Henry Chalfont – Style Wars Interview by Huwston
For a crash course in hip hop history, those in the know will direct you towards Style Wars. First aired in 1984, the seminal documentary captures New York City at a time when graffiti is re-imagining the metropolis and bold new sounds fill the streets. Now the film, directed by Tony Silver, has been immortalised on a deluxe double DVD. 3D’s Huwston speaks to influential photographer and co-producer of style wars Henry Chalfant about where it all began.
It would be hard to argue against the case that hip hop has been the last significant art form, movement or culture in the last few decades. Approaching the thirtieth anniversary since its inception, the all-encompassing movement is most simply broken down to the four elements of DJing, MCing, Breaking and Graffiti. It’s not till I get Henry Chalfant on the phone that I realise I’m speaking someone who produced one of the first documents covering the phenomenon as it was emerging.
That eerily calming voice that travels down the phone line has been sampled in numerous turntablist tracks (The Herbaliser’s Wall Crawling Giant Insect Breaks is one) and, waking up late for the interview, I’m transported to the world’s sickest club – where electro kids, punk rockers and b-boys are getting down. Originally re-issued in 2003, Style Wars looks at the nature of graffiti art, particularly its outlaw status in the art world.
“What we did was part of that movement of the emergence of hip hop,” says Chalfant. “I’ve noticed there has been a growth of interest in old school and I’m particularly aware of it in the art form as opposed to in music. I’ve noticed, for instance, graffiti writers in France who have been very active lately on their train systems. They are painting in a style which is obviously inspired by really old school seventies style.”
It’s no surprise then that the French seem to again be leading a cultural wave of exciting, yet sometimes disposable, club music, art and fashion (Busy P and Ed Banger stand up). The country seems to fight its love of all things American, reappropriate it for Europe and the rest of the world to ultimately create something more inviting and successful.
“Hip hop originated from the media, which carried these new art forms,” Chalfant says. He references Jeff Chang’s book Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop as an important guide in retracing the steps of the genre. Whilst he was a part of the first ever project to document the visual aspect of the culture, Chalfant says that a lot of original graffiti writers have released their own original photographs. They too have gone on to get the props they deserve, some using Style Wars as their platform. However, this success would take years to reach them.
“The exciting thing about that time was you had people who had been isolated in marginal areas, plus a vital downtown art and music scene in New York. There began to be venues where people would get together on the Lower East Side, places like Fun Gallery and One Two. Those were places where all of these people were practicing these art forms and influencing one another. It was largely fun before a lot of commercial interests became really influential.”
Chalfant muses that it’s no bad thing for people to make money from their art. Indeed, it seems the plight of the visual artist to not receive recognition for their work until it’s too late.
‘We tried to gain interest from commercial interests.
Obvious places to go were Coca Cola and McDonalds, but they weren’t interested until much later, in the Nineties. It was disappointing and then it became kind of creepy the way they were really exploiting it to the hilt. People who were originally inventing this art form, their younger brothers and sisters became the target of this marketing. Something that started off as a rebellious anti-authoritarian art form was now being exploited for money.” Maintaining the spirit of politics, Chalfant goes on to draw even creepier parallels to how hip hop is used in mass market situations today.
“In the current situation of the war, because it’s so unpopular the government has resorted to using rap music to try to attract teenagers. You see it all the time at street fairs and concerts where they blast the music out of their humvees and SUVs, and the kids are drawn in like flies.” With Nas proclaiming the death of hip hop, there really is no better time for the re-release of this important historical document.
“Teenagers then who are 40 now know about Style Wars, but if you ask today’s teenagers about Grandmaster Caz or the Cold Crush Brothers they don’t know who you’re talking about. Then you ask them what they listen to and they say 50 Cent. They have no sense of history.”
Chalfant says he’s glad the doco is back in distribution because they get a sense of the history of the genre and culture. So how much has it really changed?
“There’s no getting away from traditions that hold true in marginal neighbourhoods in New York. It’s getting rougher now. From 1985 onwards, the drug scene has been very destructive to hip hop in general and that hasn’t really gone away. The streets are in the grip of gangs – who have been influenced by gangsta rap.”
Henry Chalfant continues to name check France as a country that’s pushing things forward. He says the high art world in the US has been reluctant to acknowledge graffiti as a real phenomenon. “The Museum of Modern Art had a show a few years ago called High Low, where graffiti was supposed to be a low art form that had influenced people doing high art,” he notes.
In closing, Chalfant says, “Style Wars was a life-changing project, along with my book Subway Art. These two projects had their feet planted in the original subculture of hip hop. In a way, hip hop led me to becoming a documentary filmmaker – not the other way around.
“What I have discovered is that with my involvement for so long – and I’ve never been away from it – I’ve maintained a contact with friends of the time. Now I have the art ties. It’s important it exists and that other people can access it. I don’t take pictures of graffiti now. Everyone documents their own work now, and we’re not seeing everything for the first time.”