Claude Knight, Sam Derby-Cooper, Luke Scott and Will Wilkinson teamed up to make “NG83 When We Were BBoys” a humorous and poignant documentary about how teenage obsessions shape the rest of our lives. “NG83” tells the stories of 5 inner city youths from Nottingham whose lives were linked through music and dance during the 1980s. Grindin’ caught up with Claude Knight and Luke Scott to discuss the highs and lows in the making of the documentary about their hometown.
Who came up with the idea for the documentary?
CLAUDE KNIGHT: Me and Luke came up with the idea in the Summer of 2008. I was telling him about the pivotal event that got everyone into breaking in Nottingham, which was a performance by a group of B boys from New York in the Market Square to promote a new milk drink called WFLA. I suggested we make a short film recreating the performance, then Luke suggested we make a documentary with that as the jump off point, and it just snowballed from there.
What was the inspiration?
CLAUDE: Watching the Shane Meadows film “This Is England”, which documented the skinhead subculture circa 1983. It got me thinking about what a vibrant time the early 1980s was for music-based subcultures in the UK, yet no one had really documented the B Boy scene despite it being absolutely huge here.
Who was behind the documentary and what did you each bring to the making of it?
LUKE SCOTT: For the first eighteen months it was just me and Claude. He had the connections to the old school Hip Hop scene having been a bodypopper in Crew 22 and MC in Notts duo Mighty Mouth 2. He was able to get hold of all the original B boys and convince them to get involved. I did the background research and worked on the screenplay, putting a narrative together that hinged on key events. In 2009 we brought Sam Derby-Cooper and Will Wilkinson on board who looked after the editing and camerawork and brought the necessary technical skills to take the project to the next level.
Did any of you have much of a background in filmmaking?
CLAUDE: Sam and Will were fresh out of film school and had made a few shorts, so had a little experience. Me and Luke had no previous experience but were longtime film buffs who had always longed to make a movie.
How long was the process from the initial idea to the completion of the documentary?
LUKE: It took us seven years of working on evenings and weekends to finish it. We shot hundreds of hours of interview footage with over forty interviewees and accumulated a huge amount of archive footage, photos and flyers, most of which was from private collections and had never been made public. When we started we had no idea how long it would take to make a feature, in our naivety we thought it would be finished in a year! What we lacked in experience I guess we made up for in enthusiasm – it has been a struggle but the final film is a real labour of love.
What was the biggest challenge you found in making the documentary?
CLAUDE: The whole experience was hugely challenging and a massive learning curve. We initially tried to make a historical documentary with narration, and one of the biggest challenges was weaving the masses of interviews we’d shot into a coherent feature length film. We initially put together a three hour rough cut, found it wasn’t working and went back to the drawing board. We then honed it to five interviewees and juxtaposed their recollections of the 1980s with their lives today, dropping the narration. As a result it’s a much more intimate, character-based film.
Being independently made how did you go about getting funding?
LUKE: The film was made on a shoestring budget which we hustled together from Heritage Lottery investment, a bit of crowdfunding and an old school B Boy reunion fundraiser we put on at Rock City in 2010. We borrowed cameras and sound equipment and everyone worked on it for free.
Some of the archive footage you had was incredible what was the biggest find and how hard was it sourcing then piecing all together?
CLAUDE: The biggest find was the footage of the WFLA performance in Nottingham Market Square that got everyone in Notts into breaking. I was there that day and could remember it being filmed. We did some serious detective work and tracked down the cameraman to New York. We eventually got hold of him and discovered that he still had all of the raw footage, not just of the Notts show but the entire UK tour they did in ‘83. He digitally transferred all of it and sent it over to us to use in the film. Seeing that footage after thirty years was incredible and took me back to being a sixteen year-old again!
Sourcing the archive footage took a couple of years of digging, most of it was on old VHS and Betamax cassettes that had sat unwatched in people’s lofts for decades. Some of it had deteriorated and needed to be sent off and professionally restored for use in the film. We unearthed some gems but it was a long, hard slog – I remember painstakingly fast-forwarding through a box of eighty-odd old VHS tapes given to us by a Nottingham youth club in search of breaking footage and finding nothing but old TV shows on there. I’ve never seen so many episodes of Magnum P.I. in my life!
For those not familiar how would you describe Nottingham?
CLAUDE: Nottingham is a provincial city in the East Midlands with a strong music tradition going back to the 1950’s. Through the Jazz-Funk all dayers to the Reggae sound systems to the advent of Hip Hop, Nottingham’s always had a strong and close-knit music scene. It’s always been up there when it comes to competitive dancing.
LUKE: Anyone wanting to know more about how deep Nottingham goes with Hip Hop music should listen to “Hey! Hey! Can U Relate?” by 2wice The Trouble, “The Gas LP” / The Zulu Beat mix by The P Brothers and the “Spaz The World” LP by Cappo.
Why do you think Nottingham became renowned for it’s breakdancing scene compared to other bigger cities in the UK?
LUKE: It’s notoriety was down to the fact Notts had the only regular Hip Hop jam in the country which took place at Rock City every Saturday afternoon. That became a focal point for B Boys and crews from around the country to travel to and hear the latest tunes, battle each other and check out one another’s moves. You had coach-loads of tracksuited youths coming from London, Birmingham, Manchester and all over. The club sponsored their own elite B Boy outfit called Rock City Crew who represented Nottingham all over the UK, in Europe and beyond. Their rivals The Assassinators also toured far and wide and helped establish Nottingham’s reputation in the B Boy scene.
How important was it to have a venue like Rock City and why was it such a popular venue back then?
CLAUDE: It was crucially important. Rock City was a mecca for black music back then, mainly thanks to the efforts of resident DJ and promoter Jonathan Woodliffe. He played the cream of Jazz-Funk and Soul on the Friday nights and weekend all-dayers and the freshest Hip Hop sounds at the Saturday afternoon jams. He booked all the biggest US acts to play live there too – from Cameo, Roy Ayers and Mtume on the funk tip to Run DMC, Whodini and Afrika Bambaataa on the Hip Hop tip. It was a big club with a state-of-the-art sound system and lighting rig, and going there was an experience I’ll never forget – it was like our version of The Roxy transported to Notts.
What are some of your own memorable moments from that time?
CLAUDE: One of the most memorable moments for me was when Rock City Crew battled their arch-rivals The Assassinators at Rock City to decide who was the best crew in the city. That was a massive event because the rivalry had been building up for years and everyone in town wanted to see a showdown between the two crews. Half of Nottingham turned up to the battle, it was like a prize fight! The Rock City Crew battle with Street Machine from Manchester was amazing too – you can see clips of both battles in NG83. The footage really captures the rawness, intensity and the hardcore competitive edge of B Boying back then.
What’s one thing you miss from that era?
CLAUDE: I miss the innocence of those times, of being young and being part of something so magical and vibrant that you thought would last forever. Breaking was only big for about four years and after it dropped off we lost a lot of people to drink, drugs and crime. The decline and the effect it had on people in the long term is something we examine closely in the film. Star breakers went from being local celebrities to down-and-outs in what seemed like no time. It’s tragic how some very talented people fell by the wayside.
The documentary features some of the people who played a major part in Nottingham’s breakdancing scene how hard was it tracking them down then to open up and tell their story?
CLAUDE: Some I knew and were a phonecall away, others I just had to wait until I bumped into them on the street. In some cases that took years! One central character in the film had mental problems and was living in a halfway house, so getting hold of him was really difficult. We persevered and got there eventually which I’m really glad about as the interview was very moving – he died a couple of years later which makes the footage even more poignant looking back. Another interviewee had a stroke in the middle of filming so we had to wait until he had recovered to finish his interview. A lot of people had never really opened up about that time in their life before, so the interviews could be pretty emotional.
What one thing do you wish made the documentary?
CLAUDE: There’s a notorious B Boy crew from Nottingham called the Roc-A-Trons, and a guy called Dancing Danny from that crew is one of the main characters in the film. Another member of the crew showed us some incredible footage of Roc-A-Trons breaking in the city centre in 1986, which had been shot by some students from the local Polytechnic. We would have loved to use it in the film but he wouldn’t give up the tape for love or money. We were gutted because not only was the dancing great but the footage was so evocative of Nottingham in the 1980s. The film is crammed with archive footage but I would have loved to get that in there too.
What’s one thing you learnt from making the documentary?
LUKE: We’ve learnt to appreciate just how hard it is to make a film and get it seen – the politics, the prohibitive expense of using copyrighted material, the challenge of releasing a film without any money to spend on marketing. It’s been a struggle all the way, but at the same time a brilliant education. Being independent and working on a shoestring budget was hard but at the same time it gave us the freedom to make and learn from our own mistakes, go back to the drawing board and ultimately make a better movie.
What’s your favourite part of the documentary and why?
LUKE: The sequence with Dancing Danny and his elderly Jamaican mother where she berates him for drinking too much and losing his job, and he responds by telling her how proud he is of his dancing. At six minutes it’s a really long scene but we couldn’t cut it any shorter without losing what makes it work. I love the way the dynamic between mother and son changes during the scene, it’s comical and sad and ultimately very real.
What do you want the viewers to take away from the documentary?
CLAUDE: More than anything we’d like viewers to identify with the characters on a human level. It’s a film that deals with universal themes like getting older and being defined by what you were into as a youth. We want everyone to be able to see this film regardless of whether you’re a B Boy or into Hip Hop. It’s an affectionate take on these characters but you see their flaws and problems as well as their achievements. I think people can relate to that.
How has the feedback been so far at the screenings and what plans do you have for the documentary?
CLAUDE: The feedback has been amazing. I don’t think people were expecting the level of comedy and tragedy that there is in the film – it’s a bit of an emotional rollercoaster and that’s not what people anticipated. We’ve screened it a couple of times in Nottingham and at a few film festivals around the country, next up is Amsterdam and then New York in August. Taking the film back to the birthplace of Hip Hop culture is like a dream come true for us to be honest. After that we’re looking to get a bigger theatrical release then put it out online.
Are there future plans to document other eras in Nottingham like the Heatwave radio years?
LUKE: We’ve discussed another potential Nottingham-related project but haven’t confirmed anything as yet. To document something like Heatwave Radio in a film would be really difficult as licensing the music involved would cost a fortune. Maybe someone could archive the old Heatwave shows online? There’s definitely a lot of tapes floating around out there. Those Code Red shows were awesome.
What one piece of advice would you give to other other independent filmmakers?
LUKE: Make something on a subject you know about and can relate to and always look for the human story – stick with it, have faith and you’ll get there in the end.
What’s your definition of Grindin’?
CLAUDE: Grafting on a film for 7 years whilst holding down a day job and bringing up kids. We’ve grinded it out alright!
Interview by Duggs