Hip hop has a very divisive position in our cultural consciousness. For some it is a force for good, for others, for ill. Some talk of it with an almost holy reverence, others dismiss it as childish and creatively backward. Whatever side of the fence you are on, though, it has become clear that it can no longer be dismissed as a novelty or a passing fad. By many measures, hip hop is the foremost genre in popular music worldwide today; it is an enormous cultural presence in our society with tremendous influence.
And, what’s more, this take over has taken a mere 35 years. It is this fact, maybe more than any other that reveals that, whatever your opinion of Run DMC, Jay-Z or Odd Future, there is a creative energy at the heart of this movement that is worth attention and respect.
In the late 70s, in a reasonably deprived area of New York, young black men and women with little access to the musical gateways of their day, literally started
a revolution. As the first DJs would hijack electricity from street lights to power the block parties from which hip hop was born, hip hop’s pioneers borrowed freely from musical styles and lyrical traditions to shape a new force in world music. This explosion may be hard for the uninitiated to discern from perusing the early releases of JVC Force or Roxanne Shante, but it is much clearer when taking a step back and witnessing the wider fall out. Musical technology suddenly leapt forward as modern prototypes of today’s DJ mixers and samplers appeared. Hip hop music instantly spawned (or at least redefined) innovations in almost every field of art- in the visual arts (graffiti), in dance (b-boying and breakdancing), beat-boxing, fashion, and on and on.
Hip hop at its essence is all about unbridled creativity; magpie-ing all that glitters in the near vicinity and creating something new and fresh.
This is why ‘The Quickener’, Joel Wilson’s debut film, billed as a medieval rap thriller, is not a rogue offering on the far left field of this strange cultural movement. It is hip hop.
On Saturday 21st September, I attended the premiere of Joel’s film at the Midlands Art Centre in Birmingham, with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. I knew the concept (set in Britain in the time of the Great Plague, something to do with a gargoyle, all dialogue rapped) but I still couldn’t see how (or if) it would work. Some had imagined it would be something like Martin Lawrence’s ‘Black Knight’- a transportation of black street culture into a world full of castles and banquets. I knew it wouldn’t be that. I was imagining something closer to a more monotone Les Mis.
Thankfully, what I witnessed was stylistically much more subtle. For the most part, the actors rapped in an almost freeform style, using authentic medieval vocabulary, while Pete Yelding’s excellent soundtrack settled inconspicuously into the background. Then, every now and again, organic percussion would drift into the mix and the delivery would become just slightly more syncopated. Suddenly rappers were exchanging lines back and forth to carry forward the plot, but then, almost before you noticed, it was back as you were, and you were almost watching a Shakespeare play. This worked brilliantly, drawing out the strength of rap as a style of communication, while dispensing of so many of its distractions.
This is not all that was positive about the film either. Far from it. It was beautifully shot throughout, with the feel of a superior BBC drama, the plot co
ntained a healthy mixture of logic and mystery, and the script was at times mesmeric in its poetry while clear enough to make sure the audience knew what was going on. All sorts of cheeky nods to classic rap groups and anthems kept the 90s hip hop geeks with a smile on their faces too.
It wasn’t perfect, but then again it was never going to be. Joel raised the entire finance and crew for this project from his own personal networks and though all involved acquitted themselves ably, a larger budget and an Adrien Brody/Black Thought hybrid at the centre of the piece would have been a bonus (obviously). The 30 minute running time was also an unavoidable drawback. It would have been great to allow the characters a bit more room to breathe and the plot a bit more time to marinate. But then again, this would have meant that it would not have fitted into any short film festival slot, so less people would see it. Joel, please take this as a plea for an extended DVD version.
Lets face it, this was a ridiculously ambitious debut. People who want to get into film making start with clever but obvious narratives and sparse screenplays set in minimal locations, with two or three main actors. The Quickener aimed to take us back 700 years to muse over enigmatic, deeply spiritual themes, while all the lines were delivered in a style many people still think only works if you have your baseball cap on backwards.
But that is the spirit of hip hop. Trying things that have simply never been done before. Like when Kool Herc started to repeat breaks on old disco records or Grand Wizzard Theodore ‘scratched’ a record back and forth for the first time. Yes, they stood on the shoulders of other artists, but with these semi-plagiarised scraps, they truly created something new, bold and inspiring. The Quickener does exactly the same.
I’ll be very interested to see what this truly unique piece of art triggers into existence over the next 35 years.
The Quickener is now available to stream free of charge here:
Jonny Mellor is a rapper, a writer, and the director of Sputnik.