Charlie Ahearn didn’t invent hip hop, but as director of the landmark film Wild Style, he helped bring it to life.
As a young filmmaker in late 1970s New York, he found an intriguing subject in the emerging street culture that had diffused out of uptown Bronx park jams and into the downtown club scene, a loose artistic movement characterized by outsized personalities like graffitti artist Lee Quinones, DJs like Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash, and jack-of-all-trades Fred ‘Fab 5 Freddy’ Brathwaite. The film’s production echoed hip hop itself: working with plenty of passion and little money, Ahearn and his collaborators captured something real, urgent and beautiful coming out of the ghettos of America’s biggest city.
Ahead of a screening at the Brattle, at which he’ll also be showing several of his hip hop related short films, Ahearn talked about the sights, sounds and personalities he encountered while immersed in New York’s emerging artistic movement 32 years ago.
After a brief exchange about Ahearn’s experience shooting a short film with Busy Bee in Baltimore, we get started…
How did what you saw in Baltimore compare to the Bronx in the late 70s and early 80s?
I did want to emphasize that it seemed very hard. That’s from 25 years of experience of hanging around some pretty hard neighborhoods. Just the feeling of… this is basically a place to deal drugs and there was very little sense of family life. I wouldn’t say that I felt…I felt safe there because I was with Busy Bee. I don’t tend to go hang out in places unless I’m with someone who knows what they’re doing and knows people. That experience opens up the doors to experiencing it in another way. In this case, all these guys that were out there were all friends of Busy Bee, so it was very open. I could see like half a block away, there would be a police car just parked there. It wasn’t a friendly presence.
You recently gave a large portion of your personal archive to Cornell. Why was that important to you?
It’s a very deliberate thing. I’ve been archiving material not just from Wild Style but things from that period, from ’77 and on. There’s lots of videos from Lee Quinones’s neighborhood. I shot a Super 8 kung fu movie called The Deadly Art of Survival that took place in Lee’s neighborhood. I really established myself there so that Fred was looking for me, because he was developing ideas with Lee and the next step was to talk to me. It pretty rapidly evolved from that into Wild Style.
As someone coming from outside that environment, how did you gain the trust of the people involved, mainly Fab 5 Freddy and Lee Quinones?
The thing with Lee goes back into the 70s, and Fred was developing a friendship with Lee around 78-79. It was almost like we were three corners of a triangle that were not yet connected, and Lee was sort of the center point. The spark was a meeting between Fred and myself at the Times Square show [of The Deadly Art of Survival] which happened in June 1980. Fred and I had been hanging out in clubs like the Mud Club and places like that, but we weren’t actually introduced to each other until he came up and introduced himself to me. From then on, it was wide open. It was very fast and I spent every weekend going to clubs.
The thing is people were very open because they perceived me as real, like I was really making something, and people wanted to be part of it. They wanted to get in on the ground floor of what seemed to be happening. At first they thought I was a cop, and once they got past that they thought I must be a real filmmaker, because if not what was I doing? I was too old, I was white, I didn’t fit in so people didn’t know what to make of me. Fairly soon, the word got out that I was making a film and people were very interested in inviting me to come over to their place to hangout or giving me flyers to their future shows, and each flyer introduced me to five new people. I was taking pictures while I was going around, and then after that I was bringing around a slide projector, and setting it up and showing images of people I had been documenting. People would call me ‘Charlie Video’ and it would set up a kind of expectation like they were watching a movie and they were the stars, which in their minds was true, and then that became Wild Style.
So this was a connection that was very organic, and it was real because I was there. I didn’t just show up and then go away and come back a year later. I was there every weekend, everybody knew me. I wasn’t putting out ads for it, I was doing it on a one-to-one basis, and the people that would appear in the slide show were the people I was hanging out with. There was no map to say this group is important and this group isn’t. You just felt it. And the flyers had lots of information on them. Someone hands you a flyer and it has the address of another club and who’s going to perform, a week later. Sometimes Fred would go with me and sometimes I would just show up. But I’d go to a place where I already knew people there, and they would welcome me in and I would hang with them. It would be part of the scene.
Outside of New York, one of the biggest things we hear about regarding the city these days is economic inequality, or ‘two New Yorks.’ The period around Wild Style seemed to thrive on the ability of the uptown and downtown cultures to mix, with clubs being a central point of exchange as you mentioned. Is that no longer true?
This is a big subject, but I would say that the birth of hip hop was an economic strategy. It was an economy at the lowest level but it was one that worked for people that kept to it and were good at it. Starting with the DJ culture, with people like Herc and Bambaataa, and the MCs became the way to help keep the party alive, but it was an economy. In other words, the people performing, even through they were charging just two dollars a head at the door, if at the end of the day they had $200 in cash, that was a lot more money than what they didn’t have. They took that and they bought more records or they got materials to build another speaker. That’s what I would call building an economy that works. And the graffiti world is a different thing. that was not building an economy. What that was doing on another level was building something else, which was a whole network culture that had to do with becoming famous. And that did work on that level, even though no one was making money from that. These were things that worked for people, and that’s why they became so important, and why it spread.
That economy doesn’t work today. There isn’t the same…In the past, they would let’s say have a hip hop party in a high school gymnasium. They would charge two dollars a head and 400 people would come in, if that was an amazingly good party. Let’s say 200 people came in, that’s $400, which is an enormous amount of money. No, they aren’t super stars, but for their neighborhoods, they were successful. This predates them making records. For the gestation period, which lasted four to five years, you had a DJ culture that was developing MCs, and they were making money and creating a whole popular clientele that was showing up and that takes a lot of time. It doesn’t come out of anything, you need a community that’s built around that. After ’84 or so, people went out on tours and put out records and it became something else but it was no longer a local economy. Those people couldn’t go back and perform at a high school, and its very possible even if they did that no one would pay money to get in. It didn’t work any longer. That’s a whole other subject.
How did the popularity and legacy of Wild Style affect the rest of your career? What other projects were you pursuing at the time?
I had an idea for a hip hop kung fu movie, which I wanted to do in the early 80s, which did not get made for various reasons. It’s a long subject, but at a certain point, I decided there was a point where the equipment was getting cheaper and cheaper and more accessible, and I had at my disposal fairly nice cameras to shoot with and a good editing system, and I found I could produce my own movies without going to people to raise money. I made a documentary called Jamel Shabazz: Street Photographer‘, which I worked on for ten years. Before that, I was making films in Times Square, I was making short films that could be very hard hitting and very hardcore without trying to fit into a system. I’m very happy to have some of these films that I can show them to you next week.
I’ll tell you about my most recent film [Dirt Style]… I went to Paris to show the Jamel Shabazz movie and this guy showed up at one of the final parties, he was African and he was very excited to meet me because he said Wild Style changed his life and he was a graffiti artist. So I said, ‘You paint walls?’ And he said, ‘No, I paint the Metro.’ I was very skeptical and I asked him to show me pictures, because I hadn’t seen that much on the Metro. He said, ‘No, I’ll take you there, I’m going to show you.’ This was a lot to bite off because i was leaving the next morning, and here was this guy who was obviously drunk, was about 6’2”, and wanted to meet me somewhere in the north of Paris sometime after the subway closed down. I decided to go anyway despite the craziness and the risk and went out with a camera that I’m very happy to shoot with that fits in my pocket and we broke in and spent four hours in the metro running around in tunnels. I’m going to show the movie that i made that night. It’s very radical and it’s very funny.
I have other films that I also shot this year that I can show. In other words, I would like to blow people’s minds, to open them up to what is happening. I love Wild Style and I’m happy to show it to everybody, and that’s why people are coming, but I’m going to show them some other things that are maybe outside of your experience.
How often do you show Wild Style these days?
Sometimes I like to show it and show new material with it. I don’t necessarily sit in the audience watching it. There’s always younger people who haven’t seen it, or haven’t seen it with an audience, so I think it’s great that people see it but I don’t necessarily have to see it. This is a very special offer to go to Boston because of Brian Coleman and the work that he did last year on this Wild Style breakbeat LP box set thing, I think this is an interesting offer and I think that he will probably be able to pull people in that have that interest. Usually I find that if people are interested in seeing Wild Style, there are a lot of other things behind it. It’s not an isolated thing, it’s something that is often people’s first association with hip hop. They see it when they are very young, because it’s something you can see on a video. Even when people first experienced Wild Style 30 years ago, for many people it was their first real experience with the culture. So, people do have that association. But often people have very complicated and complex relationships to hip hop, those are the kind of people that I get along with and can talk to, because there’s a lot too it and I can bring a lot of other stuff to the table. That’s why it’s interesting for me to come and do this.
How did you feel about the way Hollywood interpreted the early days of hip hop with post-Wild Style movies like Beat Street?
There were a number of big budget attempts to portray hip hop, and in many ways those were influenced by the fact that Wild Style was there as a kind of model for what it meant. Initially, it took us a long time because we were a small film without a big studio behind it. By the time we actually got to the theatre, Beat Street was coming. In the beginning was a kind of competition, but in the long run it’s not.
That had a lot stronger distribution, so in a way, Wild Style was initially the first thing people had ever heard of. By 1984, Beat Street had come out and they were being compared. Interestingly enough, Style Wars was not really compared to Wild Style. People get them confused because the titles are related, it was more compared to a film like Beat Street or one of those Cannon movies [Breakin’, Breakin’ 2: Electric Bugaloo, Rappin’]. Whereas Style Wars came out and was shown on television and wasn’t showed in a theatre for like 30 years. So it wasn’t in the same world, in a way. Likewise, Wild Style went out to places, was distributed in 35mm in every territory around the world. A lot of kids saw Wild Style before they had even heard of hip hop. It sort of went out very early for a lot of people around the world. It’s only retroactively that it gets compared to a lot of these different things.
CHARLIE AHEARN & WILD STYLE. THURS 1.29 BRATTLE THEATRE, 40 BRATTLE ST., CAMBRIDGE 617.876.6838. 7:30pm/$12. brattlefilm.org.