Interview: Freddy Alva talks ‘Urban Styles: Graffiti In New York Hardcore”

Posted by Morgan Y Evans - Walking Bombs on Saturday, August 26, 2017 at 1:14 PM (PST)

Freddy Alva/ Photo by Jammi Sloane York

 “I believe that the main running thread during graffiti’s infancy in the mid-1960s, and its subsequent expansion during the following decades, was the underlying element of this movement being a youth-driven one.” – Freddy Alva

New York City. New York Hardcore.

Everyone knows that both the place and musical style have had a legendary impact in shaping wider culture and tastes around the globe. New York is forever the hub of America, the place where the Statue of Liberty (our strongest symbol of hope and justice despite what assholes like Trump’s failed Muppet fascist buddy Stephen Miller would have you believe) looks benignly outward welcoming and holding her torch high.

Everyone knows Judge, Sick Of It All, Madball, Burn, Killing Time, Skarhead and countless other influential and aggressive acts who have rallied crowds, raised adrenaline levels and blown minds for years. When it comes to the huge impact of graffiti on the world, the parallels are most often shown between hip hop music and graf artists. Some cool documentaries exist as well.  When it comes to the rise of NYHC and the impact and synergy between fans and players with the graffiti world, the story is still more clouded in the wider mass consciousness.

A fantastic new book aims to change that. Urban Styles: Graffiti In New York Hardcore (DiWulf Publishing) is a crucial and comprehensive guide featuring photos, interviews from key players and lots of informative info related in an at times informal but very real and insiders style manner. It is our immense pleasure today to share with our readers an interview with author Freddy Alva, a long time scene member and expert who has shaped this labor of love into a very special moment for fans of New York, the music, street art and the people.

Freddy was very active in the DIY culture of hardcore from the outset; he was a fixture at such venerated venues as CBGB during the heyday of their Sunday matinees. Along with friend and fellow NYHC stalwart Chaka Malik, Freddy covered the music scene through his fanzine New Breed and eventually released a well-known and highly revered compilation cassette that featured some of the most influential bands of the time, The New Breed Comp. A recent documentary sharing the same name has been released to critical acclaim.

More below.

Hi Freddy, thanks for joining us today. What was it about the graff world that made you want to do a book ? A lot of people know more of the hip hop background than NYHC and forget how they were pretty intertwined here and there in the past.

Thank you for having me and your interest in the book. One of main reasons for writing Urban Styles is exactly as you commented; to show people that graffiti in NYC wasn’t always just connected or a part of hip-hop. I believe that the main running thread during graffiti’s infancy in the mid-1960s, and its subsequent expansion during the following decades, was the underlying element of this movement being a youth-driven one. Kids in NYC, like in other parts of the world, would form subcultures reflecting a particular musical style. When the nascent hip-hop scene came to be established and codified; some savvy branding strategists delineated graffiti as one of the pillars of this youth culture. I find this to be convenient way to write off large chunks of the participants that also happened to pledge their allegiance to other tribes in NYC; like the Heavy Metal scene for one.

From the arrival of Hardcore as it transitioned from Punk Rock in 1980; people that identified themselves as Skinheads or regular Hardcore types were just as immersed in the art of bombing and doing tributes in graf style to their favorite NYHC bands added a strikingly visual component, be it on show flyers, record/demo flyers or on trains and the city streets. I interviewed some of the main participants in this synthesis with the hope of by showcasing their words and art, more people in tune with both of these subcultures can see just how extensive this connection occurred and how social and economic circumstances played a role in shaping these urban styles.

Did you have to narrow your focus down to a
specific period or do you think that was the most relevant sort of creative explosion time period anyway?

I’ve broken down the Graffiti and Hardcore connection into three eras: first being the early years between 1980-85 when the earliest recorded tags by writers that played in bands appeared. Bear in mind that a lot of these guys were writing in the 1970s so as they transitioned into the Hardcore scene there was no particular awareness in what they were doing was trendsetting; they were just being themselves as they moved on to a new scene and brought a set of skills acquired while growing up in this concrete jungle. The second era is the ‘Golden Years’ between 1985-1995 when graffiti really exploded onto multiple visual aspects of NYHC and the number of bands made up of writers increased significantly with the unique to NYC phenomenon of traditional graffiti crews forming with members drafted from the hardcore scene. The last era is anything post-1995. The graffiti look has exploded in hardcore worldwide, some people now seeing it as another layer of the culture. I want the trail to lead back to the pioneers, with an emphasis on the mid-to-late 80s NYHC writers that really shaped the aesthetics of this fusion.

How did you reach out to people for this book? Was it people you considered significant or was it based on being a fan of their work? I know a lot of the bands are still around. The only real graffiti guy I know is Louie Gasparro/KR One, who was in Murphy’s Law and The Resurrection Sorrow. I had heard some DMS guys used to really be into the street art side of the underground, which makes sense. My old band Divest played a show w Sub-Zero once. That was off the chain.

I’m really lucky to know a lot of the people in the book for about three decades now. I’ve admired them for their musical or visual creations and also as friends. For example: JERE is one of the first skinheads I met in 1986 and funny that you mention DMS as he’s the one that started that crew and gave it legitimacy by being a graffiti writer into hardcore and singing for a band (Dmize). It is these overlapping achievements that make his inclusion in the Golden Years chapter. Someone like Mackie HYPE Jayson is another one: he was writing in the mid-1970s, built an amazing reputation and then quit by 1981 to focus on music. He went on to play in Frontline, the first NYHC band made up of graffiti writers by 1986 he played drums on The Cro-Mags classic Age of Quarrel Lp and did stints in the Bad Brains, The Icemen, Shelter to name a few. It’s people that like this were a no-brainer when the time came to make a list of interviews needed. They were all responsible for the book to literally write itself and I’m glad I kept in touch with a good number of them throughout the years.

This seems obvious, but were there particular records from the time period that
were a big influence on you?

Most definitely, from the first NYHC Lp’s I purchased like Kraut’s Adjustment to Society and the Cro-Mags Age of Quarrel.  In the late 1980s the band that most influenced me was Absolution and the lone record they did left a lot to be desired production-wise but their raw brilliance shone through nevertheless. In the early 1990s Born Against put out an Ep and Lp that were a huge influence both on a musical and ethical level to myself and countless others.  

That is cool. Born Against were great. I met Javier once who was doing photography about ten years ago and my ex gf was friends with him. I just was reading an interview you did with him HERE actually. Anywah, What were some of your favorite moments making this book and did you have a sort of ‘mission statement’ in your mind that you wanted to achieve? A lot of times now we forget, say, systems of oppression and just view people as criminalsor rough around the edges and don’t see that (I know this is an East Coast book but I’m gonna reference Tupac) a creative ‘Rose that grew from concrete’ situation can transpire if people have an outlet to find their artistic voice – be it music, art or even something like activism.

 One of my favorite things from making the book has been reconnecting with old friends that I haven’t talked to or seen for ages and to hear their excitement regarding someone making a book about a culture they still care deeply about has been deeply rewarding. My mission statement is to showcase a unique blending of styles that occurred at a particular time and place and only a city like New York could have been the primal engine that inspired this mix in the first place. The ‘rose from concrete’ line you quoted is an apt metaphor for the rise of Graffiti in NYC during the 1970s as the city was on the brink of financial collapse. Diminished resources for the youth to explore creative outlets led to a surge of imagination in reimagining the subways and streets as a public canvas to define oneself. The art of writing is ultimately a way of asserting individuality; the chosen tagging name becoming a superhero-like alter ego that’s used as an escape from whatever miserable conditions or boredom that occur in daily life.

“Diminished resources for the youth to explore creative outlets led to a surge of imagination in reimagining the subways and streets as a public canvas to define oneself.”

I have never met Mackie but am of course a fan. I know Dr Know well. But I actually didn’t know Mackie was that involved early on in the graffiti scene! Like, you can love bands your whole life and still find out new shit that to some people is common knowledge, haha. But I mean, I was born in 1978 when the “King Of The Number 1 Line’ stuff was going on. It goes to show what a fascinating time period it was, though. People still wanna find out more facets of it!

I call Mackie HYPE Jayson the original NYHC Graffiti b-boy. Here’s a guy that was a writer, skateboarded and played drums; excelling in each field to the outmost and what I’ve always found fascinating is his humble take on it all. He just went out and did amazing work in the visual and physical realms, never focusing on accolades, he just did it. Mackie embodied that just go out and do it, kinetic quality, found in the best aspects of graffiti and hardcore. When you ask people who is the best drummer in NYHC; his name is always at the top and the same when you talk about major graffiti writers of the mid-to-late 1970s: it’s always HYPE. This is something extremely unique and I’m really lucky to have him in the book as he rarely does interviews. I also have more than a dozen of his classic train pieces featured, most rarely seen, so yeah; Mackie is the man when it comes to Graffiti in NYHC.

I always used to ride the train or drive over bridges and be impressed by some of the super high up bombing on buildings or whatever that are elaborate and artistic lettering and not just like a paint scribble or whatever. Do you think it is harder now with big brother cameras everywhere and gentrification orharder in the old school days because of, maybe, rougher streets or less understanding that graffiti can also have artistic value?

I think it was harder back then as the unfortunate aspect of violence amongst rival writers made mounting a large scale bombing operation a logistical nightmare. Apart from keeping an eye on the authorities; one also had to watch out for others to beat or slash you, sometimes over a real or perceived dis. The new sanitized Big Apple has deterred the graffiti “blood wars” for a long time now and the prospect of lengthy legal troubles has made many a writer quit the life. The advent of so called ‘Street Art’ has made large scale productions easier to do but in my opinion, besides it being done illegally at times; this bears little connection to traditional graffiti. I of course think graffiti has artistic value but more importantly is the cultural value that writing represents; being both a cypher and repository of several generations of inner city youth and their response to tumultuous times.

Do you think kids are finding hardcore today more as a fashion thing and don’t get how tied into people’s whole lifestyle it was? Or is that an old grandpa way to look at things? I am sure some people care about the historical and meaningful aspects of movements still. I have met a lot of kids who want to know valuable and real shit just from writing this website. But it’d be nice to see the same level of creativity a lot of the early bands had.

There are definitely kids today getting into hardcore that take the time out to do the research and figure what’s worthy to follow and then there are others that just see it as a fashion choice and it will be just a phase for them. This is nothing new and I’ve seen this behavior since I got into Hardcore so it doesn’t bother me. Hardcore, like Graffiti, is not for everyone: there is a coded language embedded in both that require time and effort to decipher so that the ones that get it will, same as ever before.

Hardcore as a musical genre is extremely limiting so I think all the innovations to it have already been done but that doesn’t mean a newer band can’t take reference points from classic bands and come up with their own unique take on it. The level of creativity you mentioned is always there; it just has to be properly channeled. I think of the book as a mentoring tool for kids to emulate, if they have the proper influences, there’s no telling what heights they can reach in both of these vital subcultures.

What were
some of the biggest obstacles to getting this project off the ground and how has the response to the roll
out been so far?

The final editing process has been a bit tricky, this is my first time writing a book but I’ve had infinite support from my editor Steve DiLodovico, as far as making sure grammar and punctuation are all in their proper place. My layout guru Orlando Arce has done an incredible job and we’ve been in complete sync with the final vision for the book. People have been overwhelmingly supportive and enthusiastic about the book and it just keeps building up day by day. I’m excited for everyone to finally see it, thank you once again for the interest. As my old friend Chaka Malik says in his foreword to the book; ‘New York City Forever!

Thanks SO much, Freddy. PMA! One love. Much respect and gratitude for your time and efforts.

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