Q&A: Director Sacha Jenkins on Hip-Hop Doc "Fresh Dressed"

Courtesy of the filmmaker, photo by Jamel Shabazz

When it comes to clothing, being fresh-dressed is close to godliness. At least, that's what director Sacha Jenkins posits in his new documentary about the evolution of hip-hop through fashion, Fresh Dressed. The film, which was screened this week at the Sundance Film Festival, takes viewers on a journey through hip-hop's origins in the Bronx, analyzing style as expression and then as an enterprise through the likes of Roc-A-Wear and Phat Farm. Jenkins pulls in impressive archival material and speaks to key players of the era, including Dapper Dan and Nas, as well as contemporaries like A$AP Rocky, to form a story that's continuing to unfold.

We spoke to the director about Fresh Dressed, the relationship between capitalism, confidence and colorful clothing, and how important conversations about race are unfolding as a consequence.

What catalyzed this documentary?

I've been writing about hip-hop for a long time, and just being involved. A lot of the folks in the film are people I've known for a long time, you know, being on the scene. A lot of the key footage I knew where it would come from, documentaries where people are in the know. The initial round of stuff was easy for me to identify, but when you go digging you find all kinds of stuff to tell the story. I must have done 75 interviews for the film, and in those conversations it opens up other doors and makes you go search for other things that are going to help tell the story.

In that process of digging through archival footage, did anything take you back?

There's a scene at the top of the film where all these gang members are on a television show and it's hosted by this guy. We had that footage for a long time, but then I stumbled--literally, at the eleventh hour--on this notion where he's like, you're all dressed like warriors, who are you warring against? Why are you all dressed this way? And the reaction is, we live in the south Bronx, the cops are racist. And yeah we are dressed like warriors because they're abusing us, and we're tired of that, and we're not going to stand for it. And so when you think about that in 1971, and you look at where we are now, how so many things have not changed.… It's moments like that in the film, for me, every time I watch it, I see something that I didn't see before. There's a lot of information in there. As a filmmaker, I have to continue watching it.

What was it like seeing the film with an audience?

When you're looking at it on a small screen for months and months and months, it's such a completely different experience seeing it on the big screen. There's so much more detail you see, for some of the older footage it's not as crisp because it's blown up so big. But the audience here at Sundance is not typically a hip-hop audience.

So we've been able to lay it to people who are not initiated at all. Some folks have come up to me on the street and have been like, "Hey, I'm from Utah, I don't know anything about any of this stuff. A lot of this stuff was over my head and I never thought to think about it." So now, hopefully more folks will see it and will have more of an understanding of where it comes from. A lot of the emphasis on it has been fashion, fashion. Really, to me, the film isn't about fashion: it's about environment, it's about climate, what created the fashion, what inspired it, and what inspired the fashion, this environment, what these kids did as artists and creative people would inspire mainstream fashion or high fashion.

When were you first conscious of the term "fresh"?

Growing up in Queens, New York, in the '70s and '80s. It was just an extension of how we dressed. There were several periods of time that were crucial in the 'hood, so to speak: Easter, it was a time when you had time off during the Easter break. When you went back, it was important to have new clothes. It was like, "Yo, you get fresh for Easter?" or "How you getting fresh?" It just speaks to this idea of...it's kind of capitalist in that it speaks to the notion of it being brand new. So the connotations are, it's new, it's out of the box, it costs money. It looks good, it's clean, it's expensive, I have it. So that's what that term ultimately translates to.

Speaking to that, Damon Dash, from Roc-A-Wear, says in the documentary that fashion is a status symbol for insecurity.

Yeah. And, looking back on it...I was interviewed by a journalist yesterday who said, you don't see the same thing in rock and roll. You know, who are the great clothing moguls? Bon Jovi doesn't have some hip streetwear line, why is that? And I think clothing to white folks in America doesn't have the same value as it does for people of color. You're white; you're comfortable, you have this level of identity that folks of color don't have. So how you dress, I mean obviously everyone wants to dress for success, but if you saw your average billionaire on the street he's not going to be blinged-out. He's not going to be wearing all these expensive accoutrements to show people that he has money and status. So for some people clothing is a tool, it's just what you need to walk the streets and get around. For others, it's a status symbol.

Your film is coming out at a time when we're having important cultural discussions about appropriation and expression. How did you navigate that duality?

Talking music, talking Iggy Azalea or something?

I wasn't think about her in particular, but more about how this generation's musical reference point tends to gravitate toward hip-hop.

You know, rock and roll was not accepted by America in the beginning. The term "rock and roll" is slang for basically having sex. Black slang. And then eventually rock and roll went from that thing that those people did to what we do, as in we Americans, as in we white people. So rock and roll became the establishment. Rock and roll was inspired by the blues, and all this other stuff that came before it and was pioneered by people of color. So rock and roll became the voice of America. Hip-hop came along, it's these black kids from the inner city, what are they talking about? We don't care. Rock and roll was still very dominant at that point.

But now I meet young kids all the time who you ask, you like Led Zeppelin? They say no. How do you not like Led Zeppelin? When I grew up, white kids knew Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, and this music was old to them in the '80s! And they say, "Oh, DMX is the first cassette my mom bought me." So now that hip-hop is "American," meaning it's not black anymore, once America embraces it, it's OK to appropriate without guilt. And I think that's kind of what's happened. I mean, Iggy Azalea. Cut her a little slack, she's not from America. At the same time, people are really troubled by her vocals--are you affecting a black woman? When you speak, you sound like a nice Australian girl, then it becomes this other thing, and people become sensitive. If she sold no records, it wouldn't be an issue. But because she has the success, because she's on the radio, there are so many other artists, particularly females of color, don't get that attention and their voices actually sound like that based on where they come from. That's where it gets complicated.