Few things in life can me feel both incredibly young and incredibly old at the same time the way hip-hop does. Although it would be easy to argue that I'm not exactly a "first generation" hip-hop head, I first fell in love with the culture around 1981, mesmerized by the sights and sounds coming out of New York. By the time Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five released "The Message" in 1982, I was a diehard hip-hop fan. Sometimes, however, I forget what an integral part of my life hip-hop has been, how it defined much of my youth--practicing breakdance moves on big pieces of cardboard, planning elaborate graffiti murals, and trying to perfect my MC skills. But watching the 25th anniversary edition of Wild Style, the seminal film about hip-hop, I was reminded how incredible the artistic cultural movement that was born in the streets of New York really was, and it brought back the great memories of being around to witness the early days of what has become a global phenomenon.
Wild Style first screened in New York City in 1982. Had the world not embraced hip-hop as it did, or at least elements of hip-hop, then the film itself would most likely be little more than a forgotten curiosity from the annals of 42nd Street cinematic history. But that was not the case, as the world eventually did take to what was so-frequently called a passing fad. And as a result of the hip-hop's ascension from underground cultural phenomenon to global commodity, the rough-around-the-edges movie Wild Style has gone on to become a time capsule testimony of how things used to be.
Produced for almost no money, and starring no one that was known outside of their neighborhoods and the underground art scene of New York, Wild Style simply and honestly set out to show what was going on artistically in the poor black and Puerto Rican communities of the city. What little plot there was centered around graffiti artist Zoro, legendary NYC graffiti artist Lee Quinones playing a character very much like himself, who struggles with personal and creative conflicts in his life. Impresario and all-around smooth talker Phade (Fab 5 Freddy) wants to help Zoro and the other underground artists get their work exposed to the rest of the world. This simple premise allows the film to introduce a who's who of iconic hip-hop figures that includes breakdancers, DJs, MCs, and graffiti writers.
To look at Wild Style simply through the eyes of a casual viewer or an uninformed critic, is to miss the film for all of its brilliance. Instead, to fully appreciate the film for what it is, Wild Style must be watched from a historical point-of-view. Admittedly, as a movie it has problems. But as a marker of history, capturing a specific time and place, it stands alone (the notable exception being the documentary Style Wars). What this film does--and does so brilliantly--is document the world of hip-hop before most people even knew what hip-hop was. To that end, Wild Style has more in common with French cinema verite and Italian neo-realism than the exploitation flicks screening in Times Square that it was trying to emulate.
Directed and written by Charlie Ahearn, Wild Style was the result of his and producer Fab 5 Freddy's desire to make a movie about what was going on in places like the Bronx and Brooklyn, where DJs like Grandmaster Flash and Grand Mixer DXT were pioneering scratching and cutting, and MCs like Grandmaster Caz and Chief Rocker Busy Bee were laying the groundwork for all the rappers who would follow. Ahearn had made a name for himself with the shot-on-Super 8 kung-fu flick, The Deadly Art of Survival, a largely forgotten film that is crucial in the history of cinema in that it was the bridge between the kung fu and blaxploitation films of the 1970s, and the hip-hop movement of the 1980s.
Wild Style co-star and producer Fab 5 Freddy (a.k.a. Fred Braithwaite) was already a well-known fixture in both the world of hip-hop and the punk/new wave scene of New York in the 1970s. Fab 5 had already been immortalized in Blondie's song "Rapture," and by the late 1980s he was known to the world as the host of Yo! MTV Raps. Together with Ahearn and the rest of the Wild Style cast and crew, Fab 5 Freddy managed to capture lightning in a bottle. What is interesting about the film, and what many people don't realize is that it was made about a year or so after hip-hop had actually moved out of the ghetto, meaning that the "story" of the film itself is more of a dramatic re-creation than anything else, while at the same time the movie is also a documentary of what life was like back then. The incredible photography of Clive Davidson and John Foster has immortalized the world as it was back then. To see the Bronx as it was then, a burned-out no man's land of rubble and tenement apartments, where poverty was the only reality, is to see the world from which hip-hop was born. To see Chief Rocker Busy Bee on the mic, or to see the legendary dancers like Mr. Wiggles, is to see the true roots of the culture. Other films of the 1980s attempted to recreate the scene, but only Wild Style captured that world and became an integral part of it, as opposed to an outsider's glimpse of it.
Wild Style possesses heart and soul, and is brimming with so much honesty that it is more "real" than some documentaries. Sure, some of the acting is rough, and the movie has the jagged look of guerilla filmmaking from the furthest fringes of underground cinema. But the film has an honesty that can't be denied, which has created a legacy that has endured.