Can You Dig it? 'Rubble Kings' Is the True Story of Gang Warfare That Inspired 'The Warriors'

Directed by Shan Nicholson, the documentary goes in on the New York Gangs of the 70s and how they gave birth to hip-hop.

Sep 28 2015, 11:30am

From 1968-1975, there was a gang war raging in New York. Young people from the then racially divided communites of the five boroughs spent most of their time causing mayhem and sewing patches on their jackets to identify their tribe. From the Bronx to the Lower East Side, Brooklyn to Staten Island, and on and on, these crews were fighting protect their turf and make a name, a means of social recognition within a crumbling, almost post-apocalyptic landscape. The lifestyle of these gangs have been immortalized in documentaries and cult movies like 80 Blocks From Tiffany's and the famous The Warriors, who famously stole their "gang peace summit" idea from an actual gang meeting in the 70s.

Shan Nicholson is a child of this culture. He grew up in the years following these dark days and attended to the restoration of peace in these neighborhoods through the emergence of hip-hop. His film, Rubble Kings, which was released this summer, focused on those days and the turning point that lead to the birth of hip-hop, and a change in culture as we know it. We asked him some questions about his childhood, graffiti in the New York, and more, and he sent us the gift of a Rubble Kings Gang mixtape available at the end of the interview.

A playground for children in New York in the early 70's.

NOISEY: When and where are you born?
Shan Nicholson: I moved to NYC when I was 5 years old. I grew up in L.I.C Queens during the early 80s, it was a very different place than it is now. It was a very grimy industrial neighborhood back then. There was a lot of prostitution, abandoned buildings. I remember people used to just roll up in vans and dump shit like old couches on our block and roll away. But as kids we loved the neighborhood, we would take that old couch and jump around on it for hours. Our favorite passtime was climbing into abandoned buildings and exploring. We made the best out of the mess. There was nothing to do, so we would just make something out of nothing.

Shan Nicholson on the train in the 80s.

I read you grew up with the beginnings in of hip-hop. Were you old enough to go to block parties and paint trains?
I wouldn’t say I was there from the very beginning of hip hop, but probably the generation right after. Again I was a kid in the early 80s. I do remember parties in the park around my way. I can remember playing handball and hearing "Trans-Europe Express" by Kraftwerk being played for hours in the park. It felt like it was playing ALL DAY! Also, NYC was a lot looser back then: folks used to walk around with their boom boxes on full blast everywhere. I just remember all kinds of music coming from everywhere. My neighborhood was mostly Hispanic, so there was also a lot of salsa and merengue playing everywhere.

I was definitely around when graffiti covered the trains, but by the time I started writing in ’88 the generation before me had already stopped bombing trains. I was part of the generation right after, we basically wrote on everything else in and around the subway system, train stations, power houses, rooftops, basically every surface in the city.

What gangs like Savage Skulls, Seven Immortals and Black Spades were listening to? Mostly Latin funk? Were there affiliated bands? Tell me about the Ghetto Brothers.
It’s my understanding that most of the gangs were pretty open minded musically. They listened to mostly rock, but also funk and Latin funk, etc. There were definitely different anthems for different gangs. For example, Bambaataa told me that the Black Spades' anthem was “Soul Power” by James Brown. When James Would yell “SOUL POWER,” the gang would yell back “SPADE POWER!”

The Ghetto Brothers are the center characters of Rubble Kings. They were one of the biggest gangs around back then, but they were more politically aware than most of the other gangs in the city. They also had an incredible Latin funk band. The Ghetto Brothers were responsible for the famous Hoe Avenue peace treaty that we cover in Rubble Kings, where all of the gangs got together and put their differences aside to create peace. Their story is phenomenal, it was my initial inspiration for creating Rubble Kings.

Seven Immortals from The Bronx

When I interviewed Parris Mayhew of the almighty hardcore band Cro-Mags, he told me he felt safe in the hood growing up along the Savage Skulls, because they kinda protect the neighborhood. Did you feel the same during the 80’s?
By the time I was growing up there weren’t any outlaw gangs left in my neighborhood. But yes, for a lot of communities these gangs were the law of the land, and did protect their neighborhoods. These gangs came up in the 70s, smack dab in the middle of the heroin epidemic, so they chased out the pushers and junkies. Also, there was hardly any police presence in some of these neighborhoods, so these gangs were the police in a sense. If some one robbed you, or beat you up you could go to the gang leaders for justice.

In the famous documentary 80 Blocks From Tiffany’s, we see different gang members (mostly Nomads & Savage Skulls), blacks or latinos, wearing swastika flags, SS helmets and stuff. How did they get that stuff?!
Mostly all of the gangs of that era modeled themselves after the Hells Angels and other biker clubs. They really identified with the “outlaw” culture and lifestyle. To quote DSR, one of the cast members in Rubble Kings, “The Angels were rebelling and trying to shock society, so we said we can do that too. Cause we really have something to rebel against”. So the swastikas and the outlaw paraphernalia was a part of it. At the end of the day they wanted to shock and scare people, so they reappropriated these symbols, and made them work for them.

Thee Bachelors (The Bronx) hopping fences

Were there anti-racist gangs also? How gangs did share the NYC turf?
Most of the gangs that we cover in the Bronx and Brooklyn were racially mixed. There were also predominately white gangs in the north Bronx as well, like the Ministers, War Pigs and Golden Guineas. Turf was fought over viciously, I was told in some neighborhoods turf boundaries even came down block to block. Like you didn’t pass a certain garbage can on a block because you would be violating someone’s turf. Pretty crazy to think about.

How old were you when you started to collect records and DJ?
I started collecting records when I was 18. Back then I was making beats, so it was mostly for sampling purposes. I collected mostly old soul and funk, rock, jazz, etc. Later on I started DJing and really got into digging for old breaks and disco, etc.

The Dukes from Brooklyn, ready for a night on the town.

If you had to choose 5 crucial records that symbolized NYC back then, what would they be?
I can only really speak from my own experience but some of the crucial songs that I grew up with that really made an impact and shook things up in NYC are.

1. "Planet Rock" - Afrika Bambaataa & Soul Sonic Force: This song just shifted everything. It was played everywhere, and just seemed to be the beat of New York for like 3 years straight.

2. "The Bridge" - MC Shan: I grew up a few blocks away from Queens Bridge projects, so this was an anthem in our neighborhood. It seemed like every car that passed by was playing it, everybody hanging on a stoop with a boombox was playing it. It was just everywhere. It was also the song that sparked the whole BDP and Juice Crew beef, which was a big deal in the 80s.

3. "Straight Out The Jungle" - Jungle Brothers: Again this is just my own taste, but when this record came out it felt like a game changer. There was something about the production and the vibe of the song that felt brand new and fresh.

4. "Break For Love" - Raze: I chose this record because this is when I started going to clubs. This song was played everywhere, I remember it kind of ushering in house music for kids that grew up on hip hop.

5. "Hot Music" - Soho: This song go's back to my clubbing years as well. I always associate it with the Giant Step parties of the late 80s early 90s. When it came on people would just form dance circles and start battling. This song was underground but it crossed over to all of the different scenes. Hip hop kids loved it, House kids loved it.. Everyone loved it.

Speak me about the impact of a movie like The Warriors, its cult following since three decades and how it influenced your work.
The Warriors was definitely a cult classic in NYC. Certainly every kid that I knew, grew up watching the Warriors at least once. While shooting Rubble Kings, at the very end of every interview I actually asked each cast member what they thought of the Warriors. Most of the cast would smile and say, "That would have never happened in real life. If you shot one of ours, you wouldn't have made it to the train station, much less Coney Island."

Do you miss the days before gentrification?
This is always a touchy subject for me. In short, the answer is yes. There was a magic about NYC that has definitely been lost in a lot of ways. There was a sense of danger and opportunity around every corner back in the day. NYC has become driven by money culture and has become a bit homogenized for my taste. I liked the grit of my childhood.

DOWNLOAD RUBBLE KINGS : The Mixtape (available here)

Watch Rubble Kings on VOD, via Netflix, or through the film's official website.

Rod Glacial is on Twitter.