Long before there was Florida Man, Miami-based moviemakers Billy Corben and Alfred Spellman caught on to the fact that there was an enormous potential audience interested in learning more about the odd but engaging number of stories being played out in their very own backyard. In 2001, the duo became two of the youngest directors to ever premiere a film at Sundance when they screened their debut documentary, Raw Deal, which examined the alleged rape of a stripper at a University of Florida fraternity house.
Thirteen years and 10 films later, Corben and Spellman are still finding compelling stories to tell in unique and thought-provoking ways. Case in point: The Tanning of America, a four-part Rock Doc series premiering tonight on VH1. Adapted from Steve Stoute’s book of the same name, the film tells the story of the ways in which hip hop culture has influenced today’s America by drawing a line from the earliest days of its music in the 1970s and ‘80s in the South Bronx through the election of Barack Obama. Corben and Spellman—who run Miami media company Rakontur—have assembled an all-star lineup of talking heads, including Russell Simmons, Sean Combs, Pharrell Williams, Dr. Dre, and Mariah Carey.
Before the series’ premiere, Corben and Spellman spoke with us about the making of the film, the sometimes twisted pursuit of the American Dream, and The Tanning of America.
How did you guys get involved with The Tanning of America?
Alfred Spellman (AS): I got a call from Steve Stoute's agent, asking if we'd be interested in adapting Stoute's book into a documentary. He sent us an advance copy and Billy and I both found it fascinating. A couple weeks later I met with Steve and found out he was a fan of our docs Cocaine Cowboys and The U. We hit it off and he said, "Let's do it."
Did you go to VH1 or did VH1 come to you?
Billy Corben (BC): We envisioned a nonfiction adaptation of Stoute’s book as an epic, fast-paced history of modern African American pop culture and we knew there was a limited number of best possible homes for it. Because of VH1’s incredible Rock Docs series, they were our first choice and we brought the idea to them.
Was the project always planned as a four-part series?
AS: We immediately saw an opportunity, using Steve's book as a foundation, to tell a much broader story and connect historical dots—starting with White Flight from the cities in the 1970s, the crack epidemic of the '80s, the Rodney King case in '91 and Hurricane Katrina in '05—while building a case for how hip hop culture in all its forms (music, film, television, fashion, language, etc.) transformed the way an entire generation relates to one another. We knew we wouldn't be able to do that in 90 minutes.
BC: I think it would be great to do more episodes/spin-offs/sequels. I’d love to do (at least) four hours on the “Tanning” influence of sports culture.
What was it that attracted you to the subject matter? What stories within the importance of hip hop to American culture were you most excited to share?
BC: Reading Stoute’s book, it really gets you thinking about your own life and the “Tanning” phenomenon. I realized that I’m tanned! Your sense of humor, your taste in music, they’re color blind. You just know what makes you laugh, what moves you. I grew up watching Blazing Saddles, Diff'rent Strokes, The Cosby Show, In Living Color, [and] Arsenio, listening to Run-DMC, the Beastie Boys, 2 Live Crew (we’re from Miami, after all, where—thanks to Uncle Luke—we’ve been twerking long before the rest of the world ever heard about it). Hell, I even watched VH1 tan. They started out playing Phil Collins music videos when I was a kid and now they’re one of the most popular networks among African American viewers. I hope the miniseries has a similar effect on people; where you start to consider the “Tanning” moments in your life and all around you.
You guys assembled a really stellar cast of interview subjects for this project. How long did it take for you to shoot the film?
AS: Steve Stoute deserves the credit for that. We started with a long wish list and he picked up the phone and made it happen. We shot 40 interviews between September 2012 and October 2013, almost all in New York and Los Angeles.
Which interview subject surprised you the most in terms of his or her hip hop knowledge or personal ideas on the culture’s influence in America?
BC: Our executive producers at VH1 told us, “We’ve seen lots of interviews with Puff Daddy, P. Diddy, Diddy, et al; but this is the first time we’ve ever seen an interview with Sean Combs.” Sunglasses off and relaxed, he’s really quite introspective and, with the benefit of some distance and perspective, he reflects on the impact that he made on the culture with great thoughtfulness and even a self-deprecating sense of humor.
Who was the one person who you really would have liked to include in the film but couldn’t?
What’s something you learned during the making of this film—about the history of hip hop—that you were not aware of previously? The one fact you think audiences will be most interested in hearing?
BC: (Spoiler Alert!) Here’s a few: The inspiration for Run-DMC’s “My Adidas” came after a night of watching Russell Simmons smoke a lot of angel dust and scream, “My Adidas! My Adidas!” nonstop. Tommy Hilfiger credits Snoop with blowing up his clothing line after an appearance on SNL. Diddy predicted the election of Barack Obama four years before the 2012 election. Dr. Dre made more money from Beats in just a few years than he ever did in the music business.
What’s the one thing you hope viewers take away from the film?
AS: We’ve just begun another seismic generational shift in America. It happened in 1960 when JFK got elected and in 1992 with the election of Bill Clinton, the first Baby Boomer president. Now the Baby Boomers are starting to exit the stage and our generation, the hip hop generation, is beginning to assume power. As Russell Simmons says in the documentary, America is becoming more tolerant, more inclusive, and the hip hop generation is leading the way. And I think that viewers will walk away hopeful about the future of America.
You guys have covered a wide range of topics in your filmmaking; after The Tanning of America, you have Cocaine Cowboys Reloaded plus a documentary on MMA fighting. What are the recurring themes in your work that might not seem obvious if one were to just glance at the topics?
AS: I didn’t really see it until recently, but the one recurring theme seems to be the (sometimes twisted) pursuit of the American Dream. You can tie Cocaine Cowboys, our two ESPN 30 for 30 docs The U and Broke, Limelight and Square Grouper together. I think The Tanning of America is an extension of that.
What’s up next for you guys following those projects?
BC: Cocaine Cowboys Reloaded will be on Blu-ray and On Demand April 8th—that’s a wholesale re-edit of the original doc from scratch, with 60 minutes of all-new material. This summer we’re releasing Dawg Fight, about the underground scene of illegal backyard bare-knuckle brawls in Southwest Miami-Dade, inspired by Kimbo Slice, who grew up in that area. We followed a guy named Dada 5000, who is the Don King of the backyard fights, and some of the other fighters who are literally trying to fight their way out of their circumstances by brawling at these unsanctioned events, recording and uploading them and hoping to get discovered by pro MMA trainers or promoters. In the year and a half we spent shooting, we saw several fighters go pro right from the backyard and at least one didn’t live that long.