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Wild Style @ 25: Charlie Ahearn

Face the facts, the Hip-Hop you grew up on and hold dear, whether it be a harmonizing B-Boy, a shiny suited entertainer or a ratchet toting gangsta, is never going to be the same again. So in that regard, cherish those fleeting moments before whatever your Hip-Hop or rap “ideal” may be changed, and enjoy it. Such is the case with the movie Wild Style. Written, directed and produced by Charlie Ahearn, and after some hustling and bustling released in 1982, the film has gone on to be recognized as the quintessential Hip-Hop movie. Capturing Hip-Hop culture on celluloid in its infancy and at a time that most would consider its purest, the film is a visual time capsule of the movement started in the Boogie. When Mos Def said, “We know where the real life documentarians are” on the intro to his and Talib Kweli’s Black Star album, he very well could have been talking about Charlie Ahearn. With a list of whose of who of Hip-Hop legends including Busy Bee, the Cold Crush Brothers, Double Trouble, Grandmaster Flash and Fab 5 Freddy, Ahearn’s small indie film has gone on to resonate with Hip-Hop heads globally. AllHipHop.com was privileged to pick Mr. Ahearn’s brain about Wild Style’s inception and ongoing influence. Respect due.     AllHipHop.com: The cover of your new book is interesting.Charlie Ahearn: I’m proud to say that the cover is shocking. Nobody has seen that picture before. The name of the book is Wild Style The Sampler and the picture is a kind of example of visual sampling. Sampling is one of the aesthetic foundations of Hip-Hop. I’m happy to see Wild Style go out into the world for the last 20 years in various modes of sampling. Not that I’m saying people should hijack the movie and use it for whatever they want to [laughing]. But it is a kind of indication of people’s continued fascination with the movie in the sense that I feel sampling is the most sincere form of respect for something. The soundtrack itself has been sampled by the Beastie Boy, Biz Markie, Public Enemy, Cypress Hill, Nas, I got a list of pages of people. AllHipHop.com: The dialogue from the film has been used plenty too.Charlie Ahearn: And dialogue also…in a way the cover is supposed to be a pun because Busy Bee is wearing the photograph on his t-shirt of the wall that he’s standing in front of. In other words, he didn’t actually pose in front of that wall. What I’ve done is digitally wetted a picture of Busy Bee in what I consider a crucial moment when we first arrived in Tokyo. That’s wetted to this image of the original wall which is also on his shirt so it kind of echoes. I consider the trip that we took with the entire cast of Wild Style to Tokyo in 1983 to be the sort of big bang of global Hip-Hop. Because people were embracing Hip-Hop, in Japan, as original artists almost within a week after we were there. DJs, graffiti writers, etc.AllHipHop.com: Had the film been seen in Tokyo?Charlie Ahearn: That was the first time anyone had ever heard of it, when we arrived in Tokyo. I was in a midtown record store yesterday and I walked past the checkout counter, I was getting some hard to find Sly records, and I noticed they had a rack of sweatshirts that said “A Tribe Called Quest” with the exactly duplicated Wild Style lettering and colors and everything. I feel like that’s a form of visual sampling. In a way that image has been sample probably without a doubt more than any graffiti image in the history of graffiti. It’s been used by so many people for different purposes. I’m also looking right now at my feet a brand new 35mm print of the movie. I’m talking to various people about putting it out on the road to do some theatrical dates cause the film hasn’t been shown in theaters in a long time. AllHipHop.com: What was your background before you created this film?Charlie Ahearn: I was born and raised in a town in upstate New York called Binghampton. I came to New York to be an artist with the Whitney Museum. The Whitney Museum had a program for sort of avant garde artists, that was in 1973. I originally started noticing Hip-Hop when I was…I was interested in trying to make art in the housing projects in the Lower East Side. I would go in there with a 16 millimeter movie camera and I walked into a gymnasium and they were playing “Soul Power” by James Brown and the DJ was repeating it, which of course now we recognize what that was. It concentrated the power of the song and made it, in a sense, more like its African sounding percussion and there were lines of guys with mock necks and straight leg Lees and they were facing each other in lines and dancing. I found that completely amazing and interesting and I took some film of that and I was developing this idea where I would come back the following weeks and with a 16 millimeter projector show it up on the wall. This idea was sort of activist cinema. The idea of making things in a community. That led to a local karate school—The Deadly Art of Survival was the name of the school, and they proposed to me that I make a Kung-Fu movie with them over the next year, which I did in Super 8. I made a featurette which I showed all over in places and had the school join the film and do live shows. I showed it up in The Bronx in housing projects and took it all over the place, that was ‘78, ‘79.

What’s interesting is that Lee Quinones lived in the same neighborhood where I was shooting. There were these handball courts. There’d be a brilliant handball court painted with the letters LEE exploding out of the wall with Howard the Duck or with a lion and I though the stuff was amazing and I really wanted to work with LEE as a part of the movie but he was so hard to find and he had this reputation of being really secretive. Which is kind of like his character in the movie. It happened that Fred Brathwaite was working with LEE right at this time to develop this idea of graffiti as art and he and Fred had gone to Italy to do a show of their graffiti paintings. Fred was looking for me because he had seen these posters for The Deadly Art of Survival all over LEE’s neighborhood and he thought it would be a really cool idea to talk to me about a movie that involved rap music and graffiti together.

He met up with me at this now famous art show that happened in June of 1980 in Time Square in New York called the Times Square Show. It was held in an abandoned brothel, massage parlor right in Times Square. It was a free-for-all where street art was hung all over the walls and it was one of the early connections between street art graffiti and the downtown art scene. Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring were both in the show and a lot of people that later became famous. Fred came up to me and introduced himself to me and I was very excited because he told me that he knew LEE and I said to him if you can bring LEE here tomorrow and I’ll give you guys some money and you can spray a piece out in front on the building and we’ll get started on making this movie. That was it.AllHipHop.com: In front of what building?Charlie Ahearn: Right out in front of the building where the art show was in Times Square. They actually went and got the spraypaint and did a Fab Five piece right on the wall. This is Times Square in 1980 and the fact that you could do that… if you so much as took a spraycan out of your pocket in Times Square right now, the police would bust you. It was wide open.  That’s a real long version of the story, I’m sorry. AllHipHop.com: It’s cool. So was the funding the film was difficult?Charlie Ahearn: There’s several stages to this. One is the development of the idea of the movie. We spent a year from June of 1980 to the following summer going to subway yards, hanging out in clubs and meeting the players so to speak and developing the story which somewhat revolved around a kind of fictionalized story of Lee Quinones and his budding relationship with his girlfried [played by] Lady Pink. At that time I was trying to raise money for the film and I found that it was very hard to raise money here in America but I had been tipped off about going to Germany and the UK and applying for money through the television stations there. I was able to with merely a letter and some color Xeroxes to raise money to start production based on those two sales. AllHipHop.com: So you had to go overseas to start something Stateside?Charlie Ahearn: Yeah, which is sort of typical isn’t it? They immediately recognized that this is an interesting thing to do whereas, let’s say I approached CPB [Corporation for Public Broadcasting], which was sort of corresponding place here in America, for money and they were incredulous that I would approach them to do a project on graffiti since it was considered a scourge. Also they said they thought the project was too local, that it wasn’t of national interest. It’s ironic because years later the CPB showed Style Wars and that’s where they got the money to [make] Style Wars. That’s one of the little ironies. AllHipHop.com: Was there a working script during filming?Charlie Ahearn: There was definitely characters and there was definitely a story. The way that I shot the film I never made a complete shooting script for the film. What I did was—I’m embarrassed to say this—I would stay up at night before shooting a scene and write the dialogue out. In those days we’re talking about typewriters and there were these sheets that you could put into the typewriter and it would reproduce what you typed, which meant you couldn’t make any mistakes and I would type out the dialogue for each scene the night before we would shoot it. Not a great way to work. [laughing]

What it did do is it lead to a lot of spontaneity and openness. It meant that I could be changing the movie as I was shooting it. Certain people were very good at improvising their scenes. People like Fred had a certain talent to improvise and to add wonderful phrases and things that gave the film a lot more humor and interest.AllHipHop.com: How long did the actual filming take?Charlie Ahearn: Well, we shot for several months in the fall of ’81, then during the winter I had to face the fact that the film was a total disaster.AllHipHop.com: What makes you say that?Charlie Ahearn: We had lots of problems that I had to deal with in terms of script problems, we had a problem with the sound where I decided that the sound wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be. So I basically scrapped all the musical scenes in the movie and re-shot them in the spring. That is the club scenes and the amphitheatre scenes. The scene we shot in the [train] yard, that poured rain the whole night we were there, and Lee wasn’t there. He had decided for whatever reason, you have to ask Lee, but he didn’t show up that night. Maybe it was against his graffiti code or something but he didn’t show up in the yard so I asked DONDI—who was a legendary writer and is no longer with us—DONDI sort of became the extra for the Zorro character. He also several nights later went out and pieced a real Wild Style car which ran in the subway lines. Everything that we re-shot in the spring I thought really helped make the film come alive. AllHipHop.com: During your time in “the scene” how hard was it to gain people’s trust with others around looking to exploit Hip-Hop?Charlie Ahearn: There weren’t too many other people around. Actually there was nobody else around when I was beginning the project. There was nobody around for a really long time [laughing]. You gotta remember that the real media experience that people had in The Bronx was twofold. One, there was a movie called Fort Apache: The Bronx and that movie really pissed people off. It was done in a way that it kind of portrayed people in The Bronx as; they were criminals, they were violent, etcetera. I think it must have been really obvious from people that were around me that I had no interest in that. What we were working on was much more shocking, the idea that you would try to make a movie that was about culture in the South Bronx was completely shocking to people. Ya know, why would you go there for that? What’s of interest in the South Bronx? The other thing that happened around that same time was “Rapper’s Delight.” That was a huge deal to the people that I was in contact [with] in The Bronx because that was sort of in a way the public’s view of Hip-Hop or rap music at that time and I think people in The Bronx felt burned because they weren’t represented. In a way I think they saw what I was doing as an alternative. As a way in which they could actually step right up to me. I was there, on the street. I wasn’t in some company some place. So they could talk to me and I was pretty open and the movie that I was making was trying to represent as broad a picture as possible. I wasn’t concentrating on making one person a star. AllHipHop.com; Before we go forward, how in the world did you rent a train yard?Charlie Ahearn: They wouldn’t let you do it now. There’s no way that would be allowed.AllHipHop.com: Was it cool then?Charlie Ahearn: No, not at all. I convinced the MTA to do this scene and that I would pay. It required about a quarter of the budget of the movie, at least, to do this scene and I had like three hours in the yard that night to do it and I had to pay that money in advance. It poured rain the night that we did it. It was really difficult. I think that maybe I told them it was a documentary and that we were gonna…I’m not going to say what I told them [laughing] but soon after that they no longer were interested in having film crews shoot in the yards. AllHipHop.com: Twenty five years can you recall one moment that you realized “Wow, this film had a big impact.”?Charlie Ahearn: It’s around me all the time. It’s like what I said about going into Virgin [Record Store] and seeing that Tribe Called Quest sweatshirt. I see reflections of the film, or aspects of the film everyday. It’s a hard thing to really describe. I don’t really look at it as a reflection of myself. I think of it as a reflection of that culture. It’s not personal, I guess, is the best way to put it, but I do see it all the time in various ways. I was just in Berlin and I brought a copy of this book of art on the Berlin Wall and I open it and the first page is an image of Wild Style painted on the Berlin Wall. So that kind of thing happens a lot to me. I think the fact that culture has exploded in a bewildering variety of ways—all the way from the most vulgar commercial ways to foreign languages and let’s say East African or South American culture embracing it, I’m talking about Hip-Hop now—there’s times when people want to go back and touch something that seems authentic and seems like the culture’s origins and there isn’t really that much that was really recorded before Wild Style. Although it’s a fictionalized movie, the people in it are totally real and it is kind of ironic that that would be the thing that people would use to represent the origin of the culture since it had been going on for such a long time before we made the movie. There just wasn’t really any significant documentation of it. AllHipHop.com: Ultimately was that the film’s goal? Charlie Ahearn: That was the goal of the film definitely. The goal of the film was to project the culture out into the world. Which is a slightly different goal [than] to document the culture. I think Fred and I always saw ourselves as wanting to project this thing out in the world, which meant to make something as opposed to document something. It’s definitely not a documentary. Like the scene at the amphitheatre. That happened because of everyone that was collected working together on that movie and it’s a kind of community projection, what I think of is toward the future. Any of those scenes, like the basketball scene, it’s a projection of what Hip-Hop could be, or should be, a fantasy. But a street level fantasy, not a corporate fantasy.           

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