Photo: Jammi Sloane York

Hey, You’re Cool! Freddy Alva

When you envision someone bombing a subway train back in the day, you’re probably not picturing a skinhead. But according to Freddy Alva, that sight was not as uncommon as you might think. In his forthcoming book, Urban Styles: Graffiti in New York Hardcore, he chronicles the intersection of these two seemingly disparate subcultures.

We talked to Alva about making the transition from hip hop to hardcore, his seminal New Breed compilation (and its many iterations), and the current state of NYHC.

What can people expect from Urban Styles: Graffiti in New York Hardcore?

Basically, the title. The overlap between both of those subcultures, specifically in New York. There are 28 interviews with writers that either played in bands or they did tributes representing anything New York Hardcore related. Accompanying those interviews are tons of photos, depending on what era the writer was active. For example, some of the writers were busy during the train era. As the train era ended they moved onto walls and highways, so there are pictures of that. There are also writers who did flyers for hardcore shows in a graffiti style. Same thing as far as record covers, tape covers, banners. Also, there’s a whole chapter on what I’m calling New York Hardcore graffiti tattoos, meaning writers that have done tattoos in a graffiti style representing New York Hardcore bands or logos. I think the book is a great introduction to this connection and I try to be as thorough as possible, but even then I’ve left some stuff out—just not on purpose (Note: Mass Appeal head honcho Sacha Jenkins opens the book with a historical timeline of graffiti from 1960-80.)

How is the book structured?

I’m basically dividing the book into three eras. I’m calling the early years between 1980 to 1985, the Golden Years ‘85–‘95, and anything post ‘95. In graffiti, generally, it’s more like five or six different phases. For my purposes, it’s three phases starting in 1980. That’s when Hardcore and graffiti really started to overlap.

This intersection doesn’t necessarily include writers that most mainstream people would know.

Not necessarily. The biggest ones that people would know are people like Mackie who was known as Hyper back when he was writing in the late ’70s. And there’s a connection with famous writers like Futura 2000, who did a banner for the Clash around ‘79. Also TEAM, who was in a band called Urban Blight; they were more like a Ska band but were around during the same time in the underground scene of the early ’80s.

Are people surprised to learn there’s a connection between the two scenes?

More from the hardcore angle I think. If someone’s favorite band is Warzone or Gorilla Biscuits, they’re really surprised to find out that the drummer Lukie Luke is also famous on the graffiti side. He wrote MANOR, he got up a lot.

Lukie Luke from Gorilla Biscuits/Warzone getting up as MANOR ONE. Wicked hand style!

Urban Styles: Graffiti In New York Hardcore 发布于 2016年10月27日

There’s a great quote by Lou Koller from Sick Of It All: “When people think of graffiti, it’s usually Kangol hats, parachute pants, and break dancing. They don’t think of shaved heads, Doc Martens, and moshing at CBGB’s.” Think of a visual image of a skinhead full out with boots and braces going to CBGB’s circa ‘86 or ’87. They’re going to a show, say Warzone. But after, they grab the bag of paint stashed nearby and go bombing. They put up either their tag or their band’s name if they’re in one. Or even just put up a New York Hardcore symbol. It’s the crux of that connection.

Was there any pushback in regards to being a person of color in that scene back in the day?

I actually wrote a whole article about that called “Hispanics in New York Hardcore.” Basically, New York was very different from other hardcore scenes because of all those different ethnic groups. So with New York Hardcore, from the beginning, there were Hispanics or Blacks or other races represented to a much wider degree than in other scenes across the country. As far as racism, I really didn’t see that at all. When I started going to the shows in ‘85, I came from the hip hop scene. I was a b-boy in ’82. One of the things that made it easier for me to move on to the hardcore scene is making friends with a lot of people like me doing the same. I didn’t really see a wide disparity when I started going to shows.

How did you go from hip hop to hardcore?

I was always music obsessed and would stay up late in ‘82, ’83 to tape Mr. Magic‘s Rap Attack. Just listening to everything on the radio, I discovered a show in late ‘84 that was playing more harder-edged music. Not exactly punk rock or hardcore, but like Killing Joke. That was my transition into hardcore and all-around punk rock.

How has hardcore affected your life choices, like becoming vegetarian?

I think there’s a certain big push once you get into hardcore to not just be about loud music and looking different. Being politically connected to what goes into your body. So if you’re musically, as a culture, rejecting the status quo, meat-eating is a big part of the status quo. So for me it just went hand-in-hand.

How did the New Breed compilation come about?

The music just inspired you to do something, so either write a fanzine or play in a band. We had all these friends in the neighborhood who were in bands around 1988 and we just thought, hey, let’s do a compilation tape. We have a double tape deck, we can get tapes and dub it, we can do a fanzine. Chaka (Malik) did a lot of the graffiti lettering and we used all our influences and put together a zine representing all of our friends. New Breed was the name of the fanzine I did in 1987. I did one issue in ‘87 and in 1988 the second issue is the compilation tape. So it’s a combination of both. At the end 2010 a friend of mine approached me about reissuing it on vinyl. So it’s a tape reissued on a 2 LP vinyl collection.

There was a glut of fanzines and compilations back then. Why do you think New Breed still resonates so strongly with people?

I think people connect to it because it’s real. It’s unfiltered. It’s direct. The music still stands up. It’s not dated. And if you follow the trajectory, a lot of people on the comp are still playing in bands, so people connect to that.

In 2016 you turned it into a documentary. How did that come about?

I was talking to my friend about doing a quick 10-minute exposé on the bands. Maybe interview people for a 10-minute YouTube thing. But it exploded into a 60 minute documentary. We got people like Sacha (Jenkins) and Chaka involved. It became a thing, like an event. We hope to release it on DVD sometime soon.

Did this book project come out of that experience?

Sort of. There’s a graffiti chapter in the New Breed documentary where we interview some of the people that are in the book. But about three years ago I did an article for No Echo about the graffiti and hardcore connection. I profiled a lot of similar things that are in the book as far as writers that played in bands, but not just in New York. I profiled some California writers, Philly writers. I went out to do a bunch more articles relating to either hardcore or graffiti or New York, and someone mentioned, “Hey, you should do a book.” I can remember 2016 New Year’s Day literally waking up and coming up with the whole concept. The title and making a short list of people I would interview and it just kind of took a life of its own from there.

Flyer By CEZER 1988
These days people document every second of their lives, but not back then. You got lucky that people saved some really crucial things.

It’s really amazing. For example, there’s a band called Frontline who only a die-hard New York Hardcore connoisseur would know about. It’s Mackie from The Cro-Mags‘ first band. He played in this band in 1980, ’81. What a lot of people don’t know is that Frontline were all graffiti writers in the mid ’70s. They all got up and through the process of researching this book I contacted them and casually asked them if they had photos. They literally have hundreds. But yeah, a lot of it is serendipity and finding the right people to ask the right questions.

In the ’80s and early ’90s New York really was a place where a lot of subcultures converged into this “Downtown scene.” Were similar things happening in other parts of the country?

I think there was a unique set of economic and political circumstances that allowed all these underground movements to thrive and unfortunately a lot of that has to do with the lack of funds. New York City was on the brink of collapse, crime was rampant, people were fleeing to suburbia. When there’s not a lot of resources ingenuity comes into play, so I think that has really inspired movements like graffiti and hardcore. The MTA definitely helped as far as reaching every distant corner of New York in that respect.

Mackie 1980 #1Train Frank151
What’s the state of this convergence of cultures now?

New York Hardcore is bigger worldwide than in New York itself. I see graffiti type logos everywhere but in New York not so much. The book is ultimately a tribute to an era that’s gone. We’ll never see those times again, either in graffiti or hardcore. And the vital connection between them? Those times are really gone.

Urban Styles logo by SHOE

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