“It’s interesting that graffiti wasn’t accepted among a lot of hip hop historians and analysts and what have you for a very long time as one of the core forms – for quite a long time.” – Tony Silver, Director of Style Wars
In part two of this interview with Henry Chalfant and Tony Silver, the two men behind classic hip hop movie, Style Wars, we find out about their early perspectives on the emerging graffiti and hip hop cultures of the 1970s and ’80s as well as their controversial inclusion in the film of CAP – a writer renowned for… well, CAP-ping people’s pieces by writing his name on them.
How political was the process of deciding which crews would get in and which wouldn’t?
Henry: There was some of that. One big problem was when one crew we had started working with started to break up right in the middle of it. I had to try to keep it together so we could have another shoot and complete it. So this took place with SACH, IZ the WIZ, MIN and QUIK. MIN [pictured right] and IZ the WIZ had beef. MIN was saying he wasn’t going to continue. And I was trying to set up the shoot we were going to do at Grand Avenue, sort of a completion of this process that we had started, and he was very resistant to continuing. I finally persuaded him to do so but in revenge what MIN did was go down in the tunnel we were going to shoot in which was basically IZ the WIZ’s lair and MIN went in and went over IZ’s pieces and wrote insulting comments all over the place so that when IZ went down there he exploded in a rage. People exploded out of the tunnel and out of the hatch fighting.
Tony: Part of IZ’s partly scarred look, underground, comes from that fracas in fact.
So, did the initial inspiration for the film come from Henry’s three years of taking photos?
Tony: To a great extent it did. The initial inspiration did. You have to understand that New York was a completely graffiti-covered environment by 1981 and had been for some time and I was a native New Yorker. I had grown up in New York. I was amazed at the beginning by graffiti. Astounded by it. It was everywhere. It was the air you breathed. And I almost didn’t see it any more. Henry was an outsider to New York. He had come to New York in the early 70’s and was fascinated to come to a city where this amazing phenomenon was occurring and that it was the product of kids who had taken over all public space in the city, especially the subways. I read about it in that very Village Voice piece about breaking, which I had never heard of before and very few people had outside of the neighbourhoods, and was fascinated by it.
What Henry really pulled me into was the idea that these were all related cultural things that were happening, coming up from the streets and that there was a relationship that was really interesting to try to track and understand – between MC-ing, and all the other forms of hip hop, and graffiti. It’s interesting that graffiti wasn’t accepted among a lot of hip hop historians and analysts and what have you for a very long time as one of the core forms – for quite a long time. People would say, “I don’t get what it has to do with it.” Well, it’s a hard thing to explain and understand but I don’t think there’s any doubt about it even though one of the arguments against that acceptance was: among the New York graffiti artists a lot of them weren’t into hip hop; a lot of them were white, a lot of them were upper middle class Jewish and Italian kids or whatever and that it was inter-ethnic and inter-racial. And that is true but it only complicates the cultural mix and the relationship of hip hop in general to the rest of the world, it seems to me, in a most interesting and wonderful way.
Henry: In a way, graffiti at that time was much more inter-racial and inter-cultural than any of the other forms which were mostly African American and also Latino and Puerto Rican. But graffiti was a whole cross-section of New York’s immigrant cultures and long-time residents. It was amazing. It crossed classes.
Tony: And it did that partly because it was broadcast everywhere so other kids would see it and say, “That looks like a lot of fun to do. I gotta do it.” So after a very short beginning it wasn’t a neighbourhood thing any more. It was truly an all city phenomenon.
In the DVD bonus footage, I think it’s DURO who says something along the lines of what the film captured being “just right”. Is the movie something you look back on and think, ‘It is just right’.
Tony: Well, I think for me to say it was “just right” is presumptuous. But that it is as right as it is is a wonder to me. I feel very grateful really to Henry to start with and to everybody in the film for letting me film them, and letting me have my way with the footage. That it turned out as well as it did and the respect that the film has now is amazing to me now and is most humbling.
Henry: I’m very pleased… because there was that controversy about filling it with CAP…
Tony: And with Koch [then-New York Mayor] and with Ravitch [head of the MTA].
Henry: But I’m happy that the writers who were in it –that was the main concern as they were friends of mine – that they understand that’s what makes it really authentic and powerful. Even though they object to, as I knew they would, putting CAP in, for instance, they understand that that made it real.
Tony: Well, it was real. That’s what was going on. It was a real war, in fact. It was not a fake war. It was a real war in many ways and many dimensions and to capture as many of those dimensions in a coherent way as I could was something that increasingly I really wanted to do. The more I looked at the footage that was emerging the more I really felt that I didn’t want it to be one vocal collective voice. I wanted it to be many voices and perspectives. CAP was very important to me. Even the sort of generic quality of some of the persons on the street and station platform, the interviews, I felt that they were really needed to add perspective and texture to the whole thing. One of the things I’m most pleased with even though a lot of it was cut out of the one-hour version was the debate between the writers talking about their approach to talking to transit and Richard Ravitch talking about it from the other point of view. As Henry says, for them to see themselves in a real adult world controversy gave it another level of reality for them.
One of the things I was most fearful of and most interested in trying to do was use other music besides hip hop related music in the film that would intensify the sense of drama – also slightly in a satirical way depending on how you responded to it. One of the things I was most concerned about was using the Wagner which I really wanted to use… I loved the way John Boorman had used it in Excalibur, which I thought was tremendously intense, and imaginative and wonderful, and it seemed to me that it might just work and when Sam Pollard who was the editor showed that sequence… we had just thrown it together in the cutting room on film… some of these kids he was mentoring from the projects, from the neighbourhoods… he asked them what they thought and one kid said, “That’s the music from Excalibur.” In other words he recognised it as authentic action adventure music. And I think kids who were in the film and other people in the culture recognised that this was an authentic action adventure and that it was a real-life one and these kids were living it. They had created it. They were the protagonists.
Onto the reference to CAP, Henry, where you say you paid a “little price” for it, and you still do…
Henry: That was one of the things that I knew would be controversial, that I knew I’d be criticised for and I was [criticised] by a lot of the people whose actual artwork was destroyed by him. It’s not a very big price because people are very kind and they generally like me and respect me but I do hear it when I talk to them: “When you did that that was fucked up. That was like a betrayal,” they say.
How much convincing did you have to do, Tony?
Tony: About CAP? I mean, we talked about it. I really understood what Henry was saying but ultimately he understood the possibilities of it and that if it worked on film it would complete the circle of the real-life story that was going on. I think we were both, in different ways, completely devoted to the idea of reflecting this extraordinary reality that was going on. And it would appear that the culture itself, in some sense, was starting to collapse to a degree partly because of its internal stresses and that the old rules no longer applied. That CAP was breaking them to a degree that no one had done before. The impact itself had to be understood, it has to be documented whatever the outcome. And then we’d see what we had. We actually shot that sequence and the sequence with SKEME and his mother on the same day. As a documentary- or film-maker you can go many shoot days without feeling that you’re getting good stuff but that was not the case here.
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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