releases, including Beef (3:11) and its upcoming sequel (1:41), Thug Angel: The Life of an Outlaw (0:32), and The Freshest Kids: A History of the B-Boy (3:22). All of the disc's video-based extras are presented full-frame and accompanied by Dolby Digital 2.0 (224Kbps) audio.
Beef features light animation both in and transitions between its 4x3 animated menus. The keepcase includes two inserts, the first listing the documentary's fifteen chapter stops, and the second promoting the Beef soundtrack. The CD also comes with a bonus DVD, interestingly enough.
Conclusion: Beef is a very comprehensive and very entertaining documentary that viewers with any remote interest in hip-hop ought to give a look. Highly recommended as a rental, recommended as a purchase.