Filming hip hop on 9/11 – remembering 15 years on

Written by Nic Wistreich on . Posted in articles

I imagine everyone has their 'where were you on 9/11 story', like how my parents' generation had their 'what were you doing when JFK was shot?' story; two events in America notched in the calendars of our mind bigger than perhaps anything else.

I've never told my story of that day because it's always been mixed up with a sense of failure – and because there's 7 billion stories of that day, so why does mine matter? The only important stories were the people in that tragedy: the victims, the perpetrators, the causes, the response. Tales from bystanders seem almost indulgent. But then maybe its our way of explaining what #NeverForget means.

For it was already a strange day, unlike any other. It was the first day in my life I had a professional film crew by my side: a camera operator (son of my commissioning editor) and sound recordist, whose sister worked in finance in lower-Manhattan in New York. It was the only day I've had such a crew of paid people I didn't know, helping my shoot.

Natty - Defcon recordsWe'd climbed to the roof of our neighbouring office building in Goswell Road, Clerkenwell to film part of a documentary on UK hip hop. At this time, Netribution was just about staying afloat, producing a weekly magazine and making the occasional documentary for DKTV (Different Kind of TV) a new community channel that had started up on Telewest and Flextech. We'd set up the website to fund our films, but instead were making films to fund the website, that co-founder and editor Tom Fogg and I diligently created a new edition of each week.

A month or two before at a party at the Truman Brewery I'd been blown away by the freestyling of Natty, who could turn anything he was given or confronted with into a rhyme. He'd acapellad his track with another artist, Dwella, War – about the modern war industry. At the time I'd had an ongoing dispute with my girlfriend who considered rap to be all misogyny and violence, and here I discovered political, conscious lyrics. To any serious hip hop heads at 22 I must seem a bit late to learn this, still I was drawn to telling a story about non-commercial, politically and socially engaged hip hop. Another song, Industry Nerds, attacked the 'bling-fast cars-gold chains-sexy girls' nature of mainstream hip hop and Natty told me about the huge UK hip hop underground spanning grafiti, fashion, scratch-DJs, beat-box and b-boys.

We'd filmed Natty performing War in this abandoned building (right), my youthful cliché-instinct drawing me to a location as grimy as I could find, littered with dead pigeons and rubble. At one point during the recording we kicked in some of the roof above him to increase the sense of edgy underground. The reality is Natty and Dwella were from Tunbridge Wells, but I was more concerned with a evocative location than truth.

We'd recorded the song – which gives me shivers still, knowing what happened next – and were shooting some cutaways when Tom, also my collaborator on the documentary, burst out of the door to the roof with great urgency: "two planes have flown into the twin towers!". After getting him to repeat the story several times, we rushed downstairs to the small Netribution office where we had a small badly tuned TV and saw in horror how it was all true. 

He'd been sat working on that week's issue of Netribution, when his brother, one of the managers at the Ivy, had phoned him. "We've got the head of ITN and the head of [possibly Channel 4 News, I can't remember] having lunch here. Their pagers have gone crazy but they can't through to their office on the phone, what's going on?" Tom turned on his TV to watch the second plane hit and let them know.

We didn't have time to stop and watch the news as we had a full day of scheduled interviews. So we headed up towards the Highbury Estate to interview Taskforce: Farma G and Chester P. We were all, of course in a state of shock. The sound recordist most worried about her sister in New York (who was fine), while some of the other rappers were already discussing the event in context of a conspiracy theory.

Farma G and Chester P TaskforceWe arrived at Farma and Chester's flat (left), and as the TV news played, started to shoot cutaways of their room which we could intercut with the interview. In the rushes you can hear the news playing and then the towers collapse. We're all dumbfounded but somehow carry on. I interview them. I don't ask a single question about what's happening.

To this day I don't really know why I didn't. At the time, I'd my list of prepared questions, we had our schedule of interviews, but in truth I just wanted the day over as quickly as possible. I wanted to go home and curl up in bed with my girlfriend and watch the news.

I can't think about that day without cursing myself for not being able to adapt under the circumstances – Chester and Farma are two of the most interesting, intelligent, conscious rappers in the UK (their Butterfly Concerto unlike anything else in hip hop), and rather than hear their perspective on what was happening, I asked pretty generic questions.

We then headed to Dark and Cold Records in Soho for the final shoots of the day. Natty had done a great job of getting UK legends in presence: London Posse's Rodney P, DJ Daddy Skitz, Fallacy and more. I was new to UK Hip Hop and only understood later how important they all were. I remember Rodney being taken aback by my relentless questioning. There was a shirt with the twin towers on it in the shop, it was held up morbidly. The tensions was high, but everyone was more focussed on hip hop than the unfolding news. 

We finished and went to Mother Bar for a quick drink. In those days there was a huge mural of the Twin Towers on the wall. I headed home.

The next day Tom and I drove out to the country where Natty and Dwella were recording in a studio. We bought half a dozen newspapers and poured over them still-stunned in a coffee shop on the way. There felt a clear sense the world would never be the same. The photos of people falling, jumping in the guardianm like many are impossible to forget. 

I went home and in the coming months and years felt the experience had proven to me I wasn't a natural documentary maker – I was more concerned with following the pre-written questions than adapting to the circumstances. The eventual documentary covers the UK hip hop scene in some breadth on a micro near-no-budget, but other than one performance in Tunbridge Wells that mentions Bin Laden somewhat awkwardly, the wider context is never revealed. I later learnt that Vimeo's VIP of Distribution Peter Gerrard also was shooting a hip hop documentary in the US at that time, stranded mid-shoot as flights were cancelled. We should swap footage. But the day put me off making documentaries – I've made only one more since.

A couple of years later I made a short video remix, taking Ani DiFranco's 9/11-related song Self Evident, combining it with footage from Koyaanisqatsi and a protest march against George W Bush during his state visit to London amidst the Iraq War. I released it online under a pseudonym.

The final shot is of the cemetery right next to ground zero. I'd seen it while the towers were still there, I'd got to go up one the year before and remember how they shadowed this graveyard in darkness. Filming it during a New York trip in 2003 with Shooting People, I was struck by this gaping empty space, painfully sad and loud in its absence, but where the light could now come in.