To conclude our third annual Summer Music Festival, we’re celebrating the 50th anniversary of hip-hop with Charlie Ahearn’s Wild Style, a fun snapshot of the South Bronx during the ‘80s. Featuring legendary DJ’s like Grandmaster Flash, Grandmaster Caz, and Fab 5 Freddy alongside now-renowned graffiti artist Lee Quiñones in the lead role, Ahearn’s film straddles the line between fiction and documentary, capturing the larger-than-life feel of art and music in New York at the moment of its making.
At the heart of Wild Style is the story of Raymond, a Puerto Rican graffiti artist who goes by “Zoro,” a nod to both the famous masked swordsman and Quiñones’ own reputation as a hard-to-find “underground Picasso.” Having shot in 1981, Ahearn’s film engages with hip-hop (meaning graffiti, MC-ing, breakdancing, and DJ-ing) as a burgeoning popular phenomenon, facing the difficult decision between keeping its spirit local and subversive, or letting itself slip into the mainstream and surrender its edge. Lower East Side icons like Bill Rice (Coffee and Cigarettes, Doomed Love) and Patti Astor (The Foreigner, Underground U.S.A.) work wonders here playing well-intended downtown scenesters looking to share the Bronx’s genius among art circles that defang the art they subsume. At the same time, Ahearn’s inclusion of this cross-borough collision speaks to the solidarity among artists in New York whose encouragement of radical acts throughout the city have sparked and continue to inspire all manner of artistic breakthroughs.
“The graffiti movement didn’t mind jumping tracks, it went across the block. And the whole idea of painting a train that went ‘all-city’ meant that the train would go to ‘all’ neighborhoods.” CHARLIE AHEARN
A first of its kind, Wild Style shows hip-hop before it became a global sensation. “No one called it hip-hop, there wasn’t a name for it,” recalls Ahearn. “People called it an MC Party.” The film captures a time when hip-hop was at the vanguard of art in America as a new and exciting popular cultural movement. The film’s grand finale—an impromptu community concert staged in the dearly-missed East River Park Amphitheater—is evidence of this, stressing hip-hop’s focus on generating moments of mass appeal even if it means breaking a few rules to do so.
Born in Binghamton, NY, in 1951, Charlie Ahearn is a filmmaker invested in “trying to find a way to create a dialogue between the street and the art world.” After participating in the Whitney Museum’s Independent Study Program in 1973, Ahearn made his directorial debut with The Deadly Art of Survival, a low-budget kung fu film set in LES, incorporating elements of hip-hop culture. Having befriended members of the hip-hop scene during the making of his debut, he would go on to direct Wild Style and similarly NY-focused short films featuring famous artists like Martin Wong, Grandmaster Caz, and Busy Bee Starski, as well as subway musicians and neighborhood personalities . In 2002, Ahearn published Yes Yes, Y’all, an oral history of the first decade of hip-hop and throughout 2005 he hosted a weekly internet radio show for the Museum of Modern Art in which he discussed hip-hop with some of the genre’s pioneers, including Afrika Bambaataa and Rammellzee.
Text written by Nicolas Pedrero-Setzer.