An author’s first book is a significant achievement. The simple act of completion is a victory unto itself. Freddy Alva, one of New York Hardcore’s most respected historians and documentarians, now stands at the precipice of this achievement. His debut book Urban Styles: Graffiti in New York Hardcore is finished and slated for an October 31st release date and is available for pre-order now. After years of research and interviews, Alva delivers a book jam-packed with history and experience that underscores one of the more overlooked aspects of NYHC: its flourishing graffiti scene. Through a series of firsthand accounts and vivid images of bygone pieces, Urban Styles highlights the melding of two subcultures whose paths to prominence were very similar. Born of a subterranean aesthetic and articulated through the disenfranchised sights and sounds of a youth culture at its apex, Urban Styles is as much a celebration as it is a study.
At over 350 pages and including 180 photos (many never seen before), Freddy Alva has lovingly crafted a remembrance that is as thorough and as unique as the city that spawned it. Now, as he gears up for the coming release date, Freddy discusses his process during the writing and compiling of Urban Styles and gives us an in-depth understanding of what it took to bring the book to fruition.
So, how’s it feel to have your first book finished and to have a definite release date?
It feels incredibly gratifying to have wrapped up this book and seeing the announced release date. I started this project one year and half ago this month; it's been a truly enriching learning experience putting all the pieces together. I must mention that this book has not been a one-man endeavor but a team effort: from the editors that looked over and gave suggestions to every word I wrote, to my talented layout guru, Orlando Arce, as well as the countless people that dug up photos or gave me leads on how to contact certain individuals that are a crucial part of this story. Last, but not least, is the never-ending support from DiWulf publishing that's made Urban Styles a reality.
How was the entire process for you? Did it ever feel like a chore? What did you learn about writing a book? What did you learn about yourself during the process?
I have to admit it was a bit daunting at first. When I initially came up with the concept I thought to myself; 'damn, can I really do this?' Sure, I'd been writing online articles for the past couple of years but I considered them just glorified fanzine rantings, not exactly book-worthy. But I do have experience in conducting interviews, gathering material, and a fairly extensive knowledge on how graffiti intermingled with hardcore in the NY scene. It's this mindset that made it not a chore, but something fun to do: reconnect with old friends, make new ones, and discover significant people and bands that shaped this unique synthesis. I've learned a good amount about how to construct a book proposal and develop an outline that arranges chapters into a cohesive whole. I guess all that time I've spent devouring music, graffiti, and urban studies-type books have prepared me to do this and give it my own interpretation. I learned that I've internalized some specific books that influenced me during my formative years, the end result being simultaneously a tribute to them and a stand-alone work all on its own.
You interviewed quite a cast of characters; do you have a favorite interview in the book?
I have to say all the people interviewed are special and have unique things to say, but the interviews that really stood out for me were the ones in which I reconnected with people I hadn't seen in decades. For example: JERE was one of the first people from my neighborhood I met in the HC scene in 1985; I lost touch with him for about 28 years and when we connected for the interview it was like a day had not passed and we picked up right where we left off. VOYER is another one: I hadn't seen him since, like, 1988, when I used to go his house to watch his band Terminal Confusion rehearse. I went to meet him in his old Bayside neighborhood in Queens; he showed up with cropped hair, wearing a leather MC jacket, sweats, and high-top sneakers. It was exactly the way I remembered him! I could go on and on with anecdotes like this regarding different individuals in the book, but the point I'm trying to make is that I personally know at least two-thirds of everyone involved in this project, so it's tough to pick a favorite. I will also mention that having Mackie HYPER involved is a personal coup for me; there’s no way I could have done a book on Graffiti in NYHC without having him in a central role. Everyone interviewed brings their unique back story and their own interpretation in defining this unique synthesis of graffiti and hardcore in NYC.
A lot of times, while writing a book, the narrative can take on a life of its own, and the story can sometimes end up in places you’d never thought it would go. Did you experience anything like this with Urban Styles? How true to your original vision do you think the final product is?
This unexpected turn of events definitely happened as I was researching material for the book. For example: I had a vague idea of this band called Frontline, because of Mackie from The Cro-Mags having played with them. What I didn't realize, and soon came to discover, is their truly pioneering place in the roots of what the book is about. All the members of Frontline were graffiti writers in the mid-1970s and inspired by the Bad Brains, they formed a hardcore band in 1980. I place them as the foundation of this intermingling of street cultures and hope more people can know just how important they are. Any band that followed in their footsteps, as far as blending both influences, are direct spiritual descendants of this fusion. Another phenomenon I learned about while doing the book is the graffiti scene out in Long Island. I knew hardcore was big out there, and it sometimes gets overlooked, but my interview with GRASP from LIHC band Silent Majority is definitely an eye-opener as far as outlining the history and the major players that kicked off that movement over there. Ultimately the book expanded way beyond my original outline, and that's a good thing as it really showcases the far-reaching impact these subcultures have had on the overall cultural zeitgeist.
In your opinion, why do you think a book like this is necessary? What do you think is its cultural value?
I’ve always loved reading and discovering under-the-radar movements that have somehow escaped scrutiny and feel that this particular tome fits that category. As time progresses and subcultures get diluted or co-opted for the purpose of wider diffusion, knowing the origins is vital to understanding its overall place in the cultural pantheon. Art, music, identity... these are all aspects that give meaning to human existence and the popular perception of something like graffiti or hardcore music might not be seen as conductive to these basic needs, but I would argue that, yes, they do fulfill a much needed role in expression and a desire to connect with others. This all might sound a bit high-minded, I know, but the value is there and all you need is an interest in the arc of urban history to see the far-reaching ramifications of supposedly "low-brow" endeavors.
There is a good amount of books about graffiti out there; same with books about various hardcore scenes. What do you think sets Urban Styles apart; what makes it different?
That is true: the canon of graffiti books is vast and the hardcore one is growing on a daily basis. Urban Styles gives a different viewpoint on these subjects and I will venture to say that the book is ultimately a New York tale; reminiscing on our youth, our neighborhoods, and, ultimately, a way of life that has largely vanished due to the onslaught of gentrification, changing demographics, and the city becoming a victim of its own success. The times depicted in the book will never come again. I think this is at heart what makes my project different: it's simultaneously a celebration and eulogy to a bygone era
Along with the history of various subcultures, a lot of the stories in Urban Styles cover some unsavory subjects; there is mention of violence, drug use, even suicide. You did not shy away from letting your interview subjects talk about these topics pretty freely. How important to the overall narrative do you think these darker parts of the story are?
One can't sanitize the past in order to fit a particular narrative. I think that does a disservice to the reader, so I have to include people's recollections of some unsavory memories. To be honest, violence, drugs, and unlawful behavior was part of our upbringing, both in the hardcore and graffiti scenes. When you take a densely populated urban area and layer socio-economic hardships, the people growing up in these areas can’t help but internalize this plight and lash out in physical ways or through substance abuse; anything to relieve and dull the pain. Graffiti and its ethos of getting up as much as possible was bound to bring competition that progressed into outright conflict, either between individuals or rival crews. Drug use among writers ranged from recreational to functional, like taking uppers to be able to bomb all night. Angel Dust was preferred among them as it made one feel invincible and able to take on the world, traits that were needed to succeed in the graffiti world. I wanted the people interviewed to talk freely, warts and all, about the reality of those times. Things weren’t all so rosy and not everyone got along. Unfortunately, a good number of individuals from both scenes could not escape their demons and looked for a way out. The book is a tribute to them and their everlasting legacy, be it via the recorded sound or visual media.
In addition to all the interviews there are a lot of photos that have never been seen before. How did you procure some of the more rare shots that are in Urban Styles?
I’ve been extremely fortunate to have gotten a lot of fantastic, never seen photos, either through old friends or newer contacts that dug up stuff for me. In some cases, the photos were acquired through serendipity. For example, during the course of interviewing NOAH from Frontline, I casually asked him if he had any old pics. He sent me a Dropbox folder filled with about 200 photos; amazing shots of them playing A7, CBGB’s, their tags on walls. Really cool, candid shots of Mackie Jayson before The Cro-Mags… in short, just extensive documentation of an unknown chapter of graffiti in NYHC. It’s incredible what’s in people’s personal collections, you just have to ask the right question to the appropriate person and I was really lucky to have gotten access to all of these contacts, thank you one and all.
What can you tell us about the cover photo?
The cover photo was taken in the backyard of Abc No Rio in 1990 by an old friend named Richard Unhoch, who’s an extremely talented photographer. I would love to see a book one day of the Punk/Hardcore images he captured in the mid-1980s to the early 1990s. I’ve loved that photo since using it for an exhibit a couple of years ago and it has a triple meaning for me. First: it’s Abc No Rio club the way I remembered it, a place where I made some life-long friendships. Second: I love the teddy bear amongst the rubble, a sign to me of joyful tenderness among the urban decay. Third: on the upper left hand corner you can see a long-gone piece by SANE, a writer that’s a primal reference point for the graffiti and hardcore connection. He sadly passed away in that time period, so this is something to remember him and to honor his legacy. Props to HYENA for doing the Urban Styles logo on the cover and to Orlando Arce for laying it all out.
Give us an idea of what people can expect as far as content when they sit down and open up Urban Styles for the very first time.
People should be ready for an explosion of images, a large percentage never seen before. There are about 180 color photos plus a good number of black and white ones. They can expect writers that played in some of their favorite NYHC bands to dish out compelling narratives regarding their graffiti alter-egos. Any lover of old New York will appreciate the history of primal forces that shaped what the city is now and take away a new-found realization on just how deep these subcultures from a previous era have permeated popular culture and continue to in the 21st century.
Any ideas for future projects yet?
Yes, I definitely do. It’s a project that combines sociology, music, culture… very much in the vein of Urban Styles. Drafting an outline soon; I promise you will literally be the first one to see said outline!