"Working the Verses" is a new experimental documentary about rapper Malik Work
As countless artists have testified, the act of creation can be incredibly therapeutic. In that context, it often means the artist was significantly suffering in one way or another. This resonates in a big way with hip hop/spoken work artist Malik Work and, indirectly and fortuitously, resulted in a new autobiographical and experimental documentary called "Verses at Work."
A Connecticut College graduate and New York City native who teaches occasional master classes in hip hop theater at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Work has been revitalized by the film, which debuted last September at the Los Angeles Brazilian Film Festival, where it won the International Spotlight Award. The film has also been accepted for a screening next month at the Harlem International Film Festival.
Now in his 40s, after decades of maddeningly close calls trying to make it in the music industry, Work was emotionally, physically and creatively worn out. First, a six-man rap collective called the Eclectic Regiment earned a reputation in the late '80s East Coast hip hop scene and paved the way for a hugely visionary ensemble "The Live Show," founded by Work and his best friend and fellow rapper Stimulus.
Backed by a fluid jazz band, Work — aka Dionysos — and Stimulus would improvise or perform set tunes of wit and profound social commentary in a nonstop, frenetic presentation that drove crowds into a frenzy. Along with The Roots, "The Real Live Show" were pioneers in the concept of rap performed with a band. As popularity grew and at residencies in clubs across the country and Europe, they performed with artists such as Talib Kweli, Norah Jones, De La Soul, Dead Prez, Rakim and Roy Hargrove, and the drop-in celebrity quotient at "Live Show" gigs also grew in impressive fashion.
Ultimately, though, in terms of a national record deal or any mainstream touring offers, nothing happened.
As the "Live Show" lost momentum, Work paid rent through a variety of jobs, traveled, and eventually spent a long decade as a doorman at a happening bar in Manhattan. It was a period, he says, in which he contributed all sorts of conceptual ideas but never got a promotion or raise even as fellow employees ascended the corporate ladder around him. Gradually, the idea of racism began to fester in his mind. Having been so focused on his career, it was a concept that Work had managed to suppress.
"Ultimately, the idea of racism does sneak into your mind," Works says. ""In a black person's mind it's kind of always at work — even if not in the people you meet but within yourself. I'd always worked hard and was intelligent and had gone to the best schools. I'd had some success but suddenly found myself employed for years and I realized I had become what they needed me to be: the big black doorman at a nightclub. I had plenty of skills, but that was my dead end. I don't resent the people I worked with because the whole situation was a product of society. I don't think it was a conscious racial equation on someone's part. But the difference is being socially accepted as a student at an elite college and the reality of the street is significant. I don't blame everyone else for this realization on my part. But growing older and drinking too much and a lack of opportunity can be very depressing and frustrating. And those were my own demons."
Finally, Work stopped drinking, quit the doorman gig and, after a year managing a live music venue called Bamboo on Manhattan's lower East Side, he took stock of his state of mind and made a decision.
"I left Bamboo even though I had no idea what my next move was going to be," Work says. "But I thought, 'If you're so miserable and forlorn, how can you exploit this and make it work for you?' I know that depression has historically caused some brilliant work, and I decided to embrace that."
Why not a movie?
Work began to write a one-man show based around his own experiences. Utilizing material he'd polished onstage at the Bamboo and incorporating elements of hip hop theater and spoken work, he called the finished show "Verses at Work" and secured an agent. Combining the play with theater workshops he developed, Work began appearing at colleges throughout the region.
This included a stop at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford where, as a student at Conn College, Work had trained at a 1986 "semester away from college" program. He previewed the piece for a variety of students and faculty at the O'Neill and, gratified by their enthusiasm, asked if he could submit it for consideration for the center's National Music Theater Conference. He was invited to apply, a process that required video samples.
"I had a few tapes but I wanted to shoot some of the pieces for the camera, as opposed to just having footage of a club performance," Work says. He called his friend Lucas Mendes, a native of Brazil who'd directed soap operas in his native country and done fashion videos in New York, and asked if he could put a few of the show's pieces on film for a more conceptual and professional presentation.
"I sent Lucas the whole thing and he was completely blown away," Work says. "He came up with the idea of the characters and interviews as a way to streamline and move the whole story along, and said, 'Why don't we just make this a movie?' " Work laughs, remembering. "I sort of forgot about the play for a while. Lucas' confidence and enthusiasm bolstered my own confidence and enthusiasm."
Operating on a low budget, they assembled a crew of friends and set to work. One of the team is co-producer/cinematographer/editor Gregory Thompson, who also has a local connection. A North Stonington native who went to Wheeler High School, Thompson graduated from Bennington College, studied cinematography in Prague and eventually moved to Brooklyn. It turned out Thompson's college roommate was a good friend of Work, heard about the film project, and introduced them.
"I'm pretty lucky," Thompson says. "I have my own camera and lenses and, since the budget was pretty small, that was a big deal." While Thompson had made several hip hop videos and is very into the art form. "I'd never heard of Malik, but I found out he grew up close to A Tribe Called Quest – and when I heard his work and saw what he was writing, I loved it. He's a great poet and has so much passion. Plus, the main thing I've learned from working with Malik and through his friendship is to just go for it. And I think we did that on this film."
Through fluid segues of Bohemian spoken word, performance footage and a series of connective interviews with friends, fans, journalists and even a psychiatrist, the documentary chronicles Work's life, career and journey of self-awareness. It's a vibrant, clever and emotional film, and the obvious hope is that, with its innovative structure and appealing story line, "Verses at Work" might attract attention from underground as well as mainstream festivals.
There's also the possibility that the "soundtrack" to the film, featuring tunes like "Chip Away," "Zombie" and "Let Me See Some ID," all of which are infectious and demonstrate Work's amazing lyrical flow and content, could be released in the near future.
At this point, there are plenty of options across the board. Work is healthy, creative, busy and in a positive frame of mind. As he says of the film, "There's absolutely an element of redemption, but maybe not in the usual sense of the word. In the end, I find success on my own terms, and that's maybe not what I'd thought success meant 20 years ago."