The Land Before Streetwear

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Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

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Just a short drive from The Bronx via the Hutchinson River Parkway, the Village of Pelham doesn't much resemble the sprawling multifaceted metropolis whose northernmost borders lie mere miles away. Attractive and green, residential and serene, this idyllic part of Westchester County looks and feels undeniably suburban. Steps from the Metro North train station, residents stroll or sit in the adjacent green space in which squirrels actually truly frolic. By 7pm on a weeknight, many of its businesses have already closed for the day, independently owned and operated stores with charming straightforward names like Accents On Antiques, Crystal Cleaners and Gordon Carpet Center.

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Pelham's population is 82.5% white, with more than a third of its households earning $200,000 or more in annual income. It seems, then, an odd place to screen a sneak preview of Rubble Kings, an informative new documentary about the numerous ethnic New York street gangs that cropped up in the economically troubled and oft-violent 1960s and 1970s. Nonetheless, the Pelham Picture House—a preserved community movie theater dating back to 1921—hosted an early viewing along followed by a Q&A session with director Shan Nicholson, a Queens native originally from Long Island City.

Over its brief sixty-seven minute running time, Rubble Kings presents an enlightening anecdotal account of gang life in New York, focusing largely on The Bronx. After blaming infamous city planner Robert Moses' Cross Bronx Expressway project and the ensuing white flight—the coin flipside of today's gentrification concerns—for the confluence of conditions that birthed these territorial urban tribes, it lets surviving members of the groups, aided by narrator John Leguizamo, tell their stories.

With names like Black Spades, Ghetto Brothers, Golden Guineas and Seven Immortals, these gangs arose out of unfortunate circumstances and fostered a strange, tumultuous type of order in an otherwise lawless string of neglected ghettos and blighted blocks. Black, Italian, Puerto Rican, the members reflected the demographics of their respective carved out territories. Brawls, brutal beatings and turf battles started over minor infractions and imagined slights. Cops, when they so much as dared to enter these hostile areas, were subject to more abuse, defiance and wanton attempts on their very lives than the gangs would mete out even to their fiercest of rival clubs.

Despite the blatant similarities among these warring factions of disenfranchised American youth, what most differentiated them was the most obvious: their clothing. Drawing conscious and unconscious inspiration from 1950s rebels and then contemporary motorcycle groups like the Hell's Angels, the gangs donned denim vests and dungaree jackets. Think, dusty Levi's, not raw selvedge. They emblazoned these with their club names and complimentary ephemera, often sourced and appropriated from student varsity logos. "A lot of them were team letters," Nicholson explained to the audience following the screening. "They would cut out the felt and do it all themselves." Beyond biker boots, charged symbols adopted by outlaw Americana like the Nazi swastika were prominently displayed as patches and badges by the New York street gangs in spite of the seemingly obvious ethnic incongruities, preceding the juxtapositional provocations of Kanye West's "Black Skinhead" by several decades.

The attitudinal shifts required to move from the unapologetic filth of gang garb to the pristine freshness of nascent hip-hop couture might not have been possible without the 1971 peace treaty.

Long before hypebeasts traipsed through the city's boutiques and scoured its sample sales for seasonal steals, New York was The Land Before Streetwear, a place where your outfit could cost you your very life. Depending on which block you happened to walk down in the late '60s and early '70s, you could end up a target if your colors weren't right. Though liable to lose your personal property in the ensuing beatdown, this wasn't about jacking you for your jewelry or nice kicks. This was brutal street justice. Swag had nothing to do with it.

Stylistically and otherwise, a military-style uniformity characterized these clans, a logical trend considering the concurrent Vietnam War and its draft. Like so many of his generation, Ghetto Brothers member Carlos "Karate Charlie" Suarez, one of the film's de facto stars and its most charismatic, had previously served in the Marines. There were tiered hierarchies to be respected with clearly defined titles: President, Vice President, Warlord. Each of these roles required certain skills and the ability to maintain the respect and loyalty of fellow members. Some groups even had what was known as Gestapo, self-policing disciplinarians who administered punishments and penalties to members who broke ranks, so to speak. It's no surprise then that army surplus and associated accessories like berets made their way into aspects of gang style.

Though certainly not adverse to throwing down when necessary, the Ghetto Brothers in particular played a substantial role as proponents of peacekeeping and mediation, which reached a momentous peak in December of 1971 at the historic Hoe Avenue Meeting. An unprecedented intergang summit that took place at the neutral Boys Club Of America, grievances and commonalities alike were aired, culminating in a formal truce by way of signed treaty. "Peace," as Suarez joyously recalled it, "came instantaneous." The foreboding territoriality which had previously limited mobility and further entrenched provincial ideas became less of a concern, giving way to increased travel and socialization.

From this newly achieved freedom came the now legendary block parties and communal gatherings which eventually birthed hip-hop. Many of this first wave of New York breakdancers, DJs, emcees and graffiti artists had also been gang members, including the legendary Afrika Bambaataa, a member of the Black Spades and attendee at the Hoe Avenue Meeting. Having moved to Morris Heights in The Bronx at the age of twelve, Jamaican-born Kool DJ Herc introduced his pioneering dual turntable techniques at events like these as early as 1973. It's hard not to see parallels between intergang violence and the civil culture of battling, be it on the mic or the dancefloor.

Seeing how this music's fashionable origins interlace with the roots of streetwear, the impact of the Hoe Avenue Meeting cannot be overstated. "What fascinated me most was the transition not even in mentality, but style," Nicholson said in response to an audience question. "We're talking about eight year periods between all of these huge changes in style." The attitudinal shifts required to move from the unapologetic filth of gang garb to the pristine freshness of nascent hip-hop couture might not have been possible without the 1971 peace treaty. While New York certainly didn't transform into a nonviolent utopia overnight (or ever), the lessening of aggressions yielded the optimal conditions to let powerful and positive movements like hip-hop and streetwear emerge and thrive.

Rubble Kings premieres in theaters today, June 19, in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York, as well as On Demand.

[Photos via Rubble Kings]

Gary Suarez is a writer born, raised and still living in New York City. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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