Sunday, January 25, 2004

"I Said A Hip Hop, the Hippy, the Hippy to the Hip Hip Hop; Ya Don't Stop the Rock To the Bang Bang Boogie,
Say 'Up Jump the Boogie'
To the Rhythm of the Boogity Beat."

Crazy Legs and the Rock Steady Crew, early 1980's

"When I grab my dick, you know, give you the dick...
That's not for the Olympics, you know? That's not for Broadway."
-Ken Swift, speaking about the art inherent in breaking battles, from:

Style Wars
small screen - january 2004 - starred!

In the early 1980's, New York City gave birth to hip hop.
Style Wars let the world know.

SW was originally conceived as a PBS style documentary of NYC's graffiti problem and the indigent youth behind it. Twenty years of foresight later, it's a love letter, a document of the roots of rap, multiculti, scratch culture, hip hop dance and graffiti as high art. The film divides itself neatly between interviews (mostly with the spray artists, but with the occasional nod to the fuzz and Ed Koch) and documentary footage of 80's NYC and MTA.

Rumbling, ugly trains roll from one station of urban blight to another carrying the supernova bursts of Red Devil tags. Broken down project playgrounds provide the backdrop for acrobatic, gravity-defying dancing. Sirens and screams get faded by fresh old school cuts; a trio of young writers on the platform freestyle Melle Mel as an A Train with their names wobbles drunkenly toward them. As Tony Silver, the film's director, puts it: this is opera. And it is. It's cool like cool hasn't been since.

Although there is some abstract social drama and didacticism laid down, it's VERY clear where the film's sympathies lie; you're less interested in the social ramifications of why these kids throw up graf and more interested in their own interpersonal beefs, specifically the simplistic Cap throw-ups that mar the more artistic and time-consuming burners. "Cap One" is the film's real bad guy, more so than the other kids or the cops. Cap is Vishnu the Destroyer: all acquisition and entropy.

Then there's the early breakers, as undeveloped and trailblazing as dancers as the skaters in Dogtown and Z Boys; every move is a new revolution, every style done for the first time. F'r Chrissakes, one kid talks about the new thing in from Cali: pop-locking. This is that old-time religion blazing; nineteen year old members of the Rock Steady Crew battlin' in the Boogie Down Bronx.

Rap provides the background, the constant. One young writer tries his hand at spinning over a breakin' battle; years later, that kid became th' Drama King DJ Kay Slay of Eminem v. Benzino and 50 v. Jah fame.

The film itself is only a little more than an hour, but the DVD extras (clocking in at over three and a half hours) are much more than frosting on this cake. Extras include interviews with the filmmakers, a ton of worthwhile outtakes and an entire disc of photography of graph art, where-are-they-now interviews (highlights include talks with Kay Slay, Rammellzee, Zephyr and the memorial tribute to Dondi White [although it neglects to mention that he died of AIDS, that other product of the '80's]) and brief talks with some seminal figures in the field. It's hard to imagine a better or more considered presentation.

These days, I got a nostalgia Jones for New York; I'm dancin' on DDR and listenin' to hip hop every day. I'm a wannabe blazer who was in the wrong place when the scene hit. If you are too, this is a window into a New York that no longer exists, into hip hop culture before Sprite heard of it, into graffiti before th' stencils. If you _were_ there, this should be an excellent rearview mirror to Brick City back in th' day.

Hella nice and finally back in print, Style Wars is a serious no brainer.
Go get it.


NPR - seen - New York Graf - Old School Hip Hop.Com - Dancer's Delight -
B-Boys Hip Hop Links - Mr. Wiggles