Tragedy of the streets
MONTREAL’S BOOKER SIM turns his lens to one of rap’s most talented and troubled protagonists, for whom every triumph has a trap
With the cartoonish extremes reached by modern gangsta rap, it has become increasingly easy to dismiss today’s hip-hop as crass, commercial fantasy fare.
In his eye-opening documentary Tragedy: The Story of Queensbridge, Montrealer Booker Sim picks apart the tangled webs of truth and fiction to tell the story of one of rap’s most talented, troubled protagonists, and one of New York City’s most prolific hip-hop hot spots.
For more than two decades, the sprawling Queensbridge housing projects have been home to legends of the genre, from Marley Marl and the Juice Crew to Nas, Mobb Deep, Capone-N-Noreaga and, the subject of Sim’s survey, an artist by the name of Tragedy.
The film begins with an ending. Just a few weeks into the shoot, Tragedy is arrested and put behind bars. The rest of his story is told through interviews with the rapper from jail, and with a who’s who of people who knew him along his turbulent path.
Tragedy’s father died before he was born, and his mother became addicted to heroin while he was still a child, leading him to the proverbial thug life. In his teens, in the mid-’80s, he teamed up with super-producer Marley Marl for the hit Live Motivator. Soon after, he was incarcerated for robbery.
Upon release from prison, Tragedy returned, enlightened and impassioned, as the Intelligent Hoodlum on his 1990 debut album. He would later be a mentor for Mobb Deep, provide the uncredited blueprint for rap legend Nas’s rhyme style and mastermind the rise of Capone-NNoreaga.
But nothing is simple for Tragedy. Every triumph has a trap; when one thing goes right, another goes wrong; friendships and allegiances form and break. Sim follows the twisting storyline, painting a picture of the artist’s formidable talent, his weaknesses, and his tumultuous relationship with Lady Luck.
And so while The Story of Queensbridge is the tale of one man’s battle with his demons, it is also the story of an entire conflicted music movement. For Sim, it was a fascinating, disconcerting journey into another world, into which he inadvertently got pulled:
“Tragedy told me, when it was all happening, ‘You can’t expect to be a part of this world and be at a distance; if you want to experience truth, you can’t expect the truth not to affect you.’ ”
Tragedy has been in and out of jail the past few years. He and Sim are no longer in touch. “The guy is a certified genius,” Sim said. “But like all geniuses, he’s a very complicated guy.”
The film has screened at Slamdance and in New York, and has earned Sim respect in hip-hop circles. “I connected with 50 Cent through it, and apparently Eminem has seen the movie and liked it.” He is proud of his achievement, but happy to be looking back on it from his own home turf, here in Montreal.
“It was a very difficult movie to make,” he said. “It’s amazing it came out. ... I’m glad it’s over and I’m out of the street scene, with people getting arrested and shot all the time. It was exhausting. One of my best friends during the shoot was sentenced to 11 years, not long ago.
“I was with street guys all the time, surrounded by crime and drugs ... getting drawn into beefs and having to choose sides. I was thinking about getting a gun at one point, for personal safety.”
Sim’s current project is a docudrama about “ghetto gangsters all over the world.” He is also working on an “equitable urban branding” project that would see street fashion and products designed and produced by people from the ’hood.