From Grandmaster Flash to graffiti, hip-hop's most seminal film is still making waves today
In the late 70s, before WASPy quinoa queen Gwyneth Paltrow took to awkwardly rapping on her mates' talk shows, hip-hop was yet to become a global free-for-all and was little known outside New York's Bronx, where it'd been born with kids spraying graffiti in the subway system. On the cusp of its wider explosion, young Manhattan filmmaker Charlie Ahearn ventured into the housing projects looking for vitality beyond the confines of the white-walled art world, and there made a Super-8 film of young guys doing kung fu.
Fab 5 Freddy of Brooklyn graffiti crew The Fabulous 5 had been eyeing up the gallery scene from the other side of the fence for what it could offer through pop art crossover, and when Ahearn screened his martial arts flick at high-profile art exhibit The Times Square Show, he approached him to collaborate. What resulted was massively influential cult classic Wild Style. The first hip-hop film, it was made on a low budget and released in 1983 (the same year as Run DMC's first single "Sucker MC's"), capturing the new bridge between NYC's uptown hip-hop scene and the downtown art and punk crowd, as graffiti artists expanded from trains onto canvases.
Ahearn wanted to side-step a dry documentary format, and strung a heavily improvised story together. No-one denies the acting in Wild Style is wooden, but the film's very authenticity lies in his use of non-actors, as the scene's main figures basically play themselves in typical situations within a cultural landscape that captures graffiti writing, MCing, breakdancing and turntablism in their earliest manifestations.
Puerto Rican-born graffiti legend Lee Quiñones stars as enigmatic street artist Zoro, who to avoid being busted by the cops keeps his identity hush. The film opens with him and his girlfriend Rose (another major graffiti artist, Sandra "Lady Pink" Fabara) tagging the MTA subway yards at night. Virginia, a bottle-blonde reporter with vintage-store glamour and a striking resemblance to Debbie Harry, rolls into the hood to do a story on the young hip-hop scene. She's played by underground actress Patti Astor, who mirrors her later real-life role connecting street artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat with the downtown art world as the founder of FUN gallery.
Virginia drives Zoro and his friend Phade (Fab 5 Freddy) to a party hosted by art collector Niva Kislac, who flirtatiously sprawls on her bed while commissioning Zoro to paint a canvas of the Manhattan skyline view out her window. Playing in the background is Blondie's song "Rapture" - the first video with rap ever broadcast on MTV, which was inspired by the singer's fascination with the hip-hop scene (check the lyrics "Fab Five Freddie told me everybody's fly"). As Zoro launches into his commission, Rose is the sassy voice of skepticism, worried he's selling out and getting dazzled by entrepreneurs wanting a piece of him.
“Unimpressed by the prop pistol Ahern offered them - they pulled out their own sawn-off shotgun"
The South Bronx at that time was a desolate wasteland of abandoned buildings that Blondie guitarist Chris Stein, who worked on the film's soundtrack, has said looked like Dresden after wartime firebombing. Ahearn took his camera into parties to shoot, consciously setting the upbeat mood of Wild Style against films such as gritty and cynical crime melodrama Fort Apache: The Bronx, which had come out the year before. Featuring Pam Grier as a hooker, it had riled the local community with its miserabilist depiction of blacks and Puerto Ricans as the inhabitants of a decayed, drug-and-gang-ridden urban hellhole.
Fab 5 Freddy's interest in an Ahearn project was partly as a legitimising vehicle that might curtail negative press and stereotyping of the hood, as well as helping to leverage a coherent street movement that eventually was to form the blueprint for artists like Shepard Fairey and Banksy. The riskier side of the Bronx still peeks through in Wild Style. Having enlisted a few hard-looking characters on the spot to play stick-up kids, Ahearn was taken aback when - unimpressed by the prop pistol he offered them - they pulled out their own sawn-off shotgun to use for the scene. Still playing it light, the film is up-close, human and there to be identified with.
At the end of the day, no-one can argue with a film loaded with priceless moments from pioneers - from Grandmaster Flash scratching and mixing on old turntables in a kitchen to the Cold Crush Brothers rapping and the Rock Steady Crew busting b-boy moves. Wild Style introduced hip-hop to Japan. It had its basketball battle and stoop-rap scenes remade for Sprite commercials. It spawned a raft of commercial cinematic rip-offs from Beat Street onwards, and it's been sampled by The Beastie Boys, Cypress Hill, Nas and De La Soul. In other words, in a legacy too vast to easily sum up, it's been both milked by moneymakers, and inspired its like.