While it’s acknowledged that hip-hop began in the Bronx borough of New York City, it quickly moved right on down I-95, stopping in Philadelphia on its way to global exposure. Through the likes of Schoolly D, Cool C and Steady B, DJ Cash Money, Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, Philadelphia has a significant place in the evolution of the genre. Among those pioneering greats is MC-turned-radio-host Wendy “Lady B” Clark, one of the first female MCs to release a record.
This Friday, as part of the celebration of Black Music Month, filmmaker Mike Dennis will present two of his short documentaries, “A Salute to Lady B” and “Bring The Beat Back,” at the African American Museum in Philadelphia. Writer/producer/director Dennis also founded ReelBlack, which has hosted black film events in Philly for 15 years. He wanted to look back at the origins of Philly hip-hop.
“When we set out, my pitch was my curiosity,” Dennis says. “Philly was there alongside New York. It was the first Northeastern city to feel the ripple effect of the explosion of hip-hop. Philly had some of the first record labels committed to putting hip-hop on wax. And all the world champion DJs were from Philly.”
That includes Lady B, who reigns large over the hip-hop scene. Her 1979 single, “To The Beat Y’all,” made her one of the first female MCs to release a vinyl single. (She shares the distinction with rapper Angie B, now better known as the singer Angie Stone.)
But Lady B is probably best known for her seminal radio show The Streetbeat, which ran on Power 99 from 1984-1988. One of the first of its kind, the groundbreaking radio program brought significant early exposure to the then-burgeoning art form. For several years up until 2017, B hosted “The Basement Party” on WRNB’s afternoon drive. Dennis’ documentary celebration of her three-decade career is being shown for the first time on Friday. The film was contracted for her 30th anniversary concert at the Dell East, but it rained that night and the screening was cancelled.
When the African American Museum offered Dennis the opportunity to program for Black Music Month, “this was the perfect opportunity to resurrect two films that evolved around old school hip-hop that have never been seen in public before,” he says.
The second documentary, “Bring the Beat Back,” is a rough cut of what may become a longer film examining the role Philly’s earliest hip-hop artists played in rap music’s development.
“The very first thing that I wanted to do as an indie filmmaker was the history of Philly rap done as separate films about key players,” Dennis says. “We shot about nine hours, which is nothing for a documentary, but at the time, it would have been the first documentary about Philly hip-hop. Eighteen years later, it will still be the first documentary about Philly hip-hop. There are a lot of stories that I want to tell that are not mainstream. I think this is a good time to remind people about the true spirit of hip-hop aside from what’s been corporatized and commoditized.”
Dennis will moderate a post-screening panel discussion with Lady B, Schoolly D, Yvette Money, and MC Breeze, among others.
As for Philly’s musical present and future, The Roots, Eve, Meek Mill and others have ensured Philly remains a crucial part of the hip-hop marketplace. Both mainstream hitmaker Lil Uzi Vert and indie artist Chill Moody hail from Philadelphia. Though they have differing artistic sensibilities, they are linchpins of the latest iteration of Philadelphia hip-hop. Moody has even collaborated with Dock Street Brewery in West Philly for his own IPA, Nicethings.
“I think Philly hip-hop is in a great space mainly because of how diverse it is,” Moody says. “For a while, it feels like our scene was always represented by one person at a time, in the mainstream at least. But now it’s everything from Lil Uzi to The Roots representing us mainstream, which has brought more light to the city from almost every angle.”
You can hear Chill Moody with his new group &More for a free show at Spruce Harbor Park on June 21st at 6:30 p.m. He’ll also be at the Wawa Welcome America Red, White and Brew Fest at the SugarHouse Casino on June 30, where his IPA will be for sale. And, if you’re interested in today’s up-and-comers, check out this hip-hop artist showcase in West Philly on July 1. You never know who could be the next Lady B.
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