Birth of the Hip-Hop Dynasty: Part One
Dirty Lenz Films
Reviewed by Aaron Shuman
Tuesday, September 5 2000, 11:30 AM
One sunny day in August, twenty kids in green t-shirts and toothy smiles were finishing bagged lunches at Rancho Peralta Park, when their playground was taken over by a capoeira fighter, an innocuous, four-eyed skateboarder who happens to know kung fu, and the afternoon of battles that ensued. The kids, on a field trip from East Oakland's Arroyo Viejo Center, remained riveted to their picnic tables, until adult chaperones pried them, protesting, loose. Lateef, the capoeirista, was from San Jose; Pitt, the dreadlocked Clark Kent, from Milwaukee; the camera crew following their every move, from Oakland. For them, it was just the latest day in a six-years-and-counting odyssey to shoot a trilogy of films named Birth of the Hip-Hop Dynasty.
For Phillip Colas (Professor Pitt) and Ricardo Pruett of Dirty Lenz Films, the hip-hop dynasty begins and ends with the kids. "I decided to make movies when my sons were playing Conan the Barbarian and running around with mops on their heads, screaming, I'm Conan," recalls Colas, 27. "I said, 'Okay, but realize you're an African-American Conan.' They couldn't accept that. They kept saying, 'There aren't any African-American superheroes.' They shut me up. And when a 3 or 4 year-old shuts you up, that's deep."
To create a hero for his children, Colas returned to a childhood spent watching Black Belt Theatre and going to the local kung-fu theatre. "Going to early kung-fu with my brother meant everything to me," he says. "You had people doing stuff that was superhuman, but the reality was that they were human, not Superman. They were a superhero you could become."
Colas began writing his first film in 1996. He knew the rudiments of shooting video and had made a name for himself in Milwaukee with his hip-hop video show, The Zone, on public access TV. Colas started The Zone in 1994 when his group, Pitt and da Pendulum, couldn't get adequate airtime on any local show.
"On my show you can be the person you are, or the person you are on the album," says Colas. The combination of candid interviews with stars such as Wu Tang, KRS-One, and Chuck D; practical advice for aspiring stars on surviving the business or starting one's own; and videos from Cream City hustlers made The Zone a local hit. The show was syndicated to Chicago and Berlin, before Pitt pulled it to concentrate on moviemaking.
So Colas became screenwriter, "producer, director, caterer," editor, and publicist for Part One of Birth of the Hip-Hop Dynasty, in which he acted both the good son (Pitt) and bad father (Evil Professor). Lest this sound like a vanity project, know that while father may whoop son, the ancestors materialize to bring all their asses back in line, in a vision of an Afrocentric universe where "mental fitness" requires Pitt to work through stances in time with a lecture on the Ethiopian Empire from a Dr. Gross. This being hip-hop, the wise men who direct Pitt to Dr. Gross are the Jungle Brothers, backstage at the Hieroglyphics show. And so the movie goes, through a number of chance encounters and choice battles, filmed with the jaw-dropping camera angles and eye-popping effects Colas first used to make The Zone stand out to channel surfers. A soundtrack runs the full length of the film, wherein screams are transformed via echo chamber into electronic smears or turntable scratches, and chaos resolves into a circle of handclaps and drumming. A hat thrown in the air, through the magic of stutter frame photography, becomes the "Jamaican death hat technique," capable of boomeranging and knocking someone upside the head. Electronic-age inventiveness creates a universe of proudly Black magic that earns its tagline, "historically, the first Afrikan-American hip-hop kung-fu movie."
Colas brought the film to the Bay last fall, for its only screenings outside Milwaukee, at the Justice League and Oakland's Black Dot Cafe. He says, "In Milwaukee, you have to be up on TV. If it ain't on TV, people won't support it. The Bay Area, you get out there and people wanna help. If your shit is good, people try to help you."
On this trip, Colas met his partner in Dirty Lenz Films, Ricardo Pruett. Pruett, 37, a musician and videomaker himself, recalls, "We met in a drum circle at Golden Gate Park. Pitt was doing martial arts with fans, doing it like a dance. I wanted to learn how to do what he's doing, so I asked him about being in a music video of mine." The rest is history.
Besides freeing Pitt from many of the technical duties, Pruett has been instrumental in lining up the Oakland talent that will comprise the majority of the cast for Part Two, currently transforming parks throughout Oakland into stagesets and theaters to demonstrate arts to kids. The new movie has been deeply shaped by their time here.
"I was approached by an Asian woman at a party with the Hieroglyphics," Colas recalls. She said, "I don't know that I wanna buy your movie because you're exploiting my culture." But martial arts is based on certain key stances, and these stances are chiselled on pyramid walls. I'm recognizing the African-American in Chinese cultures [and vice versa]. This new movie will feature people of color in their own communities, doing what they do, who pull their styles out when needed. So you can see how they blend together."
Waiting out the Screen Actors' Guild strike to appear in Part Two is Master Sultan Uddin, his own success story in the making. Before he was 21, he became the first African American to master eskrima, the Phillippine art of stickfighting. After years of study, teaching, fighting, and service as a bodyguard, Master Sultan became a consultant for Hollywood's growing, Hong Kong-fueled fascination with martial arts. Called onto the set of Mortal Kombat 2 to advise, he realized, "They didn't know eskrima. They didn't know capoeira. I know how to make capoeira flow with all the arts, because that's what I did as a bodyguard." Master Sultan walked off with a role in the movie, and credits for the video game and TV show.
Now he is working to bring the movie industry to Oakland, where the wealth of ethnic dance and martial arts styles at venues like the Alice Arts Center, the well-developed networks for independent hip-hop and film, and the proximity to Hollywood all offer opportunity to the enterprising cineaste. With Pitt, he agrees, "This is gonna be the year," when major projects jump off, adding, "There are very few African-Americans doing this. But I've seen a huge influx into independent film. We have the demand. The technology is available for us to do it ourselves. So we need to get our talents together and do it."