On March 18, 1983, low budget hip-hop movie Wild Style was released on home video for the first time. The film – widely considered the first to document New York’s emerging hip-hop scene – would quickly become a “must watch” for would-be breakdancers, MCs, DJs and graffiti artists around the world.
The man behind the movie, artist-turned-director Charlie Ahearn, had been doing his bit to document the scene since the tail end of the 1970s. As he reveals in this interview with DJ History’s Bill Brewster, Ahearn was one the first members of the downtown art scene to regularly travel to the Bronx, not only to attend clubs, but also to show his Super 8 films and photographs.
By 1981, he was ready to make Wild Style with the assistance of Fab Five Freddy, a key link between New York’s art and hip-hop scenes, and a bulging cast of early hip-hop movers and shakers. When he met Bill Brewster in March 2001, Ahearn opened up about his journey from punk loving artist to hip-hop documentarian, the scene’s move downtown and the making of his now iconic film.
Were graffiti and rapping and breakdancing as interrelated as everyone thinks?
To this day, I don’t think there’s a clear answer. Now they’re interrelated because people have been saying so for 20 years. But that’s okay. That’s how culture happens. You can decide on culture. It’s 20 years old in that regard, so that’s plenty of time. What’s important is that now they’re considered a unified culture. Certainly at that time there was nothing you could look at in a magazine and say, “There is a culture, it’s called hip-hop.” I wouldn’t read this in a magazine and go, “Mmm, based on that, I must go and do this film.” I can’t imagine that.
How did you first come in contact with it, then? Were you a club-goer or record collector?
Everybody was a club-goer at that point. It was the ’70s. I grew up in upstate New York. I came to New York in 1973. I was involved with art groups. I was part of the art community here in New York. In the mid-’70s, there was a movement among artists to get the hell out of art galleries and to go somewhere else. A lot of artists went to CBGBs and the Mudd Club and a number of other downtown clubs that were less well-known.
The River Club, a few others, there were a lot of small pocket clubs. People would give slideshows or Super 8 film shows in the clubs. At that point I was considered more of an artist than a filmmaker. Well, I was sort of both. So as an artist I would go in and do slideshows or show films in clubs all the time.
What sort of clubs? Dance clubs or not?
Well... Studio 54 I never even went to. That was considered, to me, like a whole different thing. I wasn’t interested in disco per se. It was more the interaction between the punk scene and the art scene and the club scene.
Did you ever go to the more underground disco clubs downtown, like the Gallery or the Loft?
I’ve never heard of those. I used to go to the Paradise Garage later, but the reason I went there was because I knew Keith Haring. I wouldn’t have been going there and just taking my shirt off. It just wasn’t my scene. He would give parties there and I would go then. But I wouldn’t just be there. I wasn’t into going clubbing until four or five o’clock in the morning.
Where was your intersection with hip-hop?
I was involved with an artist group called Co Lab. In 1980, they did a big art show in Times Square in an abandoned massage parlor. It was called the Times Square Show and there were films in these three rooms, and it was where prostitutes would hang out. There was art on the walls and activities every single night, like slideshows, dancers, things going on throughout the building. Previous to that, I had spent three years as a filmmaker trying to gain a foothold into what I saw as the outer reaches. For artists at that time it was all about exploring the outer reaches, in other words to get away from the galleries.
The thing I was interested in was the projects: the ghetto, let’s put it like that. I was interested in black and Puerto Rican culture as a place to make a beachhead and make film projects in that environment. I wasn’t alone in that. There were other people that I knew who were going in that direction. I have an identical twin brother and he’s spent 20 years in the South Bronx.
In ’77 and ’78 I was trying to find a way to establish some kind of new cinema idea. I thought of it as kind of like Andy Warhol and the Factory.
I made a kung fu movie called The Deadly Art of Survival. It was shot with black and Puerto Rican kids in the projects and it contained a lot of the elements of hip-hop – the musical elements of hip-hop. So ’77 and ’78 I was trying to find a way to establish some kind of new cinema idea. I thought of it as kind of like Andy Warhol and the Factory, which was a completely non-gallery arena. I made this movie called The Deadly Art of Survival and it was finished in 1979. I used to go to housing projects–
In the Bronx?
No, the Lower East Side. But I did go up to the Bronx and I would go with performers, with these kids. We’d bring a Super 8 projector and these kids would do a live performance and I would show The Deadly Art of Survival. And I would show it on the only print that I had, which was on Super 8. I would hand out leaflets and it was this whole thing.
I was aware at this time of the graffiti movement and – no one called it hip-hop, there wasn’t a name for it – people called it an MC party. That’s what people referred to it as. When I was in the Lower East Side, there were all of these murals all over, which were done by one artist who I really admired, Lee Quinoñes. I really wanted to work with him. But he was really hard to find. He was like this underground Picasso character. What I found amazing was all the kids that were like 12 and 14 years old, they were all completely in awe of this guy as an artist. And the galleries had no idea he even existed. All of the city knew of him, and I thought that was really interesting.
Then in the summer of 1980, I was showing the kung fu movie I made and Fab Five Freddy came to the screening. He said, “I’ve been looking for you, but I thought you were black.” He wanted to get together with me and make a movie. So he learned that I was really interested in Lee. He said, “I work with Lee, I’m good friends with Lee. I’ll bring him tomorrow.” And I said, “If you bring Lee, I’ll give you $50 and you can put a big graffiti mural out.” Which they did. And when they came, we were like, “OK, let’s make a movie together.” That was June of 1980.
By July, Fred and I were out going to jams. The first I went to was a jam in a place called The Valley in the North Bronx. It was an immense dark park. It was like one o’clock in the morning in the middle of this park and there was this loud sound. We approached this shadowy group of people that were around the DJ. There was a little cement oval where they were performing and there was a big crowd there. I was trying to get closer to the DJ area.
This one guy looked at me. He later said he was sweating me because he thought I was a cop and he was holding a joint. He said to me, “What are you doing here?” I said, “I’m a movie producer and I wanna make a movie about the rap scene.” So he took my hand and led me out on to the stage. And this was the chief rocker Busy Bee. He was all over Wild Style. And he put his arm around me and said, “This here’s Charlie Ahearn. He’s my movie producer and we’re making a movie about the rap scene.”
You know what I mean? He didn’t lose a second. That’s how people were. They were hungry. Everybody that was involved with hip-hop was in this audience at that time. I walked off the stage, they all saw me and I was introduced to them. That’s how underground it was. In other words, in a matter of minutes, they all surrounded me and they all wanted to be down. It wasn’t like I had to go through people’s managers. Everybody was there.
Who was the DJ?
At that time, in the park, I’m sure Breakout and Baron. The Funky Four were there, because I took their pictures. I think Grand Wizard Theodore was there. Charlie Chase. I don’t remember exactly. I was mostly first meeting the MCs. After that I went to two or three clubs a weekend.
All the clubs in the Bronx. The main club that I liked to go to was the Ecstasy Garage, which was about 180th Street off of Jerome. It was on the west side of Jerome. This was one of those low class clubs that I really liked to hang out in, in the sense that the main clientele were all teenagers, they were all wearing sneakers, drinking the large bottles of Olde English. The DJs in this club were primarily Grand Wizard Theodore and DJ AJ. And I’m telling you, there is no way you could get anything, anywhere better on the planet. So here I was, like an explorer, in the sense that I believed that I was hearing absolutely the best music you could hear in New York for two dollar entry charge, and nobody knew it was going on. Of course, they knew it was going on!
Do you think they had any sense of what it was they had there? It often takes someone to come from outside and go, “Wow.”
Well, I was totally, “WOW!” That’s all I was. I would come and take pictures of everybody. Then I would bring the slide projector and I would put up sheets behind the DJ’s booth and project the slides from the week before. That established me. It gave me a job. And also, it meant that if someone wanted to find out who he was, they’d go over to me and I’d take their picture, then next week it would be up. It was a way of getting fame for them.
Were you the only white guy there?
By miles. White isn’t really the issue.
There was no recognition from the outside world. There is no recording of the hip-hop scene before this moment.
Well, it is in America.
Well, white is sort of a shorthand for cultural divisions. Like if you went to the Mudd Club, you would see Jean-Michel Basquiat freaking out on the dancefloor. Now, that I consider to be a white scene. What I’m saying is that there was no recognition from the outside world. If you wanna call that the white world, then that’s fine with me. There was no one taking pictures of any of this. These pictures are the only ones I’ve ever seen anywhere and people have been scouring for 20 years. There is no recording of this before this moment. It had been going on for years, of course. It’s not as if I discovered anything. They were doing it. I was just a great fan.
Because I was coming out of the art world, I knew the kind of respect that experimental music had in art circles. And, to me, this was high-level experimental music. There was no doubt in my mind that these people were musical geniuses on some level. Grand Wizard Theodore, the way he was cutting music, was a high level of culture, like jazz. If you talk about other levels of experimentation, this was it. I totally dug it.
Do you have any recollections of what they were playing? Can you name some?
“Rocket in the Pocket” was one of my favorites. I just loved the way Theodore would cut in the phrase “rocket in the pocket” and then follow it with this sort of droney bass sound, which created this ominous feeling of danger. You know what I mean? We want that feeling. We’re not only there, but we wanna feel we’re there. We wanna know that this is a serious situation. There’s danger in the house, because people were getting stuck up. I loved it when the music reflected that. It wasn’t just “be-bop, hip-hop.” C’mon. They knew, too: they were expressing stuff through the music and the mixing emphasized that feeling, that underground criminality, that feeling of danger.
There was another song that went, [sings] “Women are producin’, men are workin’, some are stealin’” by the New York Community Choir. It was one of those songs that, when they played it, you could feel chills down your spine. They were also playing “Heartbeat,” that’s what the MCs wanted to rap over. Of course, there were the others, like “Apache.” There was all kinds of stuff that they were cutting.
I especially liked to listen to Theodore. I would just stand there for hours and feel like I could’ve been in Carnegie Hall and I’d be no happier. And I also liked to hear the MCs, but it was really the DJs that I tuned into.
What impressed you about Theodore?
Well, these other DJs were good, too. I just remember hearing certain selections of music he did and his combining of it created a kind of symphonic quality to beats, but beats with that bassy droney stuff that’s so popular today. I was listening to Charlie Chase and Tony Tone and the Cold Crush Brothers. And Mean Gene was the house DJ.
At the Ecstasy Garage?
Yeah. The other main club I went to a lot was the T-Connection. Now my conscience of all of this has been leavened by 20 years or so of experience, so what I knew... I’ll be self-deprecating here. I found this slide of Kool Herc and saw my writing on it and it said, “Kool Hurt.” You gotta understand that people were not talking about the information you’re supposed to know, and I never interviewed one person the whole time I was making the movie. Since then, I spent five years interviewing people and I’ve gleaned a lot of information that I didn’t know, like where 63 Park is, you know? Those things you’d hear about. Unless you were actually there, how would you know? I always tried to figure out what the DJ was playing, but it was hard, they were really secretive about it.
I guess if you spend months looking for exclusive tunes, you’re not going to be free with your info, are you?
Absolutely. No. And so I was in a funny situation when people started getting interested. In 1981, ’82 there was suddenly media attention gathering about this stuff. I would be in the Wild Style office and I would hear people in the other room interviewing Fred all the time, because he was the person who knew.
When did you shoot Wild Style?
It was shot in the fall of ’81 and we had to reshoot all of the club scenes because we used Tony Tone’s soundsystem – God bless Tony Tone, he’s a great guy – we used his soundsystem, the Cold Crush soundsystem and it all overmodulated and sounded like crap. So I had to get a professional system in and redo everything. Reshooting all the music scenes. I always look at it as a gift, because we were able to do it better. We did the whole amphitheater scene twice. The Furious Five were on stage in the first amphitheater scene.
How did you come across Flash? Where was your first encounter?
Flash was on a different trip at that point. I was bottom feeding. I was going through clubs like the Ecstasy and the T-Connection. I was interested in the street level of what was going on. Flash was already a recording artist who was starting to go on tour. He was sort of beyond that treatment. I went to Disco Fever a couple of times and the vibe there was much more heavy duty. Stars, and people doing cocaine, a much higher level.
It was less innocent. When I was at the Ecstasy, it felt like this is completely my place.
It was totally local. I was intrigued by this notion of 15 year old kid geniuses that nobody knew about, that were there night after night. When you talk to DJs now, they talk about him as possibly being one of the sharpest DJs on the scene today. I’m gonna give total props to Flash. I would say Flash is my favorite DJ. I love his sets, and I also love the way his cuts are so creative and so experimental. “The Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash” is a good example of what you might actually hear if you went to see him in a club. He did break out and do stuff like that. But he was harder to see. The whole Furious Five were on a trip where I felt, “OK, you guys are already stars. Later.” I already got my stars – the Cold Crush Brothers, the Fantastic Five, they were on a level where I could go to their apartments and hang out and absorb. The Furious Five–
They were already at the next level.
Yeah. They were cool with me, but I just didn’t find it that comfortable. As it happens, the rest of the people I was hanging out with never got properly recorded. I would say they were properly recorded in Wild Style, because you really hear beautiful sounds and you really hear how they sounded. I had no idea at the time how important that was. We don’t have much from that period. Of course, I love what Enjoy did with “Superrappin’” and Flash and the Funky Four. Those are beautiful recordings.
Really, it was the end of the DJ. The MCs were suddenly getting paid a lot of money by the record companies to record, and the record companies didn’t even want to deal with the DJs.
Even then though, those are only interpretations of what they were doing. It was a band playing on those records, not a DJ.
Absolutely. First of all, the DJ is not there. There is no DJ. I hesitate to talk about stuff like this, because there’s stuff I know now that I didn’t know then. Really, it was the end of the DJ. The MCs were suddenly getting paid a lot of money by the record companies to record, and the record companies didn’t even want to deal with the DJs. So in a certain sense, if you want a dividing line, in 1980 when I started getting involved, that was really the end of the old school because Enjoy was getting involved, Sugarhill was getting involved, and from that point there, the MCs are the stars and the DJs are no longer important. There’s no doubt about it. I mean, what is hip-hop? To me, it’s DJ music, played so that people could go off on the dancefloor. The MCs were there to enliven the crowd.
Do you think that was inevitable?
Was World War II inevitable? I don’t know! Partly it was because of the way the music industry works. I guess we live in a capitalist society, and we’re free to do what we want, and that’s run by what can you package and what can you sell. You can’t sell dance, you can’t sell graffiti, you can’t sell the kind of thing the DJ does, because it’s to do with a live performance; it’s not something you can package. I guess it was inevitable. But you know... was it inevitable that the old school would come back into fashion? I don’t know, but it did.
Did you make Wild Style in a guerilla style? It’s quite documentary in appearance.
I was interested in making a pop movie. I knew that I should be documenting this thing, but I hated the idea of making a documentary. So the question is how can I make a pop movie out of this thing? To me, the Bruce Lee movies were the thing that I was most excited by. You go to 42nd Street, you go to see kung fu movies. I wanted something that could be on that level, something that could show on 42nd Street. My idea was to do what excited me most. There was no historical perspective. Let’s go on this trip, it’s like a cartoon version of what was happening.
What was the response to it when it came out?
We shot it in 1981, we finished it in 1982 and it wasn’t shown until the end of ’83 going into ’84. By 1984, old school was almost dead. Run-DMC were coming in. In a way the culture was already eclipsed, and kids wanna see whatever’s fresh, they don’t wanna see some history lesson. People wanna know what’s going on now. It was representing something that was already two years old. The movie was really trying to represent the ’70s. It’s trying to represent something about those fat beats, about the subway graffiti.
When did the cash-in movies come out?
Beat Street. They started doing it 1982, filmed in ’83, it came out very fast. We were competitors in the marketplace. If I’d set it out earlier, no one would have known what to make of it. It doesn’t really belong anywhere. If anything it belongs in documentaries. I wanted it to play on 42nd Street, and it did play on Times Square for like a month and broke all box office records.
You made money?
I didn’t break even until 1998.
How strong were the connections between uptown and downtown once the art crowd started to get into what was happening? Bambaataa for one seems to have been inspired by the punk and new wave scenes, especially at The Roxy.
He was so surprised when he first came down there because he put on “Zulu Nation Throwdown,” which was his first record that he made with the Cosmic Force, and everybody went crazy, and uptown it wasn’t happening. So I think he liked that nen wave audience, because they liked him. But the truth is the new wave audience would’ve dug a lot of people, it’s just that they didn’t get a chance to perform.
Bambaataa was really smart. First of all, he really liked rock music. Always playing rock beats when he played; not just rock beats, mind you. He’s a universal kind of guy. He’s into universal culture. He’s not, “I don’t understand you, you’re a white person.” He was embracing music, any music was good to him if it had a thing going for it. And I think people in the Mudd Club picked up on him. Later on he did this thing with Kraftwerk’s “Trans-Europe Express,”[“Planet Rock”] which is like, how white can you get? That’s like the ultimate white crew; whiter than white. And that was like the biggest hit he had in his career. Supposedly, that inspired him to move in that direction. But, you know, I was as impressed to see Debbie Harry there as I was Bambaataa. The fact that they were both there is what made it seem magical.
Do you remember what year that was?
It had to be ’81 probably. Very close after that “Rapture” happened and suddenly people were listening to the radio and hearing “Flash is fast, Flash is cool” and everyone’s like, “Who’s Flash?” And then “Fab Five Freddy...” “Who’s Fab Five Freddy?” That song was a number one song. It was played everywhere.
But you’d go to these clubs like Negril and there’s David Byrne over there talking to some break boys, all those boundaries right at that moment... there would be a transvestite over there... there’s some guys from the Bronx smoking a spliff in this corner. It was all natural and very exciting. I loved Negril. How could you not love the Negril?
The Negril was the place where all of your fantasies came true because everybody wanted everything together. Later it became the Roxy, but at time it felt like you were in the living room of this private party. It was a very small place. I showed slides there. I think most of the time I was showing slides there. I felt like I was very much a part of it. You know, Kool Lady Blue and Michael Holman were running the show, but I felt like a participant. It was like the movie was being made, but it wasn’t out yet, there was so much excitement in the air. Everyone wanted to know: What’s next?
Did you think that the Negril was coalescing a lot of these ideas: black and white, rock and R&B, etc...?
There’s no doubt about it. You had all of these white people running up to the Bronx to clubs or to go to Fashion Moda. They called it the punk scene, but really it was the club scene or the art scene. You had people who were trying to go out and then all of a sudden you had people coming in. Someone from Queens was down with the graffiti scene, you know, “Can I get into that girl’s pants over there?” Or, “I’m gonna sniff some blow with one of these rock stars.” This was going on! Completely. And, of course, it was just as exciting for someone coming down from the Bronx as it was for me to go to the Bronx. Everyone was open to that.
It didn’t cause it, but it was certainly a celebration of the Roxy. When you went to the Roxy, it was no longer your living room but an airplane hangar, with a thousand people all doing the same, and then you really saw that the world had changed, for one brief moment. There was gay people, black people, punks. It’s what everyone thought – or at least what I thought – was the proper thing to do. There was respect across the lines. You know, white people respecting other cultures, but also the idea... A lot of the kids from the Bronx had never hung out, and they were afraid of hanging out. When I first took Rodney C down to the club scene, he later told me he was really frightened of these kids because they had black leather jackets on. He thought they were a punk gang who might beat you up. I was like, “Are you kidding? Those guys are fags!” In other words, people don’t know. It didn’t last, as we know.
By the end of 1985 it was over. Graffiti was considered an embarrassment. Breakdancers were considered an embarrassment.
Two years. By the end of 1985 it was over. Graffiti was considered an embarrassment. Breakdancers were considered an embarrassment. Disco was sent back to gay clubs where it belonged. White punks were sent back to where they belonged. Black MCs played for a black audience some place and couldn’t even get a venue because it was considered too dangerous. I don’t wanna sound nostalgic, but it definitely seemed like by 1985 things were over, at least as far as that moment was concerned.
What’s your overriding memory of the Roxy?
They had a little VIP lounge, and the thing was whether you were into the VIP lounge. I could pass into the VIP lounge, but I felt a little weird because I was trying not to be like that. I actually stayed a lot on the floor. You go up to VIP lounge and you see Clemente, a famous artist from Italy, and he was friends with Fred Brathwaite [AKA Fab Five Freddy]. There were very high echelon people up there. And, of course, there was always this battle of who got up there.
And there would be queues around the block, but it wasn’t like Studio 54. You would get in here. You’d go in there and there would be like eight circles of kids all breakdancing out on the floor. It was hot. You could pick up anything. A guy that was white could pick up a black girl. Someone who was Puerto Rican could pick up a blonde. There was a big mixture of people and I think that was very exciting for everybody. I seem to remember Trouble Funk playing there. But also Bambaataa was always playing that stuff from D.C.: go-go music. I remember really getting into “Pump, pump it up!”
Who were the DJs who stood out? What about DS.T?
He performed there... When we went to Japan he was there independently, and he met us at the airport, he had some other gig. He was at this level where he had just made “Rockit” and his fame was right up there at that moment. He was the DJ and God bless us that he does this thing in Wild Style where he’s cutting up Chic. He didn’t want us to shoot his face.
He’s a funny guy. Don’t know. Most people don’t know that that’s DS.T, who creates this incredible explosion at the end of the movie. He was like Theodore and Flash. He was like a jazz artist, high level, introspective.
This interview was conducted in March 2001 in Manhattan. © DJhistory.com