August 11 this year marked 50 years since DJ Kool Herc used two turntables to create continuous break beats at a party in the Bronx. Since then, as no-one needs to be reminded, the genre that began on the rough and tough streets of New York has become the biggest and most profitable sound in the world.
In celebration of hip-hop’s milestone, here are three films that pay homage to the distinctively urban sounds, fashion and performance styles that set the music and the movement off on the path to world domination from its humble beginnings in 1973.
THE ARTHOUSE ESSENTIAL:
La Haine — Mubi.com
The least directly hip-hop related film on this list, but certainly one that is filled with the rebellious street grit of the genre’s origins. Instead of the Bronx, we have the projects of Paris, where, over the course of twenty-four hours, director Mathieu Kassovitz’s incendiary and energised debut follows the fate of three friends whose marginal lives are deeply rooted in their allegiance and interpretation of American hip-hop culture; from the sounds of their streets to the clothes that they wear and the break dancing that they practice.
The events are set in motion by the assault of a young Arab boy by Parisian police — an all too common injustice that still lurks behind Paris’s romantic postcard image to this day, 28 years after the film was released. Furious but also impotent in their inability to do anything about their rage, the three friends hang out and imagine what they might do if they had the ability to enact some sort of revenge for their critically wounded pal.
When a police revolver finds its way into the hands of young Jewish skinhead Vinz (Vincent Cassel) the story begins to urgently move towards its Chekhovian conclusion, and what at first seemed like just another day in the life of frustrated, disillusioned, bored and rejected working class immigrant teens becomes a day that will change their lives forever.
It’s both a distinctly US hip-hop culture influenced film, while providing a vibrant portrait of the globalisation of the music and culture.
THE STONE COLD CLASSIC:
Wild Style — YouTube
Widely accepted as the first hip-hop movie, Charlie Ahearn’s 1982 classic features the stars of the hip-hop underground in the three prongs of the culture’s trinity: graffiti, music and break dancing. Made in 1982 with Fab 5 Freddy and Blondie’s Christ Stein on music supervision duties, it’s a freewheeling love letter to the street culture of the neglected South Bronx.
Written by Ahearn and Freddy, the loose story centres on the romance between young street artists Zorro and Lady Bug, played by real-life graffiti pioneers Lee Quinones and Lady Pink. As they move through the scene, we’re introduced to the unique and now legendary taggers, breakers and MCs whose antics have since been etched into hip-hop lore and iconography.
It’s not much on the narrative front, but it stands as a singular documenting of the energy and innovation of the culture’s earliest proponents and a tribute to their ability to make so much out of what little they had available at the point at which hip-hop was poised to begin its journey to the mainstream.
There is little else that comes as close to capturing on film the spirit, ingenuity and creativity of the early days of hip-hop and the down-in-the-trenches enthusiasm of legends like Grandmaster Flash, Zulu Nation, Zephyr and the Rocksteady Crew, who laid the foundations for nearly all those who have come after them.
THE DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH:
Krush Groove — YouTube
Its soundtrack is stronger than its storyline but there’s still plenty for hip-hop history lovers to enjoy in this madcap musical that, like Wild Style, serves more to put faces from the culture on screen than it does to rewrite cinema history.
Featuring Run DMC, a very young and still recognisably shabby Rick Rubin and serving as a very thinly disguised vehicle for the promotion of the story of Def Jam records and its founder Phil Simmons, it’s a comedy adventure set in New York’s less glamorous streets about the adventures of an enterprising record producer to get the cash he needs to press the records he needs for the increasingly in-demand artists he represents. Besides Run DMC, these include Kurtis Blow, Sheila E, the Fat Boys, New Edition, the Beastie Boys and LL Cool J — all of whom make cameos in the film.
Once again it’s a film that’s lasted mostly because of the snapshot it offers of its time and place and the players in hip-hop history that it features. If watched in comparison to Wild Style, released a mere three years earlier, it also provides evidence of how fast things were already moving in the hip-hop universe.
It’s thinly veiled commercialism also point to the broader changes that would influence hip-hop culture as it began to move more stridently from the underground and into the mainstream heart of popular culture.