On the surface, Israel "Iz-Real" Vasquetelle, locally based founder of Insomniac magazine/film producer/hip-hop scholar, is an egomaniac.
Whether acting as the omniscient narrator over shots of 1980s Brooklyn or comparing hip-hop and rap to Coke and RC Cola for juveniles in yellow jumpsuits, Vasquetelle's presence is all over the documentary think-piece Street Credentials. At one point, scrolling text over a black screen explains Vasquetelle's short-lived recording history as being 17 years ahead of his time. Nearly an hour of insightful commentary on the state of a once-great genre, now a billion-dollar business, however, provides a sense of sincere yearning and bewilderment that brings Iz and everyone in his orbit into clearer view.
This is simply a crew of abandoned orphans left to fend for themselves amidst the flurry of nihilistic rap that came into vogue in the mid-'90s and never let up.
The film's opening interview with outlandish rapper Kool Keith reveals a fascinating example of the bizarre middle ground an independent artist faces today. Decked out in full Sean John gear, Keith's critique on modern rap is followed by a Saul Williams voice-over lamenting, "`Hip-hoppers` spend the majority of our money on cars, diamonds and clothes. It's a sign of depression." This statement kicks off the dominant, unanswerable question in the film: "Weren't things better way back when?"
Considering hip-hop came of age in an era of soul-crushing poverty, police brutality and a crack epidemic, it would require some thick rose-colored glasses to remember the good ol' days in the slums of New York. In a phone interview, Vasquetelle rightly concurs, contrasting Run-DMC with the Ying Yang Twins: "I just need to put on my regular glasses and see what's out there. Despite the fact that `Run-DMC` were street-savvy, they presented themselves in an articulate fashion, they dressed in a presentable way `and` they were not exploiting women," he says. "At the same time, they weren't hugging and kissing you."
To the uninitiated, Street Credentials also provides a terrific reintroduction to the electrifying street poet Saul Williams. Star of the film Slam, a Sundance darling years back, Williams is caught by Vasquetelle's cameras on his bicycle in New York. He looks like a messenger, complete with loaded backpack, but Iz says that Williams obliged the film's questions for nearly three hours, and the interview, spliced with a detailed eye by Vasquetelle and Anthony Torres, proves to be the jewel of the film.
Street Credentials does not end up providing answers to the many questions it poses, but rather acts as a release for the numerous independent artists involved, including a surprisingly mundane Aesop Rock and blustery Immortal Technique. After witnessing the passion with which these strugglers feel oppressed by the monolithic recording industry, one would suspect there is an entire generation of "headz" out there who could use a good firstname.lastname@example.org