“This whole culture that has taken over the world was the creation of kids who were living in their own world.” – Tony Silver, Director of Style Wars
One word: impact. The movie Style Wars originally debuted on PBS in 1983. Directed by Tony Silver and co-produced by famed graffiti photographer, Henry Chalfant, Style Wars played a critical role in distributing hip hop culture – especially graffiti – around the world. It was a manual of sorts, exposing people to the lexicon, the techniques, the styles and the rules of an embryonic culture being created largely by teenagers.
In this four-part series, we talk to Tony Silver and Henry Chalfant about the practicalities and drama of getting the movie together, and hear their take on some of the larger-than-life characters they featured.
But, first, meet the men whose hunger brought this piece of history together. This is Tony (left) and Henry (right) a few years ago. Tony passed away in 2008 but, together, their legacy is incredibly important and, although not without its controversies, the impact of what they created is undeniable.
And, now, the interview.
How did you actually fund the Style Wars endeavour?
Tony: Well, in the beginning, it was self-funded. Henry found some minimal funding and I found a crew that would work for free or on a deferred basis – friends of mine who I had worked with before. So, we just started to shoot and then Channel 4 in the UK gave us some money in return for a licence and that was the first funding. From there it became ever-more difficult to raise major funding from what were then the usual sources in the US – essentially public television and public television-related entities, government supported, and large foundations. The universal reaction was, “Well, this may be very interesting but it is too scary for us. It’s glorifying criminal activity and we can’t touch it.” It took quite a while. One of the things was that the Washington DC subway had just been built and was regarded as this architectural masterpiece. And one of the major funders down there said to me, “I can’t be responsible for the destruction of the Washington subway.” Eventually that entity did come around and gave us about US$150,000.
Did it have a full theatrical release or did it go straight to television?
Tony: No, it went straight to public television in a one-hour version actually. We really sought a theatrical release and came close at one point. We had one showing in a theatre in Times Square where Wildstyle (website | Wikipedia | watch full-length online) had been playing for some time and we kind of hooked onto that and spread a few flyers around in the boroughs and spread the word locally. It was about a six–hundred seat theatre. I was in the booth myself running a rented 16mm projector and I could tell all the seats were filled through the little porthole and I could hear a lot of racket but I didn’t know what was going on. It was an amazing event. As Fab 5 Freddy (website | Wikipedia) said to me recently, they were tagging up in the urinals. Every seat was filled. It was the first time I had seen it with an audience, or known about an audience seeing it, and I was very frightened about how they would respond – about how people who were close to the subject (and many of them were in the film), whether they would feel it was a true representation of their lives. Fortunately they did. But the theatre manager who was very excited about the turn-out decided that there was no way to go forward [due to the urinals getting tagged up] and the word kind of spread.
To what extent were both of you aware of the other [hip hop] film projects being made at the time?
Tony: Well there were two. One was Wildstyle which had started just before we did. We were very aware of that because we knew Charlie [Ahearn] and the other was Beat Street (website | Wikipedia | watch full-length online) which started when we cut the film. That was another story because I still feel somewhat ripped off by that project in certain ways.
In what ways?
Tony: Well, I think that they were really trying to package in a canned version, a quickie version of a new cultural phenomenon. I think they were looking at what we were doing and what other people were doing like Charlie, and saying, “Well, Charlie’s picking a little of this and a little of that…” I honestly would have liked it to have been a good film because I felt that there was room for everybody, room for a lot of ways of seeing what was going on, and understanding it and feeling it but I was very disappointed. I don’t feel that way about Wildstyle which, for all of its problems, I think is really wonderful. Every time I see it I still think so.
Henry, you had been taking photos for three years before actually meeting the writers. When you met them initially was there a bit of stand-off-ish-ness?
Henry: Well, at the beginning, yeah, some people but not everybody. My first encounter at the [Writers’] Bench, they were pretty open to me. I showed them pictures and that was my ticket. There were others who were more stand-off-ish. I heard later – I didn’t think it at the time – that people thought I was a cop because I was a middle-aged white man. What was I doing taking pictures and writing about their subculture?
And in terms of then introducing a whole film crew, how did you explain it to the writers?
Tony: Certainly, there was some ambivalence, some fear of exposure and so on.
Henry: Rightly so because very shortly before we were doing this they had gone out with a film crew and gotten arrested. I think the film crew had given up all their sources and they’d gotten arrested – not for any great length of time but that put the fear into them.
Were there any times or situations that you felt uncomfortable in during the shooting?
Henry: Yeah. Before we started shooting, the original event that Tony saw was something I organised with the Rock Steady Crew (website | Wikipedia | watch online video). And it was a battle that they were going to demonstrate by dividing up into two and showing what real breaking was like for an audience. This thing was publicised in the Village Voice and we were going to have this performance called Graffiti Rock. I had these slides I was showing and I got Rammellzee (website | Wikipedia | watch online video) and Fred to MC it.
I heard several days before this that there was a little friction with a rival crew called the Ball Busters who weren’t a breaking crew – they were an out and out gang, a Dominican gang and they were pretty scary. But I didn’t know at that time how scary they were. I just heard talk about it. In fact at the dress rehearsal they came and basically they stopped what we were doing. They came and they planted themselves inside and they wouldn’t leave. Eventually, somebody they knew and they wanted to get showed up, and all hell broke lose. There was a fight and everybody ran down taking it fortunately away from the venue where we were having this event and at the end of it the guy who had invited me to do this performance thing said, “Well, I don’t have insurance to cover gunshot wounds and that sort of thing so I don’t think we can continue. You’re going to have to cancel it.” There was that but that was before we were shooting.
On the day we did shoot the Dynamic Rockers and Rock Steady – on the Dynamic Rockers’ turf in Queens – we had the battle that we shot and I think Rock Steady won. But in a place like that if the rival crew has the crowd because that’s where they live maybe they have a greater response. In any case, they gave them a tie, which under the circumstances was probably fine. But I remember leaving in the van I had with Rock Steady and they were very nervous.
Tony: About being ambushed.
Henry: Yeah, because once we were out of the club, out of the roller rink they were worried about ambush.
It still astonishes me at the young age of the writers. A lot of them look in their early to mid-teens [Doze pictured left]. Were you overwhelmed by that at the time?
Tony: I’m more overwhelmed now by the fact that when you look back on hip hop culture and in particular graffiti, you realise that it was invented by practically children. This whole culture that has taken over the world was the creation of kids who were living in their own world and doing what they did. That’s what started it. To me that’s the real essence of it.
Henry: It’s interesting that it’s entirely a street world. They had street names. They had these identities as artists that were known to other adolescents all around the city. At first I didn’t look upon them as children with parents or children at school. There was this scene of people running throughout the city, all more or less the same age, who were relating to each other in this world and that’s how you knew them. It was kind of surprising and interesting when we were doing the film to go to Skeme’s house and interview his mother. It put the thing in a whole ‘other context.
Tony: I remember asking Henry, “Do any of these kids have mothers?” [laughing] “And can we film one of them or something?” But I agree. I had the same perception, which was that they were not in rebellion like other teenagers against their parents. They were simply doing what they did and if it was a rebellion it was a rebellion against the entire adult world. “We are who we are.” Their sense of their own identity was so strong, so engaged, so complete – both individually and collectively… that’s different. That’s really different from other teenage phenomena that I can think of. I think that has marked in very good ways the history of hip hop ever since.
Skeme and his mother seemed to be at a stalemate in the movie. Did anything else happen after that?
Henry: Between them? The only thing I remember was when the interview was over and we were packing up stuff, Barbara confided in me that when she was sixteen years old, she loved dancing and obviously was not allowed to go out at night and go dancing, so she used to sneak out of her bedroom window, climb down the fire escape and go anyway.
So, there was this wonderful understanding the two would share with me of her understanding of her son and why he would do this.
Tony: Actually, in the interview that we did with her in 2000, in the outtakes, she talks about that as well. I wanted to include that in the cut. There’s more material where that came from.
Read the rest of this 4-part interview
Part 1 of the Style Wars interview: Wild Style, Rock Steady Crew, Skeme
Part 2 of the Style Wars interview: Iz the Wiz, Min, CAP
Part 3 of the Style Wars interview: DONDI, the police, passion
Part 4 of the Style Wars interview: Martha Cooper, Case, Kay Slay
- Photos courtesy Henry Chalfant
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