CHARLIE AHEARN INTERVIEW
Neil Kulkarni, Uncut, July 1998
"Re-released this month after 15 years, WILD STYLE is regarded as the seminal rap movie. Director Charlie Ahearn puts needle to the groove with Neil Kulkarni"
WILD STYLE is frequently unwatchable, maddeningly clichéd and plain tawdry. Yet, within the hip hop community, this 1983 film — directed by first-timer Charlie Ahearn — has become a secret myth, a lost Bible. It's rarely seen, oft-quoted, and, for those in the know, it's the holy grail of rap cinema. Knowledge of the film has been passed by word of mouth for the last 15 years; the film's sheer inaccessibility writ the legend, its occasional sampling on rap records has kept it airborne, and now, with interest in all things old-skool exploding across the charts, the style-spreads and dancefloors everywhere thanks to Jason Nevin's remix of Run DMC's 'It's Like That', the time couldn't be more right for its importance to be fully understood.
Wild Style's narrative is flimsy. Based on the exploits of real-life pioneering graffiti-artist Lee Quinones, it follows him, as Zorro, around the New York's South Bronx in the early Eighties, running the railyards, sparring with rival graffiti gangs, hanging around hip hop clubs, being feted by a Manhattan gallery, and finally returning to his roots by painting an entire downtown warehouse for New York's biggest ever hip hop night. For his part, Quinones turns in a decent debut performance as the tortured artist, but the unfolding story eventually takes second place to the sheer breadth of classic old-skool experience documented here. For many performers, it was a chance to finally be seen by a wider audience, confronted by a mass-media uninterested in underground culture, let alone impoverished black underground culture. So, it becomes a roll-call of who's who in the hip hop fraternity: from the Fantastic Freaks and Busy Bee sparring in a basement club, to Double Trouble swapping rhymes on their front stoop, Grandmaster Flash crossfading behind his back on his kitchen sideboard, and The Rocksteady Crew breaking necks and robo-freaking their way into oblivion.
"As soon as people heard a movie was being made, everyone wanted to be in on it," says Grandmaster Caz, who makes one of the most memorable appearances in the film as part of the five-strong Cold Crush.
"We'd been doing this for five years, and there was already a feeling that so much had been lost forever. Everything was so fast-moving, no one had ever bothered recording anything, documenting anything. Wild Style did that, but more importantly it did it without being some bullshit outside look-in. Charlie was into the scene completely, people trusted him, and that's why the movie is so authentic. I just hope people watch it now and realise where hip hop came from, realise how much it has to learn from those roots. It's the only real hip hop movie out there, but it would be impossible to make its equivalent now. Only in Europe and the UK could that film be made now. No one in US film has that soul anymore."
The glory of Wild Style is in the details. From the fab fresh animated graffiti of the titles to the glorious uptown gritty chic of its protagonists, it perfectly captures the heady, post-punk vibe of musical exploration and pan-racial eclecticism that hip hop emerged from. It's a cross between hi-culture (Quinones works towards getting exhibited in a swanky Manhattan apartment-gallery; the soundtrack was compiled by Blondie's Chris Stein) and street-culture (the dialogue is a hilarious mix between dubbed Kung-Fu bravado and black/latino street slang) that reflects Ahearn's own background.
"First off, I had no money," he explains down the phone line from New York. "That had a huge effect on the movie. Second of all, I'm a middle-class white guy from Manhattan. That had an even bigger effect on the movie, and I think that's why it still works."
Ahearn was an art-student tangentially involved with movies via an interest in documentary and performance art. Introduced to Fred Braithwaite (Fab Five Freddy), who plays main club-hustler Fade, Ahearn was exposed to the South Bronx's burgeoning rap culture and became hooked instantly.
"One thing that people miss about the movie is that even though everyone calls it a documentary, it was already out of date by the time it was finished," says Ahearn. "Deliberately so. When Wild Style came out, it was 1983, Run DMC had just started out, Bambaataa had created electro, and that whole style was taking over. Wild Style doesn't trap a moment, it's a lot more of an artistic conceit than that: what it does is take five whole years of underground black culture in New York and condenses it into an hour and a half. It's an entirely contrived collection of what we'd all experienced since 1978."
What was it about hip hop that interested a downtown white boy?
"As far as I was concerned, these guys were simply avant-garde artists, and I still think that's what they were. Everyone always talks about Wild Style being some part of 'hip hop culture', and it's just bullshit. Hip hop hadn't solidified into a culture then, and the film comes from a time before it even had a name, when people were just as likely to listen to Bad Brains as Blondie as Devo as Flash as The Slits as Furious Five as U-Roy. Fred introduced me to Quinones, and the more I observed him, the more I knew him, the more I realised that fundamentally what I was filming was an avant-garde art movement without a name, without a place to operate. That freedom was what interested me as an art student, that feeling that nothing had been decided, everything was up for grabs."
For Ahearn, Wild Style is less a documentary than an avant-garde movie itself.
"For me, it's a neo-realist musical. It's structured like a musical, that whole 'Let's put on a show ourselves' kinda thing. There are certain sequences that are purely documentary, there are personal moments which still make me wince — y'know that bit when the white journalist, Patti Astor, tries out breakdancing in front of the entirely black crowd in the nightclub. I did that once, much to my eternal shame. But most of it is shot like a musical; like a journey around the Bronx, with everyone having a little musical cameo. I love that bit on the basketball court, where Fantastic Five and Cold Crush Brothers face off and rap through this B-ball game — it's pure West Side Story! I think the strength of the film lies in the contrast between the artifice of it and the reality of its cast. Lee Quinones, Sandra Fabbara, Fred Braithwaite, they were all real players in the scene: at the time you ain't capturing history, you're filming what you're into, you're filming your friends."
Busy Bee, who has a role as hi-rolling rap king MC Starski, concurs: "It's strange, because at the time it was like, 'Hey, Charlie, point a camera at me, I wanna do something stoopid!' Then, 15 years later, you being a fuckin' little punk gets called 'classic': but I can understand why. For so long, hip hop had to stay away from the world. Wild Style announced the Bronx to the rest of New York — it felt like our movie. And it's a fuckin' funny movie, man; there's moments on there that slay me."
Ahearn: "One thing really puzzles me. Everyone sees Wild Style as a hallowed text, and that's natural with the passing of time. We didn't know that hip hop was gonna even end up with a history, let alone its curators and exhibits. I think something deeper stays with everyone who watches the film, and that's the original message of all that old-skool hip hop: for art to stay alive it can't stop, can't become this thing to look at and gawp at — it has to be located on the streets and in your life and change everything. So Wild Style captures nothing, documents nothing — rather it is something, as free-flowing and open-ended as hip hop itself should be."
That it is. Wild Style isn't just about hip hop. It is hip hop. The one moment in hip hop's first 10 years where the culture was afforded serious cinematic treatment, and, now, a rare glimpse at a time when its innocence, naiveté and wide-eyed openness to suggestion made it a matter of belief and love. Put simply, to B-Boys and B-Girls everywhere, Wild Style is our Quadrophrenia, our definitive youth culture movie.
Public Enemy's Chuck D on Wild Style
"We ran to the godamn movie house to see that film. It was only screened like once a month, in one of the grind-houses on Fifth Avenue. It was an event: people'd get dressed up and go see the movie. To be quite honest, I really didn't give a shit about the plot or the story or the dialogue or any of that. I just wanted to be in the front row watching Cold Crush and Grandmaster Flash rockin' shit. That was the first time we'd been able to see those guys on screen, and that's all I was waiting for. Wild Style, jeez, I must have watched it every week for a year. That last scene with the gig is what it was all about for me. Great performances in search of a great movie. It should definitely be seen by anyone wanting to understand that time, though. It's all there."
© Neil Kulkarni, 1998