By: Rory Winston
”When are you going to stop writing on the walls and make some money, when are you going to stop tagging subway cars, when are you going to make your son legitimate… legitimate shit,” said a frustrated Ramon in 1984’s Beat Street – a film that together with its lauded predecessor Wild Style introduced much of America to hip-hop. Though the movement had begun as no more than a mid-70’s subcultural oddity in the South Bronx, hip hop had over time fostered an artistic revolution that altered the zeitgeist world-over. Nevertheless, Ramone’s facetious lament still beckons a response. Has the genre over the years developed to the point where it is funded by cultural institutions like other arts? Is there appreciable legitimacy in an educational sense so that it’s traditions are being taken seriously and taught?
As Harlem Week’s all new Hip Hop Film Festival NYC wound down to a close, I couldn’t help but note the festival’s savvy decision to eschew the usual bling-dong (sic) fanfare that often accompanies such events, opting instead for a more communal spirit – one as eager and welcoming as the parties DJ Kool Herc had first engendered. Avoiding the all too common pratfalls of self-aggrandizement, pageantry and name-dropping, the organizers celebrated this newly christened festival by creating a genuine promotional and educational vehicle for up-and-coming talent. The overall mood was one of workshop; ‘festival as meeting place’, festival as educational platform for the heirs of a forty-odd year old legacy.
With little in the way of sensationalism or even glamorization, there seemed to be a tacit agreement among the jurors that contemporary pyrotechnics in the various art forms spawned by hip hop – whether in DJing, music, poetry, rap, graffiti, dance or film itself – could never have taken place without those who had earlier on invested their all into making things happen. As with the development of the genre itself, hip hop related film entries did not come solely from New York or even America. Instead they came from areas as remote and unexpected as the nuances in most art forms.
While Wave, a captivating story about the rise of Tony Wave Wesley from the Bronx to international NY City Breakers’ B-Boy star (seen, incidentally, in the film Beat Street) included some brilliant interviews and footage from legendary dancers such as Special K, Melle Mel and NY City Breakers’ Powerful Pexter and Lil Lep, the most unanticipated but exciting films were two foreign docs – one being the Brit entry, NG83 When we were B-Boys and the Philippine/EU entry Beyond the Block.
This Ain’t England
In reality, Claude Knight, Sam Derby-Cooper, Luke Scott and Will Wilkinson (the team behind NG83) could have gotten together to make a brilliant documentary on almost subject since their true area of interest is the people behind the events and how they continue once their “supposed significance” is gone. Shortly after the heydays of The Who and the decline of ‘game halls’, this same talented directing group could have come up with a sequel to Ken Russel’s film (based on the Who’s) Tommy entitled When we were Pinball wizards. Of course, they could just as easily have done a follow-up story to Katherine Bigelow’s Hurt Locker, the twist being that the war abruptly ends and bomb squad specialist/ adrenaline junky Sgt. William James retires to his suburban hell where he endures a perpetual dose of peace and quiet. Though the film’s title (NG83 When we were B-Boys) may put one in mind of the renowned Leon Gast documentary on Muhammad Ali, When we were Kings, this recent documentary is anything but the story of a surprise comeback. With no sucker punches, no long drawn out rope-a-dopes, When we were B-Boys gets into the ring of great movies the old fashioned way – it packs one hell of an emotional knockout punch while being as funny and entertaining as… well, something from the mouth of the late great heavyweight champion. Essentially, NG83 deals with respectful has-beens – the forever-to-remain ‘world famous in Nottingham’ Rock City Crew whose one big rumble in the rural jungle took place on a Saturday afternoon as they faced off with their longtime rivals, the Assassins.
Although the filmmakers site Shane Meadows’ take on skinhead youths This is England as their inspiration, I believe – despite the magnificence of the aforementioned film – it would be NG83 getting the short end of the stick on the comparison. NG83’s ear for revelation disguised as trivia, pathos dressed in humility and lethargy finding solace in nostalgic loss is a world onto itself. Hidden between the frames we see the age-old battle between the inner saint and the clown, between tragic flaw and comic relief – these are the types of juxtapositions that simply can’t be pulled off without a heart. No matter which uncomfortable or even tasteless moment we apprehend, we can’t help but notice that the film simply loves each and every one of its characters to bits. It is this utterly unsentimental form of compassion that gives a sense of poetry to what could otherwise pass as inane comments. It is also this sensibility that brings urgency to moments of resignation. Think: memorable characters as in Mike Leigh’s Career Girls (or even Secrets and Lies) meets the evocative artistry of Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People, and you may just understand why I find this film so alluring.
It doesn’t take long to convince the viewer that the team that made this funkily moody masterpiece could just as easily pull off a noteworthy dramedy next time around. Filled with monologues that would make playwright Mark Shopping and Fucking Ravenhill go Green Street Hooligan with envy, the masterminds behind NG83 are one team worth keeping an eye on. Having cut a 7 year-long film project down to a mere 74 quickly fleeting but lingering minutes, these debut directors have managed a minor miracle. They know both when to kill their darlings and when to let their darlings ramble on. In the end, the naughty lads of Nottingham feel kind of like the fellas we’ve all grown up with.
Neither shortchanging the artistry and skill that goes into breakdancing nor fetishizing such feats as something larger than life, NG83 When we were B-Boys has – for lack of better word – swag. Poignant, emotional, genuine and only ever so slightly self-conscious, it is a work that boasts a youthful strut and candor while still retaining an emotional intelligence beyond its years. Am I gushing? Well, go for it, the film seems to say. Gush with all the loss, hope, and longing a lifetime’s worth of dreams can afford.
Ballet may have originated in the Italian and French courts during the 15th and 16th century, but there’s little denying that it made some of its greatest strides in Russia where athletic leaps, airborne tour jetés and other pyrotechnical and dramatic elements – some of which were already present in their own traditional folk dances – made their way into what had otherwise been an insular, if not dying, dance form. Soon, Russia would once again revolutionize the vocabulary of ballet by introducing nuances from ‘orientalism’ (in the antiquated Diaghilev sense of the word), futurism and even suprematism into what till then had been a world that represented the aesthetics of nobility. Though the notion that the country of inception and the country of adaption (and eventual development) is not always the same is not a new concept, we rarely apply this idea when thinking about relatively new historical movements like Hip hop. Still, the fact remains that some of the best hip hop dance crews out there today are either from the Philippines, have Filipino members or have been heavily influenced by the choreographic nuances developed in that part of the world. Whether it’s the A-Team, Megacrew, or the Philippine All Stars, it’s hard to deny the country’s rightful place in an art whose advances we often attribute solely to Americans. Despite the prolific contributions made by Filipinos, few among those even heavily involved in supporting dance, know much about the origins of these virtuosos and what catalyzed this movement. From Romancon to the Jabbawockeez to Quest to Poreotics to the Super Crew, Filipinos have not only left an indelible mark but remain an ever-present force to be reckoned with. Shedding light on this once esoteric school of dance comes a film filled with several lifetimes worth of information, Beyond the Block.
Directed by dancer, choreographer, teacher and now filmmaker, Ricky Carranza, Beyond the Block touches on nearly every aspect of Filipino hip hop dancing. Clocking in at 2 hours and 48 minutes, the film tells several stories simultaneously. It details how street dance, locking, popping, and breaking developed; it explains the TV romance that took place as a nation fell in love with an American subcultural dance form and made it their own, eventually taking it to the next level; and it also relates the ongoing tale of Carranza himself who goes from dancer to missionary to a man on a mission, preaching and teaching the love of dance as ardently as someone intent on saving souls.
Is this all too much for one film to handle? The question is a valid one and in line with a concern that an esteemed mentor of mine had brought up years ago. His theory was simple: ‘if you are a talented artist – whether novelist, filmmaker, composer, choreographer or painter – don’t wait till you feel your work is perfect before you present your first piece because by that time you’ll probably have way too much to say to be able to do it well in one work. People who have years of experience behind them and have not had the opportunity to express themselves often get too desperate a need to stick all of what they have learnt into a single work.
While there is a truth to this, and while Beyond the Block does at times get overwhelmed by its own desire to do justice to its sources, it never succumbs to being an emotionally vacuous entity overburdened by information. If anything, one gets the distinct impression that there is an underlying passion to every fact, a hunger behind each delivered phrase, a fierce force of love and awe driving the massive machine. As Carranza states midway through the film, “I don’t have much to boast about. I have not won an international dance contest; I’m not rich, not world famous, not an internet superstar nor a signature dance step inventor. I’m just an ordinary 50-year-old guy with a lot of stories to tell particularly on the subject because I lived through it, I saw it, I was there when it first started at least in my country of origin.”
Filipinos, we are told, have celebrated their deity through dance even as tribesmen. As Dave Gonzalez, the founder of World of Dance is quoted saying: Filipinos were always very rhythm oriented. A comparison for their success and unique variation on the hip hop theme could be made with how Brazilians took to soccer, inflecting the game with their very own style while seeing it as their ticket out of their hardships. In short, moments after TV shows like Soul Train and films like Saturday Night Fever hit the Philippines, there were scores of people out on the streets not only imitating what they saw but redefining it with their own personality. Very soon local shows like Dance Contest (a takeoff of Dance Fever) captivated the country and gave rise to other spinoffs like Penthouse 7. Eventually, it was Dance 10 which became the first broadcast dance competition series, a program that launched the careers of as many major dancers in the Philippines as SNL had done for new comedians in the US.
While Beyond the Block takes us through the step-by-step metamorphosis of hip hop dancing itself, it also takes us on an adventure through the minds of those who shaped it – those who lived prior the Youtube generation and relied on TV and their imagination of what might be going on in other places as their main source of information. In the company of Carranza, we meet American legends like Michael ‘Turbo’ Chambers who studied animals and nature to find his movements, or Filipino ex-BMXer Larry Moncado who incorporated acrobatic elements from the sports into dance. In addition, we follow Carranza through his early days as a member of Funk System in Manila to the time when he quits dance, devours books on philosophy and theology and ends up becoming a missionary stationed throughout the UK, the US and finally Italy where – after resuming to teach dance – he finds himself embedded once more within the world he thought he had abandoned.
As fate would have it, I had already known Ricky Carranza years ago – our first meeting having taken place neither in New York, nor even on American soil. In fact, at a time both of us were living far from our respective homes. While working as a writer on an SNL-style TV pilot in Helsinki, I regularly hosted a two-hour drive-time radio music and talk show for an FM station. Since at least half the show was devoted to socio-political observations and comedy, I made it my business to seek out entertaining guests who’d come on and discuss their impressions of local culture and how they were acclimating. As I needed a change from the usual slew of visiting rock stars or rappers, I was relieved to hear that an extraordinarily talented dancer and choreographer responsible for staging a great deal of local dance resided in Finland. Since I had devoted much of my teens to dance, I was more than enthusiastic to meet with a man who devoted his entire life to it. Needless to say, it was serendipitous first meeting. What started out as friendship soon culminated in weeks spent together developing a script for a feature film that Carranza was trying to write at the time – a script which, incidentally, is also based on his own life as dancer. It was approximately a month after we had come up with a completed draft of the script that Carranza told me his plans. Rather than just sit around and wait for someone to green-light the fiction project, he would, meanwhile, start working on a documentary that revolved around the much-overlooked subject of Hip Hop Dance’s history in the Philippines. Little did I know at the time that just a few years later, I would be attending the first annual Hip Hop Film Festival of New York and one of the entries would turn out to be none other than that of my old friend and writing colleague, Ricky Carranza.
Filled with comprehensive vision of street dance and the origins of Philippine Hip Hop, an endless battery of memorable aphorisms from legendary figures, and the highly personal story of of man’s journey through an era of rapid change, Ricky Carranza’s Beyond the Block is a nearly ‘3-hour short history lesson’ on a vastly unexplored realm that finally found its way to the screen. Steeped in questions about the viability of dance and the realities surrounding what it took and still takes to make dance one’s career, Carranza’s epic adventure is a fitting ingredient to this year’s Festival. It doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination to see films such as this shown in three parts on a cable network. With Netflix as a main festival sponsor, it’s more than likely that a viable viewing audience can be found over the upcoming years for many of the films presented at this venue. As for the question initially raised in Beat Street about legitimacy and making a living from what started out as a subcultural movement in the South Bronx, I believe the Hip Hop Film Festival NYC holds the promise of becoming a sought-for response.