I like to think that hip-hop made its first tentative steps onto the national stage in 1983, fed by ragged inner-city neighborhoods and enabled by then-exploding MTV’s sudden embrace of black artists. Breakdancing revealed itself to clueless suburban me in Gladys Knight’s(!) video for “Save the Overtime for Me”, and, just months later, the “B” films Breakin’ and Beat Street would attract Gen X filmgoers across the country.
Two other films, however, would precede those cult faves: the PBS documentary Style Wars, and the recipient of a new deluxe DVD package, Wild Style, which wowed festival audiences and generated lines around the block at one Broadway cinema.
Produced, written, and directed by the enterprising Charlie Ahearn, the film is set amidst the crumbling, notoriously desolate tenements of the South Bronx at a time when “the Bronx” was shorthand for postwar urban horror; those of a certain age will remember comedian Robert Klein’s satirical ’80s ditty “The Bronx Is Beautiful”, or the gritty NewYorksploitation flick Fort Apache: The Bronx, depicting a bleak hellscape of homicidal streetwalkers and marauding gangbangers.
Ahearn’s film explores a different aspect of living in such an environment, peeking past the ruins, daring to suggest that something artistically vibrant is brewing there, something locals pursue as exuberantly as Tony Manero escaped into disco fever at Odyssey, a few bridges(or tunnels) south.
For whatever reasons, I’d always imagined Wild Style to be a documentary, but in fact, it’s a narrative, with a timeworn and inconsequential plot. I say this because the editing and cinematography definitely evoke a naturalistic, “you are there” feel, so the film becomes a document of a particular era and milieu that doesn’t really exist in today’s gentrified Big Apple – yes, even in the once-Babylonian Bronx.
Shot in tight 16mm, the opening credits bring to mind low-tech animated student shorts, with a patched-together feel appropriate to the DIY spirit that reigned during the formative years of hip-hop, when no one – least of all its proponents – would have guessed that one day B-boy culture would circle the globe.
We quickly meet “Zoro” or Raymond(Lee Quinones), a Nuyorican graffiti artist resistant to his work being co-opted by employment schemes, but nonetheless eager to earn some bread and escape joblessness. Zoro’s clique reflects the easy camaraderie that exists – hopefully still today – between African-Americans and the offspring of Puerto Rican immigrants in the New York ghettos, and in fact, both groups contributed to rap music in its early stages. Thus, the enmity between white ethnic New Yorkers and Puerto Ricans presented in the tragic-romantic West Side Story is noticeably absent here.
Ahearn’s exposition emphasizes the slice-of-life unpredictability of Zoro’s neighborhood. A basketball game evolves into a musically verbal duel of one-upmanship, while various kids, seemingly with plenty of time on their hands, ‘decorate’ their surroundings with writings/drawings of varying creativity. This insular, living-for-the-moment existence is interrupted by an interloper; a young white female Manhattanite driving into the Bronx ‘hoods.
After her car fails, she’s approached by a claque of extroverted black youths – shades of The Bonfire of the Vanities, but somehow I doubt Tom Wolfe has ever seen Wild Style. Frightened, she reacts with mild hostility. The boys defuse this with humorous amity, and we learn that she’s a reporter, curious about this aggressive new sound emanating from their much-dismissed borough.
This reporter, Virginia, is played by Patti Astor, herself the doyenne of a thriving ’80s underground art scene in Lower Manhattan. Her appearance foreshadows a coming fascination – work on Wild Style began in 1980 – among the tony elite of Upper Manhattan with the artworks of those from the wrong side of the tracks. This interest was faddish in nature and would soon crest, but it brought attention to many talented individuals.
The music, of course, has a more lasting effect. Perhaps Virginia is a stand-in, of sorts, for Blondie’s Deborah Harry, who took a vigorous interest in rap music and urban street culture, which resulted in her band’s #1 single “Rapture”, which topped the Hot 100 in 1981. In fact, there are photos of Harry in the colorful 48 page booklet included in this DVD package. Introduced to the scene by Fab 5 Freddy(also a star of this film), the band included him and assorted other hipsters in the tune’s promo video, and the cross-pollination continues with Ahearn’s first onscreen shot of Virginia, underscored by Blondie’s “Pretty Baby”.
Finally, Chris Stein composed much of the score. Of course, in real life, Astor was a conduit between the B-boys and the “A” crowd.
There’s an inevitable sequence in which the Bronx boys meet the Manhattan art set, and this all goes rather smoothly. Raymond meets the lovely Niva (Niva Kislac), paints a portrait of Manhattan’s skyline, and explains the hip-hop aesthetic to his new friends. His world is light years away from the go-go ’80s money culture beginning to coalesce, but change was on the horizon, and some of those from his neck of the woods would get to participate. The simple act of painting those gleaming towers of capitalism seems to suggest that Raymond is being drawn into a world alien to his upbringing.
In the fashion of a Golden Age Hollywood musical, the story builds to an elaborate planned show, set to take place at a local park’s outdoor amphitheater. The show itself is rather anti-climatic after all we’ve seen, but the narrative demands a jubilant coda, so there you have it.
Extras in this home video release are overflowing, perhaps excessive, but I suppose too much is preferable to too little, particularly among hardcore aficionados. Both discs feature additional material, although the wording on Disc 1 seems to indicate otherwise. The theatrical trailer is, unlike so many today, thankfully brief, and immediately establishes a “B movie” aesthetic.
Then we have a photo gallery, with pics from Blondie’s “Rapture” shoot, Wild Style’s 1983 Japan Tour, and Quinones’ Howard The Duck mural, completed in 1979. Also recent interviews with participants, including the still-vivacious Lady Pink(Sandra Fabara, who staked a claim in a decidedly male demimonde), Busy Bee, Rodney C, and the Cold Crush Brothers. Pull up a chair; I’ve not yet finished with Disc 1.
We also get a series of filmed musical shorts, with “Bongo Barbershop” featuring the Tanzanian rapper Balozi Dola, the 20th-anniversary reunion. This is set at the same amphitheater used in the film, although the audience is much paler, and a clip from a Toronto show on the 2007 reunion jaunt, the rappers noticeably grayer and heavier than in their salad days.
Ahh…on to Disc 2! More musical shorts are offered, including “Busy on the Autobahn”, which presents a Berlin Wall festooned with graffiti, a German tour manager rapping in his native tongue, and MC Seb, a Copenhagen-based rapper performing in Danish(!). That’s more confirmation of rap’s international reach, if that’s needed at this point.
Additional interviews are also featured, including Fred Brathwaite(Fab 5 Freddy), Quinones, Busy Bee again, but the longest is with Charlie Ahearn himself. Ahearn isn’t a native of NYC, but rather, hails from the upstate college burg of Binghamton. He never attended film school, but fell in love with Super-8, and began filming B-boys as early as 1977. Intriguingly, he claims that “hip-hop is kind of a Jamaican art form”, and one could draw some parallels between rap and that Caribbean nation’s ska and toasting; it’s also true that some of the prominent early rappers were of West Indian heritage. Let’s remember, too, that those genres also originated among the poor or working class. Ahearn also mentions that disaffected Turkish-descended youth living in Germany embraced Wild Style.
Wild Style succeeds as an audiovisual invitation to a party that no longer exists. The copious graffiti that blanketed New York when Ahearn began shooting is mostly gone, and hip-hop belongs to the world, not merely to the Bronx’s children of concrete and asphalt.
A couple of ironies must be mentioned. First, Wild Style‘s documentary look is belied by the fact that gang warfare and conflicts with New York’s Finest are both conspicuously absent. I guess the dearth of cops onscreen could be interpreted as a metaphor for municipal abandonment of the South Bronx. However, the lack of violent criminality hints at the second irony: Wild Style, in its narrative arrangement, is a traditional screen musical. There’s a romance, multiple dance numbers, and finally, the kids put on a show!
Bloodletting would muddy this fairy tale. Yet, there’s nothing glossy about the film, so it remains an engaging hybrid of studio-era Hollywood amusement and macho B-boy rebel theatrics. As such, it may be the only feature-length film of its kind. If you want to see the origins of hip-hop, Wild Style is a great starting point.