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Style Wars 20th Anniversary
Interview by Gregory Keller

Just at the moment when hip hop was exploding from a neighborhood passion to a popular phenomenon, Henry Chalfant and Tony Silver caught it on camera in their now-classic 1983 film, Style Wars. Following graffiti writers from the trainyards of the Bronx to the galleries of Soho, the documentary now stands as a tribute to the pioneers of one of the most powerful cultural forces in the world today. To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the movie, Plexifilm released a DVD version and gathered some of the movie’s original participants, including Kay Slay and Frosty Freeze, to talk about what MCing, DJing, breaking, and graffiti were like in the 80s, how those things have changed, and the role the movie played in that transition.

Clamor: A lot of people say that Style Wars blew up the culture and helped hip-hop to go worldwide. Why do you think so many people took to it and still want to do it today?

Kay Slay: Yo, Style Wars is the epitome of every ghetto. It was like everything that was goin’ on, and it was real. A lot of the joints that came out — Beat Street was like a story, like “Ramo!” and that wasn’t real. This was real. This was a real beef we had with Cap, they was really break dancing against Dynamic Rockers, we was really on the Subway tracks. It wasn’t nothin’ fabricated. Mayor Koch was really an asshole.


Frosty Freeze: True

Tony Silver: And a comedian.

KS: It was real.

TS: They were real life characters. Real people who were living an incredible drama. An amazing real life theatrical experience. It had been building for 12 years essentially, since 1970, which was when a couple of things started. It was when Kool Herc came out and Taki 183 all by himself went all city and developed that whole concept. And by the time we were filming, came the danger that it was gonna be over for many reasons. There was that peak intensity. And it had moved from uptown and the boroughs, it was concentrating downtown, and so in a hundred ways all that energy was flowing all through the city, in the veins of the city. If Dez [Kay-Slay] did a piece in the morning it was all over the city by the afternoon and someone was looking at it, and saying, you know, “I could burn it.”

You mentioned the culture being 12 years in the making by the time you came in. It’s been said that couldn’t happen today. Any youth movement would be capitalized on by a corporation and immediately sold back to the public before it had a chance to evolve.

TS: Couldn’t happen in New York. And in that sense it was more segregated when it started. I mean nobody knew about B-Boys in the mid-'70s when it was really happening in a major way for the first time, and a lot of those forms and styles were being formed then.

Henry Chalfant: Nobody downtown knew, nobody from our part of the city was aware of it. I was hanging out with you guys for a long time before anybody ever brought it up. Nobody ever said anything about B-Boys.

KS: When Rock Steady came out, y’all was like the third generation of break dancers.

Frosty Freeze: Second.

KS: What year y’all came out?

FF: Well um—

KS: ‘Cause first you had the Herculoids.

FF: Right.

KS: Zulu Nation, Little Rudy and The Nine Crew.

FF: Cassanova, Zulu Kings.

KS: But then after that you had the Floormasters, the Floormaster Tops, the Smokeatrons, Wayne O and the Executioners-

HC: PDB, Rock Boys.

KS: After that what happened? I know in our hood it got to the point where they used to go “Aw man, stop cleanin’ up the floor.” Remember that, spinnin’ on ya head you’re gettin’ brain damage. That’s when we was like “Whoa,” once you break dancing and a chick walk by like “Oh he cleanin’ up the floor.”

HC: That was the end of that.

KS: That was the terminology that made us and that’s when y’all [Rock Steady] got strong into it, and y’all started goin’ to another level with it. That’s what made people latch on to the different elements of hip-hop, ‘cause as soon as it goes down it would be one group to come, or two, and people start makin’ money off of it. At first nobody was makin’ no money off of it.

TS: Also they weren’t really showing it to anyone else, they were just showing it to each other.

HC: It was entirely between kids.

KS: You had to go where it was at. After a while you go to 42nd, guys have radios out there, but before that if you ain’t goin’ to a jam, if you wasn’t in Bronx River, Clinton Center, PAL, or you wasn’t in the hood, in the project, or in the park, and they was break dancin’, you wasn’t gonna see it. It was like something hidden.

TS: I remember one night, it must’ve been ‘81, ‘82, we were at the Roxy, you and I, and Frosty was there, Legs was there, it was one o’clock in the morning, and two guys walked in who were older and they went up to, I think Legs, and said hello. And they were clearly older, and somebody challenged them to see if they could still do it, because somebody made some kind of remark about Legs not doin’ it right, “the way we did it” or something like that. And they got down, and you could see right away that it was an older school, it had its own style, its own elegance, and it belonged to the same thing. But it was an older school, it was just a moment. It was amazing.

KS: They had cats like, they had this kid Swang,: He used to be terrible. Then they had this kid E-Man that was down with the Floormasters, he had moves. Floormasters was the best crew in Manhattan, like Harlem. You had E-Man, he’d do the inchworm, smokin’ a joint. Then you had this kid called Ice-Man who’d freeze his whole body but his leg would be shakin’ like— [KS shakes leg]. Then you had Ray Von and Diamond Dave. Diamond Dave was the kid who’d do the Chico, you know how they’d do the Spanish move. They had a team. Then they had Spivey-

FF: Spivey

KS: With the flips—

FF: With the flips.

KS: Okay. They had a team where whoever you put out they had somebody boom, get’em. And they used to go to Schoenberg on 110th Street, they used to be like “Yo the Floormasters is breakin.” People would come from everywhere in the hood.

TS: This is like ‘78? ‘79?

KS: This is like ‘78, ‘79, I was goin’ to Junior High School 13.

FF: All that stuff he’s sayin’ was original, you don’t usually see that stuff today, except like I can still do most of the original moves and I keep that vibe goin’ so like heads know. And like the only other person besides myself is Wayne from the Executioners and Greggo and them that keep their street mentality B-Boy style goin’. Legs and them, Ken Swift and ‘em took it to the next level where they added like backspins and headspins. Rock Steady, I don’t speak about those guys from the first generation but like from the Bronx and Manhattan, that was the original B-Boy. It was mostly blacks, it wasn’t too many Latinos until the ‘80s because in our view it was played out.

KS: What he’s sayin is true, ‘cause what it was like was, say we broke-danced but we couldn’t fuck with them when it came to the Hustle. Like back when we was break dancin’ they had the fuckin’ like, like when John Travolta was doin’ that Hustle shit, we couldn’t fuck with them, like they had their own dance.

HC: But I’ve been talking to people who were with the Bronx Boys and Starchild La Rock and Rockwell, and these Bronx crews were affiliated with Rock Steady and they’re a little older than you. And they were telling me how they see it, most of them Latino kids. It was like Zulu Nation Foundation was when all the black kids were doing it, and they took it and gave it a Boricqua flavor, and they kind of took over after, as you say, people in your neighborhood started to say I don’t wanna get my clothes dirty

KS: You’re cleanin’ the floor, yeah—

HC: So then they continued, and that’s why you all were still doing it by 1981 when—

TS: And what about the Queens crews, what about the Dynamic Rockers, how did it get there?

FF: Ok, see, the two guys, Kid Glide and Mr. Freeze, that’s George and Victor, were from Manhattan and those are like my rivals like goin’ into the ‘80s. ‘Cause it was like for them goin’ up against me, they were no match, they wasn’t in my category. But tempers begin to flare when you humiliate somebody else and they can’t take it. They got played out as far as me takin’ ‘em out. This is before I even met Legs and ‘em. What happened was they weren’t happenin’ and they started goin’ to clubs outside of Manhattan and the Bronx to Queens. And they figured they got a bunch of guys like Kid Freeze and Wavy Legs, and those guys that got into it slowly but surely, but the way they learned was by watching us. We used the terminology “biting.” They didn’t do it the original way like me and Crazy Legs and Ken Swift. ‘Cause we went to hip-hop parties and the whole foundation we learned from watching Kool Herc and the Herculoids, the Zulu Kings, guys on the East Side, the Executioners, Floormasters. I was on a crew on the West Side called The Rock City Crew who came from Sun Dance. Sun Dance was able to go up to the Bronx. And Queens had their little thing. I give Dynamic respect, even then and now; they put Queens on the map, but yet they weren’t original B-Boys. Like we would constantly battle, from Style Wars, which was real, to the Lincoln Center battle. We were rivals. We were straight up enemies, hated, but just from a distance point. We wasn’t gang rivals or nothing like that, we was just B-Boy rivals.

KS: Back then it was funny, you had to have your shirt, your name was on your shirt, you had the iron-on letters poppin’, you had the shiny glitter letters poppin’, your Lee’s, your Adidas, your Pumas, and you went to Blocks and you battled. I remember the first time I seen someone spinnin’ on they head. This kid named JJ, and he had like a – rest in peace he’s deceased – his head was about this long—

[measuring out two feet]


KS: —and I remember, nobody could spin on their head longer, like he’d spin on his head, then like when he finished, he didn’t go down, like he’d still be standin’ on his head. Like you ever seen someone do that, like they could keep twistin’ and let their hand go and then stop again. I was like “Yo, he got a strong neck.” Like how could you stay on top of your head like that?

On the DVD, Doze talks about hip- hop becoming political in other countries, such as Brazil, in a way it never was here. Do you agree with that and what do you think that means?

HC: I think what he means about Brazil is there was a kind of Black Nationalist thing that people were doing, there was a community cohesion, and that hip-hop was a part of it there.

TS: We’ve been hearing about this.

HC: We know it’s not particularly political here. It’s not political at all.

TS: There were always people who wanted to, on the fringe or wherever, who were trying to mobilize the idea that it is political, or that was a subtext of it all along. I don’t think it really was, particularly. It was more about people who were 15, or 16, or 19 years old, basically discovering a way of expressing themselves and looking at each other doing it and competing and battling.

There aren’t a lot of rappers who can get away with being political because it seems put on, KRS-One is one—

KS: Chuck D

Right, Public Enemy.

FF: See those are the last poets in the ‘80s. In the‘90s it just became more industry takin’ over, watered down, commercializin’. It’s about makin’ money, and how well your records sell, how well you do on tour, the publicity comes along with it, and how well your video does.

KS: I think Hip Hop is really about havin’ fun. Back when we was first out in the park, Djin’, in the club havin’ fun, out in the park break dancin’, everything was just about havin’ fun. ‘Cause back then we wasn’t lookin’ for no money to do it. It was just like a hobby, like a everyday, y’know, pop the lamp post, plug this in, lemme get some electricity from somebody’s house, and bring this equipment outside on the basketball court.

HC: Can’t do that now, you’re gonna pay a fine—

KS: That’s right, no way, that person would probably get evicted. But that’s what we did. And now there’s a lotta rappers and DJs doin’ it for the almighty dollar. It’s a difference. It’s a big difference. If there was no money in hip- hop, there’s a lot of people who wouldn’t be doin’ it.

TS: We caught the end of it, essentially, and you could see the turning point in the movie, with the gallery stuff, and even Crazy Legs on the ferry boat, which is a fantastic moment really, even the guy says it, he says “This is a package of entertainers and we’re taking it on the road.”

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