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Art, Culture, Reality

Street Middleman

by Roger Young / Images by King Adz / 02.12.2011

King Adz is the author of The Urban Cookbook and Street Knowledge, an A to Z of global street culture. He is currently writing Tony Kaye’s next film, a novel, and another non-fiction book and has worked with a diverse range of people including: Banksy, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, and Irvine Welsh – who once said of him “…one of his great talents as an artist, complier, networker and an individual, is his resolute refusal to see barriers where the rest of us have been conditioned into doing so.” When he is not sat at his typewriter, he travels the world in search of burgeoning new subculture practitioners and liaises between them and brands. He’s the street middleman. He was in South Africa recently for STR CRD and we had a little chat.

Mahala: So what did you make of STR CRD?

King Adz: Look firstly, when the interesting stuff happens, culturally, it’s spontaneous. Events happen, you don’t know about them. You luck out and you accidently discover something. Before the internet that was a much more common occurrence because you knew what you liked, you had your fanzines and you subscribed to maybe a magazine that you had to send off for. Street culture as we know it has come out of this cultural mix. Whether it’s music, fashion, street art, writing, whatever. But now-a-days there is always this fucking huge white elephant in the room, as people who go to festivals and organized events are under the illusion, that they are actually part of something and what they’re doing, and this is the vital point, is they’ve just confused consumption with culture. Just because you rock up there, pay your money, get in, get your sneaker tagged, buy a t-shirt and listen to some piped-in culture, doesn’t mean shit. You may well think that you’re part of the scene but all you’re really doing is consuming something that’s been fed to you. 95% of the people who go to festivals, whether they are street culture festivals, music festivals or art festivals, they’re there because they think they have to be there. It’s like a badge. It’s a ‘like’ on their Facebook page. It’s not their fault. They’re confused. The internet is a fucking brilliant thing but it’s also a terrible thing because people can watch something on Vimeo, or fucking Youtube, or Facebook, or Flickr and then think that they know about culture.

King Adz

But there must have been something worth while there?

The interesting stuff, for me, are the kids from Durban (‘RUN DBN’) because what they’re doing, they’re not sure what they’re doing, they haven’t got a gameplan, they know there’s something interesting happening somewhere and they’ve started their own scene. When I chatted to them on the roof of Wits, they were like “We’re hustlers, we ain’t rich kids. We’re street hustlers” and I believe them. So I’ve spent fifteen years investigating street culture. I’ve documented it. Books, films, TV ads – whatever. The interesting stuff now is the stuff that isn’t online. That’s the stuff that’s really cool because once it becomes online, once it’s been written about, by fuckers like me, it’s not street culture. It’s media culture that is there to be consumed. And that’s the rub, where does this new stuff come from? It’s a snake eating its own tail. Where does it come from if all the kids that were going to be creating stuff, they’re caught up in this fucking loop online, fed stuff, brands, stuff that may be an advert, stuff that is ultimately paid for by a brand that manufactured a scene just to be able to sell off it; sell it out. A scene could be born then a brand gets involved, they don’t pay any money, they give away two pairs of trainers and a fucking t-shirt and they claim that scene…

And they get…

Yeah, they get a bit of heat for that brand but the scene is dead and the kids are confused.

The brand gets its little bit of credibility and moves on.

This internet fame is so fleeting. I mean Warhol said 15 minutes, this is 15 clicks. And this is an interesting point because with advertising, with brands, you can’t sell to these kids, they are way to savvy. And I respect that. So what you have to do is sponsor these kids, you get the brand to kick some money in, not just a fucking pair of trainers or a t-shirt. Then train these guys and girls to improve their lives, introduce them to some fucking influential people and then, two years down the road when they’ve had a little taste of success, they’re going pay it back by saying “brand X did this for me!” and this is what works. That’s the advert because they’re telling the truth. They’re not waving a flag because they want to be trendy.

Or they want to get something. They’ve got it already.

The way of the world is money fucking rules, right? So if you get some cool kids on board and you treat them right and you don’t fucking wheel them out at some shit event in a crappy mall, don’t force them to wear the brand, you might get some decent content that may work as advertising. And this is what is interesting, where this street culture, sub culture, whatever culture, plays a very vital part in selling to the youth, that is for me what is paramount, and sometimes I’m the guy in the middle, I’m the ringmaster.

King Adz

Let’s go back to where you said the interesting stuff is happening off-line. If you’re a part of the process of bringing it online or bringing it into the advertising space, how much responsibility do you exercise about that? Because you’re saying the advertising is going to ruin the scene.

I mean, there’s doing it in a way that works and then there’s doing it in a way that most people do it. A lot of youth agencies are run by fucking shmucks who are just trying to get a buck out of it. They are totally and culturally clueless.

But how do you know what you’re doing is the right way to do it?

All I’ve got is my gut reaction, and the street culture that I was involved in the creation of. I can’t work with brands that I don’t get, I can’t work with brands that I don’t respect or trust. If you’ve got a brand that doesn’t trust you, it’s going to fuck up, you’ve got to look at the long game. It’s how you bring that idea into fruition and having a structure that’s not going to fall apart. The brand has to be on board and the bigger the brand, the bigger the risk, the bigger the pay off.

Well it’s like you have to invest in a lot of different people and one of them will pay off.

Yeah, so the fact that it’s unpredictable makes it the interesting thing. I increasingly find myself in-between the culture and the brand and the talent, and there’s always some kind of agency lucking about in the background. So I’m in this spot where if I play my cards right I can do some good work around the world, not just here, but mainly in developing countries where I am involved in some genuine culture which then eventually rolls over into giving whatever brand some cultural cache. And that’s all they can ever hope for. What people don’t like is when you parachute David Beckham in wearing a pair of shoes and you say ‘If you buy these shoes you’ll be more like Beckham’. That was the old advertising model. There is no new advertising model right now and that’s scary for the agencies and the brands.

King Adz

So let’s say the current best hope is when somebody five years down the line says Nike paid for my training. What’s the next step after that? Where do you go to from there?

That’s when it becomes word-of-mouth again. Word of mouth has become so diluted because it’s digital word of mouth. The ultimate thing is to re-establish the power of word of mouth and if you’ve got a cultural leader or someone that you respect, that was the old motto. The word of mouth generated by this kind of advertising worked a lot more in the long run because if they talk about it in interviews, they have a million fucking fans, and I don’t mean Facebook freinds, they’ve actually done something, they don’t just have a fucking blog. They make a film, write a book, make a seminal album and somewhere in that mix is the fact that this brand helped them out. Everyone of their fans is going to go ‘fucking cool’ and that’s all you can ever hope for. The brand actually participated.

Are brands the new patrons?

They’d like to be.

Should they be?

This is something that always goes back to money. If we were talking about movements, if a brand wasn’t in any of these equations, then it’ll be a totally different fucking answer. It would be ‘we’re doing this for the love’ but it’s a bit like when you get a band, they’re four kids, they live in a house, they make this great album, it sells 10 million, they had fuckall when they were doing it so this energy like ‘fucking yeah’ and it comes out, everyone loves it and the second album is shit because they’ve got too much money, they’re all on drugs, they’re all distracted. It’s a bit like an artist, like Banksy, what happens when your art suddenly become hundreds and thousands of pounds, does that affect the art? I think it does. And I think money influences and interacts, disturbs culture. There’s no way you can get away from that, because it does. You want to be doing something that’s genuine but on the other hand in the back of your mind, you know you’ve got to pay the rent. So the question is, yes, the brands can become, if they behave in a certain way, the patrons of culture and people doing interesting stuff, but to say ‘Is that right?’, the world we live in, it’s consumed by money, you know what I mean? It’s too late for that. So there is other stuff, there are other events, there are people doing stuff that shouldn’t go near brands ever and they will probably remain in the subculture and offline. No one really knows about them apart from hardcore fans. But that is a necessity. We’ve got to have stuff that isn’t just a t-shirt with his name on it and thinking he’s started a cultural movement. Because all they really want to do is sell more t-shirts or get a little piece of fame. They don’t care and the way people are, they will always take the money over the fucking credibility. The way the world is set out will make it harder for genuine culture to remain true to itself, because everything needs to be monetized. You know, it’s better to have 10 followers on a blog who really read and digest stuff than a million who just go ‘Ah, reblog that’ and they don’t read it. It’s like that Bitches Must Know/Paul Ward. Man, just cause you put your name on your fucking t-shirt doesn’t mean shit, it means you just wrote your name on a t-shirt.

King Adz

Bitches Must Know won the Blog competition. The Durban kids, who you say have more street cred are now left in the cold. So what’s the point of the competition?

There wasn’t any. It’s all about selling shit.

Mthi (From the Durban team, Street Sole Avenue) said to me, “How do they expect me to blog about a five thousand rand pair of shoes when I can’t afford airtime?”

That’s the reality, the pure essence of the street that is a vital part of the culture. This is where the creative side of advertising/branding has gone wrong. You used to have to learn to be a photographer, now all you need to do is print your name on a shirt, hook yourself onto the back of an assumed media culture and wank off some brands and you’ll win the competition. You’ll be the guy that reblogs the most and brings home the bacon. Where people are going wrong is that they’re seeing numbers, they’re not seeing substance. If you connect truly with 10 people who happen to be bloggers and you inspired them to go and do something, not reblog but write about what they’re seeing. Encourage them to create more online content, not like we fucking need it, more online content that’s original, those 10 bloggers will create more heat than a thousand rebloggers.

Where you see the same thing fifty times.

And that’s what’s happened to the culture. That’s the shit end of street culture. And these guys, they haven’t got a clue. They really haven’t got a clue. A walking billboard is a walking billboard and there’s no more depth to it. It’s like Warhol said ‘I’m as deep as my canvases’ and he literally meant that. Warhol wasn’t that deep. He had some great ideas and it was how he used those ideas, it’s not how great he was. It was what he did, how he put it into fruition. These bloggers don’t do anything. People who are after money, who are desperate for the brands. It’s these kinds of people who need the brands…

…To quantify their existence.

And it’s like purgatory. I think once you get in that loop, you’re forever chasing the next brand, you’re forever trying to get your numbers up because once you start needing those numbers of blogs, reposts, people following you, once you need that to be happy within yourself and this is the bigger picture that we weren’t going to get into, these people live online, they do some stuff offline in a shit club on Long Street, whatever, and their fulfillment and their self-confidence comes from how many people see it.

Not how many people are affected by it?

No, it’s how many people see it. The people who don’t like that shit, are cool because they’re not fooled. So people like Mr Ward aren’t actually doing anything real, in a pure cultural sense, they’re less than that because they’ve never done anything. I’ve got absolutely nothing against these people personally, I’m sure they’re very nice people and love their mums, the only problem is they’re fucking toying with my culture, my heritage, and that is all I’ve got. If you try that hard to create something it usually doesn’t work. If it’s natural and something that evolves, yeah that’s when it might just work.

So if you try and force something…

Yeah. If you force something you just shit your pants.

King Adz

Well let’s go back to that statement. ‘How do you expect me to blog about a pair of shoes if I can’t even afford airtime?’

I mean, that’s the real thing. That’s what they don’t tell you.

But now what happens if a brand hears this and says ‘Well, here’s a pair of shoes that you can’t afford’?

You just say thanks, put them on and ..

And there’s the test.

Yeah, and you walk away. It doesn’t mean anything. All it means is that he’s got a free pair of shoes. That’s all it mean. And on one hand there’s a saying that there’s no such thing as a free lunch so maybe you’ll get snapped in those shoes, I doubt it. I doubt it. But on the other hand, he can’t afford those shoes but he’s got a pair because someone thinks he’s cool. If it’s the beginning of him working with that brand over a length of time doing some interesting stuff then that’s like the first kiss and the money is the fucking hand job. And then the full sponsorship, when they properly set him up to do something interesting, that’s him fucking them. Ultimately, because he starts off saying ‘I can’t even afford airtime’, he’s started off at a position of total honesty. If everyone with a shit blog started off saying ‘I’m a rich white boy with a camera and I’m just shooting shit I don’t get’, he’s being honest but no one wants that honesty.

But isn’t that like a Terry Richardson honesty?

I’m not a fan of Terry Richardson’s work. If I want to look at photography, I’ll look at Peter Beard or William Eggleston or Roger Ballen or David fucking Goldblatt. So the bit about airtime and shoes is so fucking relevant and that’s almost like the starting point of where I’d begin with those guys. Fucking brilliant quote. He was just saying how it is and that came up. And yeah, that could be the start of something. That is major. Because: one, he said it, because he wasn’t fronting, two he trusted us, three he needs it.

King Adz

OK, all that aside. Let’s get back to what you do and what you’re doing now.

I’m writing a book about youth advertising, as well as a couple of movie scripts.

So you did Street Knowledge?

Yeah, that was a book about my 25-year journey through street culture and before that I wrote a book called The Urban Cookbook which you could say put me on the map; that book is my fucking heart man: street food, street culture and some glorious talent. A cultural and cultinary view of five main cities in the world. It was simple. I really care about those things. I mean really care. That is my cultural DNA right there on the pages of those two books. That is why I get so mad when people dip in and try and get some fame off it. Or a fast buck.

Do you know about these kids in Durban recently? This court case?


These kids who get paid to graf, did a wall to commemorate the anniversary of a death of one of their homeys and they got arrested, they didn’t get the right permissions, they thought they had but they didn’t and now they’re criminals.

Yeah, the thing about that is what Banksy did is comoditize something that is essentially vandalism. In England it’s no different. You get caught doing graffiti, you get knicked. If you’re Banksy or someone of that calibre, they make sure your artwork doesn’t get damaged.

King Adz

So where do you cross the line?

It goes back to money. It goes back to Banksy is a vandal who is now protected because he’s bringing in money. He had an exhibition in Bristol that brought 15 million quid into the community, outside of the exhibition people queued for two hours. People travelled there from all over the world. So with the graffiti street art contradiction, what’s happened is that part of street art has splinted off into “Street Art” and it’s become something to collect by people around the world by people who’ve got a lot of money who basically run things. So if you are a proper bomber/tagger and you’re doing this ‘fuck you’ thing, and you get caught they put you in prison. That’s just how it goes. I don’t agree with any of it. I think there’s no difference between graffiti and street art. A tag’s a tag, a stencil’s a stencil. Just because one’s more valuable as a commodity, doesn’t mean that the law should be any different. Like anywhere in the world. If you’ve got money, you’ll get away with it. If you haven’t, you‘re fucked both ways. And your example in Durban that is just like the three strikes rule because a lot of people go to prison who shouldn’t be there.

Yeah, completely.

And running prisons is a fucking huge industry. It all goes back to this commercial world. What people don’t understand is that the Apple factory in China has a extremely high suicide rate. So many people have killed themselves working in that factory that they’ve had to block everything off so they can’t jump. So when you’re sat in your fucking suburban home with your iPad looking at the fucking Amnesty International website with a tear in your eye, the reality is unknown to you; the thing you’ve bought into is the cause of somebody’s misery. And that goes for whatever: graffiti, making a song going Fuck The Police, making a t-shirt that is a pastiche of a famous brand for which you get sued for and lose your house. Money rules and that’s the bottom line. In reaction to that we have to create some good-to-honest culture because we need to enrich people’s lives.

Unfortunately the world is run by money. So if brands are going to pay for anything, let’s push them to help enrich other people’s lives.

And everyone has their price. And we can’t change that so you take that as a given. When you start going up the flight of steps from here to where you want to get to, writing on the first step is ‘every man has his price’, the next ‘everything’s for sale’ and then ‘there is no such thing as selling out’ and so on. That is just the way the world’s like. Like I was saying earlier, even the most talented artist has still got a shopping list. If you do it as a hobby, you can’t put the time in to be really good, if you do it full time, you’ve got to monetize it.

King Adz

If you truly believe that you want to be true to yourself artistically, the way the world is set up at the moment, you move to a farm and you turn off the fucking internet and you just do it for yourself and then no one will see it and you’ve got to be happy with that. But the moment you enter the cycle, those are the things you have to accept.

But the things is that no one may see it and then you may die and someone may stumble upon it and go ‘Oh My Fucking God!’ and because you never sold out they’ll make the film, the book, the website and you’ll inspire a million people.

By having not sold out.

Yeah. So who’s the winner there?

Yeah, you lost an ear.

And a testicle but still you didn’t sell out.

But somebody else got all your comfort.

There’ll always be someone there in the corner with the gold that you want. And human nature is that you’ll be drawn to that because ultimately the only way to rebel and the only way to drop out is by making a shit load of money by doing something and then stop doing that and buy and house and get a shit load of food and do your thing. Money buys freedom. If you’ve got money, you’re free. If you ain’t got money you will never be free, in this paradigm. You get your money, you drop out and then you can do good.

What do you mean by “doing good”?

The thing that gets me is how shallow advertising is. I’ve dealt with that. I’ve been working in advertising since 1992 and I know that it is just a means to an end, and if I dropped out now I’d be fucking failing because I still have a way to go; I haven’t done what I set out to do. But to be truly free you need a few quid. And then you can properly travel the world, because part of our culture is travel. And then you can start doing stuff for the good. For the love. You can truly help people and set stuff up that isn’t connected to brands. I have a set of skills that I can transfer, whether it’s in the media, film, writing, whatever. Skills that people essentially can learn and it’s only when I’m sorted financially and I’m comfortable that I can look over my shoulder and see who I can help because even the most fucking grizzled of us want to do good. I fucking absolutely and unreservedly love South Africa. I really do, and when I’m financially set from creating illusions that then turn into sales for a brand, then it’s only right that I come back here and contribute something.

King Adz

King Adz

King Adz

King Adz

King Adz

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*Opening Image © Guy Pitchon
**All other images © King Adz

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