Wild Style is the first hip-hop movie and one of the more important pop culture artifacts from the ‘80s. This low-budget classic directed by Charlie Ahearn introduced the world to underground New York DJs, MCs, and breakers whose music, style and language soon made an indelible mark on the world. Big Shot asked Ahearn to go back 25 years and talk about the film, which he reflects upon in Wild Style The Sampler.
Which came first: your interest in film or passion for music?
Charlie Ahearn: In the mid ‘70s, I was very interested in silent films such as the great Russian director Dziga Vertov’s revolutionary film Man With A Movie Camera, which used these super-dynamic vibrant images of common people in a vast cityscape coming alive. See it and be amazed. That got me interested in activist filmmaking, where I would shoot in silent 16mm film and return later with my 16mm projector and project the images in the housing project.
“I wanted to make something which reflected the aspirations of the martial arts kids with their fantasies from watching all those cool king fu movies in Chinatown and on The Deuce (42nd St.).”
One of those excursions was in the Smith Housing Projects gymnasium where Lee [Quinones, the graf star of Wild Style] had painted a huge mural inside). It was a summer night in 1977 and the DJs were playing a deafening James Brown “Soul Power” and there were lines of guys facing each other dropping to their ankles in unison. I was pretty stoked by the sight and returned back the next week to project some of those images on the wall. That led me to working with the local martial arts school on my super 8mm epic The Deadly Art of Survival, which had a sound stripe and so could contain dialogue, etc. I wanted to make something which reflected the aspirations of the martial arts kids with their fantasies from watching all those cool king fu movies in Chinatown and on The Deuce (42nd St.).
New York (and America) was in a state of economic crisis when you made Wild Style. How did you go about getting permission to film around the city? Or, did you just do it DIY style?
We outlawed all the locations in the film with one exception: the train yards. I was somehow able to convince the authorities to allow us to shoot there. Over a quarter of the budget was sent in a certified check to the MTA a month before shooting. We were given about three hours in the middle of the night in October 1981 to light up the entire yard with movie lights and it was pouring rain the entire night. And one other problem: our leading man, Lee Quinones, never showed up. One could take that as proof of his true graffiti chops, never to cross that line. In order to rescue our efforts, I asked our immensely talented Dondi White to don the doo rag and do body double duty in the rain. Dondi later that week went out to hit a train in another yard creating the window down Wild Style burner that you see in the movie. The Amphitheater painting and party scenes were done with no permissions or security and actually done twice in October and in the following May in an extensive re-shoot due to poor sound from the original.
There are so many interesting characters in the movie, especially because you found so many future stars. How did you go about selecting the MCs, breakers and other personalities?
I met Lee Quinones while I was shooting my super 8 kung fu movie in 1977. We were shooting one of the opening scenes right by his Howard The Duck handball court, and he came by on his little homemade scooter, a skinny kid with a big Afro. I was awed to meet the artist who was creating so many bombastic graffiti pieces by the Smith Projects. I wanted to make him part of the movie but he was shy of strangers and disappeared. Later, Fred [Fab Five Freddy] Brathwaite was working with Lee to get some of his graffiti work shown as art, and Fred brought Lee to meet me at the Times Square show in June 1980, and the three of us immediately began plotting to make this movie which would become Wild Style. Fred and I were deep into ideas and Lee was out there as the archetypal lone subway master.
The music is one of the most important characters in the film. How did the songs on the soundtrack come about?
Wild Style was blessed with incredible musical talent. I tried to embrace as wide a picture of Bronx hip-hop stars as could fit into our little movie and conjured up scenarios to give them plenty of shine in a narrative which reflected something of their place in the scene. Like Busy Bee as the cut up MC in the Alps Hotel scene, Double Trouble on The Stoop. Grand Wizzard Theodore and The Fantastic 5, The Cold Crush Bros were the big rivals then since Flash and The Furious were out on tour with Sugarhill. I got the inspiration from watching street ball at the West 4th spot to pit the two crews against each other in a live match. The rival MCs took that scene as a life and death match and they were right. We are still watching them today to see who is stronger. I was also inspired by the lyrical chops of my friend Grand Master Caz of the Cold Crush who lived only a few blocks from the basketball court. Later, when we were putting together the soundtrack album with Fred and Chris Stein of Blondie, I wanted Caz to write the movie’s theme and then record it with Chris, which he rhymes a cappella in the movie. I later wished that I had come up with a scene just for Caz to show off his remarkable MC skills in the movie, which led me to recently make a musical short with him called “Bongo Barbershop,” where he trades rhymes with Tanzanian MC Balozi Dola, who spits back at him in his native Swahili.
You’ve taken Wild Style around the world over the past 25 years. How do you account for its cult status?
It might be surprising that the world premiere of Wild Style was in Japan, a place which had never experienced hip-hop before we landed there in 1983. The cover image on my new book, Wild Style The Sampler, is of The Chief Rocker Busy Bee as he appeared in Japan freaking with the Tokyo kids in his Ayatola of Hip-Hop look. I see that moment as the big bang of world hip-hop. Japanese kids adopted scratch mixing, breaking, and graffiti as their own. The dialogue and MC rhymes were translated into Japanese, Korean, French, German and Italian and seeded local MCs to rhyme in their own languages all around the planet.
Wild Style traveled across the globe 25 years ago reaching pockets of youth who immediately identified with the creative struggles pictured in that movie. Kids saw the devastated ruins of the South Bronx and saw how this new hip-hop culture was a creative response to those conditions. Kids could be in the lower-class suburbs newly built by the government to house the swelling Surinam population outside Amsterdam, or the Turkish kids in the run down flats in the still divided city of Berlin, or the Brixton youth outside of London; they all identified with the struggles in Wild Style.
Words: Darren Ressler
as featured in Issue 25