Photo by Martha Cooper.
A Conversation with Director Charlie Ahearn About ‘Wild Style’ — "The First Hip-Hop Movie"
Wild Style director Charlie Ahearn talked about the film’s legacy, its influences, working with Fab 5 Freddy and more.
This article has been handpicked to be included in our Hip Hop 50 collection as a noteworthy inclusion to the genre's rich and diverse narrative.
Nas opens Illmatic with the rumble of a subway train, followed by a snippet from Charlie Ahearn’s 1983 film Wild Style and its refrain, Chris Stein’s “Subway Theme.” Nas has described Wild Style as the first hip-hop movie ever made and it’s a fitting introduction, as the prodigious rapper proceeded to deliver the most cinematic depiction of New York ever heard to that point in rap.
Beyond Illmatic, the film would prove hugely influential, birthing the genre of the hip-hop film with no blueprint for how that type of film might look or operate. It’s often lumped in with the early class of movies that followed its surprising success — slick studio productions like Krush Groove and Beat Street — that wanted to cash in on an emergent trend. But in retrospect, the film was something else: a tautological survey of the bombed-out South Bronx at the dawn of America’s third century, and a snapshot of ‘80s hip-hop coming to fruition.
It was an experimental genre film as interested in art theory-like communal forms of expression as it was with its ostensible plot, the love story between two teenage graffiti writers (Lee Quiñones and Lady Pink). Through this lens, it can be understood as more a child of Warhol’s Factory Films, with barely coherent plots and improvised dialogue delivered by nonactors, than the parent of Belly.
This month, The Criterion Channel — the streaming service that comes the closest to providing a curious, entry-level streamer with a selective but reasonably holistic depiction of the Western arthouse canon — has curated a hip-hop series of films featuring Wild Style, Beat Street, and Krush Groove, along with a primer of the hip-hop film canon that would develop over the next 40 years: Deep Cover, Fear of a Black Hat, and Paid in Full (with more to come). These films are now available, shoulder to shoulder with its “standard” fare: works from Jean Renoir, Agnes Varda, and Shohei Imamura, a beautiful, powerful sentence I can barely comprehend as I type it.
The series also, of course, features hip-hop movies like Tony Silver’s Style Wars, as well as Ahearn’s 2013 documentary Jamel Shabazz Street Photographer, a loving and in-depth character sketch of rap’s Bill Cunningham who, like Ahearn, documented the city’s street culture as it took its first steps. In promotion of the series, now available to stream, Okayplayer readily and happily capitalized on the opportunity to discuss the many inspirations and legacies of Wild Style with the filmmaker.
Charlie Ahearn.Photo courtesy of Charlie Ahearn.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Do you consider Wild Style the first hip-hop movie?
Charles Ahearn: Without a doubt. There's no doubt about it. Unless someone else has come up with a different version of the story.
You’ve referenced Sol LeWitt as an early influence of yours. In his minimalism, as well as your straddling the late ‘70s/early ‘80s worlds of New York’s downtown art scene and the hip-hop scene in the Bronx, Wild Style strikes me as having a lot more in common with the experimental films of that era than the “hip-hop movies” that followed it.
Yes. Clearly (laughs). When I made Wild Style I thought I was making an art film. It came out of things that I'd been doing for years, which have to do with creating a film that also connects a community. I spent a year making The Deadly Art of Survival, which was a Super 8 kung fu movie in 1978. But before that, I was going into the Smith Housing Projects and making these 16-millimeter films, which I would project on walls or in a gymnasium at events where b-boys were breaking, and because it was on 16-millimeter, it was without sound. I was using those films as a way to create community. I thought this is the way an art movie should be done. It's like making a community’s idea of a movie, and then using it as a way to bring this group together and organize it.
Lee Quiñones lived in the area where I was making The Deadly Art of Survival, and his handball courts were well-known all over that community. He had just painted the Howard the Duck mural. In other words, things were happening in a real way for a lot of different people. Then, [Fab Five Freddy] started looking for Lee to work with him. We were all kind of caught up in these movements that were happening around us.
To me, if you come from the art world, ideas like community filmmaking are not radical. They were in the air. So, that's why I don’t even like to acknowledge work like this being compared to Beat Street, which was a fine movie, it was a well-made movie, etc. But what we were doing with Wild Style was not whatever that was. The fact that it was conceived and given birth at probably the watershed moment of ‘80s art, The Times Square Show, says a lot.
Well, Downtown 81 had not been made when we began to work on Wild Style, but I think the two are inextricably tied together. And I think that I don't even want to plant this seed, because it's not for me to say, but I think that Fred's talking to me about making Wild Style may be related to the fact that he was talking to Glenn O'Brien about making Downtown 81. It was in the works, and Glenn certainly knew who Lee Quiñones was. These things are very related. And like Glenn would say, you could call Wild Style “Uptown 81.”
They were both made in ‘81, but I think that Downtown 81 was shot in the late spring of ‘81. So, they were ahead of us, and they were ahead of us in many ways in terms of organization and funding and all these other things. And it was meant to be a movie that was, by its very title, meant to be focused around the world of The Mudd Club, and the world of the downtown experimental art scene and music scene. While I felt very strongly that hip-hop was a Bronx cultural movement, and that setting needed to be established in the movie.
Were there any cinematic influences that shaped your approach to making Wild Style at the time?
I thought The Harder They Come was a really good model for a movie. I don't want to compare them because I think that movie is so strong and the performances are so sincere and perfect. But we were all interested in genre movies. The downtown art movie scene was interested in making genre movies, and The Harder They Come was the perfect genre movie, which was based on westerns, which gives it an enormous amount of structure — the outlaw who was selling weed and is being chased by the police.
And in a way, if I may take that a step further with Wild Style, Zoro is an outlaw graffiti writer who was being chased by the police, and Lee Quiñones was the most wanted graffiti writer in history. So that character, it's not specifically biographical to Lee Quiñones, but it casts his character as a genre character. There was also Rome ‘78 by James Nears. There were a lot of film noirs — this was the kind of milieu that I was working in.
A scene from 'Wild Style.' Photo courtesy of the Criterion Channel.
By all accounts, Fab Five Freddy was important as connective tissue between these different worlds that led to the proliferation of the first wave of rap. He also plays that role in the film as a publicist and an ambassador. Was that consistent with your experiences with him during that period?
The role that he played on Yo MTV was the role he played in the movie, which was not the person I knew that went to The Mudd Club and wore a skinny black tie. In other words, that was a character that he made up by looking at people around him. That's not a diss at all because I think Fred's a genius. He knew people like D.ST. He knew people like Rammellzee. But we went up to the Bronx together. The joke of it is that the two of us were kind of like a buddy cop movie, a white guy and a Black guy. So, we think no one bothered us because people thought we were probably the cops.
One of his biggest contributions was the fact that he introduced his friends Chris Stein and Debbie Harry to [Grandmaster] Flash, and he later introduced them to The Funky 4+1. Debbie Harry was going to be on Saturday Night Live and they said, “Do you want any other group to come on with you?” And she said, “Yes,” and she chose the Funky 4+1 because of Sha-Rock.
On my most recent rewatch, what struck me was how much time you spend on the process, and that the movie is so patient. We’re watching Lee’s can strokes. We're watching break dancers practice individual phrases. We're watching DJs scratching and working crossfaders. We're watching the ciphers that build rappers.
We're watching their work of promoting their art and themselves.
So with that emphasis, it’s been argued you're doing the documentarian's work with Wild Style, and then Style Wars comes out. Do you look back at Style Wars and wonder if the narrative device was necessary, or if it would have been more interesting to try to make the film as a straight documentary?
I was really trying to make an art movie for teenagers, to try to reach out to as wide a teenage audience as possible. I didn't think at that time that you could get teenage audiences going to see a documentary. The important thing is that Style Wars had Henry Chalfant’s like, three to four years of incredible, diligent, collective documentation of the graffiti world. Their knowledge and recognition of him allowed them, when they made the film, to really capture that world with intimacy.
I would hesitate to compare my film to that film because they're working with very powerful, meaningful elements. I have great respect for that film and what it accomplished. But, no, I never said to myself, “Oh, I should have made it a...” well, actually, I won't say that. Many times I wished that I had made more of a documentary for what it's worth, which is nothing.
I think it’s entirely possible the hook of the narrative is what got kids to embrace the film.
You have to have been in Times Square when that film opened and it sold around the clock. That theater was sold out. There were lines going around the block of kids that were willing to shell out the money to see this movie, and they were in the theater. They were selling cheeba in the theater. I live in Times Square, so I was into the idea that we had our movie in Times Square and that the kids were there. That's who paid for the tickets. And do you know, it was the second highest-grossing movie in all of New York City the weekend that it opened? So, if you think of what I was trying to do as an art movie, that is a kind of art movie success.
What do you feel ultimately is the legacy of Wild Style in terms of what it’s become in history, and how the influence and perception of it has evolved?
I’m deeply moved that it's still here. When they talk about the 50th anniversary, people are using Wild Style as a way to represent it. No one talks about the 40th anniversary of Wild Style. They're all talking about the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, and somehow Wild Style represents that to them. So, I'm amazed and touched that it's retained this impact on people today. It's very amazing.
The film ends with the park jam, and I’ve always felt there's a kind of symbolism in choosing that as the conclusion. It suggests the impending supremacy of the MC above all other elements: this medium that would center the artist in a tangible, easily marketable product that would take over the world. Was that intentional?
I didn't know how to end the film logically as a drama. And then I was stewing about what the hell I was going to do. And my wife is losing all of her patience, and she kind of punches the pillow and goes, “Zoro, Zoro, Zoro. Who cares about Zoro? The kids are going to be coming down to see the rappers. They're the real draw in this movie.” And I just said, “Wow, you did it.” So, that’s how we ended the film. Zoro is only useful up to a point, and then we have to let go and say the movie is really about the community, and all these people are the stars of this movie.
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