Thursday, April 20, 2006

"Inventos: Hip-Hop Cubano." A Q&A interview with Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi

Full Disclosure: I spent a summer living with Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi and his family in Berkeley. It was 1996, and I was interning at the Marin Independent Journal.

Eli and his brother, a livewire cat named Kahlil, were friends with my fiancee. They hooked me up with a room in their house, and showed me a lot of love. I vibed especially well with Eli, since we both loved hip-hop music and had a natural curiosity for all things funky.

Although he split his time between the house in Berkeley and his family's home in Sacramento that summer, we still hung out and made a tiny bit of noise, and we would run into one another through the years at various shows, political rallies, and what not.

Now, as grown up, professionals working in the media biz and still pursuing our interests and love of hip-hop, it's appropriate that we connect like this. Eli's doing big things as a documentary film maker, having achieved a national distribution deal for his underground banger "Inventos: Hip-Hop Cubano."

"Inventos" is a stunner - a raw, heartfelt glimpse into the lives of a group of young Cuban hip-hop artists trying to develop a scene on the island, with extremely limited resources. It takes the culture and the music to it's essence: folks doing it simply for the love, young people enamored with the energy and rage and beauty of hip-hop cultura.

The film, released in 2003, has made the film festival rounds, scored a few awards. It's also set him up to complete his next film, an introspective look at Ghanian hip-hop.

Last year, Eli screened the movie at the CSU-Monterey Bay campus, to rousing success. It can be purchased at local bookstores and music stores, or you can buy it online There will be a screening of the movie at 5 p.m., April 27, San Francisco State, HSS Building, room 135, in San Francisco

Eli took the time to talk to "The Beat" recently to politic a little something. That same love for hip-hop culture and his accute, natural curiosity were on display, only now he has the film festival awards to show for it.

What's up man. Thanks for talking to "The Beat."
For sure.

So, just give me the rundown in your words, how "Inventos" came about.
"Inventos" started in 1994 when my brother (Kahlil Fantauzzi) went down to Cuba and met up with a group called Aminaza (sic), which later became Orichas. Since that time he was telling me "Man, you gotta go down to Cuba." Because of what it represents in the world, I always wanted to go.
I was in the Caribbean, and (Khalil) said he was going again. That was in 2000, I met up with him. And we just did that. I took my camera with me, and started shooting what I saw, and it was really raw...

When I came back, I was showing people, and they got real excited about it, and I said "Damn, I want to make a documentary about it."

I always had a video camera with me at all the protests and the hip -hop shows, and I always wanted to do a documentary, so I figured this was the right time for it.

Did you have any formal training as a film maker when you began the project?
When I started filming, I had no formal training. When I was in high school, my mom had a high 8 camera and I just took it as my own. I would take it to all the protests and all the hip-hop shows, everyone that I saw. KRS-One, Nas, everyone that came to the Bay, I just filmed it.

I went to Cal (UC-Berkeley), and I took two video classes, and I was able to figure out the basic stuff from that. It wasn't until after the movie I went to NYU and got some formal training.

Did you get your masters in filmmaking?
Yeah, I got my masters at the school of the arts at NYU.

There was a fire at the old house while you were in post production?
Yeah, you heard about that?

That was actually during the editing phase. I was with some of my high school students at a retreat, and I got a call my brother, he said, "Yeah, the house burned down." My first question was "Are you alright," and he told me "Yeah, I had to go to the hospital for smoke inhalation."

So after I made sure that he was alright, you know what my second question was? It was like, "What's up with the film?" He said "It's done..."

They restored everything that was on the computer, so how I was editing was I had most of what was called A-roll, interviews and stuff. I didn't get to put in what they call the B-roll, the concert footage and stuff. So when you watch it, you're like, "I wish I could have seen more of the concert footage." Or at least that's what I tell myself when I watch it...

What was your goal with the DVD?
There were three main things. The first one was to show the rest of the world what was going on down there, or start the conversation between the international hip hop community about what Cuba had. I came back with some footage and people were really excited with it, so I figured that if I went back and did some more, I'd have something to work with...

A lot of us in the community, the hip-hop heads in the Bay, we were able to go to Cuba, that's how that conversation really started, and we just went from there.

The second reason was, the most I ever learned about myself was travelling outside of this country. A lot of folks in Cuba haven't had that chance, and watching yourself on a screen is a way of doing that.
A lot of the feedback I got was that "Man, it was great to see people doing it. It was great to see it right there on film." That was a major part of the success was because (the people in the film) loved everything, and they told me that themselves.

The third reason would be for myself, to prove to myself that I could do it. I knew at the time I was making Inventos that this is what I wanted to do. I wanted to make documentary films, and it's not easy, but I got it done. In the Inventos steelo, just making it happen with nothing.

Have you had a chance to go back since then?
We just came back from last summer's "Inventos Sankofa Tour" (sic). That's when we brought down the first CDJ's to give to a community center down there. It was cool. I just got to shake everyone's hand personally and got to give them a hug and say "Thank you for making this happen."

It took a long time to do that, because of the legalities of it. So to get the stuff to them, I had to get a crew of nine people to bring two bags of gifts each, because we can't send the stuff because of the embargo. So we handed a bunch of stuff out and it was great.

What have been the musical developments on the island since the film was released?
All of the people in my film became the leaders of the hip-hop movement out there. When people call on Cuba to be represented at hip-hop conferences in South America, it's usually folks from the film

They came back to NYC a second time and played at the Apollo Theatre with The Roots and Kanye West.

There's been so much development that have helped and hindered it . I say that because when people are hungry for what you have, they start preparing stuff for them, to please them. When people want something from you, you start doing that, rather than doing what comes naturally. Recently, with the investment of reggaeton, a lot of people have been doing the reggaeton thing. It's taken from the consciousness of the art as far as music that can form a social change.

What's the distribution deal you have in place?
You know how we did it at first, just pressing them up at the house. I had my boy Miguel Perez do the artwork. You know what the Bay taught me to do, sell them out the trunk.

Through that hustle, we got some interest, some deals were on the table. I felt a lot of them were exploitative, but then we got a deal with City Hall (Records). I liked it, and we got a national distribution, and it's been an amazing ride. I never thought it could have happened or would have happen, and it's happening.

What's your take on the international hip-hop consciousness? Are people in other countries drawn to the music or the sense of rebellion?
To me, hip-hop is just a reflection of society, and so it's not a coincidence that 50 Cent's 'Get Rich or Die Trying' is being pushed all over the world, because that's what America is pushing all over the world.

When we look at Cuba, what do they represent all over the world? They represent social consciousness. Everything from having a large literacy rate to universal health care to La Revolucion. And in that kind of environment, what is has produced is a revolutionary style of hip hop being represented all around the world.

Every place I've been, hip-hop represents itself differently, because the society and what they're going through. The reason it's hip hop doing that and not another genre is because hip hop has been the voice of the youth. And never before have I seen the youth have such a strong voice in society. Before hip-hop, where did we have a voice? This is the first time they're making the world listen. They're making society listen to them. Hip-hop has been that tool.

Industry question: How does one go about marketing their own DVD?
That's what I'm trying to do. I'm trying to bring the same hustle that Bay Area hip-hop did with CDs to DVDs. It's a lot of personal connections, being a part of the scene. I think if I wasn't a hip-hop head, I wouldn't have had this kind of exposure. If I wasn't an activist, I wouldn't have had this exposure.

I live in those two societies, that's how people know me. Just like you, you're a part of those scenes, and that's how we are able to link up for this interview for The Monterey Herald.

Your next project sounds pretty ambitious. Talk about that.
This is my baby right here. Man, I've been working on this one close to 8 years already. You're going to see these characters grow up not only into manhood, but their profession as hip-hop artists...

In Africa, they have what's called the hip-life movement, which derived from their form of music and culture called the hi-life movement and the hip-hop movement. What Africa is doing is amazing right now, because the rest of the world isn't paying attention to them. They're turning to themselves and they're becoming famous on their own continent.

Anything else you want to throw out there
Big up to the whole Clenched Fist Productions crew. Check out the all the new projects on www.clenchedfist And to all the revolutionaries out there, using your art or education to change the world, put your fist up and let's do it together.


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

feeling it!

dj profetaq said...

off the hook off the chain.. I want to see the film!