Considering its status as a founding document of one of the twentieth century’s defining cultural phenomena, it would be easy to forget Wild Style’s origins in the high art ferment of New York’s 1980s Downtown scene. Sampled and interpolated for decades by everyone from “conscious” rap standard bearers Black Star to commercial giants like the Beastie Boys, Charlie Ahearn’s 1983 film—which screens in the Walker Cinema April 30 as part of the series Downtown New York: 1970s and 1980s Art and Film—serves as a creation myth for a culture that reconfigured popular aesthetics and birthed one of the most ubiquitous musical styles in the world. Yet both project and filmmaker display deep roots in a particular cinematic moment, when consumer-grade technology democratized filmmaking craft and a group of DIY Manhattan artists set out to depict their world.
During the 1970s and ’80s, low rents in the historically working-class neighborhoods of Lower Manhattan attracted artists of all stripes, generating punk, New Wave, an innovative loft performance scene, and the first establishment-vetted street art. Alongside these innovations in the fields of music and the plastic arts came a renewed interest among artists in filmmaking. This group included Amos Poe, Vivienne Dick, James Nares, Lizzie Borden, and Ericka Beckman, among others. With the advent of cheap, single-system Super 8 cameras—or, in Ahearn’s case, a 16mm Bolex—many of these artists, frequently with no formal filmmaking training, found themselves able to make feature-length, narrative films with minimal crew and a miniscule budget. In general, these films weren’t intended for large-scale distribution, but rather peer review, starring minor celebrities from the local art scene and shown in independent venues like the New Cinema on St. Mark’s Place.
In her book The (Moving) Pictures Generation: The Cinematic Impulse in Downtown New York Art and Film, Vera Dika traces a loose movement towards exploring the “cinematic” among the practices of several artists working within the context of “Downtown New York” starting in the ’70s. Dika primarily situates these artists’ work in response to that of Andy Warhol—whose films (notably the Screen Tests shot between 1964 and 1966) appropriate Hollywood tropes to their own ends—and the formal experiments of the mid-century avant-garde. While many of the artists working in the Downtown scene borrowed from Warhol’s parody and appropriation, as well as the practical and critical examples of the avant-garde, this new generation was less interested in critiquing the pop ideologies promoted on TV and film or engaging in postmodern deconstructions of film medium and practice. Rather, as Dika contends, the Downtown filmmakers’ project is one of “reanimation” or “return,” in which “cinematic concerns are readdressed, and Warhol’s work, as well as that of other pertinent artists, is often reevaluated or critiqued.” The Downtown artists of the ’70s and ’80s are notable for their move away from avant-garde abstraction and towards representative images, with a widespread re-engagement with narrative—as if, having spied the limits of the confrontational, conceptual work of the preceding generation, they felt compelled to submit these very reference points to the same spirit of scrutiny in which they were made. The resulting films are tongue-in-cheek and abrasively meta—the product of the same culture that birthed punk and its progeny—bearing layered references to previous film movements that often spill into humorous, chaotic parody.
Ahearn, who moved to New York City in 1973 to participate in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Studio Program, was a singular presence within this ironic, even antagonistic milieu, a sincere and inquisitive cultural explorer who was deeply familiar with, yet skeptical of, the Downtown scene. Like many of his contemporaries, Ahearn was inspired by the DIY ethic and palpably durational quality of early Warhol. Yet, his feature films marked a strong departure from contemporary projects, both in his embrace of non-ironic narrative and his willingness to take the camera outside the insular world of Manhattan art, which he described as “a kind of apartheid.”
In the late ’70s, Ahearn became involved in the artists’ group Collaborative Projects (or, simply, Colab), a loose collection of artists with a shared interest in political and activist art. As part of Colab, Ahearn helped produce All Color News, a reportage program made in a cinéma vérité style that broadcast images from the New York streets over public access TV. This kind of experimentation soon led him onto the turf of his Wild Style star Lee Quinones: the Alfred E. Smith Houses, where he would shoot 16mm films of residential life and return a week later to project them on the walls of the project. When a group of neighborhood kids asked him to make a kung fu movie based around the martial arts school where they studied, Ahearn happily agreed, initiating an ad hoc community collaboration that would result in his first feature: The Deadly Art of Survival (1979).
“It wasn’t a political process in the sense that we were joining political parties and going to protests. But it was definitely stepping outside the art world and making things independently that in some way reflected the outside world,” Ahearn told me. “[This] later came to things like the Real Estate Show or the Times Square Show, which combined aspects of art-making with ideas about opening up the subject matter and the venue and the audience for art, which is something I was very interested in doing.”
It was at the Times Square Art Show, a huge 1980 exhibition organized by Colab, that the seeds for Wild Style were initially planted. Intrigued by the posters for The Deadly Art of Survival that he’d seen around town, Fab 5 Freddy (Fred Brathwaite)—the graffiti artist, rapper, and general Downtown scenester who would go on to produce and co-star in Wild Style—introduced himself to Ahearn and mentioned his desire to make a film that combined the graffiti scene with the culture of rap, breakdance, and DJ work that was blossoming in the South Bronx. A Brooklyn native, Brathwaite had already begun to cultivate connections within the hip-hop world, including a friendship with the graffiti artist Quinones (whom Ahearn admired, but had met only briefly), and over the following year, he and Ahearn immersed themselves in this culture, attending hip-hop parties in the Bronx and getting to know the people and places that would eventually populate their film. Shot in 1981 and edited over the following two years, Wild Style received a nationwide release—the exception among the early Downtown film oeuvre—in November of 1983.
Although it is commonly regarded as a sort of time capsule, in addition to its documentary riches—lengthy performances by Cold Crush Bros and Grandmaster Flash, breakdancing from the Rock Steady Crew, graffiti footage from the train-bombing renaissance of the early street scene—Wild Style also offers a coherent, if somewhat itinerant, story, one that displays a striking prescience regarding the themes that would define the film’s legacy. Quinones—already somewhat known in the gallery world, having shown at White Columns in New York and Galleria La Medusa in Rome—plays a graffiti writer with the tag name Zoro, an outlaw of the South Bronx street scene, equally skeptical of his peers—led by an estranged love interest (played by the graffiti writer Lady Pink)—and the various representatives of the high art world who seek to promote (and perhaps exploit) his talent. These tentative encounters with fame and fortune make up the film’s narrative backbone, and in the outdoor concert that serves as the film’s climax—performed on a stage decorated with a giant Zoro mural—Ahearn offers an alternative to the potentially problematic assimilation of street culture into the artistic mainstream.
“What I was trying to do in the movie is to create a series of audiences,” Ahearn said: affluent art collectors at a Manhattan party, a genuinely interested, if slightly clueless, journalist researching the graffiti scene (played by Downtown film veteran Patti Astor), and the mostly black and Latino crowds who gather for the community concert at the end. “I was trying to have [Lee] express the idea that through hip-hop and graffiti there was a transformation of communities. And that that was a really positive thing.”
Over the following decade, the fate of both Wild Style and the hip-hop culture it so lovingly depicted was decidedly less utopian than how Ahearn had envisioned it. Breakdancing, fueled by international exposure to Wild Style and subsequent films including Style Wars (1983), experienced a fad period in the mid-’80s, but faded from the spotlight. While some graffiti artists—among them Quinones and Lady Pink—built lasting careers, the era’s true stars were Downtown artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring who incorporated tropes of street graffiti into a conceptual practice firmly rooted in existing fine arts narratives. Meanwhile, buoyed by acts like Run-DMC, LL Cool J, and the Beastie Boys, hip-hop music marked a steady ascent towards the pop status it retains to this day, Wild Style’s pioneers largely forgotten by the grim logic of an increasingly profitable industry. Meanwhile, Ahearn’s film—which failed to garner a significant audience outside of New York—faded from the cultural memory without a home video release. For the director, the rest of the decade is epitomized by the fate of Keef Cowboy (Keith Wiggins), a founding member of the highly influential Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, who died in relative obscurity in 1989 after years of crack addiction.
But true to DJ culture’s tendency to recycle and repurpose, Wild Style’s story was far from over. At the start of the 1990s, references to the film began to reappear in rap music. Most notable among these is “Genesis,” the opening track of Nas’s Illmatic record, widely considered one of the best rap albums of all time. Sampling DJ Grand Wizard Theodore’s “Subway Theme” from the Wild Style soundtrack and featuring dialogue from the film, Nas’s biblically-titled introduction cemented Ahearn’s modest film within the origin story of what is arguably the most influential musical genre today. In the end, hip-hop saves itself.