Thorough Dallas Hip Hop Documentary Finds the City Looking Inward

A closer look at one of the pleasant surprises of DIFF 2014.

One of the best lines to summarize the gist of the locally-focused hip hop documentary We From Dallas is muttered almost in passing, and nearly goes unnoticed:

“To this day, I don’t know how big that song was, but it was big to us.”

Former KNON DJ Bobo Luciano mutters those words not long into We From Dallas, the insular documentary chronicling approximately two decades of the city’s hip-hop culture. It’s a fast-moving 90-minute history lesson on the impact rap music, break dancing, and graffiti had upon the Dallas residents who created it and consumed it.

It’s an important, loving document of a cultural movement that hasn’t received the recognition others in this town have. On a broader scale, it’s an example of how to create an engrossing documentary about a topic that likely has great meaning for seemingly few. Its strength lies in its hesitancy to  exaggerate the scene beyond what it was. In that sense, it never feels like a tossed-off reason to gather a few old friends to reminisce, which is the misstep of similar documentaries.

A story is actually told in We From Dallas. The people who tell it—the radio personalities, the DJs, the rappers, the graffiti artists, and dancers—are largely un-Google-able. They’re wide-eyed and eager. They speak as though it’s been a decade since someone’s asked them about the time they saw DJ Ushy perform at a roller rink.

The faces scroll through the film with such rapidity it can be hard to keep who’s who straight. This style adds an odd sense of urgency: We From Dallas feels like it’s the one and only chance these people will have to explain this on the record. Even if it means the film sometimes feels uncomfortably crowded, everyone gets their turn.

The story begins around 1983, when KNON was housed on the second floor of a decrepit house at San Jacinto and Carroll in East Dallas. The late DJ Ushy Eron was on the airwaves then, and he was purportedly the first person in the city to mix the music live on air.

It zooms to Dr. Rock, the Los Angeles native who brought “that California thing” to Dallas. He’s an important bridge, introducing local The D.O.C. to Dr. Dre and Eazy-E. It aslso follows DJ Big Al, whose trips to and from New York are the reason Dallasites in the late 1980s heard KRS-One, Public Enemy, or Kool Mo Dee.

When KNON DJ EZ Eddie D talks about first hearing Ultramagnetic MCs, he said it “showed me the direction the underground should go.” At 51-years-old, he’s still on the airwaves.

This is an interesting byproduct of We From Dallas: it’s illustrative of the grassroots spread of hip-hop through the early 1980s. The DJs were tastemakers and experimenters. They exposed the listeners to new sounds and techniques. The scene grew organically from there, the music powering the dance crews and the graffiti artists.

It’s easy to see the link between the Boxheads and the city’s rappers in 2008, who bubbled onto national airwaves riding their snap-rap boogie. Even Vanilla Ice makes sense: “White America was ready for their hip-hop king.”

The project began as an effort to chronicle Dallas’ graffiti culture. Namely, it was to focus on Minus Won, the beloved talent whose work influenced many in the city to pick up a spray can to express themselves. As FrontRow’s Dick Sullivan reported last year, his passing galvanized the hip-hop community. Soon, filmmakers Teddy Cool, Islam Sesalem, and Joel Salazar realized the three were intrinsically linked.

The finished product isn’t perfect. The font used to propel the story between the interviews is amateur and awkward. There’s scant time spent on actually creating the music. When the amazingly named Money Waters raps a capella from the porch of a home in South Dallas, it feels somewhat incongruent—odd for a movie that focuses on a music genre.

But We From Dallas succeeds as a narrative of a cultural movement that changed people in the city. For once, Dallas isn’t looking beyond its own borders, it’s looking at what’s inside itself, what it has, and how it got here.