Style Wars

Style Wars In 1982, New York hip-hoppers were living in danger. They weren’t shooting up each others’ cars, instead graffiti writers, many of whom, kids, were running from police in pursuit of expression. Style Wars captures that essence. The documentary film explores that defiant rebellion that makes hip-hop. Style Wars is not a hip hop […]

Style Wars

In 1982, New York hip-hoppers were living in danger. They weren’t shooting up each others’ cars, instead graffiti writers, many of whom, kids, were running from police in pursuit of expression. Style Wars captures that essence. The documentary film explores that defiant rebellion that makes hip-hop.

Style Wars is not a hip hop film, it is the definitive hip hop film. Along with Wild Style, this film introduced hip hop to many viewers. If you think the film strictly pertains to graffiti, the features on DVD will include Guru telling you why it made him flock to New York.

If that weren’t enough, the film is scored to hip-hop classics, as well as remastered with special features including Def Jux music, and updated interviews with Red Alert, Fab 5 Freddie, and even Kay Slay (prominently featured in the original too).

In celebration of the DVD release, and a twentieth anniversary, All Hip Hop caught up with producer and director, Tony Silver and fellow producer, Henry Chalfant. These two pioneers told the hip-hop story when nobody cared. To anybody who ever discovered hip-hop outside of New York, the film and the interview deserves a look. Now, a lot of people in hip-hop use the term producer a lot. A film producer is different, and I’m sure under Style War’s circumstances, your job title was even more diversified. Can you tell us what was your role in the conception of the film?

Tony Silver: I’m the director, and I’m the producer with Henry Chalfant. The way we worked together was really great, really sort of perfect because we each had a separate and yet overlapping function. Henry had been documenting the culture for a long time in photography, and had made some friends among graffiti writers, and what you. [This was] at a time when no one was paying attention to this except to the graffiti that was really everywhere. I was a filmmaker and he was not. He had the access to the people, I had the interest in getting to them, and making a documentary that would dramatize a lot of things: the drama of the real life theater that was going in New York at that time about graffiti and what to do about it. It had been going on for ten years, and who these people were who had taken over the subway completely. But also, it was about the idea that in the neighborhoods, new art forms were being invented by fifteen year old kids. They were doing it on their own. It didn’t have anything to do with going to school, it just had to do with who they were and where they came from.

Henry Chalfant: I was the person in contact with all the graffiti writers in New York, through them, I had gotten into contact with the Rocksteady Crew and other b-boys.

Tony Silver: And New York was a bad, burnt down place at that time in a lot of ways. It was a very hopeful and exciting time. So, for me, I wanted to make a movie. A real life movie was going on in the world, and I wanted to capture that. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to use various kinds of music in the film. You introduced yourself to the writers by way of the writers’ bench. If I may ask, who stepped up and first welcomed you in?

Henry Chalfant: I met one kid on a platform, his name was Nac. And he told me that his cousin was Daze. He told me where the bench was, and when to go there, which was after school. I went there, and I met Kel, Mare139, Duro, Cey, Crash, Daze and Kos. They came to my studio right after I met them and saw my collection. There wasn’t any single person to embrace me like that, it was several. But I would say they were all from the CIA Crew. They were the core of the first people I knew and continued to know. And Style Wars introduced Grandmaster Flash to people, but it also took other music out of context to dramatize the film.

Tony Silver: This film was first broadcast on PBS. Under the copyright law, there is a limited free use of most copyright material when it comes to music and most kinds of images on public television. So at that time, it was not a problem. It became a problem later when we wanted to distribute it in VHS. We made agreements with the various liscensors of the various pieces of music to do that.

Allhiphop: Your interviews are special, because you went back and found these writers twenty years later for better or for worse.

Tony Silver: It was a very cooperative effort. When Plexi Film got involved, they [wanted to do] six or eight update interviews. So we agreed. I suggested to Henry that he help Joey, because [Henry knew these writers.] So Joey brought an incredible freshness to it. Henry brought knowledge of who they were and how to find them. We were a little out of control to tell you the truth.

The first interview ever shot was with Skeem and his mother. Henry and I did that. [The film was shown at the] Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. They suggested that we bring to Cleveland some member of the cast, so to speak. I said hey, how about Skeem and his mom? That would be the most amazing thing for the kind of varied audience that you’re going to get. We hung with them for a couple of days there, and it was amazing to be with the two of them again. They’re wonderful You mentioned PBS in 1983, as almost a documentary art film. In many ways, Style Wars seems to justify hip-hop to an outsider. However, it’s become the visual bible to what hip-hop is truly about to us, how does it feel to have created such a dynamic work?

Tony Silver: It was January of ’84. I gotta tell ya, with every day, it becomes a more extraordinary experience to me, to see the impact of this film. I am awed and humbled. I obviously had no idea when I was directing this film. All through the years, we knew there was an incredibly dedicated audience. People were bootlegging the one hour version of the film years before we could get it out on VHS. We could not get any distributor to step up to this, ever! The fact now that it means so much to so many people is an awesome and profoundly humbling experience to me. I think your film captured a fleeting moment that’s gone and we can’t get back. I live next to a train yard, and everyday I look out and miss that energy from your film. It’s gone.

Tony Silver: I’ll tell you something, I don’t think it’s gone. It’s gone under and reappeared. I think we’re at a moment now where there’s some evidence of it reappearing. It’s happening with mix tapes, they’ve been gone for a while. Bringing it back to the seventies when Bambaataa and Flash people were making tapes and giving them to gypsy cab drivers to sell driving through the boroughs. In a way, that’s back.

Look at Skeem and his mother arguing. That’s the whole style war. The argument between youth and elders. And that’s what’s happening now with the mixtapes in the industry. That’s why hip hop is still alive. It’s still rising up from the streets. You started on the outside, and became part of the “inner circle” of hip hop. When did you realize this?

Henry Chalfant: In 1980, I had a show. I had my graffiti pictures on the wall of OK Harris, the SoHo gallery. Word got out. All the writers from all over the city came. I think I understood then how big this world was, and how complex. I felt very welcomed then, because people wanted to see the work. I think at that point, I knew. When you saw this art and you were prompted to photograph it, it struck a chord in you. Can you that feeling to words?

Henry Chalfant: I think what it was that struck me was that it was something totally new. Graffiti wasn’t new, but the style that people were beginning to paint in was a new style. From one day to the next, you’d see something more outrageous. Also, the last thing that struck me was that it was rebellious, and illegal, and getting away with. They were taunting the authorities with it, and I loved that. In the interviews, you mentioned the struggle to raise money for this film. How did you actually go about doing that? Was any specific writer or character in the film particularly endearing or a sort of keystone to getting the project done?

Tony Silver: [Henry was an outsider to New York and the culture.] But after years of taking these photographs, he became an insider. He was sought after by the writers because he had the pictures, and they realized he wasn’t a cop. I came into it as an insider as a New Yorker, but not an insider in terms of understanding and knowing these people. This whole inside outside thing is complicated. The opposition in your film are some of my favorite quotes and sound bites. Any reason why they’re not the DVD?

Tony Silver: We tried to get Bernie [Jacobs, the detective]. If we had more time, it may have happened. But we just had too much. I also wanted [Forner NY Mayor, Ed] Koch. I understand he’s still relentless, calling [graffiti] a plague then, and a plague now. Is hip-hop still relevant to your life, despite the fact that it has changed a great deal in twenty years?

Henry Chalfant: You know, I don’t listen to rap anymore. I think Naughty by Nature was the last favorite with “It’s Gonna Be Alright.” Since then, I don’t listen to it anymore. But I do keep up with my friends who are into it. I do check out things like Zulu Nation Anniversary. I’m amazed at the skills and the heart that people have about the thing that was original hip hop. They’ve been keeping that alive in spite of the commercialism. Is there another hip hop documentary in you?

Henry Chalfant: Who knows. Tony and I are talking about it, but it remains to be seen. If there’s something compelling going on, yes. Actually, right now I am working on something hip hop related now. I’m doing “From Mambo To Hip Hop”, the South Bronx, a history of the neighborhood in the fifties. Especially in the Latino community, it was a huge mambo and salsa [culture.] This is the same neighborhood that burnt down in the sixties and seventies, in which hip hop emerges in the seventies and eighties. It’s a fascinating neighborhood that went through hell, that’s filled with creative people.