Director Allen Hughes On Hip-Hop, 2Pac & Doing Right By Former “Pump It Up” Host Dee Barnes

From the hyper-gangsterism of Menace II Society to the post-Apocalyptic world of The Book of Eli and beyond, Allen Hughes’ directorial credits are as lengthy as they are diverse.

Let’s talk about director Allen Hughes, shall we? From the hyper-gangsterism of Menace II Society to the post-Apocalyptic world of The Book of Eli and beyond, Allen and Albert Hughes’ directorial credits are as lengthy as they are diverse. The directing dynamic duo have each set out upon their own creative paths.

They’ve had their “hood film” phase and a “blockbuster” season together and now, Allen Hughes is settling into what can only be called his documentarian era of his illustrious career. He’s been entrusted with cultural mana from Black Heaven with such works as The Defiant Ones and Dear Mama. Allen Hughes jumped on Zoom to discuss the effect his career has had on the world at-large but Hip-Hop in particular.

If we didn’t know any better, it would seem Hughes got his start shooting music videos rather than with one of the most recognizable and quotable hood films of all-time with Menace II Society. With Emmy-nominated The Defiant Ones, Allen Hughes told the unlikely story of the business relationship and friendship between Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine.

Last year, Hughes directed and produced the docu-series Dear Mama, which told the story of Afeni Shakur, mother to slain rapper Tupac Shakur. More recently, the writer/director has been making the rounds to discuss those groundbreaking shows and his upcoming Snoop Dogg biopic as well. It seems to me your name is synonymous with Hip-Hop. But your filmmaking acumen is very diverse for those who want to look into it. How do you feel, as someone who has been enamored by film all your life, to be correlated to another creative genre, even though it seems like you’ve participated in it quite extensively?

Allen Hughes: It wasn’t until fairly recently, with Defiant Ones and Dear Mama, where I was like, ‘Oh, wow, look I come born out of this Hip-Hop thing and if it wasn’t for Hip-Hop, my brother and I probably wouldn’t have gotten Menace II Society off the ground. Hip-Hop is why it got sold, because those films were doing well at the time, they were called hood films back then. Right? Back then 30 years ago. But all that stuff surrounding those films in the early ’90s had to do with the soundtracks, the music in it, the actors that were usually Hip-Hop world and were non-actors at the time. I just feel blessed. I don’t think I would have had a career without Hip-Hop. Or if I did, it would have taken a lot longer. With the celebration of the 50th anniversary of Hip-Hop, people complain everybody is trying to jump on the bandwagon and release a product to take advantage of the culture while virtually living off the corpses of its greats like Biggie and 2Pac. Regarding Dear Mama, was there some initial trepidation regarding, you know, the certain criticisms that were certain to come considering the history that you had had with 2Pac?

Allen Hughes: Oh, of course, they were hesitant. I was hesitant, anxious about it In fact. I didn’t want to do it because of certain perceptions about 2Pac in my history. But when I thought about it, you know, I thought about the intense years long friendship we had, there was three minutes of real bad negative, you know, physicality in a bad situation. Me, being the 48-year-old when I started Dear Mama, I was 51 when I finished. I’m like, ‘How do you, whether you’re a family member, a friend, a colleague, a journalist in the Hip-Hop culture or outside the Hip-Hop culture, how do you let three minutes of violence define a 20-year friendship or a 20-year relationship with your brother or sister, your parents or in the case of 2Pac? I just didn’t want our dynamic to be defined, or my judgment clouded, by that. Because I was searching for answers. To me, 2Paac is quite an enigma in a lot of ways because he inhabits so many things, and is rife with so many contradictions. So I was looking for answers. Now, I read an article where you had mentioned that 2Pac seemed to have just given in to the gangster side and even before that were are a myriad of others who said this gangster imagery was not 2Pac, and that somehow he just became enamored with this lifestyle, perhaps with the people in his ear, perhaps with the resources that he had gained from his initial fame. What do you think about the idea that an individual can be changed profoundly for the negative or positive by a creative IP by creative intellectual property, such as a music or film, because that says, a lot, especially for him?

Allen Hughes: Well, my central thesis was all about that. Dear Mama starts with the fact that he’s an artist. He’s a pure artist. Whether you’re a painter or a writer, you go through your stages. And there could be, you know, a dark abstract stage, it could be a very colorful, bright stage, it could be, you know, a very thoughtful reflective stage, it could be a violent stage. And I unfortunately for Tupac, he got cut down and in one of the darker stages he was moving through.

But I learned, in talking to family and friends and people very close to him, he was definitely moving through it, it was not a destination for him. That’s one of the answers to the questions I had like, because I could not make sense of that, the last 11 months of his life, and connect it to the first 24 years of his life, and how meaningful and purposeful it was. All that knowledge and purpose he gained from his mother, and his Panther brothers and sisters, and uncles, you know, I could not make sense of it. But then I get back to the point that he’s an artist. He’s not inhabiting whatever stages or progressions that he’s going through as a young man.

And unfortunately, like I said, he got cut down when he was in one of his darkest stages. But I’ve read all his plans, most of his plans, I’ve read all his his notes, to his family to himself, like his dreams and ambitions. And Death Row was absolutely like, a place he was moving through. About Death Row, the gravitas of this very idea, this corporate/gangster entity, it could not hold itself together because you have two conflicting ideas, corporate conformity juxtaposed with this idea of being street and being hood. Its demise can be similarly traced.

Allen Hughes: No doubt. No doubt, you know, for better or worse, the one thing you can accuse Tupac of is whatever he did, he did it to the fullest. And, and he was 1,000 percent committed to whatever mode he was in. And, and I saw that firsthand with him. That was part of the beauty of, and part of the thoroughness of Tupac. It was that whether he was he was in love or if it was war, he was full ass with it. There was no half speed or three quarters speed with 2Pac.

And that’s what we talk about him to this day. Because you could feel that on the record. You could feel that it was a great hit song. Everyone knows. Same thing with a performance in the movies. If that performer doesn’t believe that? It doesn’t work because the audience will know. Yeah, you could feel the reason why certain songs were hits and certain performances in film are classic. It’s because it’s real. They believe this s###. And that’s the gift [2Pac] left with the world. You know, good, bad and ugly. Now, with The Defiant Ones, it came from a different angle as far as documenting the creativity of one of the greats, as far as production is concerned, at least. If you want to criticize his lyrics fine. But from a production standpoint, there’s nothing that can be stated about Dre. However, there were criticisms that there were portions that should have been dealt with a little bit deeper, one of which was the the violent circumstance that he had with Dee Barnes. A lot of people were surprised that she was even mentioned at all, but some wanted more.

Allen Hughes: I personally take pride in my dynamic with her and making sure that Dee’s voice was heard—not only for that incident that happened, that was unfortunate—but her voice in the culture before that happened as a Hip-Hop journalist, and a host of Pump It Up.