Tag Archives: New York City

If You Don’t Watch These Movies, You’re Racist

15 Feb

Fifth Avenue was slow in adopting hip-hop, but once ad agencies and marketing departments realized there were Big Buck$ in that beat, they took to it like gangbusters. Today, it’s hard to imagine a jingle or pop song without the familiar boom, snare, boom boom, snare, a beat that backs many forms of modern music, from country to country western. T-shirts emblazoned with logos and designs are common fare for the Wal-Mart rack, while graffiti seems to grow and grow worldwide. Hip-hop is a culture that has intermingled with so many mainstream cultures that it’s become the undercurrent to our daily lives. It’s hard to imagine a time that hip-hop wasn’t ever present in our society.

But such a time did exist, and relatively speaking it wasn’t that long ago. Hip-hop didn’t get absorbed into popular culture until Bill Clinton’s second term, though it had, by then, made significant inroads. When I was a little kid, hip-hop didn’t even exist, at least not in my cloistered world. I didn’t hear a rap song until radio station Z100 played “Jam On It” by Newcleus around 1985. In fact, rap music and hip-hop culture had to be presented to much of America, white or otherwise, before it took hold and spread like wildfire. The following four movies were earnest attempts at doing just that.

Style Wars, 1984
Of the four movies presented in this essay, Style Wars can be said to be the most “real,” in that it is a documentary instead of a fictionalized account of hip-hop culture. Originally planned as a documentary about break dancing, producers Tony Silver and Henry Chalfant began concentrating more on graffiti and rapping as the fad of break dancing started to die down (this film, along with Flashdance, helped revive it for a little while in the mid-eighties). You don’t have to be a fan of hip-hop to enjoy this engaging and well-made documentary, so quotable that some of my friends and I can speak solely in Style Wars language. We greet each other with “Gigolo! What you know?!” and describe a weekend plan as “everybody getting united at the bench, 149th Street, Grand Concourse.” This is probably my second favorite movie of all time after The Human Tornado.

Wild Style, 1983
This movie has been called an addendum to Style Wars, and it may be, at that. Featuring everyone in the hip-hop scene that wasn’t in Style Wars, Wild Style is a kind of Romeo and Juliet story about a graffiti writing couple’s struggle between staying true to the underground or blowing up and becoming minor celebrities among Lower East Side phonies. Or something like that. It’s an indie film at its most indie, which means it’s short on plot and technical ability, but it is long on actual footage of rap parties and writing graffiti in train yards. It’s rather touching that this movie attempted to be a crossover film to the mainstream by including Patti Astor in a miniature role. Wild Style is so bumbling, it’s adorable, and that’s besides the fact that Lady Pink is an 80s cutie throughout the movie.

Krush Groove, 1985
A fictionalized account of record label Def Jam’s early days, Krush Groove is different from the previous two movies I mentioned in that it doesn’t bother with many other elements of hip-hop besides the rapping and deejaying. Blair Underwood stars as Russell Simmons, and Russell Simmons stars as a nightclub promoter, and that’s just about the only thing coherent in the film. There’s a whole story about how Simmons’ acts get poached by another label and then the meat heads from House Party 2 beat the snot out of him for a while, but you can content yourself with watching a teenage LL Cool J in his big screen debut, as well as Fat Boys gluttonous montage “All You Can Eat,” a worthwhile reason to watch the movie by itself.

Beat Street, 1984
This would be the White Devil of the four movies presented here, being that it had the biggest budget and was distributed by MGM. Featuring Rae Dawn Chong and practically no one else worth mentioning, Beat Street is a kind of amalgam of the other three movies, featuring the most interesting elements of each film and discarding the personality. Oddly enough, though it’s the most mainstream of these four movies, it has some of the best scenes of urban blight of any of them, including a main character living as a squatter with his family, something which was a reality for many more New Yorkers during the 1970s than were Adidas sneakers. Of the four movies, this is probably the most watchable, but it’s the least interesting from a contextual perspective. Watch it only after watching the others, but don’t watch them all in the same day. You’ll probably want to go out and break dance after such a marathon.

My Grandmother Was a Republican

10 Feb

Ever notice how the people who seem to have the most to lose are the same ones who champion a fiscally conservative government? It seems like the ones who would benefit most from social services are the ones who want them abolished. Has there ever been another country in the history of the world where its citizens stood in protest of their own health care? Where else can you find a single mother of eight at an anti-welfare rally? You have to say this about Americans: we may not be smart, but we are good at yelling. A lot.

My maternal grandmother was something like this. She was born not long before the Great Depression and was fully cognizant when President Franklin D. Roosevelt ushered in his New Deal. I guess it rubbed her the wrong way, because she voted Republican her whole life. My grandmother worked as a bookkeeper for confectioner Fanny Farmer, her husband was an alcoholic superintendent who died long before I was born. My mom, uncle, and grandparents lived their entire lives in various basement apartments in the Bronx, and though many times they didn’t have two nickels to rub together, my grandmother never took the subway. She either took a cab or traveled within walking distance.

My grandmother was retired by the time I knew her. She lived with my family, ostensibly to be home for my brother and I when we got home from school. And there she’d be, choking down Marlboro after Marlboro, watching some game show through a haze of cigarette smoke and dust. Her Marlboros were provided by social security, the apartment a gift from my parents. Yet she still felt that she didn’t take hand outs from anyone, she thought herself a self-sufficient red-blooded American, who didn’t want or need anyone else’s platitudes. Needless to say, she had zero friends.

I think this is a prevailing American attitude, that we don’t want to pay high taxes but we do expect a lot of shit for free. I can’t really knock it, who doesn’t like free stuff? There just seems to be a disconnect between what we’re owed versus what we’re willing to sacrifice. My grandmother died in 1988 from complications due to smoking. She was penniless. My parents paid for the funeral.

Why New Yorkers Hate You For Moving to New York

9 Feb

New Yorkers have a lot to dislike. For one thing, they have to work very long hours in order to afford substandard living conditions. For another thing, New York is crowded. And why shouldn’t it be? New York is, after all, The Greatest City in the World©. It didn’t get this jammed with pedestrians by being mundane, no New York is a pretty exciting place to live. I don’t know another city in the world where you can look at the most beautiful work of art one minute, and then literally the very next minute see a homeless guy shitting into a coffee can. Maybe San Francisco, and there the beautiful art and shit in a coffee can will actually be the same thing.

Because New York City is so fucking special, New Yorkers are pretty defensive about it. Annoyingly offensive, in fact, as we roll our eyes at tourists and chortle at routine city spectacles like the lighting of the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center. The implication is that one can never really “know” New York unless they’ve lived here, and even at that it must be for an unknown and variable number of years. Until you stop jumping at the sight of a scurrying rat, when you negotiate a transfer from the C train to the R train at Times Square successfully, when your wardrobe consists of black clothing and over-sized sunglasses, then you can consider yourself a Real New Yorker. This smug tendency is therefore most pronounced in homegrown New York residents.

I technically grew up in New York City, about as far east as you can go in Queens without actually leaving the five boroughs. To visit Manhattan was to go to “the city,” and most of my friends lived in one- or two-family houses with backyards and garages. Still, I carry with me the experience of having grown up in New York. When people move to New York as adults, even as young adults, they never see the side of New York that an eleven year-old sees. Though my neighborhood was largely suburban, I still had to keep an eye out for criminals and stick-up kids, roving gangs and toothless crackheads. Growing up in New York is a dangerous prospect, and everyone that comes out of the other side shares a camaraderie that transplants can’t appreciate.

As a kid, New York is the kind of place that constantly tests you. You learn the rules pretty quickly through trial and error: keep your head down, don’t make eye contact, except with the guy behind you. Keep your ears open. Stay close to the corners. Act like you know where you’re going. Don’t flash your money. It was some years before I discovered that this most kids do not have the same experience. Taking the subway as a kid is a whole different visceral experience, where faint graffiti tags take on heavy layers of meaning and which car you choose could be the difference between an uneventful ride and getting vicked. This is a New York few new residents and almost no tourists ever comprehend.

It’s really nothing special. Having the experience of growing up in New York isn’t any better or worse than the experience of having grown up in Denver, or Taos, or anywhere else, really. We’ve all got to grow up somewhere. The difference is that waves of people aren’t descending upon Denver or Taos every day to tax its already overburdened municipal systems. So if I seem a little callous about your enthusiasm for some dinky coffee shop in Park Slope, please forgive me.

I Didn’t Know Nothing About No Graffiti

3 Feb

Unless you live in some wooded glen or on a remote iceberg or something, chances are good that you have encountered some graffiti in your time. What was once a form of vandalism relegated to urban centers has become an explosive, worldwide form of art that is as ubiquitous as it is contested. Almost since its inception, well-meaning gallery owners (and some outright assholes) have tried to legitimize graffiti by exposing what they think are its best examples to the mainstream. It never works, because for every genius with an aerosol can, there are a thousand talentless kids who effusively ejaculate their acrylic haphazardly.

What mainstream society doesn’t seem to get is that being a big graffiti artist doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with having technical prowess. It helps, certainly, and being a more well-rounded artist will make your status more unassailable, but the object of graffiti is to put your mark in as many places as possible. I have always said that there are two components to graffiti: putting it up somewhere, and then seeing it in that spot later on. To be seen yet unknown, to have made a mark signifying nothing except that you were there, it brings an indescribable thrill, part of which is certainly knowing that you have probably pissed somebody off.

If the object is to get up as much as possible, then logically you’re eventually going to write in the same space someone else has already written. Some would say that this, beef, is a third component of graffiti–and it’s certainly arguable. Many taggers are more interested in fighting that writing. Really, it’s just an extension of the first component of graffiti, getting up as much as possible. If there was one graffiti writer in the world, then there would be no issue. But since there’s more than one, eventually they’re going to have to confront one another.

And here is the disconnect between the world of graffiti and mainstream art: you can make a nice canvas featuring your tag, sell it for a few grand, and be a professional artist, but I can spray over that canvas and ruin it in seconds. An art collector might wonder why someone would want to deface a work of art, and there’s where collusion between the two worlds crumbles. Taking someone else’s spot and consuming his fame, that’s all part of the game. If you want to keep your painting safe from vandals, make it a landscape or something. This confusion even settles among graffiti artists, notably Los Angeles writer Saber MSK, who held the Guinness World Record for largest graffiti piece until it was buffed two years ago. It was an interesting project, completed over a month’s span with bucket paint, but it was destroyed not long after its completion by two New York City writers, JA and Foe. Saber acted like they had defiled something sacrosanct (and was able to fix his piece later on anyway), but he was wrong. You put your shit up on a wall, it might get dissed. If you can’t handle that, then stay out of the streets.

Right now there is some contention in the art world: graffiti vs. street art. According to fine artists, graffiti is vandalism but street art carries a bold statement which can fetch a high price at Sotheby’s. Graffiti is done with spray paint, while street art is done with wheat pasted posters and sculpture installations and stencils…which are done with spray paint. Street art is sometimes spray painted as well. It’s a debate which will wage on until there are no more surfaces to vandalize. Considering graffiti writers’ propensity to go over one another repeatedly, it doesn’t look like that will happen any time soon.

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