Hip-hop was still in its infancy when Charlie Ahearn started rolling camera on the likes of Lee Quiñones, Busy Bee, the Rock Steady Crew, the Cold Crush Brothers and Grandmaster Flash.
It was the summer 1980, seven years after DJ Kool Herc created the first known rap beat by juggling two copies of the same record’s breakbeat at a Back to School Jam in a Bronx apartment building — a moment now considered the advent of hip-hop. Ahearn — a white underground filmmaker from the small central New York city of Binghamton — had been embedded with various emcees, deejays, break dancers and graffiti artists in the Lower East Side of Manhattan for a few years, eventually gathering some of them together to shoot a no-budget martial arts movie on his Super 8 camera.
That brought him to the attention of Fred Braithwaite, aka street artist and hip-hop pioneer Fab 5 Freddy, who proposed Ahearn make a film about New York’s fledgling new culture to offset the burgeoning negative press.
Wild Style, the first movie ever made about hip-hop, was born.
“It was certainly never meant to be a history of hip-hop,” the director tells us in a new interview promoting The Criterion Channel’s 50th Anniversary of Hip-Hop streaming collection, which includes Wild Style, Ahearn’s documentary Jamel Shabazz Street Photographer along with such other seminal works as Style Wars, Beat Street, Krush Groove, Scratch, Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme and Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest.
Yet watch Wild Style today and that’s essentially what it feels like, in the best of ways: a time capsule embedding viewers, like Ahearn was at the time, into the earliest days of hip-hop, months before it exploded across the globe. When it was purely a culture, not a business. When it was simply about two turntables and a microphone, rap battles, b-boy cyphers and taggers writing on subways cars and abandoned buildings.
“It was purposely made on my part as a simple story,” Ahearn continues, “which was designed to, in a way, encourage people that wouldn’t normally go to a documentary.”
Wild Style isn’t a documentary. It does have a loose plot, following Bronx teen and celebrated yet anonymous graffiti artist Raymond, aka Zoro (real-life celebrated graffiti artist Quiñones), around the city as he deals with rival artists, mixes it up a rap jam and meets a journalist (Patti Astor) who introduces him to the downtown art world. The story is a microcosm of hip-hop traveling from the predominantly Black and Latino high school gymnasiums and block parties of the South Bronx to the hip, largely white galleries of the Lower East Side before it ultimately became commercialized.
Ahearn filmed it like a hybrid narrative-documentary. The parties, the clubs, the battles, they were real. And there was no script.
“I never wrote a script,” Ahearn beams. The filmmaker points to Wild Style’s famous basketball court rap battle between members of the Cold Crush Brothers and the Fantastic Five. “They huddled and talked about it and came up with their lines.
“I’m not ashamed of that. I’m proud of that. Whatever lines I did write for people, [co-star and graffiti artist] Lady Pink would laugh and go, ‘It’s really funny when you try to talk like us.’ [Laughs] I didn’t try that much. I felt more like I was trying to steer [the story] a little bit.”
Ahearn looked at Wild Style as both a teen art movie and a genre film. If there was a cinematic inspiration, he says, it was the Spaghetti Western-riffing 1972 Jamaican crime thriller The Harder They Come starring Jimmy Cliff, which popularized reggae music around the world. “It’s about an outlaw who was basically his whole character and being is that he’s alone and having to cloak himself, and he’s being chased,” Ahearn says of Quiñones’s Zoro. “And Lee was the most wanted graffiti artist in history. And he took that very seriously. Lee never allowed himself to be shot in the yard.” (Ahearn instead used a stand-in for the graffiti scenes.)
Graffiti was an especially hot-button political issue in big cities at the time of Wild Style’s release — so much so that Philadelphia Mayor Wilson Goode initially banned the film.
“They had a big graffiti ‘problem,’” Ahearn says. “They did [eventually] play it in Philadelphia and it was huge there for that reason.”
Though Wild Style was shot in 1981, Ahearn took more than a year to finish editing. The film didn’t premiere until March 18, 1983, where it screened at the New Directors/New Films Festival. Wild Style opened theatrically in New York in November 1983, and expanded to cities across the country in early 1984. A wave of other (fully scripted) hip-hop centric films — including Breakin’ and Beat Street — soon followed.
While Ahearn and his team filmed and edited Wild Style, the Sugarhill Gang’s 1979 release “Rapper’s Delight” kickstarted a seismic shift in the culture. Hip-hop was suddenly appearing on the charts, going mainstream, spreading across the globe.
“The world that we knew existed was in a sense, transformed into something that was beyond their control,” Ahearn says of hip-hop’s earliest pioneers, many of whom appeared in Wild Style — and most of whose legacies as forefathers wouldn’t translate to the commercial success found by soon-arriving acts like Run-DMC, LL Cool J and the Beastie Boys.
“In a way, I think Fred and I were trying to capture something that was nostalgic for that earlier control that they had of their own culture. And to try to give a feeling of what that looked like and felt like, and not make a story about the bad business that was running things all around. … Sugarhill didn’t destroy it, it made [hip-hop] into a household term. But it changed everything from being a DJ-driven local culture into a thing to sell records with MCs.
“By the time the film was being made, that culture had been wiped away.”
Wild Style is now streaming on The Criterion Channel.