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There is an absurdly vast selection of music movies and documentaries available on Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, and on and on and on. But it’s hard to tell which ones are actually worth your 100 minutes. Watch the Tunes will help you pick what music doc is worth your time every weekend. This week’s edition covers Hot Sugar's Cold World, which can be found on Netflix.
What do you expect when you hit play on a documentary? Do you expect perhaps an earnest attempt on the part of the filmmakers to present at least a reasonable facsimile of a factual representation of “reality,” whatever that may be? I think, mostly, that’s what I have in mind in those moments, and I’d say that the vast majority of films we’re looked at in this column stick pretty close to that goal. Even the one about the Insane Clown Posse. I poked a lot of holes in that lame Kurt & Courtney one, but even as wrongheaded a film that might have been I’d like to think that the folks who made it sincerely believe the nonsense conspiracies they were promoting. With Hot Sugar's Cold World, though, we find ourselves more than a little over the rainbow and in some sort of #FakeNews alternate universe where there are enough clearly fabricated moments to cast doubt on the whole thing.
Shot in 2013 and 2014 for Noisey, Vice’s music vertical, the film follows found-sound instrumental hip hop producer Hot Sugar (real name Nick Koenig) as he wanders New York and Paris collecting various literal BOOMs and BAPs to use as the building blocks of his music. He calls this self-styled genre “associative music” because, as he described to NPR in 2015: “...behind the melody and percussion, there's a sound that a listener may already have a connection to.” He’s good buds with Heems and Kool A.D. from Das Racist, both of whom show up in different scenes here to freestyle over some new beats.
To be honest, I had never heard of Hot Sugar before discovering him thanks to this documentary, but he’s a not insignificant name for whatever you want to call the genre of music that sounds like what five hours refreshing Tumblr feels like. If, like me, you have a vague memory of Kitty Pryde’s Haha, I'm Sorry EP, an unexpectedly viral hit from five years back, then you maybe kind of get the vibe of the scene I’m talking about.
Some unexpected stars show up and hang out with Hot Sugar in the movie. Jim Jarmusch stops by for a second to fuck with an MPC. Twitter comedian Shelby Fero accompanies Hot Sugar on a date(?) to “the room where the internet was born” (“Let me see your boobs, but type it with zeros,” he dictates to her as she enters the text into an ancient computer keyboard). And Martin Starr (Freaks & Geeks, Silicon Valley) makes an appearance in order to help Hot Sugar buy some illegal fireworks from some dude’s trunk. It was during the last scene that I started to call bullshit. The guy selling the fireworks, whose face is blurred, is in fact an actor named Pat Healy who it would seem was brought in to awkwardly riff with Starr and Hot Sugar. So, what does this mean for the rest of the movie? Was the dude who happens to stumble onto Hot Sugar in a cave, the dude who says he’ll let Hot Sugar record him screaming and then sings, is that dude a plant too? Is Hot Sugar’s all-over tattooed elderly neighbor, the one who also loves recording sounds, the one who Hot Sugar writes a eulogy for when he dies... is that guy real? Does any of it matter?
See, the thing is this: For all the possibly made-up crap that the filmmakers have tossed in, Hot Sugar’s a real musician and the stuff he’s making is actually damn good both conceptually and in reality. And the way he thinks about the noises he captures? It’s legitimately thought provoking. All the sounds in his songs are from things he actually experienced, which turns his music more or less into aural scraps ripped from moments he concretely remembers. At any given moment you might be hearing bones whacking on human skulls, dust being scraped off his grandparents grave, or a beanie baby slapping against a wall, but chopped up and flipped as it is in its final state you’d never pick up on any of that. This multi-faceted aspect of Hot Sugar’s music made me think of a scene in the 1996 movie Basquiat when Jean Michel paints Rene Ricard’s name into one of his works and then paints over that. As a finished product, it’s completely imperceptible to the audience, but it’s in there nonetheless, giving the piece an added dimension only appreciable by the artist.
So, yeah. You might need a few large grains of salt to get through Hot Sugar’s Cold World, but it’s worth the effort. I think it works best if you think of it like a low-energy Jackass style stunt movie, a proto vapor-wave Bad Grandpa perhaps. The plot might be professionally styled well-past any actual similarity to Hot Sugar’s day to day life as an artist, but in the end the music (and other parts) are real enough to prop the whole thing up.
Chris Lay is a freelance writer, archivist, and record store clerk living in Madison, WI. The very first CD he bought for himself was the Dumb & Dumber soundtrack when he was twelve and things only got better from there.