It’s a cool, crisp evening in March at San Francisco’s Red Vic Theater. As a crowd of folks pours through the doors of the famed rep house, 23-year-old Joslyn Rose-Lyons watches nervously from the second-floor projection booth. The occasion is a sneak preview of her new documentary Soundz of Spirit. The film is being presented as part of the Hip Hop Film Festival, a program of independent films put together by the filmmakers themselves.
Despite very little in the way of promotion — flyers, a few Web site listings, and some community radio ticket giveaways — word of the premiere obviously got out. The line at the theater stretches for a couple of blocks. As many as three or four hundred people are turned away after the venue reaches capacity. Rumor has it that this crowd far exceeds the one across town at the Roxie tonight for Daughter from Danang, the moving Oscar-nominated documentary from Berkeley.
It’s easy to understand why Rose-Lyons might have a few jitters about her film’s first public showing. Just a few days earlier, the first-time director had been holed up in her small South Berkeley studio, frantically editing the final cut of a project she had worked on almost daily for the past three years. Consequently, although normally outgoing, she has a bad case of the shys tonight.
Down at floor level, people greet each other, say their “whassups,” and work the room before settling into their seats. A few reporters and well-wishers want to meet the director, but she won’t budge from her upstairs perch. How will people respond to the images, words, and sounds before them on the screen? What if everybody hates the film?
Still, the outpouring of support is heartening. The audience includes many members of the Bay Area’s hip-hop community, several of whom are featured in the documentary. Zion and Amp Live of East Bay duo Zion-I are there. So is SF rapper Pitch Black, looking natty in a camel-colored leather jacket. Oakland neo-soul sensation Goapele shows up, accompanied by members of the Local 1200 DJ crew. Ms. Little is in the house, along with a fairly deep posse of B-girls and B-boys, representing the Fillmore Rocks dance crew. Oakland-based performance artist Hanifah Walidah makes the scene. Many young poets from the Youth Speaks organization are present as well. And several graying audience members have turned out, some perhaps parents of artists featured in the film.
Once the lights dim, it quickly becomes clear this isn’t your typical hip-hop documentary about wreck (fame), cheddar (money), and beef (conflict). Those themes are noticeably absent, which makes Soundz of Spirit something of a departure in the world of hip-hop film. From its New Age-y opening montage straight through to the closing credits, the film depicts hip-hop culture as a creative outlet for positive, conscious, and inherently spiritual artistic expression. Any negative aspects are, for the most part, absent.
Soundz of Spirit depicts a very different set of concerns from the ones portrayed in Straight Outta Hunters Point, the movie that put the Bay Area hip-hop film scene on the map a few years ago. That film’s subject was seemingly ripped right out of San Francisco Chronicle headlines — at least 63 homicides have occurred in Hunters Point in the last two years alone. But statistics only told part of the story. As the newspapers were reporting the gruesome details of a gangsta rap-related gang war between two rival Hunters Point neighborhood factions, first-time filmmaker Kevin Epps was documenting the drama as it happened. Epps, who grew up in the Harbour Road projects alongside pioneering San Francisco hardcore rappers RBL Posse, had access to that community no outsider could have obtained. Armed with only a digital camera and his wits, he documented the reality of life in the ‘hood in a way rarely captured before on film.
From the yin of hip-hop’s spiritual side to the yang of gangsta life, Straight Outta Hunters Point and Soundz of Spirit represent opposing ends of the increasingly vital spectrum of Bay Area hip-hop film. That they were born of such radically different inspirations speaks to the breadth of both the local scene and hip-hop itself. Both films reflect the personal experiences of their makers. They also hint at the dichotomy between mainstream and underground rap, going behind the scenes to present a viewpoint often overlooked or ignored by the music industry’s more commercial side.
Epps and Rose-Lyons are far from alone in the local hip-hop cinema scene. The range of films being produced locally runs from tour diaries to long-form music videos to full-on documentaries and features. There is a wide range of cinematography as well, from jittery, hand-held camera work to jump cuts and split-screen images, with busy, MTV-style graphics. Some of the more ambitious fare tackles complicated political and social issues. Others are low-budget productions that don’t say more than “Look, Ma, I’m at the sideshow.” Not all of these films are masterpieces by any means, but what’s significant is that not only are they being made independently, but they are connecting with a “reality”-hungry audience, weaned on everything from Rodney King to The Blair Witch Project to Survivor. And while the filmmakers’ backgrounds vary as much as the themes they take on, their experiences personify the essence of the underground hip-hop experience.
Freestyle, directed by Hip Hop Film Festival co-founder Kevin Fitzgerald, addresses the improvisational aspect of MC rhymes, an art form that has little or nothing to do with the commercial rap industry. The Freshest Kids, by the filmmaker known as Israel, takes a fresh look at B-boy and B-girl culture, suggesting that the dance-oriented aspect of hip-hop culture has been revived by a younger generation. Joey Garfield’s Breath Control documents hip-hop’s often-overlooked “fifth element,” human beatboxing, contrasting historical footage of Doug E. Fresh and the Fat Boys’ Buffy with newer vocal percussionists such as Scratch and Radioactive. The short “Keepin Time,” directed by hip-hop photographer B+ — who has shot album covers for artists such as Dilated Peoples, Mos Def, Jurassic 5, and Q-Tip — depicts a jam session between turntablists DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist and the legendary breakbeat drummers they idolized. And Rachel Raimist’s Nobody Knows My Name zeroes in on just what it means to be a woman in the male-dominated hip-hop industry.
These documentaries are all the works of filmmakers from the so-called Hip-Hop Generation, author Bakari Kitwana’s term for young African Americans born between 1965 and 1984. Frustrated by the range of their artistic choices, they decided to do something about it, creating works that speak directly to their own interests and concerns. The Hip-Hop Generation’s collective ethos may still be too fuzzy to describe in anything but vague terms, yet Kitwana and others believe its impact on American society is equal to that of the Baby Boomers on the 1960s and 1970s.
In any case, the rise of hip-hop film shows that rap culture has come a long way since it first penetrated America’s consciousness in the early 1980s.
Twenty years ago, hip-hop seemed destined to be short-lived. Rapping, turntable scratching, break dancing, and graffiti art might well have been passing fads. That perception began to change with Style Wars, the very first effort to show hip-hop culture on celluloid, and one that serves as a historical reference point to this day. Style Wars — recently reissued on DVD for its twentieth anniversary — documented the South Bronx’s spray-can art and B-boy scenes in their purest form, before they were overshadowed by the vocal element of hip-hop.
For those living outside of NYC, Style Wars served as a blueprint of early hip-hop culture, something to be studied in lieu of a textbook. It addressed several universal topics that have been raised time and time again in later films depicting youth culture — the lifestyles of inner-city youth, the role of art in urban society, and the inability of authority figures to relate to both. One of the movie’s most memorable parts came when graffiti writer Skeme attempted to explain why he felt the need to go out and deface public property with an aerosol can, as his mother shook her head and lamented that she didn’t understand. It might as well have been a scene from Rebel Without a Cause, albeit updated for a new generation and culture.
Style Wars’ co-director Henry Chalfant recalls that his experience making the film was very similar to what today’s hip-hop documentarians go through — trying to shoot and edit a feature with a shortage of capital. “There’d be a jam on the weekend, and you go and be a part of it,” he recalls in an interview from his home in New York. “You didn’t have to buy anything. Some DJ would have set up in the park, or in a school playground, and you’d hear it. All the kids from the Bronx would go there.”
Style Wars focused on the underground scene based around the ghettoes of the South Bronx, the birthplace of hip-hop. But as the culture spread, it created regional scenes in its wake all across America, each based on a different set of social, political, and environmental factors. Diversity has become a hallmark of the West Coast underground, as is apparent in most of the films made about its scene. Soundz of Spirit, Freestyle, and Street Legends — a portrait of the Cali indie-rap phenomenons Mystik Journeymen and their crew, the Living Legends collective — all touch on different aspects of California’s indigenous urban street culture. They each reveal layers of artistic nuance undeveloped at the time of Style Wars.
Although rap itself is considerably more commercial than it was in the days of Style Wars, as recently as five years ago there were no hip-hop films submitted to events such as the San Francisco Black Film Festival. But in the years since, there’s been a steady increase in the number of independent films featuring hip-hop as a subject or a backdrop. Black Film Festival director Ave Montague notes that out of the sixty films accepted for this year’s festival, at least ten can be classified as hip-hop movies. “Hip-hop is what’s happening right now,” she says.
This year’s festival ran the gamut from a documentary about an aspiring Caucasian rap artist to an updated version of The Diary of Anne Frank told from a hip-hop perspective. Audiences loved it, Montague says: “I think that’s one reason why there are so many hip-hop films out now, because audiences have embraced them.”
The genre’s overall range extends from big-budget Hollywood productions featuring bankable stars such as Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube, and Jamie Kennedy; through straight-to-video gangsta melodramas directed by rap impresarios like Master P, D-Shot, and Mack 10; to bare-bones, reality-based, neighborhood documentaries such as Sidewayz and Baller Town, both of which were filmed in East Oakland. Nick Broomfield’s documentary Biggie and Tupac is being promoted in Sunday newspaper inserts for national chain stores. And multiplatinum rapper Eminem’s recent video “White America” was put together by the Guerrilla News Network, the crew of Bay Area documentarians behind Aftermath: Unanswered Questions from 9/11, an eyebrow-raising look at the politics of terrorism set to booming hip-hop beats and narrated by controversial rapper Paris.
Montague thinks we are witnessing the birth of a new cinematic movement, one driven more by audience interest than marketing dollars. “It’s almost like the Behind the Music type of genre that VH-1 made so popular,” she says. As examples, she points to Black Film Festival entries such as Life Is Too $hort, a revealing look at the life and times of the legendarily foul-mouthed Oakland MC, and Something to Say: Beats by the Bay, which deals with the politics of Bay Area hip-hop.
Although the Black Film Festival has done its part to help support the boom in hip-hop film, the annual event is targeted more toward an upscale audience. The Hip Hop Film Festival, which operates on a periodic basis, has allowed new filmmakers more opportunities to showcase their work, while reaching out to working-class crowds. The festival debuted in San Francisco last year with screenings at the Red Vic, the Cellar, Storyville, and the Justice League. Since then, it’s played periodically in the Bay Area at venues such as Oakland’s Parkway and San Francisco’s Castro, and in New Mexico, North Carolina, and Hawaii. The festival comes to Oakland’s Black Box in July.
For the latest edition of the Hip Hop Film Fest, filmmaker Epps booked the Roxie for three nights concluding June 25. In addition to standbys such as Straight Outta Hunters Point and Battlesounds, a film about turntablism and scratch DJs, the festival features Open Transport, an examination of regional underground scenes all over America; World Famous, a documentary on Sway and King Tech’s legendary radio show; and Hook, a look at street hoops hero Demetrius Mitchell, featuring a score by super-producer DJ Premier. Epps is particularly juiced about the addition of a full program of shorts, including the animated cartoon “Groove Monkey”; “Crutch,” about an arthritic B-boy; and “Digitize or Die,” which documents Public Enemy leader Chuck D’s embracing of digital media.
Chris Kahunahuna, who ran a film festival in his native Hawaii for five years and last year organized a Honolulu trip by the Hip Hop Film Fest team, says their efforts were received with wonder and amazement by local residents. The filmmakers, adds Kahunahuna, now curator of SF’s Punch Gallery, “represent a fresh voice, a diverse voice for urban youth.”
For Rose-Lyons, whose heritage is Spanish and Jewish but who could pass for Latina, it all started in Berkeley in the ’70s. Raised by parents whose spiritual beliefs drew upon both Judaism and Buddhism, she grew up in a multicultural, politically progressive environment, where Malcolm X’s birthday was an official school holiday. Her mother was a painter and her father an actor; creativity was always encouraged in their household.
Rose-Lyons became aware of the East Bay’s unique hip-hop scene when she attended Bishop O’Dowd High School, becoming a fan of local groups such as the Hieroglyphics, Digital Underground, Mystik Journeymen, and Living Legends. “I really appreciated and admired their independence and their conscious lyrics,” she says. “They weren’t trying to sell anything, they were just saying who they were. They were saying, ‘Fuck the system, we’re gonna go and do it ourselves. ‘” One conversation about the music industry with Corey Johnson (aka Sunspot Jonz of Mystik Journeymen) particularly stood out. “We were talking about all the different ways you can go and he said, ‘I’m gonna go my own way.’ That was so important to me back then, because I always had dreams of being a filmmaker and an artist.” At that moment, she recalls, “I connected. I was like, ‘Wow, I can do this too. ‘”
After graduating from high school, Rose-Lyons enrolled at Cal State Hayward, where she established an arts-based curriculum and created her own major called “Visual and Creative Expression.” She interned at Paradigm Productions, a professional video production company, and worked on various student projects. After transferring to UC Berkeley to finish her degree, she became a volunteer at La Peña, where she discovered the Collective Soul hip-hop showcases frequented by the East Bay’s grassroots-minded hip-hop crowd. Being at Collective Soul was like church, she recalls: “It was a really positive vibe. There were no fights, no one was getting faded in the back. It was really nice to see that kind of community effort happen, because not a lot of venues feature that kind of stuff.”
At La Peña, Rose-Lyons became acquainted with the members of Zion-I, who were about to release their first album, Mind Over Matter. She bonded with the lyrically conscious rap crew, and told them about her dream of making a documentary about the positive aspects of hip-hop. “The music I make has a spiritual tint to it,” says Zion-I producer Amp Live, explaining why he offered to help with the project. “A documentary on hip-hop and spirituality hadn’t really been done before, so that was something cool.”
The very next weekend, Rose-Lyons began filming what became Soundz of Spirit. Her first interview was conducted backstage at La Peña with the Last Poets, the legendary spoken-word artists often called the forefathers of today’s rappers. When she asked several current members of the group what spirituality meant to them, she was met with puzzled expressions. After a pause, they explained that in their five-decade-long career, no one had ever asked them that question before. They then told Rose-Lyons that spirituality was the basis for everything they did. “When they said that, I was like, ‘I’m on the right path; this is where I’m supposed to be,'” she says.
Spurred by this epiphany, Rose-Lyons dove headfirst into the project, without even securing any funding or doing any extensive research. As a Cal film student, she had access to the media lab and some editing equipment, but she still encountered pitfalls along the way, chiefly “being young, being a student, and being female.” Sometimes she didn’t feel too professional lugging her camera around to interviews in a backpack, with nary an assistant in sight. “There were times when I felt I didn’t have the ability to do it myself,” she says.
But when she got discouraged, she drew inspiration from the creative process of Zion-I. “I’d go to their house and just watch them work with Goapele or Pep Love or whoever,” she says. Rose-Lyons filmed many of these sessions, some of which resulted in the behind-the-scenes footage captured in Soundz of Spirit. If the material comes off as unstaged, that’s because it is. “Half the time, I don’t think they even knew what I was doing.”
Truth be told, in the early days, she sometimes didn’t know herself. But during the long process of making her film, Rose-Lyons came to understand a few things about the art of interviewing people on video. “I learned the afterthoughts are the gems,” she says. In her later interviews, she made a concerted effort to keep the camera rolling long enough for her subjects to let down their guard and reveal what was really on their minds.
Soundz of Spirit became a personal journey for Rose-Lyons, quickly consuming all her free time. “It was crazy,” she recalls. “I was living in my room at my mom’s house in Berkeley, with all this stuff you see in my office now, sleeping and editing there. I had a futon on the floor, and all this editing equipment. It was totally ridiculous. I would wake up at 4 a.m. and start editing, or not go to sleep until then. I was on the phone with all these crazy managers on my home line, running up bills, trying to go to class the next day.”
Since she started out with few connections to the hip-hop world, Rose-Lyons got her share of the run-around from skeptical managers and publicists who questioned her legitimacy and that of her film. There were instances, when managers didn’t take seriously her requests to interview their artists. “Instead, they would want to guest-list me or invite me to come kick it. Managers looked at me, like, ‘This is just some young girl.’ They never said that, but I could feel that vibe in the air.”
But she kept chipping away, and her own optimism and spiritually-minded values allowed her to rise above the difficulties she encountered along the way. If anything, these experiences made her even more resolute to finish, so she could prove she was a filmmaker and not just another groupie. “Every interview led to another interview,” she says. “I just kind of followed the path and went with it. I was like, ‘If an interview doesn’t work out, I guess it wasn’t meant to be.'”
Ultimately, she managed to interview several well-known artists, including Talib Kweli of Blackstar and Reflection Eternal, dreadlocked social commentator Michael Franti, and the iconoclastic enigma KRS-One. Her connections with the Last Poets eventually resulted in a backstage audience with Jurassic 5 at an Outkast show, where she also met Andre 3000 of the Grammy-winning Dirty South duo. Word of mouth about the documentary also circulated among the local hip-hop community, and Rose-Lyons dedicated considerable screen time to local artists such as slam poet A’darius, graffiti artist Refa-One, and DJ Vin Roc. All in all, she conducted eighty interviews and amassed 120 hours of footage, which she then edited down to ninety minutes.
Her film’s main point is that spirituality is an essential, if not preeminent, part of hip-hop’s artistic expression. This can take many forms, whether it’s the traditional hip-hop elements of being an MC, DJ, beatboxer, breakdancer, or graffiti artist, or even being an activist or teacher. Time and time again, the documentary also captures artists in the creative process. Zion-I and Aceyalone of the seminal Los Angeles collective Freestyle Fellowship are seen working out their rhyme schemes for the track that eventually become “Cheeba Cheeba,” Zion-I’s current single. Rappers often are portrayed as despising one another, but it’s obvious that Zion and Acey’s respect for each other is what brought them together to do the track. “The best time is when it’s ego-less,” Zion remarks in an aside to the camera.
Soundz of Spirit is by no means perfect. The film’s biggest flaw is that it overemphasizes its core themes, and is more than a bit redundant at times. The pacing also flags in places, and would benefit from additional internal drama or greater focus on a single character or group. Even so, there are some intriguing glimpses into the mindset of the many artists featured. And the handheld camera work, while perhaps not the most polished and professional, conveys the essence of its subject matter in clean, entirely realistic fashion.
But mostly, Soundz of Spirit reflects Rose-Lyon’s own take on what hip-hop is — and what she thinks it should aspire to be. “I think in this film, I was trying to transcend racism and gender issues, in the sense that I was trying to bring it back to a more universal positive connection with our spirit, through our art,” she says. “We can transcend those issues. Hip-hop, to me, does that.”
In Straight Outta Hunters Point, racial and economic issues are much more personal and recurring themes, just as they are for filmmaker Epps.
The film depicts the “ghetto fabulous” lifestyle — gold-toothed thugs doing donuts in stolen cars, pointing guns at the camera, and openly selling drugs on the streets. It also shows the consequences — innocent bystanders getting shot, distraught mothers crying at funerals, and law enforcement and city officials frustrated by their inability to stop the violence, much less address its real causes. The film introduced viewers to kids not even of high-school age already possessing a thugged-out mentality, and older residents at a loss to explain why their youth were so fatalistic and violent. While crime is a frequent occurrence in Hunters Point, Epps believes that residents are victimized not only by criminals, but by the basic inequalities of the system itself. “I was trying to capture the street-level psychology,” he says.
Epps’ movie also touched on the long history of Hunters Point, one of the first predominantly African-American communities in California. The film captures the impact upon the once-proud black community of antipolice brutality riots of September 1966 and the rampant unemployment stemming from the 1973 closing of the Hunters Point naval shipyards. But concerns about employment or matters such as the neighborhood’s two toxic Superfund sites often take a backseat to survival concerns. “We’re dealing with more urgent situations,” Epps says. “Like being killed by another black man or dealing with the penal system.”
Although gangsta rap is widely cited as a negative influence on young people, Straight Outta Hunters Point depicted the socioeconomic and environmental context of inner-city life in such a way that the creative outlet of rap could actually be seen as one of the neighborhood’s few positive exports. The documentary’s soundtrack featured underground Hunters Point artists voicing their thoughts about situations such as coming from broken homes, having drug-addicted family members, or not being born with silver spoons in their mouths.
Epps’ own upbringing was similar to that of his subjects. Hampered by poverty and a lack of occupational or educational opportunities, Epps’ own survival also once depended on the streets. Like too many young black men in Hunters Point, he got caught up in the cycle of crime and incarceration, one that has turned the path between the streets and the prison into a revolving door. “I see homies getting out of jail every day,” he says.
But unlike many of his peers, Epps was able to turn his life around and transcend the ghetto through his will and determination to become a filmmaker. With little formal training, he started shooting what would become Straight Outta Hunters Point in late 1999, finishing his film in 2001. In addition to being the director, Epps served as primary cameraman and interviewer. He enlisted the help of another Film Arts student, Joshua Callaghan, to help edit the more than one hundred hours of digital video he compiled.
Making the film opened up a new world for Epps, but life in the Point continues to be “grimey,” in street-corner parlance. Since the debut of Straight Outta Hunters Point, at least ten of the people featured in the film have lost their lives — most due to gunshots. One particularly hard blow to Epps was the murder of Lil’ Mo, who was just eleven when he was featured in the film. Ironically, the segment featuring Mo showed him mourning the death of Jarvis Baker, a victim of bad blood between the Big Block and Westmob gangs. Another painful loss for Epps was that of Hitman, a member of RBL Posse he had known since childhood. Hitman reportedly lost interest in his promising rap career — his debut album, 1995’s Solo Creep, reportedly sold more than 100,000 copies independently — and spent most of his time hanging out on the block in Hunters Point, basking in his ghetto fabulousness. “He was most comfortable in the ‘hood,” Epps says, shaking his head and speaking in a halting voice. “Ain’t nothing like them streets. … Hitman had that in his veins.”
Although the names have changed, the game remains the same in Hunters Point. A series of joint FBI-San Francisco Police Department raids have locked up many of the major players on the turf at the time of the movie, including Big Block Records CEO Douglas “Boobie” Stepney, but crime hasn’t lessened one iota. The embattled community recently took another blow when longtime neighborhood activist Julia “Aunt Bea” Middleton passed away. Epps has become active in efforts to carry on her legacy, most recently by raising funds for the Hunters Point Community Youth Park — one of the few places in the turf war zone off-limits to gang violence, out of respect for the children that play there.
In the two years since his film premiered, Epps has managed to create a life outside of the inner city, although Hunters Point will likely always be a part of him. (“You get the block report,” he jokes about his continuing link to ‘hood happenings. “I’m like Tom Brokaw.”) He’s pushing DVDs, soundtracks, and T-shirts over the Internet, and has become accustomed to speaking on university panels and leading discussions at community forums on ghetto socioeconomics and artistic entrepreneurship. Even Epps seems a little amazed at the continuing interest in Straight Outta Hunters Point, which has taken him to Ivy League schools as well as traditional black colleges. He’s held the podium at SF’s prestigious Commonwealth Club, and Straight Outta Hunters Point won the Best Documentary award at the 2003 Denver Pan-African Film and Arts Festival, but fame appears to have changed Epps little.
Staying focused is perhaps the most difficult part of his mission. Epps is doing a lot of things at once: organizing in Hunters Point, promoting the Hip Hop Film Fest, and researching his next project, a documentary he’s working on with Callaghan about the African-American experience on Alcatraz. He says his inspiration comes from youth activism and working with youth-oriented educational programs. Epps speaks glowingly of screening his film for troubled juveniles at a program in Oregon. “The counselors reported that the kids were more attentive than they had ever been,” he says. Recently, he and Refa-One taught a workshop for a youth program in Hayward, where he believes he met several future filmmakers who are still in grade school. He’s also excited about networking with fans around the world. “Me and the cats in South Africa are collaborating through e-mail,” he reports. He sees similarities between Hunters Point and East Oakland, East Palo Alto and, for that matter, East Timbuktu.
But these days, Epps can frequently be found at the Hip Hop Film Fest’s Berkeley headquarters. After transferring the lessons learned from what he calls the “street hustle” to a cinematic milieu, he now speaks of being “on the cutting edge of a digital revolution.”
This revolution began with affordable technology — editing software and digital cameras. A pro-quality editing program can now be had for under $1,000, and a high-end digital camera costs as little as $1,500. The combination of these factors means that where filmmakers previously had to line up investors to kick in seed money for film, cameras, and a technical crew, nowadays many people are simply putting a camera in a backpack, shooting footage, and editing it on their home computers — much as Epps and Rose-Lyons did.
While solid distribution deals are still hard to come by, today’s indie filmmakers are discovering they can build their own base of support through word of mouth and eventually even negotiate deals on their own terms. In other words, thanks to forums such as the Hip Hop Film Festival, independent directors aren’t as helpless as they used to be. By developing their own resources, they’ve been able to establish a foothold in the movie business, while maintaining their own version of integrity.
The Hip Hop Film Fest began as the brainchild of Freestyle director Fitzgerald and his coproducer and cinematographer Todd Hickey, who also codirected Street Legends. Hickey learned the basics of documentary and narrative filmmaking at Temple University, and after moving to Los Angeles, he worked as a camera assistant on music videos for underground hip-hop artists. Along the way, he met Fitzgerald, who’d already thought up the concept for Freestyle. After deciding to pool their resources to get the film done, they started collecting footage. “Kevin and I would go to all these places, and we’d basically just bring cameras,” Hickey says. “We ended up shooting a bunch of stuff for Freestyle. We started to edit it, and that’s when we realized the historical context. We started buying footage and talking to people with expert opinions that could qualify it. That’s how Freestyle was born.”
During the eight years they spent making their film, they became aware of others doing similar things, including John Carluccio, director of Battlesounds, and Doug Pray, who made Scratch, another turntablist documentary, which screened at Sundance and was later picked up for distribution by Palm Pictures. While trying to land a similar deal for Freestyle, Fitzgerald and Hickey pitched various corporate entities about sponsoring a film festival showcasing independent hip-hop cinema. The offers they got, however, were on unfavorable terms, so they began to explore the possibilities of making it happen on their own. Then they read an article about Straight Outta Hunters Point, and the proverbial light bulb went on.
“It all sort of congealed,” Hickey recalls. “Joey finished his film. Freestyle won seven or eight festivals, so it had credibility. Straight Outta Hunters Point was coming in a blaze.” Yet despite their individual successes, each of these filmmakers was struggling to get to the next level. Media coverage, street buzz, and support from the academic community and arts organizations helped, but the going was still tough, especially considering all the bigger-budget films competing for distribution in the movie industry. After meeting Kevin Epps during a panel discussion during the Sundance Festival in 2002, Fitzgerald and Hickey decided it made sense for them to join forces.
The three contacted other independent directors who had made documentaries with hip-hop-oriented subject matter. Most of the filmmakers they reached out to were down with the concept, and the Hip Hop Film Fest became a reality.
The fourth principal of the film festival, program coordinator Lila Maes, met Fitzgerald and Hickey while living in Los Angeles, and they started hanging out. One day, Maes sat in on a Hip Hop Film Fest meeting and, having been involved in the True Skool hip-hop club showcases in San Francisco, was asked to join the organization and help them draft the blueprint for what would become the Center for Hip Hop Education. Sometime after that, a relative of hers offered her a good deal on rent at a house in West Berkeley, so she moved back north and established the official Hip Hop Film Fest “crash pad.” Hickey came with her for a couple months, although he’s since rejoined Fitzgerald in Los Angeles.
Maes, the only nondirector in the group and a calming presence, offers an objective, pragmatic perspective on the way the fest operates. Her organizational skills have helped the Hip Hop Film Fest to shape its own destiny. “The fest has grown bigger and faster than we expected,” she says, yet the group is still in its incubation period. Building an organization from the bottom up can be a struggle, she notes. After all, each member of the group has his or her own artistic vision, which would make things difficult even if everyone lived in the same city.
But the important thing, Epps says, is that five of the films featured in the Hip Hop Film Fest have gotten distribution deals, and he’s heard rumblings through the grapevine that bigwigs such as Russell Simmons are beginning to pay attention to the indie hip-hop film movement. “The industry is looking to the streets to see what’s next,” Epps says. It could very well turn out that the festival is, as Hickey adds, “establishing a new model for indie films.”
The grand vision is for the Center for Hip Hop Education to facilitate teaching classes, workshops, and school programs, while the Hip Hop Film Fest continues to be a showcase for new works. A monthly program to screen indie hip-hop films also is in the works, possibly to be held at La Peña.
In addition to doing all the interviewing, shooting, and editing on Soundz of Spirit, Rose-Lyons wrote more than forty grant proposals in search of funding to complete her film. Ultimately, she received none, but she was sponsored by the Film Arts Foundation, one of the largest regional independent film centers in California. Recognition from such a prestigious organization helped her confidence tremendously. “That gave me the sense that I could do this,” she says.
The support of this and other arts organizations has played a crucial role in the hip-hop film movement. Film Arts sponsored both Epps and Rose-Lyons, just as the foundation and its executive director Gail Silva have been helping independent filmmakers follow their muses for 26 years. “Every once in a while, you see someone walk through the door at Film Arts, and you just know,” she says, citing Epps and Crumb director Terry Zwigoff as clear-cut examples of people who activated her filmmaker radar.
Silva says more and more young people are taking classes in film and video production at Film Arts. The primary motivation for would-be directors, she says, is the ability to tell a story in their own way, without being subject to outside influences. “The whole thing about indie film is you can do the film you want to do,” she says.
The Hip Hop Film Festival also assisted Rose-Lyons. A chance meeting at a hip-hop show at SF’s Mission Rock club between Maes and Zion-I’s manager led to Rose-Lyons being welcomed into the fledgling coalition of independent filmmakers, who were looking to expand their roster. “She gave me a call, and she was dope,” she remembers. “We talked on the phone for a couple hours.” The two hit it off, and Maes told her about the festival’s mission and the films in it, promising to hold a slot open for her in the fest’s 2003 run. “I knew that the film would have a place to go,” Rose-Lyons says. “But I was hoping that somebody would come along and be like, ‘Oh, we have a Hip Hop Film Festival,’ and then it happened. That was important to have them come along like that.” For months after that, the two women kept in touch.
When Rose-Lyons felt her film was finally nearing completion, she gave Maes a call. Eventually, a meeting was set up at — where else? — La Peña, where Rose-Lyons was finally introduced to Maes, then still based in Los Angeles. She also met Fitzgerald, Hickey, and Epps. Rose-Lyons was surprised to discover that, while most of the other filmmakers were older than she was, “we all had the same experiences.” The common ground between them boiled down to being “driven and inspired” by these artists and communities, she recalls: “To have that type of philosophy be behind your art is the most important thing you can connect with. So we all connected.”
Maes lent Rose-Lyons moral support. Fitzgerald manned the camera when she traveled to Los Angeles to talk to Talib Kweli. And Epps offered her advice on marketing and street promotion. The self-taught pupil had now become a mentor in his own right.
Two months after Soundz of Spirit debuted at the Red Vic, the film is shown once again at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, as part of the Film Arts Foundation’s monthly “True Stories” series. Once again, the screening is sold out, and once again, a mixed-age, mixed-race crowd attends. Rose-Lyons’ mom is there to lend moral support, but the young filmmaker is no longer frazzled by all the attention. At the requisite post-film Q&A, she delivers sound bites like a pro, confidently facing the audience while explaining her own creative process. She tells what she’s been through, says that if she had to do it all over again she wouldn’t do everything herself, and talks up her plans to enter the documentary in festivals and recut it for a DVD release. “When you’re on your path,” she says at one point, “the right things happen.”
The following evening, Rose-Lyons repeats the process, showing Soundz of Spirit at La Peña in front of a packed East Bay audience. She is introduced by Epps, who first says a few words on her behalf. The fact that she’s back in the place where it all began isn’t lost on her. “I shot some of my first stuff here, so it really feels like I’ve come full circle,” she tells the crowd. “This really felt like the first screening, because it was right here in my community, in my neighborhood.”