Sit-Down with James Spooner, Director of Afro-Punk
Filmmaker James Spooner always
situates himself a little to the side of the roles that are cultivated for him, in popular culture. Growing up in the desert-town
of Apple Valley, California –where he was the only black kid for miles- James says it was hard to find people who shared
his musical tastes. He recalls bringing a Run DMC tape to music-listening time in fifth grade, when everyone else was rocking
out to Bon Jovi. The teacher recoiled at the sound of boombap and street-oriented lyrics, so she made Spooner s listen to
the music on headphones.
In eighth grade, the now-twenty-eight-year-old Spooner switched from being the sole hip hop
head in an all-white town, to being one of the few people of color in a mostly-white punk scene. At the time, hip hop was
suffused with the poppy, sample-driven sounds and vacuous lyrics of Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer, and Spooner says he wasn’t
really feeling it, anymore. Even when he moved to a mixed neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York at age fifteen, Spooner was still
the only black kid walking around with spiky hair.
Spooner’s film, Afro Punk (released independently in 2003),
profiles the lives of black artists as they stake out a place for themselves in the majority-white punk scene. Featuring performances
by Bad Brains, Cipher, Tamar Kali, and Ten Grand, the film explores issues of alienation and identity, and opens a space for
dialogue about “the illusion and failure of integration” –which, incidentally, is the subject of Spooner’s
next documentary. Though Spooner believes in “letting the audience come to their own conclusions, instead of spelling
it out for him” –as he told Africana journalist Keidra Chaney in 2003- he ultimately disputes the notion that
people can come together with music as their conduit, or that music can substitute for serious dialogue about race.
This is an article about punk and hip hop as movements, and as scenes, what they have in common, and what’s keeping
them apart. In your observation, what do these scenes have in common, if anything?
James: Well, they probably both
started as youth movements, and as reactions to what was going on in the mainstream. Punk rock started because of the arena-rock
mentality that was happening: Bands like Rush and Toto –the hugest rock bands- made it hard for people who just wanted
to play, to feel like they could. Punk was a reaction to that.
I would say in a certain respect, hip hop was probably
the same, with disco dominating the airwaves of black radio, and running out its days. It also probably wasn’t speaking
to black youth anymore, as it got co-opted, if those times are anything like these times. I would have to imagine that with
bands like KC and the Sunshine Band, or the BeeGees defining what was disco, black youth probably didn’t feel like they
had anything common, so they set out to create their own thing.
Those are the commonalities. The big difference between
punk and hip hop is that punk rock is a disgusting kind of music that you just to have an ear for, to appreciate. Hip hop
is rhythmic, it goes with your heartbeat, it’s dance music, and at least in the beginning, it was party music. It was
easier to appreciate, and be co-opted by the mainstream. I say that because until maybe the last 5 or 10 years, it was really
easy for punk to say “fuck corporate rock,” because corporate rock wasn’t interested in it. Now it obviously
is, so you can be a punk rocker and just listen to bands that are on MTV, and still be considered legit, which was certainly
not the case when I was a kid.
The thing about hip hop is that hip hop always wanted to get on. It was never like
“yeah, we wanna keep this underground. It’s always been about moving away from the Bronx and getting down to the
Roxie. Of course, I’m not speaking from experience –it just seems like it would make sense, because hip hop came
out of a black and Latino poor experience, and when you’re poor you don’t want to be poor. If music is your way
out of the ghetto, then you’re definitely gonna try it, whereas white people with privilege can say “Oh, fuck
corporations, fuck making money, fuck all that stuff we’re doing.” Because, at the end of the day, they have more
options. I’d say those are the similarities, and some differences.
Rachel: Do you think there was a point when
these movements actually broke apart, or do you think it was a gradual thing, or do you think commercialism was at all responsible
for breaking these movements apart?
James: Was there a time when they were really together? I mean, yeah, there’s
always been cases of, yeah, Blondie did something with Fab 5 Freddy, and ESG was kind of back and forth, or whatever. But
I don’t think there was ever really a time (when they were together). From what I’ve heard, when Grandmaster Flash
opened for The Clash, they got booed off the stage –like, people were throwing things. I think it’s kind of romantic
to think that there was ever a time when people were coming together in the underground, or on the block.
is that punk rock is a white-dominated community, and hip hop is a black and Latino (?) dominated community, and the reality
is that those communities don’t mix. It’s a romantic American idea that there’s such a thing as integration.
To say that they ever split apart, would be to infer that they were at one time together.
Rachel: I guess I should
rephrase the question to say, what’s keeping them apart?
James: I mean, race. It’s like, as many white
kids who like hip hop as there are, I would never see a white kid at a hip hop show in Crown Heights. The hip hop shows that
I’ve gone to in Manhattan, or any place where (they’re marketed to a white crowd), have been predominantly white.
For instance, last summer somebody gave me a ticket to go to a concert with Roots, Outkast, Jurassic 5, and Devo. So I went
to that concert, and there were a thousand-some-odd people there, and I was among 50 black people.
If a hip hop show
is marketed to a white community, black people aren’t going. If a hip hop show is marketed to the black community, white
people aren’t going. That’s the state of integration, in America. From what I’ve experienced, when I bring
my friends (of color) to go see Cipher, for instance, and they’re familiar with the basic idea behind the band, having
seen the movie –it was the white band fronted by a black guy, all the white kids, and lots of moshing, singing about
the Middle Passage, and stuff- if I bring my friends to see this band, they dig it, and the thing they say afterwards is “that
was kinda cool, I’ve never seen shit like that before,” but also “I would never think of coming to this
place if you haven’t invited me, because I would think that these were all racist kids.” That assumption is based
on their ignorance of what punk rock is about, but also, being a person of color, you don’t want to walk into a room
and be the only one there –especially if they’re all hitting each other. It always feels like, okay, one thing
has to go down, and I’m the one (who’s gonna get it). Black folks aren’t really trying to be messing with
white people, and vice versa.
Rachel: Going off of that, do you think that given that the punk has been characterized
as white, and hip hop as black, do you think it’s more difficult for a white person to be a rapper, or for a black band
to make it in the punk scene?
James: That question has a lot of different directions. First, I would have to say that
to make it in the punk scene just means to play a show and 100 kids show up. If that’s the reality, then yeah, it’s
not hard for a band to have a black lead singer and be respected. Especially if you’re not challenging anybody with
your lyrics, you almost have an advantage, because punks are so liberal, they feel really excited about seeing black people.
If you are challenging them and the music is really good, then it doesn’t matter. People want to mosh, they want to
shake the little backpack dance, whatever. You’re encouraged in that respect. I feel that a band like Cipher would have
gotten on a lot sooner had they not had Moe as their singer, because they’re very good musically. They would have been
picked up by Victory, or any of these heavy record labels, but their lyrics are very challenging –so it’s scary.
At the same time, I think there are a lot of white people in the punk scene who have so much guilt that they love
to be challenged.
Now, the hip hop community is completely different, because it’s two very distinct communities,
or maybe three. I would say it’s again broken up by race. There’s all the kids in Connecticut, and the Midwest,
and wherever there are white places. Probably the majority of America listens to hip hop. So yeah, tons of white kids listen
to hip hop, tons of white kids rap, and tons of white kids make beats. It’s becoming more and more accepted –now,
it’s not like, oh, can a white boy rap? It’s been shown that money can be made off of white rappers, so let’s
keep that context going. Tons of white people are behind the scenes making beats, and whatever.
to be respected by black people if you’re a white rapper, but now there’s two completely different hip hop scenes
–there’s the mainstream and the underground. And the underground is all white. It seems like the only black people
at underground hip hop shows are onstage. And a lot of times, they have white members in their group, so I think that white
people have found a place for themselves, as far as that’s concerned.
Then, when it comes to the mainstream,
it’s only a matter of time. If we repeat history, it will be the same thing as jazz, blues, disco, and of course, rock.
People who have money, like the record labels, or whatever, are just waiting. Every record label wishes they had Eminem. Make
no mistake about it that they’re looking for another one. As soon as they get him, it’s only a matter of time.
At this point, mainstream hip hop isn’t even talking to the black community anymore. If you want to make money in the
hip hop game, you have to talk about shit that white people want to hear about. I would guess that the hope for those emcees
is that the stuff that they’re talking about –that white people want to hear about- is also stuff that they want
to talk about.
Rachel: I guess I would say that in my experience, the hardcore underground hip hop scene is still
James: Yeah, I mean those things all exist. There are a million hip hop artists that no one’s
ever heard of, unless you’re really down, or you’re local. I live in Crown Heights, and when I walk around and
see flyers or posters for parties that I will probably never go to, I know that no white people are going to these parties.
They have hip hop and reggae artists who are doing their thing –but you don’t become a multi-platinum artist by
selling your music to black people.
Rachel: The point you brought up in the interview with Africana was that a lot
of underground hip hop has a lot of the same ethic as punk.
James: Yeah, I’ve definitely heard hip hop heads
talk about hip hop, and the politics of DIY. I remember the first time I heard it, I thought wow, I could replace “hip
hop” with “punk” and we’d be talking about the same thing. As far as when somebody says “Oh
my god, that’s so punk!” Someone could say the same thing: “Wow, that’s totally hip hop!” and
be talking about the same ethical politics. But those are the serious heads that talk like that. Those are the people who
still believe in the elements. The majority of the people who listen to hip hop don’t care about the four elements –they
don’t care about anything, they’re just listening to the music. And I don’t know how much of hip hop –or
I should say, how much of rap music- is promoting the hip hop ethics. Those ethics go against corporate America, and corporate
America owns rap music.
Rachel: But one of the other things that you suggested, in answering that question, was the
possibility of money going back into the community where it came from.
James: Well, I mean, that’s the desire,
that’s the constant hope. My constant hope, anyway. There’s two realities: there’s one reality that black
people spend 500 billion dollars annually, in this country, and then there’s the other reality, that that money is going
to white people. Sure, we have the supplies to be self-sufficient. But I don’t know if we have the tools.
Do you think there’s any points of intersection between punk and hip hop, or do you think they’re just going to
be two discrete scenes?
James: There are a lot of intersections. I don’t know if there are any intersections
that matter, in the grand scheme of race relations in the world. Do I see it as a way for the races to come together and unite,
or something? No. I see that there are tons of white kids who listen to punk, and also listen to hip hop. There are tons of
black people –black girls, especially- who aesthetically look punk, because that’s the fall fashion for 2004.
Lady Enyce is doing a whole punk-inspired line. Does that mean it matters in the grand scheme of things? Probably not. It’s
just like people co-opting from one another, capitalizing off of aesthetics.
As a musician, you get to a certain point
where you get bored with the stuff you know, so you start looking elsewhere. You can talk to any number of hip hop artists
–mainstream, people who blew up, whatever- and ask them what they listen to. Sure, they’ll tell you who their
contemporaries are. But they’ll also tell you, yeah, I listen to like Nirvana, or like Sound Garden, or some shit. I’ve
heard multiple suggestions that Jay Z is thinking about starting a rock label –I hear these kind of rumors all the time.
Yeah, the musicians are interested in crossing over, just because they get bored. But I don’t know if the fans are willing
to go there, because the money and marketing people who make the decisions (know that) it’s too hard to market to people
if you can’t pidgeonhole them –if you don’t know exactly what they like.
Rachel: Maybe we’re
habituated to talk about scenes in terms of race, but do you feel that big marketing people also exploit these terms?
Oh sure, I mean, marketing is like, the evil-est thing around. I have a friend who works for an un-named magazine, and she
is one of the most evil people when it comes to marketing. It’s crazy. I’m glad that she’s my friend, because
we talk about stuff, and I can learn how people operate. I was asking her for some advice as far as getting more people to
come to shows, wanting to reach this or that community, whatever. She was like, “well, what’s your demographic?”
I was like, well, of the black people who come, 85% of them are women. She was like, “Oh, that’s very interesting,
what kind of liquor do they drink?” You know? Like that’s how the marketing mind thinks. Because if we know that,
then we can figure out which companies to deal with.
These people are always thinking they’re on it –they’re
way ahead of the game. By the time the shit reaches us commoners, it’s already put into place. So yeah, hip hop has
to continue to appear black, because the liquor, clothing, and film industries depend on that. Hip hop is the culture right
now. White people like black stuff –they don’t wanna be black, but they like black stuff. So they can’t
let hip hop look too white.
Rachel: In terms of activism, because there’s been all this hoo-haw about hip hop
activism this year, do you think that’s gonna create more alliances between grassroots punk people, and politically-oriented
hip hop people?
James: I don’t have much faith in anything being integrated. As long as I think of punk people
as white, and hip hop people as black, if that’s the terms that we’re dealing with, then there will just be superficial
showings. You might have Russell Simmons standing hand in hand, fist in the air with someone from Red Hot Chili Peppers, or
whatever, to talk about Rock the Vote, but I don’t think that at the end of the day, Russell’s kids are playing
with Flea’s kids. These are publicity stunts. (BTW I don’t even know if either of these people are involved in
the Rock the Vote Campaign.)
That’s not to say that people don’t really believe in these causes. But the
idea of people coming together with music as their conduit –there’s too many forces at work, and not enough discussion
to really have a foundation of people.
Rachel: What is your experience of hip hop?
James: When I was ten I
bought my first Run DMC record, or whatever. I wouldn’t say I was a hip hop head, because I lived in an all-white town,
and I was the only kid (who listened to hip hop at all). When I was in fifth grade we had music-listening time, and all the
kids were listening to Bon Jovi, and I was listening to Run DMC. I remember the teacher made me listen to it on my headphones.
Rachel: How old are you now?
James: I’m twenty-seven, oh, no, twenty-eight. So this was still relatively
early. People were excited about breakdancing for a year, but that came and went. Then people just wanted to listen to Def
Leopard, or whatever. Hip hop was my thing until about 8th grade, when it broke, and the number one songs were by MC Hammer
and Vanilla Ice. I wasn’t really down with like, picking up a hammer. So I had a really peripheral perspective. I didn’t
know that hip hop was a culture because I was the only one who was into it.
Rachel: That’s interesting. Did
you move from being the only hip hop head in an all-white town, to being the only person of color in a mostly white punk scene?
James: Yeah, pretty much. Because eventually rap music wasn’t speaking to me anymore, because I didn’t
really know about things outside of the mainstream –whatever was hitting number one at the time. Around the same time,
I was skateboarding, and I remember people playing punk rock, and that seemed cool to me. So I kind of left hip hop behind
for a while. When I moved to New York in my sophomore year of high school –I was in this California desert town called
Apple Valley for my elementary school years- and the punk hardcore scene was really hip hop in its aesthetic. A lot of kids
–especially the kids of color- grew up in the hood, so they were listening to hip hop, but they were also listening
to hardcore. I was friends with a lot of different people, so I could have a fairly good conversation with anybody about hip
hop from that time period –from ’92 to ’94- but then it stopped speaking to me after that golden year. Then
I was listening to rock exclusively.
Now I’m fairly familiar with what’s going on in the hip hop community,
just because I deal with so many different kinds of people. There are some groups that speak out to me a lot more than any
rock group does. But then again, I still like disgusting music.
Rachel: I was really interested when you talked about
the aesthetics merging, and kids of color from the hood being into hardcore, but really influenced by hip hop. In terms of
hardcore thrash punk and hardcore gangsta rap, how much crossover is there in the fanbase?
James: There’s a
pretty good crossover. In the punk scene, hardcore is it’s own music, within that scene. The hardcore scene kids look
like hip hop scenes –they wear baggy clothes, and everything. In New York, there was a big trend of emulating gangsta
rap that infused itself into the punk scene. Like there’s all kind of “thug” mentality hardcore punk kids.
There was a gang called DMS –Doc Martin Skins- that started out as a punk thing. They got into gangster stuff, started
toting guns, and then changed it to like, droppin’ suckas, drug money, and sex. They were in the punk scene, but they
emulated stereotypes of gangsta rap.
They started off as an anti-racist skinhead group, but then, over time, maybe
they wanted to wear their pants baggy, or something. You know, skinheads have a very specific style. They evolved into this
gang that was like, more thuggish, and gun-toting.
There’s a band called GFY –Go Fuck Yourself- and they
completely emulate gangsta rap. They have the Tupac do-rags. They’re not trying to emulate real black people, they’re
trying to emulate stereotypes of black people.
Rachel: Who would they target?
There wasn’t a rival gang.
They’d target other hardcore kids, I guess. Do you remember a band called Biohazard? They did a remix of “Slam”
with Onyx in 1994. They were a DMS band. They had that aesthetic: hella tattoos. I didn’t know a lot about them –I
just knew that if they were in the pit, I had to stay away. They were there to fight.
Rachel: But there are bands
like GFY just taking this thing and acting the fool, with it?
James: Yeah, I remember seeing one of them with a sweatshirt
that said “Long Island Thugcore” on the front. Apparently, that’s popular in Long Island, of all places
–not exactly the urban center.
Rachel: Does their music still sound really rockish?
James: Yeah, it’s
really heavy. But there’s also been a lot of rap-rock types stuff. I think they call it rapcore. Some of them do a good
job of it, but usually those are the ones that have a black singer. They’ll do their thing, and have rap breakdowns.
But for the most part, they kind of suck, because it’s hard to fuse two kinds of music together well. In my opinion,
the best rap-rock stuff I’ve heard was the remix of Jay Z’s Black Album with Metallica’s Black Album. I’ve
heard all of those remixes, and most of them suck. The Metallica thing, though, that seems like what he was trying to do.
Rachel: Maybe this appropriation of genre is the really cynical side of integration. But on a more uplifting note,
you said that there are also hardcore kids of color who are influenced by a hip hop aesthetic.
James: I think a lot
of black punk rock kids dig hip hop because they grew up with it. Granted, nobody has the same experience, but if you’re
a black punk kid in Chicago, Detroit, or some urban center, chances are that are, hip hop was a part of your life. It’s
kind of like that double consciousness thing, all over again. Black people have the ability to do their thing, and also do
what’s considered a white people’s thing, because that’s the dominant culture. I don’t think that’s
ever gone away.
Rachel: When you say “hip hop aesthetic” do you just mean appearances, or also the substantive
content of the lyrics –like with that Middle Passage song?
James: That’s gonna vary from person to person.
First of all, hip hop isn’t dealing with super-heavy politics –although there are definitely exceptions to that.
But I can’t believe that all the white people who go to say, Dead Prez shows, are really listening to the lyrics.
Because if they were, they probably wouldn’t go, even if they dug the group. Because the band doesn’t even want
them there, you know what I’m saying? I think people absorb what they want to absorb, by selectively listening. I think
a lot of people who are liberal, and politically conscious, see themselves as the exception to whatever’s being talked
about. As long as that’s the case, progress won’t be made. If we can’t even communicate to those people,
how are we gonna communicate to the rednecks, or whatever?
I have a friend who works as a schoolteacher in Long Island,
and all his students really drive SUVs with windows and rims, and they’re seventeen and eighteen year old white kids.
They emulate hip hop culture, and they can afford to. It’s a crazy circular thing where the black folks who are aspiring
to rims are emulating a caricature of white culture, and white kids are turning around and emulating the caricature of black
people emulating white people. It’s this crazy thing, but none of that means that we’re really coming together.
It just means that: a) we’re lining the rims peoples’ pockets, and b) continuing to not talk about race. A lot
of white people confuse admiration and exotification for progress. I think a lot of black people deal with that too, because
we’re all victims of an ongoing illusion.