In the past week hip-hop lost one of its greatest historians when Tony Silver, the director of landmark 1983 graffiti hip-hop film Style Wars, died after losing to his ongoing battle with brain cancer. New York native Silver, who made the legendary documentary with producer Henry Chalfant, lived in LA and is survived by his wife and two daughters and grandchild.
Beside Style Wars, Silver had a fat portfolio that included award-winning work in theatrical and TV trailers, main titles and special effects. As a documentary director his credits include such films as Anita Ellis For the Record, 30 Seconds At A Time (about company response to employees who are victims of domestic violence), and Arisman Facing the Audience (about illustrator Marshall Arisman). Additionally Silver lectured at universities around the US and served on panels at the NEA, the NEH, and at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. But it is for Style Wars that Tony Silver will always be best remembered.
The film, which just about any true die-hard graffiti artist can quote verbatim, remains not just a classic among hip-hop/graffiti fans but is also recognized by educators and critics the world over as the most important film to capture the original spirit and vitality of hip-hop's element of graffiti which emerged from from the gritty streets and subways of New York City and later (thanks in great part to this film) blossomed into global consciousness and appreciation. Style Wars, which originally aired on PBS, won the Grand Prize at the Sundance Film Festival upon its original release.
In 2003 Style Wars was released as a 2-disc DVD set which, in addition to the original 70 minute documentary, includes Tony Silver's 2003 film -- the 34 minute, appropriately titled companion film Style Wars: Revisited with updates (20 years later) on the lives of 26 of the original film's participants, together with other legendary figures of the time. The 2 DVD set also includes a jaw-dropping display of early 80's NYC graffiti shots by Henry Chalfant -- all beautifully presented. I love this DVD set and have watched it so many times it is worn out and I cannot recommend enough that you go out and buy it. If you only own one hip-hop documentary this should be it. Look for it at Amoeba Music and if you cannot find it, just ask for assistance.
When the DVD version was first released five years ago I had the opportunity to interview both Henry Chalfant and Tony Silver on KALX radio in Berkeley when they came to the station accompanied by Jeff Chang, who had been interviewing them in research for his Can't Stop Won't Stop history of hip-hop (published by St. Martins in 2005). What struck me most about each of these cool guys was how humble they were; never taking credit but always giving sincere props to their subjects, the New York graffiti artists of the late seventies/early eighties that they captured with their film shot mostly throughout 1982.
"As Zephyr says in the film: 'You wanna know the history of hip-hop and graffiti? There are as many histories of hip-hop and graffiti as there are graffiti writers,'" said Silver in that KALX interview. "And all of them are real and important as a point of view because it was about individual spirits, artists finding themselves, discovering themselves." Equally inspirational for Silver and Chalfant was tracking down these graffiti artists twenty years later for the Revisited documentary. What was more amazing to me was when I asked Silver how many cameras they used in the filming, he informed me, "Only one." Amazing, if you have seen this film. That one camera perfectly captured a time in the history of modern art and hip-hop.
I asked Silver about the magic of Style Wars and what it meant to him. "The beauty of this film was that it captured this moment, this time, this culture, this people who were living their own lives. Or as they now say, 'We were just doing it,' and the hope that you have, as a documentary filmmaker, is that you will be rolling while they were just doing it," he responded. "Somebody said that you could never write this. And it's true. They wrote this themselves in more ways than one and we were lucky enough to capture it."
Rest In Peace Tony Silver.