“Can you dig it? Can you dig it? Caaaannnn yooooooouuuu dig iiiiiiiiiittttt?” so spoken by gang leader Cyrus in Walter Hill’s cult classic The Warriors. That line and that film have both gone down in pop-culture lore. Aside from being based on the novel of the same name the film took some of it’s influence from real New York city gangs, crews and groups who dominated the five boroughs in the late 1960s/early 70s. Director Shan Nicholson takes a look back to the time period by assembling the people who were there to give us Rubble Kings.
Nicholson shows us an America torn apart by Vietnam fatigue, a hippy movement that went nowhere and racial tensions at an alltime high. In the streets of New York this frustration with the government and society in general manifests itself in gangs formed by neigbourhood kids as a way of finding some control in their own environment. It’s no surprise to learn that these gangs when just interested in brotherly love and the that the notion of a little power gave rise to crime and gang war.
Rubble Kings charts us through the heyday of the groups such as Savage Skulls, Seven Immortals, and the Black Spades. Of all the groups though stand the GhettoBrothers above the rest. At a point where fighting was rampant in the street and racial aggression turned to rioting the GhettoBrothers creed was about bringing peace to the area through music and mediation so that everyone could take the fight to the high ups in society. Nicholson chooses to focus much of the cameras time on Karate Charlie and Yellow Benji. Two men from different background racially but who found common ground in the social surroundings to carry the message of peace.
Through some down-right awesome looking photographs that look like on-set photos from The Warriors and a hell of a lot of talking heads we are shown and told what times were like. The film was manages to include an amazing amount of video footage for the time period (including one fascinating talk show that gathered all the groups in a TV studio discussion where the groups aired their grievances and threatened violence to others). The GhettoBrothers involvement in music is showcased, their rapturous mix of latino rhythm and funk melodies make you wonder as to why they aren’t a stronger force in the 1970s soul scene to rival Sly and the Family Stone. From here we’re shown how this influence gave birth to the early days of hip-hop culture. Instead of literal fighting, dance-off’s became the way to settle arguments. Where men could channel the focus of their rage into music rather crime.
Amongst all the interviews with former gang members who have all become social workers, council workers or business men we also hear from legendary hip-hop figures Afrika Bambaataa and DJ Kool Herc. Bambaataa for his part seems to have been heavily into the gang scene, which I never knew.
Whilst the story is a fascinating one both in terms of its historical and cultural significance, with a bit of violence thrown in, Rubble Kings never feels like a fully engrossing experience. There’s archive footage, there’s first hand testimonial but too often Nicholson relies on cutting away too quickly from his interviewees mid-sentence to keep up a music video-cality to the film that begins to drag it down. Karate Charlie and Yellow Benji have stories for days and sometimes it would have been good to linger with them some more before the next cuttaway to another speaker who might only appear a handful of time in the doc. Maybe it means that as a documentarian he was covering all basis but as a storyteller it becomes a disconnecting mechanism that a genuinely fascinating story somewhat bland.
Now everybody go buy GhettoBrothers ‘Power Fuerza’
Dir: Shan Nicholson
Featuring: “Yellow” Benjamin Melendez , Carlos “Karate Charlie” Suarez, Afrika Bambaataa, DJ Kool Herc, DJ Red Alert, Marshall Berman
Run time: 71 mins
Rubble Kings is in cinemas 11 September 2015.