Admittedly, this is a narrow slice. "There are lots of people who should be included when the history books are written about the local scene, but aren't in our film," Hanson says. And while I was only able to preview parts of the movie, which Hanson was still editing on a Mac in his apartment during our interview, these portions seemed to center on the members of Atmosphere. In other words, it looks like the doc may well be spending a lot of time with Eyedea, Slug, Abilities, and producer Ant, whose blip on the local and national media radar already gives them the unusual distinction in local hip hop of being overexposed. (For evidence, see page 157 of the latest Vibe--or, for that matter, the article archive at www.citypages.com.) Even so, Elements of Style is an important work for the entire community: It demonstrates how mythmaking can now be done on the cheap, relatively speaking. With 40 times more footage shot than used, the cost of making the feature still only came to somewhere between $15,000 and $20,000--an amount of money that might produce five finished seconds on a typical Hollywood picture.
Sitting in front of his computer, and near the turntables where he mixes records in his spare time, the 24-year-old, goateed Hanson admits that he's a hip-hop fan first and a filmmaker second. Both he and Bell grew up in the Twin Cities, but neither knew the other until they attended too-hip-to-live Reed College in Portland, Oregon, where both majored in English. Hanson had attended high school at St. Paul Central with members of Abstract Pack, and he remembers the long bus ride to buy Fear of a Black Planet at Har Mar Mall when he was a kid. But Minnesota hip hop didn't seem important, much less worth documenting, until he began to appreciate it from afar.
Hanson and Bell decided to make the documentary a year ago last March and moved back here to work on it, taking day jobs to fund the project. There was little question that they would focus on Atmosphere, whom they considered the best-known and most charismatic local crew, and shoot googobs of live footage. Bell toured with the group, using one camera for the whole project ("Thank God it didn't break," says Hanson). His partner focused on studio interviews and editing, eventually going through four warranted hard drives on his Mac. "It's a big project," Hanson says, "and we're trying to do it with the cheapest hardware we can. That's hip hop in a nutshell."
The resulting scenes are best when getting right in Atmosphere's face onstage, revealing bulging veins and all. The most memorable live moments belong to DJ Abilities (who may soon get an additional boost for appearing on Zach de la Rocha's forthcoming solo CD). When Abilities cuts up Cream's "White Room" by applying elbow to turntable, he has the kinetic energy of Pete Townshend windmilling over his fret board and leaping in the air. The documentary also suggests how Slug and Eyedea might be A Hard Day's Night away from their own national massiveness. Both have Lennon's mocking mutual-admiration society with the camera. "We just got signed to Jive," deadpans Slug, hanging out on the beach in Santa Monica before a show. "We're gonna go get 40s and some crystal meth, and we're going to go look for vampires tonight to celebrate me selling my soul to the devil."
These scenes occasionally make the mistake of letting the clowns toot their own noses: Artists should never, ever explain why their music is good. Hanson also admits that there was no time in the feature for examining such topics as why Atmosphere draws an overwhelmingly white audience, or why so few women have emerged as team leaders in the game. "We're sort of torn between trying to address [sexism] and not feeling like we can do it adequately with the amount of time we have," Hanson explains.
Which means that Elements of Style has left girls and women the chance to pick up the digital camera for themselves and generate their own hip-hop atmosphere.
It took a flawed film likeLadies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stainsto reveal
the taint of punk imitation
so you wanna be the next Sex Pistols? Well, take those aspirations literally: Become your representation of genital slang! Or as Corinne "Third Degree" Burns--lead singer for the titular Eighties punk girl band in Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains--explains to the lead singer of a male punk band, "I'm everything you wanted to be."
"A cunt?" he says, spitefully.
"Exactly," she responds, grinning.
Make no mistake: This is no feminist reclamation of anatomical terms. For Burns, a teenage DIY guitarist from a poor family, to be a "cunt" is to identify with the working-class Brit-rocker movement who used this language. (For many less sincere musicians in the Eighties, uttering the word was simply a chance to cop the Brits' accents in exchange for punk credibility.) "Cunt" is a name for safety-pinned girls and boys alike, all of whom compete to be the nastiest bottle-shattering, profanity-spewing, offensive-riff-playing bastards in the place. Music is a ruthlessly competitive business, Corinne seems to say. And you gotta be a cunt to succeed. This is punk, fer chrissakes! Or, more precisely, this is an imitation of it.