No Concessions: Legendary Wild Style Director Charlie Ahearn on Hip-Hop’s Unlikely Genesis

September 27, 2013

Widely considered the most important hip-hop movie in history, Charlie Ahearn's 1983 film Wild Style captured the grassroots, New York City origins of a universe of music, art and dance that would grow up to dominate today's popular culture. Midway between a narrative film and a documentary, it follows a remarkably gifted graffiti writer named Raymond, or "Zorro," played by real-world street art virtuoso Lee Quinones, as he jumps the fence from bombing in shadowy train yards to painting on canvases for hungry Manhattan art dealers to ultimately finding a happy medium between the two. But if you're looking for a coherent plot, you've come to the wrong place--structurally speaking, Wild Style has more loose threads than an old pair of cutoff jeans. Just ignore the extraneous characters and the wooden acting, though, and you'll be handsomely rewarded. Think of this as a colorful, enthusiastic, 82-minute long sonogram of the hip-hop era, soundtracked by rising acts like Fab Five Freddy, the Cold Crush Brothers, and the Rock Steady Crew. To celebrate Wild Style's 30-year anniversary and the forthcoming re-mastered version of the film, I called Charlie Ahearn to discuss the movie's art house roots, the fabrication of hip-hop culture, and which writers he still keeps an eye out for.

You're from upstate New York. Why'd you come to the city and how'd you first encounter the city's nascent hip-hop scene? I came to New York to be an artist. In the early '70s, there was a movement among [artists] to move into communities and reach spots outside of the known art galleries, which were white cubes for white people. So, I started shooting 16 mm in a housing project in the Lower East Side. I was doing this in 1977 and I walked into a gymnasium. They were playing James Brown's "Soul Power," and I saw lines of guys facing each other and dropping to their ankles--what would later be called b-boying or uprocking. It was just a taste of what I would later experience, but at the time I had no reference point.

Did you make any movies in the community before Wild Style? I made a Kung Fu movie called The Deadly Art of Survival, which featured a lot of murals by an artist who I thought was the greatest in New York at the time—Lee Quinones. I took that movie up to the Bronx and I was showing it in housing projects, and sometimes I would bring [students from] the Kung Fu school, which was at the heart of the movie, with me. They were really dramatic, and they would do these live shows for people. So I was doing this for the Times Square show in June of 1980, and Fab Five Freddy approached me because he was working with Lee Quinones to develop this idea of artists that were writing on the subway to begin showing in galleries on canvas. Fred began talking to me about how he liked what I was doing and wanted to work with me to make a movie that would connect the graffiti scene that was on the subway with the hip-hop scene, which was happening mostly in the Bronx and some spots in Brooklyn, but was largely unknown at that time.

Watching Wild Style now, one of the first things you notice is how loosely structured the film is. Sometimes you'll linger on a performance for five or ten minutes. It’s true. At the time I was interested in Warhol movies like Chelsea Girls, where the pacing, compared to Wild Style, was glacial. The idea was that there was a kind of performance going on, but on a deeper level, it was an incredible document of people and the times they were living in. What we’re talking about is making an art movie, which on some level I accepted—the idea that this was a sort of art movie for high school kids from all the boroughs of NY.

Do you remember the first Times Square screenings of the film, back in '83? Those kids had never seen an art movie before and they were shocked. It had a huge impact on what was happening in the high schools of NY. When it was first shown, it was the second highest-grossing film in NY at the time. I went to the screening a couple times to feel what it was like in the movie theaters. In Times Square, the movies were places that people would go to see their friends. Some people would smoke weed in the back of the theater, some people would yell at their friends. There was a lot of participation—people were just having fun.

One of the things I really enjoyed about rewatching the film is that it reminds us that the transition of graffiti from something done on the street to something shown in a gallery isn't anything new—it's been happening for almost half a century. There was a show of graffiti art in a gallery called Razor Gallery in 1973 in New York. Fab Five Freddy and Lee Quinones went to Italy and showed canvases in Rome that were sold to collectors in 1979. There was an enormous amount of interest in Europe, especially to buy canvases by artists who had painted on trains. This was considered America’s new pop art. Keith Haring and Basquiat, who were not actually painting trains but were identified with this movement, had enormous careers and were the most sought-after in regards to the movement. But there were dozens of other artists—Lee Quinones being one of the primary ones—who had great careers in the early '80s.

Watching the film, you get this sense that this was an era in which graffiti and hip-hop were closely linked. Since then, graffiti culture seems to have expanded to punk culture, skater culture and beyond. Hip-hop and rap don't have a monopoly on graffiti like they once did. Even then, a lot of writers on the subway didn’t necessarily listen to hip-hop. In New York, and in the Bronx especially, there were huge areas in which graffiti culture surrounded teenagers from every direction. It was very natural for kids growing up—let’s say you were black or Latino in NY—you were already in this culture in which graffiti was seen as a way for people to make a name for themselves. This had been happening in the early '70s. Whereas what we call hip-hop as a music culture, or what would be rap, didn’t evolve until much later. Emceeing was a form that really developed in the late '70s, and the groups in Wild Style were just forming when I was shooting. It was something that was developing at that time, whereas graffiti had been around for a decade. And there were always writers from white neighborhoods that didn’t know anything about hip-hop.

So the relationship between hip-hop and graffiti wasn't as close as it may have seemed? The movie was on many levels created to project certain ways of looking at hip-hop. One of those ways was that all of these aspects of hip-hop were interrelated and united in some way. That was something Fred was really interested in, and I became really interested in. Around the time that the movie was coming out, people like Bambaataa had this whole idea of the four aspects of hip-hop [emceeing, djing, b-boying, and graffiti]. This is not something that was spoken of on the street in 1980. As a matter of fact, people didn’t even use the word "hip-hop" at that time. You’d say you were going to a jam. If you were writing on a subway, you’d say you were a writer, not a graffiti writer. Emcees were the guys that got on the microphone and the word rapping wasn’t really used either. If you went to a jam, you wouldn’t see people breakdancing on stage. I never saw that anywhere.

That was something that was made to project that in a unified way in the movie. When you see the movie, you feel the connection between these things. And when the movie went out to Japan or Germany, people took it as a snapshot of real life, which I think is fine. It’s as good a snapshot as they’re going to get. But it is a movie. It’s an idealization, or a projection of what hip-hop could be rather than what it was. We weren’t looking backwards, we were looking forwards.

Are you at all nostalgic for that era? People always want me to comment on hip-hop and how it’s this or that now. But in many ways, I'm really overwhelmed by the positive strength of hip-hop around the world. I’ve gone around to different countries to breakdancing competitions with people from Brazil and Russia winning top prizes; I’ve watched movies of people from Siberia doing throat beatboxing or people from different places in Africa doing styles of rapping that relate to their native languages. It’s huge, and you can bitch about how this or that thing that you hear on the radio is garbage—and in many ways, it is garbage. But the idea of real hip-hop is very much alive today and seen all over the world. And we’re not even talking about street art, which seems to be growing every year, with enormous outdoor mural competitions in cities across the world. It’s really hard to keep up with; it’s fantastic. It’s not really nostalgia, it’s amazement. People always say, Why don’t you make a film about hip-hop today? But what would you call that? It’s too vast of a subject.

But for instance in New York, there's no more graffiti on trains. That's a canvas that's disappeared. If you look on the subways, graffiti is dead. It’s really not there. I could easily become nostalgic if we wanted to go down that route. The summer of '80 was one of the biggest waves of whole cars in NY. Every time you went to go catch a train, there were whole cars that were fresh cars. The only thing that I could point to right now would be trucks. There seem to be hundreds of trucks with fresh pieces on the outsides. A lot of these trucks are done with the artist, they’re not just hitting the truck. But it is beautiful to see them driving around. It’s like a moving art gallery.

Any street artists specifically catch your eye? There’s an artists Gaia who I follow from city to city doing murals. Chris Stain has been doing a lot of great stuff too.

Wild Style opens at New York's IFC Center today. The Collector's Edition DVD will be available October 15th.

No Concessions: Legendary Wild Style Director Charlie Ahearn on Hip-Hop’s Unlikely Genesis