The beginnings were not so earth shattering or shaking. As we learn in the amazing documentary, Style Wars, the first foundations of hip-hop came from the streets of New York, a bubbling underground movement that was born out of 50s gang culture, 60s activism, 70s malaise and the ever-popular force of modern music. Taken in with the concept of tagging - the claiming of territorial rights via graffiti - a new voice was formed, one speaking directly to and for the lives of those living on the fringes of metropolitan life. By the 80s, the fractured forces were joining up, combining their talents to literally rewrite the facade of their city. The result was the embryo that spawned gansta, the sample heavy sounds of M.C. Hammer et. al., and the current bi-costal bravado of the entire hip-hop genre. Style Wars is a must see slice of urban urgency that underlines how far the revolution has come - and how far from the original ideals it has since shifted.
If you want to see what today's urban swagger looked like 25 years ago, before corporations corrupted it and big time artists started believing their TRL-produced hype, Style Wars is the place to start. This grand, gritty look at life along the outskirts of 'normal' society illustrates how music - specifically rap and hip-hop - combined with break dancing and graffiti to form the backdrop of a major social revolution. At the time, it all went under the same uniform title; rockin' (you "rocked" the subway, you "rocked" your body, etc). Unlike other documentaries that pretend to portray the beginnings of major movements, director Tony Silver and producing partner Henry Chalfant actually found themselves at the point where years of underground activity were finally finding their way above ground, touching the lives of thousands of inner city youth. And unlike the stereotypes, there were as many white writers as taggers of color.
This is not an exposť in the traditional sense of the word. Silver and Chalfant are not out to champion one side over another (though their sentiments seem fairly obvious when you weigh out the amount of screen time each side is given) or explain the stance you are to take regarding this subject. Instead, they present the parties, their positions and then let you decide. After nearly three decades of immersion in this culture, it's hard to see the controversy. Aside from complaints of occasional staleness, rap and hip-hop have managed to survive government attacks, FBI probes, censorship attempts, and the changing mood of the country, without nary a moment outside the limelight. Silver and Chalfant even hint at how this kind of mindset melting pot began. In several face-to-face interviews with their subjects, we hear the same words spoken over and over again. For these kids, bombing is an expression of who they are. It is part of their personality. Something so close, so unforced and natural is destined to live on after the manufactured manipulation of corporate crap ceases making sense.
Silver and Chalfant also prove the link between graffiti, breaking and rap by showing how all three came from a common place in the urban environment. In such a large setting as New York City, it is easy to feel small and insignificant. Even the biggest names in entertainment can get lost in the bustle and hustle of the teeming city streets. Now imagine being poor, a member of a minority class, and without a single prospect for improving your position. Violence is one way to make your name - or at the very least, to get noticed. But Style Wars argues that personal expression - artistic (graffiti), physical (dancing) or verbal (rap) - was equally impressive and important.
For many, the exchange of words was preferable to an exchange of gunfire, and the highly competitive world of breaking contests was far more fun and rewarding than old school rumbles for "gang" territory. The G-word is never uttered in Style Wars, and even though the bombers run around in semi-organized cliques, it doesn't seem to have a place. This was not about the organized assault on the social order. Hip-hop was about personal technique, something that's hard to show within the so-called thug life of today's bad boy mystique.
Still, we have our rebels, our discontent individuals who see bombing as their own personal weapon of choice. Cap is one such individual, a writer who takes the concept of bombing very much to heart. He believes that anything and everything is ripe for a touch of the spray can - including the intricate artwork of his fellow vandals. Cap doesn't know these people, doesn't pretend to believe in their "hands-off" peace pack ideology (most writers agree not to mess with each others work). Instead, he champions the element of the tag, the acknowledgment of one person over another by their technique and style. In many ways, Cap represents the Establishment view, twisted to take in the surrounding culture that it fights against. Indeed, he's just as anti-graffiti as Mayor Ed Koch (who seems to harbor some minor unspoken positive feelings about the quality of the artwork) or the various citizens interviewed. Many people hate the defacing of public property, and make their vocal opinions known. Others just see it as inconsiderate and wonder why these urchins appear above the law.
One of the great things about Style Wars is that we learn the names and faces of those behind the paint cans. We meet "Seen", a boisterous man with an exceptional gift for three dimensional shading, "Dondi" who visualizes his works in terms of size and total impact, and "Case", who manages a more avant-garde approach even though an accident cost him one of his arms. Indeed, Silver and Chalfant get us inside these boys' lives, finding opportunities to question them about the entire subculture. There is very much an "us vs. them" mentality amongst writers, and it is sometimes hard to see how rap and break dancing fits in. But thanks to the skill of the filmmaking, the juxtaposition between the musical elements of rockin'/hip-hop and graffiti is highlighted, and we soon learn that the differences are minor at best (dancers want to get paid, while taggers have no desire to go "professional"). In the end, we see the exact purpose behind the burgeoning revolution. It is all about recognition and acknowledgment. In a social climate where oppression and prejudice rule, this is a way to rise up and be heard...something that modern hip-hop has basically forgotten.
Then there is the art. Chalfant had been championing graffiti writers for years, collecting their works, befriending the kids and talking pictures of past triumphs. He truly sees the aesthetic behind the atrocity and Style Wars emphasizes this point perfectly. While it could have used a little more "how to" or "hands on" examples of the effort required to realize one of these pieces (obviously, the law wouldn't allow it), we can still see the dedication during the design phase. What many politicos failed to see was that, instead of spending time on the streets getting into trouble, most writers were sitting around comparing black books (sketchpads where they kept their works in progress) and trading secrets. Sure, some of the hints centered on how to successfully boost paint (some of the stories are hilarious), but most are teaching basic techniques to allow others to develop and expand the art form. There is a lot of wonderful material on display in Style Wars. Too bad that so much of it is now reserved for memory. In the end, Style Wars laments the loss of certain urban certainties. As tagging grew in popularity, individuals like Cap made it next to impossible for other writers to have their work appreciated. And without that rush - that need for being seen - many stopped tagging altogether. Others took their work "legit" and were viewed as sell outs in the process. Break dancing became the stuff of music video jokes, and competition gave way to corporate interference. Only rap remained steady, since it allowed for individual personality and perspective to transcend the trappings of the current scene to speak directly to the audience.
Looking back after nearly three decades, it's amazing to see how innocent it was, how idealistic and naive it all seemed. These kids actually thought that, via writing and tagging, they'd somehow change their world. They'd get the adults to see them for what they really were, and manage a level of appreciation that they never even got from each other. That it didn't work is not the point. That it still exists today - in an arguably far more subtle version - is testament to the movement's real power. Yes, there were Style Wars back in the day. But they weren't just battling over graffiti design. The war was over which way the cultural landscape would swing. Looking over the rap-filled face today, the winner is obvious.
Disc 2 is where this package excels. Doing the smart thing and revisiting the subjects of their film, Silver and Chalfant offer more than a dozen and a half updates on those who were part of the rockin' scene (all 32 artists seen in the film are represented in one way or another). Certainly, a few of the featured players have passed on, and others may not have been willing to talk. Yet it's fun to see Cap still up to his old tricks, or Seen waxing poetic on the past. There are also tributes to the fallen idols who did not make it to the new millennium. Add in a series of interviews with luminaries like Fab Five Freddy, Goldie and photographer Martha Cooper and an amazing 30 minute loop of over 200 whole car tags and burners and you've got what the DVD format does best. Not only does it provide a fine film, it gives you all the complimentary and supplementary material you need to understand the subject, the context and the participants involved.