In a New York Times article covering the DVD re-release1 of 80 Blocks From Tiffany’s, 2 Gary Weis’s cult classic 1979 documentary about South Bronx gangs inspired by John Bradshaw’s Esquire article “The Savage Skulls,”3 Andrew Boryga notes that the film’s “graffiti covered trains” and block party rap chants will register as “visual artifacts of hip-hop’s beginnings” in the minds of many viewers. The burgeoning culture of hip hop4 has a direct presence in the film, for certain —slang words and phrases like “wack” and “represent for” are uttered by the film’s subjects, for example— but viewers searching for signifiers of the consciously unified scene evident in films produced only a few years later like Wild Style and Style Wars will be confronted with a very different world.
80 Blocks is primarily focused on the dreary day to day existence of two Bronx gangs, The Savage Skulls and The Savage Nomads, whose outward style more resembles a “a strange combination of biker denim and bandolero chic”5 than anything associated with b-boys or rappers. They appear to be mostly unaffected by the park jam culture in full swing to the south and west of their stomping grounds; they exist in a time prior to any theorizing of a composite hip hop culture anyhow. There is a block party in the film but the DJ doesn’t cut up breaks, he just plays the extended versions of club classics by Chic and The Bar-Kays. Nobody engages in anything resembling breakdancing. A girl chants “yes yes ya’ll, freak freak ya’ll” into a mic but her proto-rapping seems more like a coded ritual relating to something slightly beyond the purview of the partygoers than an attempt to move the crowd.
The gear, jewelry, stance, gesticulation, and strut of the Nation Of Gods and Earths, Almighty Universal Zulu Nation, and assorted outer-borough drug crews is nowhere to be seen in 80 Blocks. The Skulls are enamored with swatsikas and iron crosses, symbols probably borrowed from white outlaw biker gangs. Although most of the gang members in the film are charismatic, they are also sullen, raggedy, and hunched-over. Their disposition is a far cry from the bravado we tend to associate with gang-bangers and hustlers following the rise of crack cocaine. But 80 Blocks is connected to hip hop in significant if subtle ways.6
By all accounts, Weis set out to capture his subjects in a realistic, non-judgmental light. As a result, the viewer is able to become familiar with the memorable, likable, starkly eloquent subjects, including past and current gang members of various ranks and loyalties, as well as a police officer and a community advocate who both ingratiate themselves into the world of the gangs in order to initiate their versions of reform. They speak openly about the social conditions that shape their world — e.g., poverty, unemployment, discrimination, drug and alcohol addiction, police brutality, the prevalence of illegal firearms, failing schools, fractured families, the trauma of dislocation experienced by migrating blacks and Puerto Ricans, etc. — many of the same issues that would eventually inform the most searing radical rap lyrics of the ’80s and ’90s.
80 Blocks is haunted by a sense of loss, not only the literal loss of life and real estate,7 but of the dissolution of dreams and opportunities. Almost all of the gang members describe their organizations as surrogate families, and many non-gang members discuss the role of the gangs as a protective force in a blighted and neglected part of the city. But they also express a longing, however sublimated, for a better life unburdened by violence and chaos, where a militaristic code is no longer necessary for mere survival. Some possess skills and traits that would serve them perfectly fine in white collar jobs if they were afforded greater educational and employment opportunities. A gang member named DSR is a surprisingly gifted, if unorthodox, archival researcher in his own right.
Reviewers overemphasize the supposed authenticity of the testimonials offered in 80 Blocks. While I have no reason to doubt the veracity of any particular statement, I find it difficult to believe that these accounts are not fictively inflected and performed to a degree.8 The desire for change in the midst of social deterioration that many of the film’s subjects express —some quite poetically— is real in the sense that it is not scripted. But these ideas are forged in the imaginations of individuals who are actively interpreting the conditions around them and dreaming of a newer, more just reality, not simply reporting empirical facts concerning the here and now.
This spirit, part aspirational and part rebellious, along with the highly attractive sense of belonging that arises from membership in a reconstituted family and the mourning of the passing of simpler times, are topics that continue to figure significantly in hip hop. 80 Blocks will remain socially relevant for some time in spite of its stylistic anachronisms. If anything it’s a rare glimpse into the pre-crack world of fair fistfights and colors-sporting “social clubs” that is often idealized in rap music,9 and for that reason alone I declare it a must-see film. — Thun
- The film can be viewed on YouTube, but I strongly suggest copping the DVD if it interests you. The quality is obviously better and there’s a widescreen version included. [↩]
- “In a Cult Bronx Film, Hints of Hip-Hop.” [↩]
- “The Savage Skulls” is reprinted in its entirety in a forty page book that is packaged with the DVD re-release. The movie shies far away from the graphic depictions of crime in the article, which for all of its incisiveness and fairness, was cited out of context by at least two law journals in support of more draconian policing and jailing policies. [↩]
- Although it’s problematic and many of its staunchest proponents are clinically insane, I’m running with the Wild Style “four elements” definition of hip hop for the purpose of this post. [↩]
- Source: “80 Blocks From Tiffany’s Is A Million Miles Away From Today’s Gang Life.” [↩]
- For a rich account of the histories of these and other Bronx gangs, and their connection to the emerging hip hop culture, read Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History Of The Hip-Hop Generation. I also recommend tracking down the DVD version of Flyin’ Cut Sleeves, a documentary directed by Henry Chalfant and Rita Recher that covers some of the same people that figure prominently in 80 Blocks, but over a larger period of time, into the early ’90s. [↩]
- Perhaps more so than even Wild Style, the physical devastation of the South Bronx is captured on 80 Blocks. [↩]
- Writing for The Guardian, Justin Quirke suggests that the film’s subjects were not “precociously aware of a need to ‘perform’ for the camera, but Borgya’s New York Times City Room blog article cites former detective Bob Werner, who appears in the film as insisting that “both gangs had been receiving a lot of publicity at the time and were very accustomed to the cameras and reporters.” [↩]
- I wrote more on this topic here. [↩]