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Come out to play: 1970s NYC gang culture and the origin of beat ‘em up iconography

When Technos brought their pioneering Yoshihisa Kishimoto designed 1986 beat ‘em up Nekketsu Koha Kunio-kun overseas, they changed its name to Renegade and altered the game’s graphics quite drastically, from representing a very local Japanese setting of brawling rival high school delinquents in uniforms to a gritty modern-day Western-styled mise-en-scene of baseball bats and knives carrying street punks warring in areas of metropolitan decrepitude.

And with that move, the arcade game developer not only introduced videogame enthusiasts worldwide to a new subgenre of melee action games in which players were now able to make use of the Z-axis and walk all around the screen as opposed to being stuck to a single plane but also put its stamp on the look, feel and general visual language that many games in this genre would come to share: from their own Double Dragon, to Capcom’s Final Fight, to Konami’s Crime Fighters and Violent Storm, to SEGA’s Streets of Rage and even modern tributes like Raging Justice by MakinGames.

In these games, justice needs to be doled out to ravenous and savage street thugs and conflicts are fought with bare fists, feet, bats, lead pipes, blades and chains and the odd, rare firearm. The dress code consists of sleeveless denim jackets, white tank tops, studded wrist bands and general punkish attire. Even in the late 1980s, let alone in 2020, this enduring theme of slum adorned urban wastelands, ruled by nihilistic, violent gangs of youths that picked fights for sport, seemed like nothing more than fantasy, straight out of movies like Class of 1984, RoboCop and, yes, the cult film that at least partially inspired them: 1979’s The Warriors, directed by Walter Hill.

Now when most people in the world think of US-based street-level gang violence, even when set in the 1980s, we tend to imagine Bloods, Crips and drive-by shootings or drug dealing corner crews fighting over merchandise and territory while making use of a variety of firearms and automatic weapons.

With the exception of LA gang culture to some extent, this type of criminal-on-criminal violence seems driven by business and financial gain, rather than by starting fights for the hell of it and conflicts certainly don’t find their resolution in large scale brawls, with combatants mainly relying on melee weapons or even just their fists and feet.

With that in mind, The Warriors, a retelling of Xenophon’s ancient world epic Anabasis at its core, with its flamboyantly dressed street gangs, among which a group called the Baseball Furies, decked out in NY Yankees athlete gear and clownish face paint and armed with – you guessed it – baseball bats, appears like a fantastical and farcical, maybe even naïve, representation of the real-world problem of gang violence in American cities.

The thing is, though, that The Warriors, despite its more outlandish and outrageous elements, doesn’t just find its origin in the 1965 novel by Sol Yurick of the same name that it’s based on, but also in a real-life phenomenon in terms of its set and – many of – its costume designs. Even some of the film’s beats echo events tied to said phenomenon that actually took place. It’s just that by the time Renegade hit the arcades of the U.S.A. and Europe, this very local phenomenon had pretty much died out and to much of the world, most likely including the game’s developers, it only ever existed in this visually striking piece of fantastical fiction, captured on film.

In the early 1970s, the city of New York was close to bankruptcy and in the south section of its Bronx borough, which was largely populated by people of Puerto Rican descent and African Americans, the despair was felt the most. Unrestrained urban planning in the ‘60s and failed development had turned the area in a desolate wasteland. Many households had to somehow make do without heating or water and the South Bronx held the world record for arson, with many a building going up in flames as a result of crooked entrepreneurs paying gasoline can carrying goons to make way for their own profitable idea of urban development.

The idealism of the 1960s, as symbolised by key figures like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and even John F Kennedy, had died with their successive assassinations and with no concept of a future, many young denizens of the South Bronx started to form neighborhood-based ‘clubs’ that roamed the rubble filled streets and the pulverised and blackened abandoned buildings, looking for distractions and, well, trouble.

These gangs called themselves names like the Savage Nomads, Savage Skulls, Black Spades, Javelins and Reapers and fashioned their uniforms after those of biker clubs like the Hell’s Angels, with their names and insignia embroidered on the backs of sleeveless denim and leather jackets. The jackets were called colours and were often taken off defeated rival gang members and displayed as trophies in their hideouts. And yes, their attire very closely resembled those of gangs like the Warriors, the Riffs and the Rogues in the movie.

Those in their environment would describe these street gangs as savage, violent and outlaw-like, out to start mayhem with their bare hands and any tool laying around that could serve as a weapon. The use of firearms was not overly common as these groups were very much made up of society’s have-nots and their members were only to a relatively minor degree making money off illegal activities. A lot of the gangs were also known to have girls in their ranks that fought just as fiercely.

As this very local type of gang culture developed, the clubs became more structured, led by a president and a vice president, their conflicts with other gangs being led by a member with the warlord rank and negotiations being initiated by peace counsellors. Many gangs even had a controversially named ‘Gestapo’ division, made up of their most hardcore and loyal members, intended to beat the less disciplined into shape, keep them in line and keep them from terrorising their own neighbourhoods or starting conflicts on their own accord.

It didn’t take long for this culture to get adopted by youths in other ghetto areas of New York City as well, with gangs like the Assassinators and the Jolly Stompers getting established in Brooklyn and the Saigons getting formed in Harlem. At the height of this phenomenon, there existed more than 100 different gangs of the club type in the South Bronx alone.

Though the world at large was not overly aware of the specific street gang culture of the Bronx and how it developed, the notorious New York borough had become a worldwide symbol of urban decay throughout the 70s. The mere connotations of its name is probably what led Akinobu Abe and SEGA AM3 to name their melee weapon based versus fighting game set in a dystopian version of Tokyo ruled by street gangs Last Bronx, as late as 1996.

But the raw, impulsive violence of the brawling street gangs of New York City and the culture they had created didn’t truly outlive the decade. Before the president of the Black Spades started calling himself Afrika Bambaataa and renamed his gang the Zulu Nation – turning all their energy into helping to build the foundation of what became the, at that time, positive force of Hip-Hop music – gangs like the Savage Nomads already started turning over a new leaf, policing their neighborhood from violent junkies and outside troublemakers, with the Nomads specifically even protecting stores from rioters during the infamous New York City Blackout of 1977.

One of the original Bronx clubs, the more socially activist, but still feared and respected Ghetto Brothers, after their peace counsellor got maimed by Black Spades members, managed to gather the leaders of all the street gangs of the Bronx in the Madison Square Boys & Girls Club on Hoe Ave and get everyone to talk and sign off on a peace treaty, in a scene closely resembling the gathering that the ill-fated Cyrus called in the opening act of The Warriors.

By the time the film came out, many a Bronx gang member had traded their cut sleeves and their colours for b-boy garb like sneakers and track suits and the youths of the borough were no longer competing in terms of who had the best brawling skills, but in terms of what crew had the best break dancers, DJs, MCs or graffiti writers. And with the influx of crack cocaine in the 1980s, violence on the New York City streets became centered around the drug trade, which brought in more money and firepower.

New mayhem causing gangs like the Lo-Lifes and Decepticons that were active outside the economy of organised crime and illegal business did appear in Brooklyn, but for all intents and purposes, the outlaw-like clubs with their particular culture, structure and dress codes that originated in the South Bronx had disappeared.

So we’re back at the beginning, then: this very particular bit of history is why the imagery that was carried over from one Japan made beat ‘em up to the next one, well into the 1990s – after pioneering releases in the genre found their inspiration in a 1979 film that referenced a culture that at that point had already seized to exist – appeared to be nothing more than dystopian fantasy, painting a picture of metropolitan city streets presented as urban versions of Mad Max’s wastelands, in which heroes and villains wore sleeveless denim jackets and bats, pipes and knives were the weapons of choice, crime appeared less organised and guns seldomly entered the picture.

With this original South Bronx street gang culture having remained so local to the ghettos of New York and having enjoyed a relatively short life span, there weren’t many players of beat ‘em ups that were aware of the obscured raw and brutal reality that had indirectly given shape to the fantasy they were happy to engage with. From the Black Shadow Warriors, to the Mad Gears and the Skull Cross Gang, many of these collections of colourful videogame villains and the heroic brawlers that fight them owe their existence to the largely Hispanic and black ghetto youth that formed the real-life Assassinators, Savage Skulls, Black Spades, Soul Bachelors, Majestics, Ching-A-Lings, Javelins and Reapers that made the government abandoned neighbourhoods of 1970s New York City even less safe places to live or pass through.

Sources:
“80 Blocks from Tiffany’s” 1979, dir. Gary Weis
“Flyin’ Cut Sleeves” 1993, dir. Henry Chalfant & Rita Fecher
“Streets of New York” 2009, dir. Alan Bradley a.k.a. Al Profit
“Rubble Kings” 2010, dir. Shan Nicholson
A life time of being exposed to Hip-Hop music, the well documented story of its origin and the media surrounding the music.

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