In this musical, an East African MC, Balozi Dola, wanders into a Bronx barbershop on his pilgrimage to find “the real hip-hop.” The barber, hip-hop pioneer Grandmaster Flash’s original partner DJ Easy Mike, calls out Grand Master Caz, who spits a rhyme on how we are in the place of hip-hop’s origins. Shop sweeper DOA adds vocal percussion to the mix and Balozi Dola rhymes back in his native African Swahili. “Bongo” is the Swahili expression for “brain,” used in local hip-hop slang.
Director Charlie Ahearn collaborated with two different voices in hip-hop: that of the old school, represented by the legendary Grandmaster Caz, one of hip-hop's founders, and that of a contemporary rapper from Tanzania who raps in Swahili. Ahearn's vision is to create a live minimusical: a fictionalized performance video showing a hip-hop performer making a pilgrimage from Africa to New York, to discover the birthplace of hip-hop. Ahearn sees hip-hop culture as a "radical abstract form, in terms of its percussion and style," and his challenge as an artist is to "represent these profound, complicated and advanced elements" visually.
In 1982 Charlie Ahearn directed the hip-hop classic movie WILD STYLE. He coauthored YES YES Y'ALL, an oral history of the first decade of hip-hop with many photos. He is currently teaching a class called "Hip-Hop, Art and Design" at Pace University and recently directed BUSY AT THE BEACH (4 minutes, 2006) with The Chief Rocker Busy Bee.
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What inspired you to make this piece?
I wanted to do a musical short capturing some live hip hop without any external music in a real setting. One evening at DJ Grand Wizard Theodore's birthday party, he re-introduced me to DJ Easy Mike, who was Grand Master Flash's protégé DJ, as his favorite barber. Easy Mike mentioned that his barbershop was at 180th and Jerome Ave which is really near the spot where Kool Herc gave the first hip hop parties back in 1973, and so I was committed to making a video there.
Briefly tell us about how you made your film or video: what camera and format did you use to shoot your piece, and what system did you use to edit it? What is your working process? Did you use any special techniques to make this work?
I received a substantial grant to make TANGO OCTOGENARIO from the New York State Council of the Arts. Dance Films Association awarded me a finishing fund grant. The rest of the film (about 40 percent of the budget) was funded with my own money. We shot the film on 35 mm film, aspect ratio 1:85, using a package from Panavision (thank you Panavision, you were very nice to us). We shot on location on Second Avenue (you can see the Second Avenue Deli in the background) and in the Ukrainian National Home, with a crew of 25 to 30 people. Technicolor processed and color corrected the film (thank you Technicolor, you were very nice to us). Richard Morse edited the film on his Apple laptop with Avid Express. Process: I wrote the script, which in this case consisted mostly of the opening dialogue. I knew the bulk of the film was going to be the dance, and I wanted the story to be told by the dance, but how does one write a tango? One doesn't. I storyboarded the film during an artist residency, and once I secured cinematographer Wolfgang Held, we spent many hours watching dance segments I found inspiring and talking about colors, movement, and composition.
Next, I brought on choreographer Nancy Turano and we discussed casting.
Do you have any interesting behind-the-scenes stories about the making of this particular work?
I knew an MC Balozi Dola, from East Africa, who rhymes in Swahili, who would wander into the video as a kind of immigrant lost in the Bronx on a kind of pilgrimage to find the real hip hop. Grand Master Caz, a legendary lyricist and pioneer who worked with me extensively on my movie WILD STYLE, was perfect to play the part to represent "the real hip hop" from the Bronx. Finally I needed DOA, a fantastic vocal percussionist, who had been on my hip hop internet radio show YES YES Y'ALL on wps1.org
, to appear as a lowly shop sweeper who slyly brings on the beats for the two MCs.
I had arranged for us to have three hours in Mike's shop on a Saturday afternoon. It was incredibly challenging because we were using two cameras in a small space, which was solid mirrors all around. The shop remained open with the other barbers busy with people coming and going freely. Doreen Remen, who is the co-director of Art Production Fund, was there to help pull everything together with our tiny three-person crew.
I consider this short a continuation of what I was doing with my movie WILD STYLE, working quickly in a very low budget combining documentary and musical approaches in order to highlight some hip hop artists. Check out www.wildstylethemovie.com
for information on some of these projects.