Film producers Henry Chalfant and Tony Silver were interviewed
about their classic 1983 hip hop documentary STYLE WARS by Billy
Jam. This interview originally appeared live on KALX 90.7FM Berkeley.
Billy Jam: For
the DVD version you added a lot of different things, like footage
of that guy from the MTA in one of the "bonus" parts
where he was saying something like how just in the nature of making
this documentary that you were probably going to encourage people
to go out and do more graffiti. But let me ask you first. How
did Style Wars on DVD come about?
Tony Silver: Well
the beginning of the project was a two prong effort. One was we
were at the rock and roll hall of fame in the year 2000 and we've
been thinking how to do a DVD and was talking to distributors
who didn't quite get it and we had them bring out SKEME and his
mother, who you must remember from the film, to do a Q & A
with us at the screening at the Rock and Roll Museum and we were
able to hang with him for a couple of days and just shoot some
footage and it was extraordinary to see how much alike they were
in both their affection for one another in regard for one another
and in Barbara Andalcio(Skeme's mother) absolutely unreconstructed
condemnation of what he was doing. It was remarkable, they were
exactly the same except more and more matured, they were wonderful
and so we shot this footage and didn't do anything with it and
then I went to NY and Sam Pollard was the editor of the film and
was a professor of film at NYU film school gave me the use of
the last film the cutting room left at NYU film school and I brought
in about ten boxes from storage of outtake's, of print material,
little snippets of rolled up, crackling, 16 mm work print and
with the help of a student of Sam's we were able to put together
about three reels of outtake's which we transferred in the middle
of the night with some people a the tape house in New York to
tape and that was sort of the beginning of the archive of material,
and then when Plexifilm came on board and stepped up to do this
DVD and said "well maybe you guy's can shoot four or five
interviews with some of the people in the film, you got to have
some interviews I guess." we ended up with 32 interviews
which is still not nearly enough and many people still missing,
Billy Jam: Which
is always the case.
Tony Silver: Yeah.
Well we're missing Lady Pink, KASE 2, and some other people and
it's most unfortunate and yet I keep on hoping that there is going
to be another edition and more outtake's, god knows there's more
Henry Chalfant: Scratching
Tony Silver: Yes,
Yes. But it's scratching the surface of hip-hop, or any part of
hip-hop. The layers are endless, the stories are endless .....
And all of them are real and all of them important as a point
of view because it was about individual spirits, individual artist
finding themselves, discovering themselves and discovering their
collective endeavor at the same time.
Henry Chalfant: Part
of the going back to shoot the update part was a really wonderful
decision that Plexifilm made to bring Joey Garfield on into the
project to direct those sequence's, which was a wonderful idea
because he's like in his early 30's, these guy's were like heroes
to him growing up, so he came with this freshness of outlook and
curiosity when he met them, and I went along with him to provide
the "Yeah, I remember this" part and to encourage people
to speak on that but Joey's perspective was great because he brought
Tony Silver: He
approached this with questions we might not of thought of or that
we might of took for granted.
Henry Chalfant: Joey
being the breath control guy, the director of breath control a
film about the human beat box.
Tony Silver: Yeah.
Henry Chalfant: Yeah.
Billy Jam: Question:
That narrator of Style Wars with that cool voice that has been
sampled to death. How was he?
Henry Chalfant: Sam
Billy Jam: A
Tony Silver: Yes.
.There was Zephyr, there was Dust, there was Seen.
Henry Chalfant: There
was one that was sampled a lot and that was "What'd you do
Tony Silver: Yeah,
yeah that was another one.
Billy Jam: What
I love about the film is that you're like these non-participant
observers and years before there was like this "reality TV"
craze you were there with the cameras rolling non-stop capturing
all the little intricicies. .So was thta the goal when you went
ou to film?
Tony Silver: Well
it was a combination of interviews and what I call observational
documentary You all ways hope something will happen by it's self,
that you have nothing to do with while your rolling. The beauty
of this moment, this time, these people, these culture was they
were living there own lives as they all now say "we were
just doing it" and the hope that you have as a documentary
film maker is that you'll be rolling as there just doing it. So
there was many things that we asked for but everybody had their
own inner-spontaneity, I mean like the scenes in Harry's studio
for example, when there talking about CAP you know we got to get
together, and then Shy walks in the middle. I do remember him
really walking in on the middle of a take where we were doing
something else and I did ask him to go back out and come back
in so we could catch the entrance, but he had something he wanted
to say which was about a piece that had gone over by CAP, so that
discussion had just began with Min saying "never forgive
action" which is another great dialoge moment. It is interesting
listing to this with out even thinking about somebody saying you
could never write this and it's true, you never could, they wrote
it, they were writing it themselves in more ways than one and
we were lucky enough to catch it.
Henry Chalfant: With
very little encouragement from us you get them together and the
life was going on so they would start talking about it and the
subjects would come up.
Tony Silver: There
was a moment where I wished we were shooting when it happened
but we were at the bench and this was very early in the process
at 149 St. and Skeme and Dez were supposed to meet us there along
with some other people and we were waiting and waiting and I was
standing at the south end of the platform peering into the darkness
in the tunnel and it curves into the station at that point and
there's a cat walk and I was just looking around, there was a
train, all of a sudden I hear these voices coming from the empty
tunnel not knowing if it was workers or who they were and it was
Skeme and Dez they had walked over from Manhattan under the Harlem
River to the Bronx just idle chatting away about pieces they've
done and seen and the paint they were using and just having and
idle professional conversation about their vocation and eventually
they wander over like "Oh, hey guys!". It was amazing,
it was extraordinary. It's and image of them embedded in my mind
of seeing them emerge from the darkness engaged in their own conversation.
Henry Chalfant: Having
to walk to the Bronx under the Harlem River.
Billy Jam: When
exactly did you start filming Style Wars. Was it in '81 or '82?
Henry & Tony:
Tony Silver: Well
Charlie started to do something before. (Film director) Charlie
Ahearn and he was already filming "Wild Style" from
a different perspective spending along time in the Bronx in the
early club scene uptown which I think was part of his source of
his inspiration and then Henry should tell the story that answers
Henry Chalfant: Yeah
well, Part of the ease with which these scenes happen and their
willingness to share with us came from my being involved with
them for a long time and started to take pictures in the mid 70's
and my collection of photo's which I had 3 years worth before
I met any writers, so I came sort of armed with a passport which
gave me this incredible grand stand view of something that was
evolving. To them I was a valuable source for archiving their
work and so they overcame rapidly their suspicion that I was a
cop and that my involvement was pretty benign and was mainly about
pictures. So we had this relationship that was really valuable,
they called me on the phone and told me what they were doing and
wanting me to go out and get the picture and Skeme he would leave
these great rap calls on my message machine and he would go "the
S, the K, the EME, take it from the bottom to the T O P"
things like that and he would tell me "on the 3 line I did
this piece last night from top to bottom" so then I would
go out and try to get it and it would help me to know where I
Billy Jam: And
as far as the legal aspect with the graffiti there was no unfortunate
fallout from that as a result of the film cause like a lot of
the artists it was the first time people saw their faces.
Henry Chalfant: There
was no unfortunate fallout legally.
Tony Silver: There
was some concern but fortunately there wasn't.
Billy Jam: Here's
a question that I was wondering when I was watching the movie
again. How many cameras in all did you have rolling?
Tony & Henry: One
Billy Jam: Only
Tony Silver: I
don't think we ever shot with two cameras. At different times
we had three great camera men, originally we had Burleigh Wartes
who is from Seattle was one of the great visual documentary camera
men, I regard him as a teacher to me as a film maker, who shot
about 60% of the film. James Szalapski.Both of them are departed
unfortunately, shot maybe 30-40% of it and Jeff Wayman shot a
couple of sequences, but the shooting was spread out on many separate
occasions when something in particular was happening or we were
able to gain a certain access that we needed and so I was glad
to have these friends who at least one of them would all ways
Billy Jam: Now
did you independently produce the film and then go to PBS?
Tony Silver: No,
well yes, and no...we began it independently and immediately began
writing proposals to various aspects of public television. Went
to channel 13 in New York. Which forget about it no way? I went
to see the new director...program fund corporation for public
broadcasting. Who said two memorable things to me. He said I'm
here for two years and I'm gonna go do something else. And there
is a brand new subway here and I can't leave this job as the person
responsible for the destruction of the brand new Washington subway
and then he said let me ask u something..."umm, is this gonna
be a balanced report?" and then I said I don't really see
this as a report, I really don't see this as a report, it is a
drama essentially. And what I want to do is represent that drama,
it's a real life drama that's going on and somebody has to make
a film about it. So that's what I want to do and there will be
many perspectives but will it be a balanced report? I don't think
you can look at it that way.
Billy Jam: Did
all of your subjects like the guys from TRANS M.T.A.,the politicians
including Mayor Koch. .Did they all know what your angle was?
That you were pro-graffiti? Was it obvious to each of those interviewee's?
Tony Silver: Yes
Billy Jam: Did
that not automatically hinder the interviews?
Tony Silver: NO,
Ha ha ha I don't know how to explain that exactly. Well, I didn't
present it as a pro-graffiti film. I presented it as a film about
a war that was going on, this phenomenon. .This drama. This standoff.
And I have to tell you this is the way I saw it. I was not especially
pro or anti graffiti when I began. I was just interested in the
amazing phenomenon, that this thing has going on this long 12
years when we started and it had flowered in this extraordinary
way. It was an exploration for me .and .I became completely engaged
with that here was a culture that was created by 15-17 year old
kids and how far it would go and how influential it would be was
unthinkable at the time. Well, if you think about it now... A
whole worldwide culture started by children.
Billy Jam: And
it's amazing too, there are people going out risking getting arrested,
risking their lives. Doing it for free, in fact spending money
all on spray paint.
Tony Silver: There
is a little piece of dialogue from Dondi most people don't notice
because it's a voice over. And it was a little piece of wild track
that we did while finished filming. And I have asked and he was
very shy in coming in front of the camera. But I asked him "what
is the special thing, for you the most special thing and i must
have asked him the question. But what he says in the film "you
cannot imagine adults doing this" and that to me is the absolute
core of it. I can't imagine adults doing it.. and I think he captured
it in just that little remark. The absolute essence of it is nearly
at the end of the film.
Henry Chalfant: You
can't imagine adults taking risks
Tony Silver: Right,
just to do it.
Billy Jam: When
you were filming then, obviously you had this goal of telling
a story...sort of like this war of this new art-form that wasn't
understood by the politicians and the general society of New York.
And then during the filming the whitewashing of the trains unfolded.
Tony Silver: That
had been long been happening but it became much more aggressive.
Billy Jam: That
was it 72 hours or something?
Henry Chalfant: They
painted them white, which was more significant than just buffing
Tony Silver: One
of the questions that I had posed to Richard Ravitch... Why white?
why not blue or green? or pink or whatever? And his answer was
an exercise in periphrasis and it was truly unbelievable and I
spent a lot of time trying to edit it down to something manageable
in what was going to be an hour version of the film on PBS and
couldn't do it. And was looking for the out take and still hadn't
found it. It was so convoluted and he knew he'd been put on the
spot and well white, it's a symbol" Well, what a symbol of
what? "cleansily, uh purity?blah blah blah" It was amazing,
he knew he completely worked himself into a ridiculous corner.
I don't think he probably knew why somebody think that it should
be white. I doubt it was he that decided it. It was interesting
because he got it. He was the classic New York sort of cold war
liberal kind of person who was very aware of many sides of an
issue. But had his job to do his fundamental inner core bedrock
sense of duty of what his task was.. So a combination of these
things allowed him finally these look like estimable gentlemen
Henry Chalfant & Tony Silver. and uh, I had met him in college
actually so that helped. So, I'll trust them to do this and not
create a , you know some kind of antiauthority film. So he let
us take a cruise with our lights and our steady cam and all the
rest of it.....
Billy Jam: With
New York City today in summer 2003 the five boroughs are once
again (like in the years you shot your movie) heading into the
toilet. The New York City economy is as bad as 20 years ago with
the city budget running low on funds. So I wonder if now, with
the shitty economy in place once again, if .things like graffiti,
like in 1980, will again return to the subways of New York.?
Henry Chalfant: Some
writers naturally are expecting that to happen are waiting with
abetted breath for that moment when that guard is lowered. And
they'll be able to do it, I don't think it will happen anytime
soon. They got that guard pretty well up. Writers will continue
to go into the yards and paint and to do so is success. But the
train never runs now, they have enough trains to be able to schedule
keep their schedule up...taking trains out of service and cleaning
them...and that's the big incentive of doing it cause if you don't
see it run then why do it?
Tony Silver: Another
thing is the stainless steel surface doesn't take the paint the
Billy Jam: Like
the new ones the #6 train. . Isn't it ironic that the #6 train
is now pristine and beautifully clean as it goes right by all
these galleries and museums where inside they have the graffiti
displayed on their walls today?
Tony & Henry: Yeah, right...
Billy Jam: It
is also interesting seeing all these familiar people in the film:
people like Doze and Crazy Legs when they were so very young.
Tony Silver: Doze
was 13 and Crazy legs was like 15
Billy Jam: How
much did you keep in touch over the years with your subjects,
cause it seems you've developed a close relationship during the
Henry Chalfant: Because
I live in New York I stayed pretty close to them and cause I have
the archive...uh there was always kind-of something's going on
where I would need my photos or something like that, they would
have shows and I'd go to them, so I kept up pretty well. Up until
we started to go back and do the revisited part and then u know
i left into the world again.
Billy Jam: Out
of all the artists in the film how many actually went on to make
a living at it?
Tony Silver: Oh
boy, a number of them have....in a variety of ways...as graphic
designers, web designers, artist's, painters visual artists, sculptures.
It's interesting Peter Girardi .who designed the DVD and for no
amount of gratitude or respect would be sufficient both for his
dedication and the quality of the work which is just extraordinary.
He was a kid from Staten Island which is sort of a periphery of
how shall I say of New York street culture in a lot of ways. .He
was an admirer of what was going on in the graffiti world and
got into it. Sort of right after Style Wars. And I never knew
him. I only met him from a guy at school in visual arts here Peter
also teaches... and he has a company in New York called "Funny
Garbage" and Peter to me he is the paradigm of what that
kind of self empowerment can potentially produce of taking the
means of artistic production into your own hands as a kid and
discovering yourself...your own potential and the possibilities.
Peter worked his way into a scholarship at school in visual arts.
He was going to be a studio artist. He worked for people like
Jeff Koons in Soho back then and wanted to get into graphic design.
So he is into very many art's and design making with a very large
world view. And at the same time his sense that what created him
which was an original experience is absolute. And it's for this
reason that he said when I said to him "Peter why are you
so interested in doing this and giving to this ..hours and hours
of stuff, If you look at the DVD you see all his work it's all
his stuff. he said "payback". So that's a very humbling
feeling to me. Um that we are a beneficiary of that. But what
is even more humbling is the idea again that this activity of
just doing it with turntables or just doing it with flow pens
or just doing it with your own voice as a beat-boxer creates you
and through you, creates a whole worldwide culture.
Henry Chalfant: Which
is totally opposite of the view of the law enforcement and the
conservatives was that graffiti is a highway to hell. It was an
entry level crime, as they used to say. You start there and you
end up doing big crime. When in fact, from a far majority of kids
who are involved in it ended up as Peter did as the seed of their
future life. As an artist, creator as a profession. And with any
kid you don't know where it is going to go or where it's gonna
take you but, It could take you to hell or it could take you nowhere
and certainly there are people in the film for whom it became
sort of like a portal to another level of life as an adult. .It's
essentially kind of like a dead end. I mean you can't grow out
of it in a way. .I think it would be true for any kind of kid
in any kind of kid activity.
Billy Jam: And
the fact that someone is doing it for the moment. They're not
even thinking long term. Especially if it's a 14 or 15 year old.
They're not thinking about tomorrow. They're just thinking of
going out and making their mark today.
Tony Silver: The
other side of this is, I kind of you know absented myself from
this after the film and went on to try to do some other things.
And came back and moved to Los Angeles around 1990 and I came
back to New York at around a time when a group of kids were putting
on a play in New York called "What happens now?" and
it was the first time I really dipped back in from what was going
on.and it was an extraordinary immersion from the point of view
of being away from it because it was exactly about that issue,
it was the subject of the play it was a hope hopeless we grew
up and created something and because we were just doing it and
the question is and it's the largest possible existential question
"what happens now?" and it was just amazing to me, It
defines that cusp of being a kid and growing into something else
and what you might make of yourself at the next stage of your
Billy Jam: Yeah,
I just think it's amazing how by simply providing a platform,
your documentary can and has clearly inspired others to go and
make more art.
Henry Chalfant: You
know it's interesting because it was attractive and because it
was magnetic that's how it got around the world.that's how this
platform was something for people all over to pick up and go on
I mean we have to like, we didn't promote it , I mean none of
this to say the least
Billy Jam: But
you really altered history, if we go back in time and if there
was no "Style Wars" or no "Wild Style" then
I believe that there probably wouldn't be the same graffiti movement
all over the world today. It might have just died out in New York
when the subway system painted the trains white right?
Tony Silver: Well,
I don't know actually whether that's true or not. It might be.
Henry Chalfant: But
there may have been other vehicles to do that but these were the
vehicles that's true that did spread it
Tony Silver: And
part of the mystery of this is just about any aspect of hip hop
that you want to pick. Say rap music which everybody said 'You
know it's just a fad' or 'It's just a temporary thing,...It's
gonna go away...It doesn't mean anything,....It can't cross over.
It can't influence anything There's no real fertile ground here"
And this was 1980, 1982, 1984 every other 18 months or less you
would hear "It's finally crossing over, but not really!"
Henry Chalfant: We
were always afraid it'll be over before the book came out.it'll
be over before the film is done.
Billy Jam: You
did the film as a hip hop documentary, but it's a graffiti documentary,
but you did go off into other elements, was that intentional or
what was your original focus?
Henry Chalfant: It
was mostly graffiti and it was the b-boys because right around
that time when we started to make the film, I had encountered
breaking and so you know we got into that. And the fact that was
the first thing that attracted Tony into the idea of making a
film..it was coming to that performance that we did at Common
Ground in 1981 and we didn't..it's funny the thinking when you're
doing something like this, we didn't think oh, there is four elements
and were gonna put them all together. We kind of focused on what
we had & hadn't. .Which were the contact to the world at that
time, in which for us included contact with the relationship with
graffiti writers and the b-boys..And with Fred and Rammellzee
who was my entry way into rap was through them and also at that
time there was the stuff that was on the radio "Rapper's
Delight" and that kind of thing.the first actual flesh and
blood rappers I met were Fred and Remmelzee So they were part
of the film for that reason.
Tony Silver: Not
precisely mainstream especially
Henry Chalfant: Not
Henry Chalfant: I
don't know maybe train surfing in Brazil, which luckily didn't
take off in the same way.cause it had a high mortality rate, but
at the same time it was the same kind of thing coming from a situation
of despairing nothing to lose kind of poverty that these kids
were demonstrating incredible skill & surfing the inner city
trains between Rio and San Paolo and of course hanging ten off
the edge of the train and they achieved in a very short flash
of fame you know. This excellence and notoriety for being able
to do that and most of them died.
Tony Silver: Some
people talk about skateboarding as parallel similar kind of thing
and the same kind of discussions are going on in the skateboard
world now. Since Dog-town & Z-boys.
Henry Chalfant: There
is a guy who just written an article he's from San Francisco,
he's a skateboarder & he lives in New York now. But he's written
an article for the London Review of books, and I can't remember
his name, but he talking about that how you can't film the experience
of skateboarding getting from point A to B that all that is it's
real skateboarding you know what you do in between, you hit the
wall go on the wall, the moves that you make, and since you can't
do that with film, the film makers including dog-town concentrate
on some virtuoso moves that are catchy to the eye.so you see one
move after another happen on the half-pipe or something like that
and it maybe spectacular to look at but it doesn't capture the
spirit of the whole enterprise..
Tony Silver: I
really like the first half of the film (Dogtown/Z) very much you
know where this foundations stuff is happening and there's the
surfing moments, actual water surfing moments where they are inventing
new techniques that are wonderful and how that translates to land
surfing so to speak.that stuff was great..
Billy Jam: Since
Style Wars what have you both been working on?
Tony Silver: Well,
I made a film that I finished in 2002.it's a feature documentary
about a New Yorker named Marshall Arisman .... It was in the Mill
Valley Film Festival actually and a bunch of other festivals.Marshall
is a very famous illustrator and shamen and demonic character
with a very laid back funny personality at the same time and a
world renowned teacher of illustration and also is a painter and
he's also a visionary. Sort of trickster/spiritual sort of guy.
Umm filmed him in China where he had and exhibition at the Guangzhou
museum. Filmed him in his studio. Jim Szalapsky who shot a lot
of "Style Wars" was the director of photography and
died almost immediately after completing the film of cancer. The
film is dedicated to him. And it's another way of thinking about
making art and the person of one artist. Who has kind an odd sort
of spiritual quest going on in his life.which to me sort of became
a metaphor for the art making process, and the spirit of making
art is well it's wherever it comes from, but it has to be there.
so that's and that film is going into educational distribution
shortly through New Day Films and will be available very soon,
a lot of people have been writing me "when can I get it"
and it's coming.
Henry Chalfant: Well,
I stopped making sculpture shortly soon after we finished making
this film, and uhh, I made a film of my own about street gangs
in New York from the seventies..sort of a longitude study from
the seventies to the nineties of people who are teenagers involved
in street gangs in the seventies called "Flying Cut Sleeves"
and I made it with Rita Fecher who was the woman who took pictures
back in the seventies of the gangs and then I worked a while of
a film about my father based on footage he shot in 1931 on a trip
around the world and I didn't finish it but I will. And then I
did a, produced a rap group, a Puerto Rican rap group called "Latin
Empire" and I did two music videos with them. I did more
recently a film about Palestinian children in the West bank based
on a short visit there called "Visit Palestine" and
I'm working on a thing now with City Lore in New York called well
the working title is called "Mambo to Hip Hop" and it's
gonna span, it's gonna be this portrait of the south Bronx neighborhood
seen through the music in the Latin community and it spans from
the 50's through the 60's where it's a big salsa scene and then
hip hop emerges from the same community so it's this incredibly
MORE INFO: www.stylewars.com
Contact interviewer BillyJam: email@example.com