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Hip-hop to the rescue

How a music program offers hope to troubled kids

Inspiration is the order of the day for "The Hip Hop Project."

Fortunately, this funky, straight-up documentary refrains from getting all preachy about it.

The movie's title is also the name of a New York outreach program that connects troubled young people with record-industry professionals. It also encourages the kids to channel their musical aspirations toward self-expression, rather than the more vulgar rap preoccupations of belligerence, bragging, misogyny and materialism. (Well, maybe the bragging is allowed to slide a little.) There's also the amusing matter of keeping these aspiring Jay-Zs on the beat, a task not as easy as it may sound.

The project is the brainchild of Chris "Kazi" Rolle, a young man whose own distressing childhood accounts for about half of the film's narrative. Abandoned by his mother in the Bahamas as an infant, he grew up in foster homes and orphanages before coming to Brooklyn, N.Y., to seek her out when he was 14. That reunion did not go well, and Kazi wound up on the streets.

The movie is a bit vague on his youthful criminal activities, but Kazi was eventually saved by an arts program similar to the one he eventually founded.

When not focusing on the upbeat, charismatic Kazi, the film follows two HHP members as they learn to spin their lives' trials into music.

Christopher "Cannon" Mapp struggles to prevent his siblings and their grandmother from eviction (granny moved in to take care of the kids after their mother, whose name was on the lease, died). Some of Diana "Princess" Lemon's relatives have problems with the law, and she's coping with guilt from having had an abortion.

All of which makes for some pretty good songs, if not as much movie drama as one might think. Director Matt Ruskin, who worked on "The Hip Hop Project" for five years, employs lots of different camera speeds and editing tricks to give otherwise static talking and song-building sequences a little extra-needed oomph. He also saves the one truly devastating sequence, the adult Kazi's visit to his surprisingly rational mom, for the climax.

There are, of course, many more stories related to the program, and the filmmakers promise that they'll fill out the DVD. Net profits from the theatrical release of "The Hip Hop Project" will be donated to youth organizations, so you can feel doubly good about attending this modestly moving tribute to a small but significant kind of inner-city success. *

Documentary produced by Scott K. Rosenberg, directed by Matt Ruskin, distributed by THINKFilm.