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The Great Hip Hop Hoax directed by Jeanie Finlay (review)
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The Great Hip Hop Hoax is, in many ways, a very postmodern story about how histories can be deliberately invented in pursuit of aspiration. The construction of identity, whether real, imagined (fake), or temporary, is particularly important to the ways in which those histories are created, and in the case of the two subjects of this documentary—Silibil and Brains (Billy Boyd and Gavin Bain)—all three of these aspects play an important part in the fictional construction of their personal histories, as well as in the wider popular cultural narratives alluded to by the film. On a deeper level, the film is also an analysis of a very real American cultural hegemony, and the dynamics of simulacra and hyperreality that form an important part of that culture.

The story charts the rise and fall of two friends (Boyd and Bain) from Dundee, Scotland, whose enthusiasm for hip hop, coupled with their desire to make it big in the music industry, led them to create entirely fictional personal histories that ultimately hoodwinked the music industry into believing the duo were Californian hip hop artists. Exasperated with record labels that derided the idea of a hip hop group from Dundee, the pair ingeniously exploited their knowledge of the music industry to secure a £250,000 record deal with Sony, an MTV appearance, and a tour with Eminem. In some ways, the documentary is reminiscent of Wayne’s World (1992), in its tale of two friends relentlessly promoting themselves and their cultural products. Director Jeanie Finlay relates “I read about the story in the paper after it’d all come out, and I knew immediately that I wanted to make this into a film.” She continues, “It’s about the truth, and it’s a ‘he said/he said’ story. I was looking for the truth between the two of them.”

Finlay’s focus on the theme of truth and incredulity not only underscores the playfulness of the entire charade, but also constitutes a sophisticated pastiche of the modern-day documentary life narrative. She does something quite clever— despite, or perhaps because of, all the hype surrounding the pair’s exploits—tapping into the fact that popular culture is increasingly constructed around what Jaap Kooijman describes as fabrication and artifice, emphasizing “imitation, and continuously recycled images which tend to be viewed, particularly by Europeans, as signs of fakeness.” The Great Hip Hop Hoax demonstrates how fictional histories are manipulated in order to emphasize the idea of Americanization as a form of “cultural appropriation.”

Part of the story is told through the cartoons of British artist Jon Burgerman, which were designed to portray the “two-dimensional cartoon characters” that Boyd and Bain, according to Finlay, created for themselves. The documentary also incorporates extracts from the duo’s own video archives, several of which were deliberately constructed for marketing purposes. Such strategies highlight the use of artifice in the creation of “authenticity”—understood in this context as the desire to show off the band as credible musicians. This is post-documentary—a form that is both representationally playful and reflexive, while satirizing the ways in which success is achieved within the contemporary music industry.

The Great Hip Hop Hoax is not merely a tale about the constructed nature of celebrity; it also urges wider consideration of popular culture’s often seamless blending of reality and fiction, and the cultural capital afforded to copies memes, and simulacra. Director Finlay clearly views the idea of fictional histories as an intrinsic element of popular cultural identity and part of its seductive appeal. This seductive element not only appealed to Silibil and Brains, but also helps to explain how and why they became seductive to their audiences. The creation of a fictional history such as theirs is perceived as commonplace in a fan culture that is basically “performative,” and sometimes, pathological. This echoes Vertovec’s suggestion that within contemporary youth culture “facets of culture and identity are often self-consciously selected, syncretized and elaborated from more than one heritage.” While The Great Hip Hop Hoax employs a variety of techniques and formats, its principal focus is on analyzing the processes by which audiences and participants construct, participate in...

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