Regarded as one of the deans of the British documentary, UK filmmaker Dick Fontaine has profiled literary giants (James Baldwin; Norman Mailer), fashion icons (Jean Shrimpton), and musicians from Johnny Rotten to Sonny Rollins. His 1984 documentary, Beat This! A Hip-Hop History – starring Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force , Kool Herc , and the Cold Crush Brothers amongst others – remains one of the most creative and insightful accounts of hip-hop’s Bronx roots and its dissemination across Planet Rock. We’re honored to be screening Beat This! this Monday evening in NYC for Filmmatic , our hip-hop documentary night with Red Bull Music Academy, at which DF and Bam will be present. Here, the pioneering documentarian shares 5 Records That Changed His Life.
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1. Louis Armstrong & His Hot Five – "West End Blues" (Okeh, 1928)
Dick Fontaine: The first one that changed my life, when I was about 12, was Louis Armstrong’s “West End Blues.” He has this unbelievable obliggato in the beginning of it which has been endlessly imitated and which was just stunning to an English kid who was looking for an escape from a destroyed culture. It was incredibly limiting to grow up in the shadow of the Second World War. The whole idea that somebody could express themselves with such force was just a personal revelation. It was like a voice from Mount Olympus.
2. Sonny Rollins – "The Freedom Suite" (Riverside, 1958)
Dick Fontaine: “Freedom Suite” was a big musical statement against racism, which nobody else at that point had made. It’s in my film ( Sonny Rollins Beyond the Notes ), which I just finished. Young musicians still respond to this record and feel it. It’s very fierce, physically powerful, he’s taking on the world with beautiful defiance.
3. Johnny Guitar Watson – "Ain’t That A Bitch" (DJM, 1976)
Dick Fontaine: Johnny Guitar Watson wrote blues for the present tense. One of my favorite songs of his is “Ain’t That A Bitch.” A lot of blues are about Mississippi in the 1930’s and this is blues about Los Angeles in the 1970s. He was also a great guitar player and a great musician. I was going to make a film about him, but I could never raise the funds. I got to know him quite well but I really regret I never got to make that film. He was one of the great chroniclers of our time.
4. Gil Scott-Heron – "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" (Flying Dutchman, 1971)
Dick Fontaine: I was very friendly with a couple of members of the Last Poets, Jalal Nurridin in particular, who lived with me for a while and wrote some lyrics for a film I did about Art Blakey. “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” even though it’s not a Jalal tune, it’s the seminal work. That was my way into hip-hop.
5. Jimi Hendrix – "Star Spangled Banner" (MCA, 1994; recorded live at Woodstock, 1969)
Dick Fontaine: That was an absolute brilliant commentary on the Vietnam War. The irony is brilliant. It’s worthy of a jazz musician. My ex-wife was very close to Hendrix and he lived with us for a while. He had a big effect on me. I made a personal film and he was going to do the music for it. In the end, Pete Townsend did it.
Honorable Mention: Afrika Bambaataa & The Soul Sonic Force – "Renegades Of Funk" (Tommy Boy, 1983)
Dick Fontaine: I was in the studio for the recording of the song. Biggs had a list of various people that he mentions in the song. They were going, “Who should we say?” I said, “Tom Paine!” so they put him in there. I’m about to make a film about him. He’s one of the greatest five Englishmen who ever lived and he was responsible for the American Revolution. He’s written out of history completely by the Americans and certainly the French and the English. Apart from the personal connection, I think “Renegades Of Funk” is a really good track. I really like it.