As any student of hip-hop can tell you, the original culture, as it bubbled up from the New York City streets in the mid-to-late '70s, was about more than music. Hip-hop culture was built on four pillars: rapping, DJing, break-dancing, and graffiti art.
Early on, these elements were captured on film. The landmark 1983 film Wild Style depicted the whole culture. Krush Groov (1985) focused on the music, while Breakin' and its more famous sequel, Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo (both 1984), put the dance scene in the spotlight. The visual-arts component of hip-hop didn't get as commercial a showcase but did get a definitive early treatment: Style Wars, a 1983 documentary originally shown on public television.
Co-directed by Tony Silver and Henry Chalfant, Style Wars nods to the other elements — three subjects give their own a cappella rendition of Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five's "The Message" and we meet seminal b-boy "Crazy Legs" of the Bronx-based Rock Steady Crew — but the focus is on graffiti as a means of controversial self-expression by young NYC (mostly) men that makes a quick journey from subway cars to art galleries.
The film shows young artists plying their trade and sharing photos of recent work — an often temporary art, the photos capture the work for posterity — under the disapproving eye of parents, cops, and other authority figures who see this new expression as "a whole, miserable subculture" of vandalism.
The verité-style film chronicles a whiplash moment when these burgeoning, untaught teen artists are stuck between a civic crackdown — "Take it from the champs. Graffiti is for chumps." went one ad campaign featuring a couple of pro boxers — and a Manhattan art scene chasing the new thing as not only a badge of cool but as an "investment."
Chalfant, as a photographer and videographer, is perhaps the foremost chronicler of this art form, via not only Style Wars but also books such as Subway Art and Spraycan Art. He'll be on hand for this week's Style Wars screening at the Brooks Museum of Art, where he'll do a post-screening Q&A. The event will also include break-dancing demonstrations and music from Hot 107.1 DJ Superman.
Soul on Film: Style Wars
Brooks Museum of Art
Thursday, August 23rd
6 p.m. $8