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Director Interview: Kevin Fitzgerald, ‘Freestyle’

March 16th, 2010 by Jocelyn Matsuo Asst Video Editor

Recently I had the chance to interview Kevin Fitzgerald, director of Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme. His documentary (released in 2000) chronicles the rise of hip-hop MCs as their improvised freestyling began taking its hold on pop culture. It includes some truly mesmerizing talent footage from known and unknown artists alike, from the early days of Run DMC and Kool Moe Dee to the The Notorious B.I.G., Tupac and Eminem. How did Fitzgerald get started with this project? Read on to hear his story. — Jocelyn Matsuo, Content Editor

Jocelyn: Can you just tell me a little about the story of Freestyle, like how it got made?
I was in college at USC, going to film school. My friends were DJs and I grew up as a DJ as well. But they were doing this open mic, off of Crenshaw, called the Good Life. Which was kind of a famous open mic and a lot of great artists came through there, like Freestyle Fellowship, Fat Joe, Das EFX. Basically it was like a spot where you could hone your skills. I started in ’93 or’94, checking it out because of my friends, Cut Chemist [Jurassic 5] and Wolf from the Breakestra. So we’d go up and rap and stuff.

It was real cool. They had wheat grass (it was a health-food store) and there were gangsters out in the parking lot. And there was a rule, you couldn’t cuss there. B — everyone called her Aunt B, she was like the house mom — she ran the thing with R. Kain Blaze, her son. This was all before Project Blowed, the other [open mic] off of Crenshaw and Leimert Park, started at Chaos Network (Aceyalone and Bus Driver and those guys), where they could cuss and stuff.

I was like, “Oh my god,” this is a movie. We gotta start filming this, so I asked her if it was cool if we brought a video camera up. For just years and years, we just filmed stuff. And that’s how it started. I didn’t even have a camera, I got it from my school.

You have some fabulous footage in this movie, I was wondering, where did you get that Biggie footage? That blew my mind.
Yeah, the Biggie footage, we didn’t get that ’til we went to New York. Went out there, discovered this guy, his name was Mr. C (who discovered Biggie, originally, then introduced him to Puff Daddy). My friends were hooking me up with these people like “Aw, you have to hear this person, you have to hear this person.” And I knew about Biggie, obviously, everyone knew about Biggie, but they were like “this guy has some [Biggie] footage.” He just brought the tape up to where we were editing. He was like “Here you go, gimme a call when you guys are done.” And I was like “OK, man, this is dope.”

I know you guys got a lot of awards after the film was complete, how did you find going to festivals, distributing and marketing this film to a mainstream/independent film audience?
We couldn’t clear any of the footage, or the music, because it was all a total underground thing. We shot on every format known to man, except betamax. We didn’t own cameras. We just kinda piggy-backed the project, like if we had extra film, 16mm or 35mm, whatever, HD, Hi8, Super8, it didn’t matter. It was a freestyle process. By any means necessary. We just tried to get whatever footage we could. We had 400-500 hours of footage at the end of the thing. We couldn’t clear the music because we couldn’t figure out what the beats were or whose beats they were. VH1 helped us out with that — I think my lawyer played basketball with the president or vice president. We had lawyers and a bunch of people go through the stuff. Eventually I was able to show it around at film festivals and a lot of people helped us out. It took years — it took like three years to track down everything and clear the rights.

We created our own hip-hop film festival. We took it on the road, it was a total DIY thing, all over the country and even the world. Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Europe; we showed the film everywhere and did the hip-hop film festival thing. A bunch of film festivals, and now, I’m kinda burnt out on the whole thing, to tell you the truth. I wanna switch gears and get into some other field, because it was a wild ride. Ten years of just lashing hard on this film and I got a little burnt out. Not on hip-hop — I’m still DJ. I had a son also, a year and a half ago.

I still want to make movies, but I’d like to do them a little differently than I did. I wouldn’t have changed anything, but obviously it would have been nice to have a bigger budget.

If you were gonna start from scratch, what would you do differently?
I would have a big, rich uncle to give me money for all the cameras. It’s funny because, I think if we did it that way, we wouldn’t have had the access. A lot of people that were in the movie, they were my friends. I knew them from being a DJ, and not from “Hey, I’m this filmmaker…”

Will you tell me a little bit about what you think about the hip-hop world, post going mainstream?
It’s cool to see that people are still into hip-hop, and I’m still into hip-hop; I play it. I play all sorts of other music too, but when I play it, people come up to me in bars all drunk and stuff and “Aww, that’s my song!” To me, it’s like folk music. It evolves and becomes something else. People ask, “Is hip-hop dead?” but you’d never say that about classical music or rock or jazz or any of those [kinds of] music. They had their peak period, but then they come back in different forms.

There’s bad stuff that I hate, but that’s the same in all sorts of music. People try to put hip-hop on this higher ideal sort of level, but it’s just like anything else. You like pizza from over here, but you don’t like pizza from over there.

But really, you like pizza?
Yeah, you like pizza. That was one thing, being in the streets of New York. New York has a certain energy. You can just be walking down the street and you meet somebody [who] tells you about something. And you go there at night and you meet some amazing artist and you hear some amazing music. It’s just an incredible vibe. Walking down the street. Always something happening and stuff to film everywhere. It was just an amazing time.

Last comment: Jun 23rd 2016 1 Comment
  • Alex Cohn says:

    Hi Jocelyn,

    I’m a producer in LA working on hip hop project for Vitaminwater, and I was wondirng if you knew how I could gt in touch with Kevin Fitzgerald?