On the streets of late 70's New York, poverty reigned and crime was at an all-time high. But the seedy athmosphere did create the whole hip hop culture, with rap, graffiti and breakdancing becoming different aspects of the urban culture. Even though it began as an underground, barely legal subculture, by the early 80's it became so popular that movie makers eager to catch on to the latest trend, started churning out movies. Of course this helped feed the culture even more and to turn the subculture into mainstream. But the fact that these movies present the post between these two parts of the phenomena, make them all the more interesting.
Wild Style (1983)
Director: Charlie Ahearn
The film which is most famous of first depicting hip hop culture to mainstream audiences, mixes documentary footage of the New York subculture in South Bronx with acted dramatic material. Real-life hip hop cultural icons play similar characters to themselves, and the film's plot is somewhat based on reality. The underground rap gigs, the dancers and the taggers are to some extend filmed as they actually happened, on tiny underground clubs and behind fences events. There's also a whiff of hustling, such as illegal card flip games, in the film. Real social problems, such as alcohol, drugs or underage sex aren't dealt with, however. But in any case, it's a good period piece on how underground culture was in New York once everybody and their granny had heard of punk rock.
Zoro (Lee Quinones) is a graffiti artist, well known by reputation, but less so by appearance. He hangs around with a girl, Rose (Sandra Fabara), who he's secretly harboring a crush. He teaches her everything he knows, how to make good street art, where to strike, and how not to get caught. Zoro wants to express himself, but he also wants something more from his life. Not figuring out what it could be, he sort of drifts along, tormented. When Rose gets her shit better together, and gets acceptance from the New York art circles, their relationship becomes more strained. Most of the time, however, is spent on just depicting the culture as it unfolds.
You might be a famous and undeniably talented graffiti artist or rapper, but that doesn't make you a good actor. The dramatic parts of the film are ludicrously horribly acted. Luckily most of the time the movie plays it cool and keeps up with its authenticity. Not only the street art is impressive in this film, the rap scenes also feature mad improvisation skills and wicked mixing with old-school equipment. Ahearn's movie doesn't explain everything about the sub-culture from the ground up to anyone. You either get it going in or don't. It is what it is, which is why this is a clear cult movie. The soundtrack of this film is almost equally famous to the film, since it features rap artists the likes of Busy Bee, Fantastic Freaks, Fab 5 Freddie, and Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five.
It turned out there were more than plenty of eager-minded people who did get it. The movie proved to be successful enough to make movie producers take notice.
Beat Street (1984)
Director: Stan Lathan
The following year, there were two other hip hop movies aimed for bigger audiences. The other was a straight-out dramatization of the things presented in Wild Style, the other focused on Breakdancing and became the bigger hit. The former, which was the better film, also took into focus graffiti artists, yet also emphasized rap music more, and works more or less as a musical. The film's soundtrack, starring the likes of Grandmaster Melle Mel, Kool Moe Dee, Us Girls and Rock Steady Crew, is perhaps even better than Wild Style's.
Kenny "Double K" (Guy Davis) and Ramon (Jon Chadriet) are best friends, and graffiti artists living in the seedy parts of New York. Ramon is more down-to-earth of the duo, but respects his art more than anything and wants to spraypaint a train that would take his graffiti out for all of New York to see. Kenny has rap skills and dreams of becoming a famous MC, playing at the hottest clubs of NYC. He meets Tracy (Commando's Rae Dawn Chong), who comes from a better neighborhood and upper class, but still becomes interested in music and breakdancing. The two start to get interested in each other, which inspires Double K also to aim his ambitions high.
As musicals tend to be, this is quite a melodramatic story. But not so much concerning the love story, more on Double K's troubles with his background and ambitions, the conflict between his family and his hobbies, and his relationship with his friends. Still, there's a clear West Side Story vibe here, with dueling gangs and such. The main villain turns out to be a sort of vandal to the vandals, an asshole who messes huge artistic graffiti murals by spraypainting all over them. Whatever one's stance on street art is, I think we can all agree that that's not a nice thing to do.
Warning! While the rap performance in this clip kicks ass, it also contains major movie spoilers.
"If art is a crime, may God forgive me". - Ramo
Breakin' (a.k.a. Breakdance, 1984)
Director: Joel Silberg
Whereas the two other hip hop films were still fresh and more or less authentic-feeling, it didn't take long before the first cash-in on the phenomenon appeared. And it came from Cannon Group of all production companies. Not known from their subtlety, this effort takes the largest page from the West Side Story book in that, it's basically a street fighting film with the fighting switched to dancing. It's a formula that can still be seen in films such as Step Up! or You Got Served. A big difference is also that Breakin' takes place in LA instead of NYC. Somehow, New York represents to me striving to rise from poverty and squalor, whereas LA only represents surface, fake smiles and proper image.
Ozone (Adolfo Quiñones) and Turbo (Michael Chambers) are talented breakdancers, who work at the local supermarket and dream of hitting it big. The dancers have a bitter rivalry with a competing group Electro Rock. The buddies usually display their moves for some tourist cash on the streets of Malibu. They meet a young and aspiring Jazz dancer Kelly (Lucinda Dickey), who becomes interested in the breakdance culture. She gets the name Special K and starts to practice with the boys. But her strict instructor doesn't like her hybrid style that starts to infuse moves she learned from the street. Special K will prove him wrong as she will lead the Dance trio to the top and bring breakdance to the mainstream at the same time.
Of course, the film is Super Cheesy. There's not a hint of authenticity in any of this, and particularly the overly 80's fashions in the film are over-the-top and hilarious. Even the movie's breakout star, Ice-T (playing a Club DJ) considers this to be wack. And knowing what kind of films Ice-T has made in his career, that's saying something. Alongside Mr. Ice, the Soundtrack includes the likes of Kraftwerk, Rufus and Chaka Khan, and The Bar-Keys. The film did capture something of the zeitgeist since it proved to be popular. But the producers already were certain of it. They were so sure of it's success it even advertized its direct sequel in the closing credits. Today, the movie series is probably best known for the ridiculous name of part II. But Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo is a story for another time.
★ or ★★★★★