"I had the cameras rolling": What lost footage of Biggie and other rap greats tells us about hip-hop

Director dream hampton uncovers old tapes of her friendships with 1990s rappers in their casual moments

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published June 27, 2024 1:30PM (EDT)

Dream Hampton (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Dream Hampton (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Watching Peabody Award-winning director dream hampton’s new documentary film "It Was All A Dream" brought me straight back to my life in the early 1990s. During that time, neighborhoods like east Baltimore where I was raised were dealing with the effects of the crack epidemic. Young men and fathers were being snatched from their homes and put into overflowing prisons. For many, what was left were hardworking mothers and grandmothers – powerful matriarchs who traded everything they had for our survival.

Those women deserve credit for our existence. Fathers, uncles and big brothers were present in some households, but they felt scarce as many were denied opportunity, and then sucked up the underground economies, which often has only two destinations: the cemetery or the penitentiary. My dad struggled with addiction during my adolescent years, and I've also had multiple family members killed. I had to learn to shoot a jump shot on my own, gain an understanding of chivalry and dating etiquette on my own, and figure out those soft skills needed to gain employment on my own. And while a host of different community members chipped in to ultimately help me understand these things, I'd be remiss to not acknowledge hip-hop as being my biggest teacher.

Honestly, I wouldn't have made it without rap music. Lyricists like KRS-One taught me to be proud of my skin color, and before Ice Cube was making Disney movies, he was exposing kids like me to racist policies pushed by American presidents. Tupac helped us understand why the system is the way it is and offered ways to advocate for the women who bear the burdens of poverty. 

The brilliant mind behind Lifetime's "Surviving R. Kelly" docuseries, hampton has her own story about how hip-hop shaped her world. In fact, some of rap’s most celebrated minds were her friends, including her Brooklyn neighbor, The Notorious B.I.G. “I just happened to be in New York in the early '90s when my neighbors were these people,” hampton explained. “Right when this is what was popping, I just happened to land in the center of this beautiful storm.” A film student at NYU and a writer at the time, hampton also had a camera. She filmed her friends hanging out, making music and exchanging ideas about the world. And she witnessed hip-hop's golden era as it unfolded working at The Source magazine.

As a journalist, hampton covered legendary acts like Snoop Dogg and Jay-Z. In the Village Voice, she wrote a gloriously sad but necessary essay after Tupac’s murder, writing, “Doctors had to carve open the THUG LIFE tattoo printed jailhouse-style across his torso to remove his shredded lung." hampton uses the words from many of her articles as the narration for "It Was All A Dream." The film is a collection of never-before-seen footage of Biggie, Guru, Snoop Dogg and Warren G, all from her personal archive — found in her storage unit 30 years after it was filmed.

Watch my "Salon Talks" episode with dream hampton here or read a Q&A of our conversation below to hear more about her friendship with Biggie and how she looks back on hip-hop and its complexities now as someone who has made impactful change on the industry as a documentarian.

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

The film takes place between '93 and '95. It’s raw and nostalgic. It took me into my middle school and high school days, but it's a story of hip-hop. So many viewers are going to transport back to where they were when Biggie was alive, laughing and joking and making music. So you collected the footage back then and decided to release the film now?

Yes, there's a huge gap between when I recorded it: 30 years. I had a documentary class at NYU. I was a film student. Never went to J-School, fell into writing when I became the photo editor of The Source. I was at The Source for 18 months when I was 19. Thirty years later, I emptied out my storage space and I say, "What can we do with this footage?”

In my last few projects, I have been considering this question of how we remember things, what lights and nostalgic glow. That's what “It Was All a Dream,” the title, is about. More than my name or Biggie's song, “Juicy,” I chose that title because we've put a glow, like a retroactive glow on that era, and it is soft in our memories.

It has this space. It has become the '60s, '70s. That was what that represented for us if you're Gen X or older millennials. But there was also a truth to it, and I'm glad that I captured some of that truth that I had the cameras rolling because I had this documentary class at NYU.

The most powerful part of the film is your voice. It is a visual memoir of your worldview at the time. It is poetic. As a young filmmaker coming from Detroit and then working at The Source, what were some of your biggest surprises about coming into hip-hop culture at 19 years old at that transformative time?

KRS-One, it doesn't define things for me. Hip-hop isn't a culture, it's a genre of music in Black culture. But in terms of people who love that genre, one of the things that was surprising to me about say, coming to New York in 1990, was how regional stuff was. I grew up in Detroit, listening to music. I learned about sex from Too Short and Prince. I was listening to Eazy-E. That was one of the first videos that meant something to me.

Was that "Boyz n the Hood"?

Well, "Boyz n the Hood," but “We Want Eazy” was the one where he broke out. 

"We were all dancing to this music ... Loving parts of it, but it was necessary to do some disrupting too."

That was hard.

[In Detroit] we just weren't married to New York. I loved Special Ed. I loved Rakim — changed my life. I ran away from home to see Run D.M.C. perform. My mother told me that I couldn't go. I was 12, and when she went to work, I took the bus downtown to Hart Plaza to see Run D.M.C. perform.

So what I was surprised about when I got to New York was how in their own bubble they were. At one point, there were only five or six of us in the office. I was the only woman, but I was also the only non-East Coaster. They were either from Philly, DC or New York, and so they were just siloed. I was really surprised.

When I did those stories like Snoop and Tupac — and I wasn't a staff member when I did those stories — but when I did those profiles, which are two career-defining profiles for me back then, it was only because no one in the office wanted to do it. They were like, "Brenda's Got a Baby," whatever. I was like, "No, no, no. You don't understand. Tupac is way bigger than whatever song he has out now." They were like, "Yeah, you go to LA and do it then.”

Snoop, same thing. “The Chronic” had come out and there was this weird way . . . It would become impossible once “Doggystyle” came out. But there was this weird way where New York was trying to resist “The Chronic,” which wasn't happening anywhere else in the country. It was a wild time to see that regionalism.

Being in The Source offices was the first time I heard a white person use the n-word. I almost got kicked out. It was like an MC, and I got into a fight with them. And I was looking around the office like, "You all OK with this?”

That's crazy.

New York is permissive in a way that Detroit isn't back then. And I get that this was the hip-hop movement was multiracial always.

Being the only woman, obviously, can be difficult, but in the film, we see you challenging misogyny. It didn't matter if you were talking to Biggie or Guru. You constantly told the truth in the film. You said that your mother and her friends sucked their teeth at you, bewildered at your loyalty to a genre bent on your destruction. I was like, damn, how were you able to navigate that world?

That [quote] was from an article that I wrote for Spin Magazine. It was called “B****es Are So Much More Than Hoes and Tricks.” The narration that you talked about earlier is me reading articles from that era, which was a brilliant idea that my two co-producers came up with, David Feinberg and Sallome Hralima.

What it is though is evidence that we were always talking back to this genre. I don't need to present myself as evidence. We have Roxanne Shante at 12 years old. You want to make a song about street harassing a sister? We're trying to walk down the damn street. I'm a 12-, 13-year-old who's about to read you grown men, right? So this is literally the beginning of women in hip-hop is us, "Talking back," as bell hooks would say.

At the time I'm 19, I'm reading bell hooks. I'm a budding baby Black feminist. I'm kind of throwing all my ideas out at these men trying to see what sticks. In my friendship circles we're having reading groups. We're trying to read books like “Aint I A Woman?” and Paule Marshall and Audrey Lorde. And so it's just a conversation that we were having and I just happened to be having it on camera.

I think it's brave to be a person who calls people out on that.

At my big age, I'm realizing that most people are conflict averse.

I’m running toward conflict. 

But you know what? It's exhausting. And I'm not looking to turn up all the time at all. I'm here to just be at a party also. We were all dancing to this music. We were all consuming it, loving parts of it, but it was necessary to do some disrupting too. And it still is.

You talk about men needing the check man, which is 100% true. And when I was watching it, I was thinking, I was like, "Wow." I was wondering if there was anyone in the industry who you were around that just got it and that you didn't really have to fully explain these things to?

The majority of men I know, they actually don't want all of this yapping at home. Chris Rock has a whole thing, "F**k me, feed me . . ." Even the Black feminist men I know, they haven't evolved beyond these kind of patriarchal privilege.

The roles, the privilege.

Exactly, it is a privilege. And to give that up? We talk about white folks all the time, and we've gone viral. And it's already cemented in the conversation, at least if you're on Twitter, that Black men are the white people of Black people.

People don't give up privilege in America in general. It's currency.

It's power. And even if it's only in the domestic space of your own home. One of the mistakes women make too is that we'll comport ourselves into the girlfriend role even when that's not even on the horizon. We have conversations in our own spaces that may be more honest. And sometimes we don't give that to men. A, because they don't want to make space for it. B, because we know that that makes us less attractive to them. It's like an instinct that we just know. But I just don't give a f**k. I don't need to be desired by people that I have absolutely no desire for.

I've just not been interested in those games and I'm not interested in marriage. So then that wipes a whole thing clean for me. Then I can have the relationship that I want to have, which is one for me of wanting to exchange ideas. When Jay-Z turned 50, I sent him a text, "Happy Birthday. It's been really fun exchanging ideas with you for 25 years," because that's what we've been involved in. So that's a long way of answering your question about it's not just men in the industry. It's men in my life. 

How do you look at yourself now as a director? You were making this as a film student and now you have all of these different films and projects in the world. Any harsh critiques of yourself?

Yeah, I'm a Virgo, so last night [at the Tribeca Film Festival premiere] I was like, "Oh my God, the sound dropped out here. Oh my God, there's a Black thing." I called the team this morning. They want to be hung over in celebratory mode. I was like, "I have eight notes of things that . . . we need to fix this.” That's me as a director constantly. It's the same thing as being a critic, wanting to get things, not perfect, but wanting to push it to where it's supposed to be.

One of the things that I also took away from the film personally, and this is in connection to some of the earlier pieces that I wrote myself, is a lot of us, when we lose our older brothers and our fathers to the streets, when we're little kids we don't really get the opportunity to know them or see them in their element. You provided that for a whole lot of people. People who had dads that was Biggie's age, for example. You provided that moment for Biggie's son, Chris, with this film. What was that experience like?

I get choked up thinking about it.

We have tissue.

[Laughing] No, I got makeup done once for the day, has to last all day. Big was so proud to be a father. This is true of him and Tupac. When I think about Tupac and Prince too — they’re all three Geminis, by the way — but when I think about Tupac and Prince, I think about them having some sense maybe of producing a lot of work because maybe they just knew that it was going to be over. 

"It wasn't like he wrote down his lyrics, but he was a storyteller. He did that Slick Rick thing of taking on different voices, but not changing his voice."

Biggie's not as much work with but that double album and making it a double album. I remember thinking, "Oh, this could be two albums. You should break it up or whatever. Why are you all doing 20 songs on life after death or whatever?" But now I understand. And it was the same thing, "Why are you rushing to marry Fay? You just met her nine days ago." Literally, that's what happened.

I remember I was in New York and they had met at some photo shoot. I go to Detroit, he calls me. This is when you call people at home. He says, "Yo, I married Faith." I just hung up on him. "What are you talking about? I'm sleeping. Are you high?" Right. And he left me this long message, "I expect you of all people to understand.” I'm like, "I'm not mad at you. I just don't understand why did you wife her? Why, you're not going to be monogamous?"

That's why he called you after the fact because if he would've called you before . . .

I might've talked him out of it. No, but it was the right thing, right? She was the right person to be the co-executor of his estate. When I think of the different people that he was messing with at the time, the right person to be CJ's mom.

And Biggie missing out on CJ and T’yanna . . . yes, he's a legend, yes, posthumously, he is known worldwide . . . but, right? But I think that what he would've wanted more was to get to know his children.

He was a genius. "I Got a Story to Tell . . .” This is high literary work.

That was our relationship, was a lot of reading. I remember when in Ntozake Shange's, “The Love Space Demands,” book of poetry came out and Crack Annie was in that. And I was like, "Yo, you have to read it." I read it on the train and I couldn't wait to get off at Clinton, Washington, and I went straight to Fulton and was like, "Yo, babe, read this." And I would give him my articles to read. It wasn't like he wrote down his lyrics, but he was a storyteller. He did that Slick Rick thing of taking on different voices, but not changing his voice. But having different characters inside of his story.

We're living in a time where we're seeing the biggest moguls being taken down. Your work has contributed to that in a major way. I know diehard R. Kelly fans that would not get off of him until they actually saw your docuseries, “Surviving R.Kelly.” How has your world been after you put out such a powerful piece of work that has changed so many lives?

I know that it's true that there's been some shifting, but it's this Sophian struggle. I think that the blowback to me too, just like the White Lodge to Obama was greater than, Obama was not a radical. He wasn't a disruptor.

A moderate centrist at best.

A moderate centrist who got blocked by Congress and so didn't get a lot done. Jodi Kantor of course, takes on Weinstein first. And I didn't think about all the work that was done around the church. I think the work that Julie [Brown] did down in Miami at the Herald around Epstein. Jim DeRogatis, of course, was on R. Kelly forever. And so there's this work that's being done and it's pushing up and maybe there's a kind of breakthrough and it feels like a bigger moment than it is, but the truth is that we're in the blowback era. 

Russell Simmons, as soon as he gets accused, hashtag is out, ”Not me." He mounts this rigorous defense and a smear campaign against his most visible accuser, Drew Dixon. And that smear campaign was largely successful. You know what I'm saying? I think about Oprah pulling out of Sundance a couple of days before Sundance on that film. And about how we don't even have a conversation about Russell or Afrika Bambaataa in the 50th anniversary.

I think there was kind of line drawn like, "You all have R. Kelly and Bill Cosby. That's enough." And then by the time Johnny Depp and Amber Heard comes around then we're just right back into what Jodi and Meg called, he said, she said.

The truth about gender and sexual crimes and assault and violence as a culture is that it's largely, rape in particular, is largely under-reported. 110% of women experience sexual harassment. What are we going to do? I'm walking down the street. I'm about to go into a frigging police station and be like, "Yo, 11 people just harass me on my way into work." Right? I am not a carceral feminist. I don't think that these questions and solutions and changes are going to happen inside of our non-existent justice system.

And I am not wildly imaginative in terms of solutions when it comes to this stuff either. So I know that there are people who are committed to the work of transformative justice and restorative justice, and I am constantly reading their work. People like Miriame Kaba, Prentis Hemphill. I'm reading their work all the time to try to see a way forward. bell, of course, is writing about this early with all about love and a lot of her work around masculinity. You all are going to have to take up leadership in this work. It's the only thing, actually, it’s the only thing that's going to change it. 

“Surviving R. Kelly” was six episodes. If an MC as big as say, Jay, or anyone, Kanye, whomever, had done two lines about R. Kelly, literally 20 seconds, it would have had a bigger effect. You know what I'm saying? I remember Jay one Tuesday was like, he's over throwbacks, button up and the entire city is wearing oxfords.

The worst fashion eras in Negro history, walking around with big a** button-up shirts on and jeans.

Reebok classics, which I loved right before HOKAs, they were the most comfortable shoe ever. They were perfect with a tennis skirt. He had some throwaway line, and all of a sudden Reebok classics. So what I did in six hours, could have been done in 20 seconds by an MC. 

And that work gets undone quickly too. Like Kanye can have multiple people accused in the moment of terrible crimes — gender and sexual crimes, and he'll just have them on stage. No words necessary. Here's me with Marilyn Manson, with whomever. There's this solidarity around patriarchy. There's this doubling down around patriarchy because patriarchy is foundational. It predates hip-hop. I always say, we didn't learn that women ain't s**t but b***es and hoes from the B-side of “Gin & Juice.” We learned about it from the Book of Genesis.

Who would Biggie side with in the Drake and Kendrick beef if you all was having a conversation right now?

I hope that me, Big would be tapped out, right? I just produced a thing in Detroit and I was like,"Jack White's my favorite flipping guitar player, but John Mayer is kind of the heir of Stevie Ray Vaughan,” so I want different conversations actually.

But I don't know what Big would think . . . Hopefully, he wouldn't be still walking around in COOGI. I know some of these brothers are in their velour suits still, and those are the ones that are in trouble right now. You still think that you're in some era. You're releasing press releases from that era, actually.

I think for me, it's not really about the music. It's more about the people who I was around in my life that I just don't have access to anymore. It's that shared memory around the music.

It’s the nostalgia. I just happened to be in New York in the early '90s when my neighbors were these people. Right? When this is what was popping. I just happened to land in the center of this beautiful storm.

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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