Filmmaker Sacha Jenkins Talks New Documentary 'Word Is Bond' & Why The Bronx Deserves Its Credit in Hip-Hop
Veteran music journalist and hip-hop curator Sacha Jenkins grew among the culture and has vibrantly narrated its poetics for three decades. As an author, producer, magazine founder, and filmmaker, his in-depth illustrations of pioneers' are renowned -- and now, his work will be further encapsulated with Word Is Bond, Jenkins' newly released SHOWTIME documentary.
Alongside emcees like Nas, Tech N9ne, J. Cole, and Rapsody, the Mass Appeal & Sprite-created film (which premiered Feb. 16) explores and contrast how, "What you say -- and how you say it -- means everything." Whether rappers are on-the-rise or legendary, their regional dialects can stretch globally. Billboard connected with Jenkins to discuss the transformative power of lyrics, what hip-hop's birthplace created, the cultural importance of native storytelling, and more. Become better acquainted with Word Is Bond's director below.
How did you conceptualize your documentary?
Well, I've been writing about hip-hop for some years. I have been producing films and television projects that involve hip-hop. And, I always like to think about how I can contribute to the conversation.
One of my more recent films was called Fresh Dressed, which is about the history of hip-hop fashion. A film like Word Is Bond explores the process, the inspiration, the folks behind the lyrics themselves. It was something that could continue the conversation about the culture, in a voice that was native. It can push things forward and pay respects to history and the culture at the same time.
Word Is Bond boasts interviews from Nas, Tech N9ne, J. Cole, Rapsody, Anderson .Paak and more. Which emcee were you most impressed with during its filming?
I've known Nas for some time. I don't want to say one was more interesting or impressive than the other. But, a guy like Tech N9ne who has an [underground] global fan base but doesn't necessarily have that mainstream media recognition [does well for himself].
When you go down to his compound, you see that they have a car wash. You see [he and his team] have a huge warehouse that houses all of their merchandise. You see where they come from, where they have gone, and where they continue to go. Nothing articulates the transformative power of words and how hip-hop has utilized that transformative power better than Tech N9ne and his crew. And, obviously, many people have found success in hip-hop, but I am really impressed by what they have been able to pull off.
How was your experience with Nitty Scott MC while creating Word Is Bond?
I wanted to be able to have a broad range of perspective. To me, Nitty is someone who moved to New York to make it as an emcee. She lives in the Bronx. She is about her skills. She is about earning respect, and while she has not sold as many records as Nicki Minaj, I felt her perspective. People understanding her drive, and where she was coming from. I felt that was very important, in a sea of men.
You know, hip-hop can be extremely male-centric. And, I wanted people to see a woman who can stand right next to the guys and hold her own. And see her in an environment with her contemporary showing her respect.
In your opinion, who is the most transformative lyricist of hip-hop culture today?
Wow! Music is very personal. I am working on a project with Wu-Tang [Clan], and I sat down with Raekwon, and I asked him about particular lyrics. He has this line where he says, "Häagen-Dazs goggles." What ran through my mind was, "the goggle lens were round, sized and shaped like a pint of ice cream." But, when I spoke to him and asked him about it, what he was saying was, the spectacles were ice cold.
And, that is a simple thing, but it is a personal thing for me. It is kind of hard to say who is the most transformative. I do not know if I am sending it the right way, as far as how I phrased it. Any artist can create music that inspires people-- that informs them.
Personally, it is easy for me to say Nas. We are pretty much from the same neighborhood and attended the same schools, and I know where he came from in a very direct way. So, to see where he has come from, where he has gone, the people he has influenced, and the respect he's garnered... off the strength of his wordplay is impressive. But, again, that is personal to my experience.
Do you believe the South Bronx receives its just due in regards to its global impact through hip-hop?
Okay, so you're trying to start something. [Laughs.] Just as a side note, I've had this conversation. The Bronx deserves all the credit in the world for helping people to understand that hip-hop was a culture. It was vibrant. Hip-hop involved a lot of different people, many from the West Indies, or Latinos, and many African Americans. The Bronx represents that. Also, it helped people understand that hip-hop is a culture unto itself. That deserves respect.
Now if you are talking about rap, just pure success, and influence of rap... I gotta tell you; Queens is number one! People want to shit on Queens, but I do not even need to run down the list of influential rappers. They all come from Queens. A lot of them from Brooklyn, and some from the Bronx.
Does the Bronx get its just due for its contributions? Unfortunately, young people do not look at that. They look at rap culture now. They're not looking at hip-hop culture. Kids now don't think about the hip-hop that I grew up on. [The hip-hop] that existed before there was recorded music. That was something that I experienced as a kid in the park.
They do not see it that way. They see jewelry and cars. They see Instagram models, and rappers going at each other through social media. They don't understand the culture that was cultivated in the Bronx. I am acknowledging that the Bronx did not get the credit it deserves in the modern era. Those who are educated and understand where hip-hop comes from know that the Bronx deserves most of the credit.
What made you name your SHOWTIME documentary Word Is Bond?
Growing up in New York City, the Five-Percent Nation had a very strong influence on street culture and hip-hop culture. And, "word is bond" was a phrase often used by those who were members. Also, to those who were apostles of hip-hop, your word being your bond is the cornerstone. Well, [it was] how you needed to carry yourself.
Your word is everything. When people do not have much social capital and don't have many opportunities, sometimes all you have is your word. And, with that in mind, looking at how some folks use words in hip-hop culture to change their lives or to influence people around the world -- I felt Word Is Bond is a fitting title for the film.
You grew up in Queens, New York. Can you describe what the expression of hip-hop and overall scene felt like during the '90s?
Well, growing up in the late '70s and early '80s in Queens, hip-hop was first, kids in the park. I was a graffiti writer myself. People would break dance; people would rap in the parks, it was a sort of natural expression. People were not really conscious of [the scene]. It was just something we did as kids.
But, by the '90s, there was a music industry that realized there was a lot of money to be made. So, hip-hop in Queens in the '90s had A Tribe Called Quest, Nas, and all of these artists. They were making it in the music industry and around the world, in terms of their awareness and influence.
And you also had more rappers and producers who saw people in their neighborhoods having success. So, they said to themselves, "Let me try, too." In the '90s we saw a real explosion of bedroom producers and bedroom emcees who wanted to go from the bedroom to the stage. Many of them didn't make it. But, they knew that there were people who look like them, who smelled like them and went to the same schools as them who had their success.
I went to high school with Psycho Les from The Beatnuts. Years later, I would do a play called -- pun intended -- Deez Nuts. It was starring The Beatnuts. I think Queens had a lot of representatives. Many of us look to them for inspiration and possibilities.
Who are some of your artistic inspirations?
The filmmaker Stanley Kubrick is. His films make me feel a way about myself, and about the world. Kubrick's films make you question things, and expand your mind. I like Jean Michel Basquiat; he is a great influence. He, himself, like myself, is half Haitian. I can get a sense of what some of Basquiat's upbringing was like, and who some of his influences were. And, as someone who was a graffiti writer, no one who is of note, but as someone who is of the culture, seeing what he was able to do is inspiring, for sure.
What do you hope your admires take away from Word Is Bond?
I just want people to watch Word Is Bond and understand how intelligent the people who write these lyrics are. How creative they are, that they are important in not just Black and brown history -- but so-called American history, and world history.
They are artists. They are mentors. Sometimes they are leaders, and sometimes they are not. Sometimes, their lyrics are ignorant and frivolous. But, either way, there is a level of creativity that goes into [the art form]. There is a level of respect you have for them, inside of a community, that I hope the world at large recognizes and acknowledges.
The world at large has to understand to a certain extent. If there is money to be made, other people outside of the community are happy to do that. They are happy to cash in on creativity. I want people inside of the community to see who they are, by looking at people who look like them. And feed into these stories saying, "I can do this." I can use words as a way to change my situation.
It doesn't mean you are going to be a rapper. I wasn't a rapper. I think I can write bars better than most rappers. But, I have a horrible voice. Still, I can apply my voice to journalism. I can apply my voice to filmmaking. There are a lot of ways that we can apply our voices. I hope people watch the film and recognize that.