The Oral History of "Wild Style"

The Oral History of "Wild Style"All images via Music Box Films

MIC CHECK:

Charlie Ahearn: I’m from upstate New York, Binghamton, but I came here in ’73 to be an artist. I wanted to be Sol LeWitt. Over a period of years, I, along with other people that I knew, were developing this idea that art should get out of the art world. It should be out there, which meant going into housing projects and doing projects related to people and communities outside of the art world. Friends of mine went up to the Bronx and started doing art projects there. I was going around with a Bolex camera and shooting. Like, I shot some kids breakdancing in this gymnasium and I’d come back the next week with a 16mm projector and project it up on the wall. So I was sort of doing an art project in a sense, and then these kids that came to see one of my screenings asked me if I would make a film about their kung-fu school. Of course, I said, “Absolutely,” and spent the next year making a martial arts movie in Super-8 called The Deadly Art of Survival.

 

The South Bronx back then looked like Dresden after the firebombing in World War II. Just blocks and blocks of abandoned buildings.
—Chris Stein

 

Lee Quinones: At the time, I was intensely involved in the whole above-ground aspect of the graffiti movement. I was intensifying my efforts to do as many walls as I could outside—murals. I just felt I would have a much broader, powerful voice in something that actually stood there, as opposed to something that was fleeting, like a subway car. There were handball walls all over the city that were begging for something new and refreshing. They were the first of their time, mind you. Let’s just put that on the record:“Those are the very first full handball court murals that were being done—a shot heard around the world to bring the movement into a whole new context. People would crowd around those paintings when they were first done because they were so mysterious and fantastic.

Fab 5 Freddy: I did some tags around Brooklyn, a couple of trains, nothing major. I wasn’t no king, but in my hood, in Bed-Stuy, I was known for being one of the main people doing it. I went to a high school near a subway line in BK, so I was able to slip through the fence and throw up some average pieces that would circulate through the lines that came through BK. But I had ideas, a plan to shift what we were doing and move into the art world. I was looking at Lichtenstein and Warhol and understanding that the inspirations for pop art were the inspirations for almost anybody doing graffiti: cartoons, 3D letters and just putting your name everywhere, just like all commercial properties with advertising. That’s what motivated me to do the Campbell’s Soup can train, which was an homage to Warhol and pop art, but it was also a message that people in graffiti knew something about the art world, and for other graffiti people to think outside of the box.

Charlie Ahearn: I became aware in ’77 of Lee Quinones’s handball-court murals by the Lower East Side. I became really obsessed with him as an artist. When I was doing the kung-fu movie I ran into him by one of his murals, but he was very elusive. He didn’t give out his address. I didn’t know where he lived. He was sort of an archetypal graffiti artist.

Fab 5 Freddy: Lee’s work was just the best thing happening. It wasn’t so much the trains, it was these huge walls he had painted. It just showed that graffiti could be so much more once it broke out of the confines of the horizontal subway kind of canvas, if you will.

Lee Quinones: Meeting Fab, it was the funniest thing. He walks into my classroom and speaks to the teacher in his ear, and the teacher looks over to me, and I’m like, “Who is this dude? That’s got to be a cop,” because he has a long trenchcoat and fedora hat on. I was like, "This guy is coming out to get me." At that time I was really active—in 1978 and 1979 I was really bum-rushing the system with my work. He waited for me outside the classroom and spooked the shit out of me. I backed up and was ready to fight this dude off. He introduced himself and was like, "Yo, I’m an artist. I would love to talk to you about some ideas and collaborate."

Fab 5 Freddy: I just began to discuss how we could get [graffiti] into another subway yard, so to speak, meaning the art world. I had ideas and theories about modern art and the position that we could play in that lane, and he was with it. So I went out on a quest to make some things happen, and making a movie was an idea that I had that could show us in a more interesting light than all that negative press that people from the hood got for the most part.

Lee Quinones: Fab is a genius at having his finger on the pulse. He brought a lot to the table. He’s the guy that was like, “Hey, this is the connection.” He really put the plates out on the table when nobody knew what to talk about at the dinner table. He took the forks out. The menu was scattered and, boom, he cheffed it together.

HOW IT ALL GOT STARTED:

Fab 5 Freddy: We had seen the posters for Charlie’s movie in Lee’s neighborhood. It looked like it was the kind of independent, low-budget movie that I wanted our film to be. I knew it wasn’t a mainstream movie. It was screening at this very important art exhibit in the spring of 1980 called the Times Square Show. I went to the opening and I was just trying to meet people and make things happen to create a platform for what I had been talking about with Lee. I met Charlie and said, "Hey, I want to make a movie."

Lee Quinones: The light bulb started to glow in Charlie’s head through his conversations with Fab. He had that look in his eye, and I was like, “What’re you looking at me like that for?” But prior to me meeting Charlie and Fab [Five Freddy], a lot of people don’t know this, but I was already romancing doing a film on the whole situation. You know, by that time 1978, ’79, I had already reached a pinnacle of what I was doing. I felt like it was a compelling story that was yet to be told on film.

 

It was the first time Charlie Ahearn had ever seen breakdancers. They were spinning and thrashing all over the place and showing off their best. Charlie just stood there with his mouth open like, 'Oh my God.'
—Lady Pink

 

Charlie Ahearn: [Fab] had this idea that hip-hop is this culture with all these forms, and that graffiti was one of those forms. But my main interest was to make something with Lee. I said, “Bring Lee here tomorrow morning and I’ll get you guys some paint and you can hit the wall outside the space here.” And this was just an abandoned massage parlor in Times Square, but they hit up a piece right outside on the street, and I consider it the first act of making the film because it was Lee, Fred and myself—it was a kind of three-corner idea. The film went through a lot of changes but, in a way, that structure remained. Lee was sort of the elusive muse of the movie, Fred and I were working together conceptually, and I was the producer/director.

Grandmaster Flash: Fab was the liaison between whites downtown and this black culture in the Bronx.

Charlie Ahearn: I think Fred, he was imagining the movie would be set downtown because that’s where he was. When I first knew Freddy he had a fedora or porkpie hat, a skinny black tie and leather jacket, like we all did. He was part of the downtown scene, and he looked like a hipster. Fred is down by law, there’s no doubt about it, but Fred is born and raised in Bed-Stuy—the Bronx he didn’t know. But I thought shooting the film in the Bronx would be much more interesting. So Fab and I set out to go to clubs in the Bronx. We went up together; we were sort of meeting people. I went to this outdoor jam in a park with Fred and met Chief Rocker Busy Bee and all these other people and got flyers from them. One thing would lead to the next. I would bring slide projectors and show slides on the wall so that when kids were rapping you’d see images of them behind the DJ. It was interactive. I liked to fantasize that it was related to the ’60s and what Warhol was doing showing his movies with The Velvet Underground.

Fab 5 Freddy: We went to dozens and dozens of parties. Charlie [would] be taking everyone’s picture and shit, which was part of our research, and sometimes we would go to parties and do slide shows of the previous parties. That was a part of the process of getting familiar, developing relationships, stringing out who we were going to feature in the movie. Every party we went to was filled with the legendary cats.

Grandmaster Flash: [They] sought out the most prominent people of the era. I happened to be one of them. Freddy told me, "Flash I’m gonna get Blondie to come meet you." I’m like, "Yeah, whatever!" I’m looking at him like he’s high. But then as promised, [Debbie Harry] came to one of my parties, and told me she was gonna make a song about me—and that ended up being "Rapture."

Chris Stein: Fred was connecting all these different worlds. My biggest memory was him taking us up to this event in the Bronx at the Police Athletic League. It was such an eye-opener it was crazy. The scene was full-speed ahead up there, and it was very much paralleling what was going on downtown. It was so communal, almost like there was no boundary between the audience and the stage. The performers were just doing their thing in the crowd. I remember coming away super-buzzed.

John “Crash” Matos: I met Charlie in the summer of 1980. I’m not sure how he got my number, but he called me asked me to help him scout some spots for the movie. And he was with this guy, and he introduced us—it was Fab 5 Freddy. From there we went to my house in the projects and drove around to different areas just looking for spots for the movie.

Chris Stein: The South Bronx back then looked like Dresden after the firebombing in World War II. Just blocks and blocks of abandoned buildings.

Grandmaster Caz: Charlie had a lot of courage coming out to black neighborhoods and the hip-hop parties. In the Bronx? He stuck out. He was either a cop or a landlord.

Fab 5 Freddy: There wasn’t a time when we ventured up to the Bronx when I wasn’t like, "I just hope it don’t go down." I remember this one party, this dude was insane. He was cock diesel. He’d smoked mad angel dust, which was still very common on the scene. This dude was walking through the party without his shirt on with this ridiculous swagger, looking around real crazy. Everybody was stepping out of his way. Then he saw Charlie and started coming our way. I’m saying to myself, "Here we go." He walked right up to Charlie and looked like he was gonna pound him into the ground. Charlie looked at this dude with his happy, smiling face. He was like, "Fred! I think he wants me to take his picture!" The dude looked at Charlie, made some faces, and just turned and walked the fuck away. When I breathed out after that shit, I can’t even express it, dog. The relief!

Charlie Ahearn: People were really hungry because Sugar Hill Gang had released "Rapper’s Delight" and people in the Bronx felt burned. They knew something was up but they didn’t know what, and they thought, "Maybe this guy is it. Maybe we should do this thing with him and maybe it’s going to lead to something." So everybody wanted to be down with it.

Grandmaster Caz: It kind of validated what we were doing for those that were like, "Y’all ain’t ever going to get anywhere doing that." This is someone from the outside looking in saying, "Hey, that’s cool. I want to document that." It put an extra stamp on it for us”

Fab 5 Freddy: I wanted to show that for a culture to be complete, it should combine music, dance and a visual art. I thought there were elements around that could be pulled together and made to look like one thing, and that a movie would help.

Grandmaster Flash: That’s the way the culture started. Graffiti was huge in the birth of hip-hop. Then of course there was the DJ, and then breakdancing. And then lastly was the MC, years and years later.

Charlie Ahearn: Fab 5 was definitely into the idea was that hip-hop was a culture, and the graffiti were music linked as one. But when I first was going to the Bronx, I never saw any breakdancing; it was not part of hip-hop. It had been part of it, but it had been so weak as a part of hip-hop that no one mentioned it during that time.

Lady Pink: I brought along Rock Steady to Lee’s 21st birthday party. We threw him a surprise birthday party in Futura’s studio and I brought along my homeboys from high school and the Rock Steady crew. So they came along and performed. It was the first time Charlie Ahearn had ever seen breakdancers. They were spinning and thrashing all over the place and showing off their best. Charlie just stood there with his mouth open like, “Oh my God.” He had never seen this kind of dancing before. He saw those guys, and boom—they’re in the movie.

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Tags: wild-style, charlie-ahearn, fab-5-freddy, lee-quinones, grandmaster-flash, grandmaster-caz, south-bronx
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