Electric Kingdom: Hip Hop on Film from Wild Style to Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton

Growing up in the eighties there was a kid in our neighbourhood who rarely wore shoes, owned far too many dogs, and had a rather liberal attitude towards personal hygiene, theft and casual violence. He was also the only person I knew who had access to an actual video shop membership card. Circumstances which lead to me finally being able to watch Beat Street (1984).

Halfway through the film his older brother, a strange Goth type with bad hair and pointy shoes, asked us why we were watching this American crap when we should be watching “proper” films like Letter to Brezhnev (1985) or My Beautiful Laundrette (1985). Of course the fact that it wasn’t anything like those films was one of the very reasons why I wanted to watch it.

I found far more solace and life affirming inspiration from seeing a bunch of people in tracksuits from the South Bronx spinning on their heads then anything else spawned from a decade otherwise defined by Thatcher, Reagan, Aids, crack and the threat of nuclear war.

It was also a million miles away from the dull and ignorant suburb that I lived in where the majority of young males aspired to be Crockett from Miami Vice. I was one lone B-Boy in search of a crew, much to the disdain of all adults and anyone who happened to be into The Smiths, Wham, or “real” music.

Hip Hop was loud, often profane, and parents hated it. It was also the last great movement in popular culture. A progressive and eclectic culture with a deep rooted history. Not some passing, image led fad dreamt up by a marketing team or record label promoters. Which is one of the reasons why mainstream cinema constantly struggled and failed to capture its essence.

Wild Style (1983) of course remains the ultimate Hip Hop movie, and what it lacks in plot and structure it makes up for in accuracy, authenticity and sincerity. It was made by the right people, at the right time, for all the right reasons.

The objective Hip Hop pioneer Fab 5 Freddy and director Charlie Ahearn was to encapsulate and represent a scene they seriously believed in and create a showcase for the artists responsible, as appose to a fictionalised cash-in. It laid down the foundations of Hip Hop as an evolving culture and helped bring it to a global audience. It’s still a worthwhile watch and is to Hip Hop what Cassevetes’ Shadows (1959) was to the Beat/Jazz scene of fifties New York.

As much as I loved Beat Street and Breakin’ (1984) as a kid in hindsight they both lack the gritty weirdness of Wild Style and have shoe horned plots that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Hollywood musical (or even a Cliff Richard movie) which serve as inconsequential padding in between the performances of B-Boy battles and old school rap. That’s not to say they’re not enjoyable and they definitely deserve their place in the history of Hip Hop.

Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo (1984), Krush Groove (1985) and Rappin’ (1985) soon followed, and by the time the Fat Boys had become Disorderlies (1987) and Run DMC had got Tougher Than Leather (1988) the film industry had become a viable career step for any successful rap act. But it’s within the field of documentary that the real energy and creative prerogatives of Hip Hop are rightfully preserved.

For an understanding on the kind of environment that Hip Hop grew out of and why it became such an important movement, both 80 Blocks from Tiffany’s (1979) and Flyin’ Cut Sleeves (1993) are essential viewing. The former directed by Gary Weis and inspired by an Esquire article written by Jon Bradshaw, consists of a series of interviews with members of The Savage Nomads and The Savage Skulls.

Two of the most notorious gangs of the South Bronx who are equally perceived by Bronx residents as guardians of the neighbourhood, bringing order and control to the chaos of urban desolation, and as vicious criminals. It’s an incredible insight into a world that the Godfather Hip Hop Afrika Bambaataa was a big part of as a prominent member of the Black Spades gang before turning to creativity as a platform for social change.

Covering similar ground Flyin’ Cut Sleeves takes archive footage of the same gangs, filmed during the seventies by Bronx teacher Rita Fecher, and revisits some of the members as adults in 1989. Flyin’ has more of a narrative agenda than 80 Blocks, with a focus on how police intervention became more intense when certain gangs became more politicised and decided to fight the authorities for better living conditions rather than fighting in turf wars against each other.

Its co-director, photographer Henry Chalfant, will forever be associated with the progression of Hip Hop having produced the seminal documentary Style Wars (1983) that delves into the nocturnal, subterranean lifestyles of Bronx graffiti writers. It’s a certified classic and an important historical document where subway art is its own reward and an integral creative outlet to a generation of young, inner city New Yorkers desperate to express themselves and leave their mark on society.

Something the local police force, railway authorities and New York mayor Edward Koch had trouble understanding, deeming it a serious violation of public property. Chalfant continues to chronicle the cultural legacy of the South Bronx and in 2006 directed From Mambo to Hip Hop: A South Bronx Tale, which makes connections between New York’s early innovations in Latin music and certain elements of Hip Hop.

The German produced Breakin’ ‘n’ Enterin’ (1983) was a direct influence on the movie Breakin’ and even features three of its cast members, dancers Shabba Doo and Boogaloo Shrimp, and an up and coming rapper named Ice T, profiling the impact of Hip Hop on the West Coast. There’s already a divide in style in comparison to their New York counterparts, and it all feels a bit more showbiz. The clothes are a bit more flamboyant, there’s beaches and sunlight, and most of the footage takes place in dance studios as appose run down basketball courts surrounded by broken glass and rubble.

Beat This: A Hip Hop History (1984) was one of the first attempts to explain the cultural significance of Hip Hop, trace its roots and puts things into perspective as it leaked into the mainstream. Having taped it off BBC 2 when it was initially broadcast I watched religiously. I’m sorry to say that Live Aid bored me shitless, watching Beat This: A Hip Hop History was for me the most pivotal moment of seeing music on TV during the eighties.

With rhyming narration from Gary Byrd, opening scenes of an intergalactic Afrika Bambaataa and The Soul Sonic Force arriving from outer space, and Kool Herc driving around his neighbourhood in a convertible with biggest speakers you’ve ever seen taking up his back seat, very few films came this close to capturing the spirit of Hip Hop, where it came from and where it seemed to be going.

It’s a mighty piece of work and director Dick Fontaine followed it up with Bombin’ in 1988, following graffiti artist Brim on a UK tour and featuring a very young Goldie, and 3-D of Massive Attack. There’s also a very odd moment with Michael Winner persuading a reluctant Brim to spray paint the Death Wish 3 film set.

Dutch production Big Fun in the Big Town (1986) also has some great archive footage of Doug E. Fresh, Biz Markie, Roxanne Shante, and LL Cool J being interviewed by curious host Bram van Splunteren who spends a lot of time walking around New York in a Crack Is Wack t-shirt.
There are also some interesting comments from Suliaman El Hadi, member of The Last Poets, who believed that Rap was nothing but nursery rhymes and didn’t deal enough with serious social issues, which is something that would definitely change by the end of the eighties.

There are very few areas of music these days that still contain a certain sense of adventure, mystery, mythology, and lore. Turtablism could be the last. Doug Pray’s Scratch (2001) perfectly encapsulates the audio subterfuge of the Hip Hop DJ with insight and humour, paying respects to their abstract manipulation of sound, the poetic serendipity of crate digging, their important role in the development of modern music, and how a kid from the Bronx who called himself Grand Wizzard Theodore inspired a whole generation by moving a record backwards and forwards whilst being shouted at by his mum. The only criticism I have is that it seems to lack any mention of D-Styles, one of the most innovative turtablists on the planet.

The most frequently sampled and beloved tracks in Hip Hop is of course Apache by The Incredible Bong Band and Sample This (2013) affectionately traces the strange and mysterious circumstances surrounding its inception and its immense effect on popular culture. It’s an excellent, visceral trail through the hidden corners of 20th century music and a loving ode to that unsung hero of the recording industry, the session musician.

Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton: This is Stones Throw Records (2013) is already being hailed as one of the greatest films on Hip Hop. Detailing the creation of one of the most influential independent labels in contemporary music it’s also the personal journey of its founder Chris Manak, known to most as Peanut Butter Wolf, whose ideology consists of simply nurturing the kind of the music he likes to hear, an attitude which continues to this very day.

After the tragic murder of his original music collaborator and high school
friend Charizma, and determined to avoid the constraints of stagnant major labels, Manak set up Stones Throw Records. Releasing albums by such groundbreaking artists as J Dilla, Madlib and MF Doom whose unconventional approach towards performance and production changed all preconceptions of what Hip Hop should be in era that had seen it become decidedly formulaic.

But the passing of J Dilla in 2006 from a rare blood disease would leave an indelible mark on the label and all involved. Manak’s remediable reaction was to take a hairpin swerve and steer Stones Throw even further left of centre by signing experimental artists such as Gary Wilson, James Pants, and the excellent Vex Ruffin.

It was a move that left a lot of fans scratching their heads, but when you delve into the origins of Hip Hop it all makes perfect sense. Especially considering old school artists such as The Jonzun Crew, Cybotron, and Egyptian Lover. And if you really need reminding at how deeply weird and experimental Hip Hop used to be check out Ramellzee or Dub (The Knights Fly To Mars And Venus, With Their Dog, Woodpecker, And Cat!) by The Knights of the Turntables. And let’s not forget that Planet Rock was intended as a fusion between Funk sensibilities and experimental German electronica.

What makes Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton such a unique documentary is that instilled within its story are many of the vital elements that made Hip Hop so appealing in the first place. The absurdist humour, the importance of fun as part of the creative process, a positive and productive reaction to devastating circumstances, a fervent dedication to artistic progression, an undying passion for all things music, and the unbiased bond of creative minds.