Grandmaster Caz: It’s not like there were any actors playing hip-hop; everybody is who they are in the film. These were the actual people that do this.
John “Crash” Matos: From what I understood, when Charlie wrote the part he sort of had me in mind. Like the main character, I lived in the South Bronx, and I had an older brother in the armed forces—he had been in Vietnam. Charlie approached me for reading the main part that Lee did, but I read it and I wasn’t really interested. I was more interested in doing background stuff and helping with some of the art.
No one knew it was going to be a classic film, or that it would be aired on a big screen. If we had, we would’ve asked for acting coaches, perhaps wardrobe, or rehearsals.
Lee Quinones: Charlie kind of plumbed the story into what I really was about at that time. But I had to be very incognito. I couldn't reveal myself like that, for a number of reasons. I couldn’t afford to get caught or even get killed doing something like [the film]. I was the most wanted painter of that movement two years in a row, and I was afraid for my life. I was very reluctant to let people know how I operated.
Charlie Ahearn: Lee’s character is totally meant to be an iconic version of Lee, meaning some of the details were different. But the fact that he was seeing this young graffiti artist, Lady Pink, I couldn’t avoid that. That was so in front of me, even though they weren’t public about it. It was too interesting.
Lady Pink: Charlie Ahearn pretty much put what he saw in real life into his movie. I did have a relationship with Lee, four years on and off. Before I even painted a train I was already in the limelight—the photographers, the video makers, the bookmakers, everybody was on top of me. Charlie Ahearn and his film was just another one of these rich guys hanging around with some fantastic thing to do and everybody else is on the bandwagon. To us, it was just another entrepreneur trying to profit from graffiti artists. He was a real sweetheart, we adored him and all, but no one took it seriously. No one knew it was going to be a classic film, or that it would be aired on a big screen. If we had, we would’ve asked for acting coaches, perhaps wardrobe, or rehearsals.
Charlie Ahearn: She was so marvelous. She was just sassy and really smart, and he was more shady and quiet. As much as I love Lee, he was certainly a challenge. He was so elusive—I worked on him for a year to get him, but Pink finally talked him into it.
Lady Pink: Lee didn’t want to do the movie; I had to convince him. I used my best manipulation skills.
Lee Quinones: Pink and I were, in a word, turbulent. We were very young. She was younger than me; I was 21, she was 16 or 17 years old. Geez. We were an item—before we even met there were already rumors that we were sort of the royal couple. When I first met her, I was like, “What is this pretty little girl doing with us dirty-ass painting motherfuckers? What’s wrong here?” But I looked in her eyes and was like, this girl is talented and driven. Hey, maybe we can paint together. I think Charlie saw the beauty in our young love.
Lady Pink: The two of us had very strong personalities and although we cared for each other deeply, we also fought a whole lot and that stopped the filming every now and then.
Charlie Ahearn: The movie was coming out of the downtown filmmaking scene, and I used some of the actors that were working in that milieu—like Patti Astor, who plays the journalist.
Lee Quinones: She wasn’t a stranger to the scene, because of her obvious background as an actress in various underground films but also as a really, inspiring, groundbreaking art dealer. I mean Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Futura 2000, and Dondi—they all had Patti. She opened up many doors for galleries in the East Village and the Lower East Side for artists that were influenced by the streets. Some of them probably could have not been household names at all if it wasn’t for Patti.
Patti Astor: That character is very much me. I’ve known Charlie since I was like 12 years old. My father was from Binghampton, upstate, where Charlie’s family is from. Our families would vacation on this lake outside of Binghampton—we were next door to each other. I always beat him in canoe races. In the ’70s, we both moved to New York around the same time. By the time of Wild Style, I had done at least 10 underground movies. And then I heard about the reporter role—I’m like, "Charlie, what’s up?" He said they wanted someone more mousey. I think he was lying and stalling, ’cause they wanted Debbie Harry to do the part. But then there was this really cool event—Sugar Hill’s annual reunion at the Harlem Armory. I went with my [Fun Gallery] partner, Bill Stelling, and some other downtown figures. We were the only white people there—until we saw Charlie. He took a picture of me, and right after gunshots rang out. Everybody started running. We all took the train downtown to some other bar, and later that night Charlie told me I got the part.
Lee Quinones: The scene where we’re up at the home of [art collector] Niva Kislac, we’re at her home, and she actually buys a painting from me before the film is even being filmed at her house. She buys the art, and we mimicked it on film.
Fab 5 Freddy: Niva was trying to seduce Lee, and she would’ve gone a lot further if you get my drift. It was based on a real-life thing.
Charlie Ahearn: When they went to Niva Kislac’s apartment, she was exactly that. She had a rep for collecting and bedding graffiti writers and she played it. It was hilarious because Pink heard that I was going to direct a sex scene between an art dealer and Lee, so she shows up. Even though she’s not in the scene, she’s sitting right behind the camera staring right into Lee’s face the whole time. No wonder he’s so nervous during the scene.
Lee Quinones: I remember she wasn't too comfortable with that scene. What couples do you find that are not jealous in a situation like that, at that particular age? Niva was a beautiful woman; she still is.
Lady Pink: We still weren’t too sure about what Charlie was trying to do. For all we knew he was trying to do soft porn or something. Normally, I’m not a jealous girl but I still wanted to be there to see exactly what it was.
Lee Quinones: I dislocated my arm for the 500th time— Ii was the scene where I’m spraypainting “Love stinks,” if I remember correctly. I had a loose shoulder that I was always popping out and that went onto film and Charlie kept it. I’m throwing the can, and I threw it at the wall too fast and my arm really came out. It was excruciating pain, and he was smart enough to keep rolling. Like, "This is happening. You can’t get this in a script." That’s the magic of the film. It won’t win Oscars but it’ll win hearts and souls.
Fab 5 Freddy: I had sort of a co-producer role, and at the last minute ended up playing one of the leading roles. My character’s name, Phade, was inspired by Phase 2, who was a legend in the first phase of graffiti that then did flyers for the underground hip-hop parties at the Ecstasy Garage and shit. But that was nowhere near anything I wanted to do. I was cool to play the background. We cast all the roles except the person I would play; we auditioned a bunch of actors but they didn’t have that right thing.
Charlie Ahearn: I had Phase 2 in mind for that character; he was one of the great pioneers. But he didn’t really trust me. I pointed the finger at [Fab] and said "You have to play this part." He said, "I’m not playing any part,’ and I said, "Yes, you are."
Fab 5 Freddy: I was one of the few people that was completely acting. It was a character. While researching the movie I met guys like that. This one guy Case, a famous graffiti artist with one arm, the way he used to talk was just so unbelievably cool to me. I would be thinking of those guys during the movie and trying to embody them. I later used that character largely for my MTV Raps persona. I created this hip, cool, slick-talking yet articulate persona that was Fab 5 Freddy.
Charlie Ahearn: Once I saw the footage Fred was just so good. He’s the best thing in the movie.
Fab 5 Freddy: I also ended up creating the original music for the film. I wanted to chop up the classic breakbeats, but Charlie wanted us to create our own music. I said, “OK, that will be my job.” It was my interpretation of the breakbeats the uptown DJs would cut up at these early parties. I got with some musician friends I knew from the new wave scene. I was good friends with Blondie, and they had my back—they were one of the biggest bands in the world at the time.
Chris Stein: Freddy pulled me into it. I showed up at this funky little studio in Manhattan to work one day for the score and that later evolved into the soundtrack. They had already laid down drums and bass, and I laid down some synth and guitar stuff over it. It was all very impromptu, the stuff that came out of my head basically. Then Freddy did all those sound effects and vocals on it later. I wasn’t really going for anything, I was just going for whatever sounded good, sounded funky. I synced up synthesizers with the scratching, which I don’t think anyone had done at that point.
THIS IS HOW THE STORY GOES:
Fab 5 Freddy: The beauty of the movie is that it feels documentary-esque because things were very close to happening exactly how they were happened in the movie.
Charlie Ahearn: The night before I would direct a scene I would put three sheets in this electric typewriter to type up the dialogue for the next day to hand to people. Luckily, people didn’t use too much of it. It probably wasn’t that great, but the people that I was working with for the most part were so entrancing, they were so good.
Lady Pink: Charlie Ahearn’s script, we took it as just suggestions. We made up the dialogue as we went along mostly. A well-bred white guy trying to write slang was funny as hell, so we made up our own script.
John “Crash” Matos: He gave us a lot of leeway. Charlie was cool in the sense that we just stuck to who we were.
Patti Astor: Almost nothing was scripted; this was one-take filmmaking.
Charlie told me, 'You were so great in that scene.' I told him, 'What are you talking about? I had a shotgun to my head—you think that thing wasn’t loaded?' —Patti Astor
Charlie Ahearn: I knew to cut out as much dialogue as possible. It’s like a Bruce Lee movie; you want to focus on the action part of it. Even though there wasn’t fighting, I really thought of the Bruce Lee movies as models—that and The Harder They Come. I never was too comfortable with making a documentary because I thought kids won’t want to go see a documentary. Documentaries were considered really stuffy at the time. They were PBS. They were shown on television but you’d never see them in a movie theatre. I think that Wild Style was a new format. I thought that the basketball scene [with Cold Crush and the Fantastic Five] was a great example. It’s absolutely truthful that these were the major street rival MC crews in the Bronx and these guys took it absolutely seriously. But there was nothing like that scene in real life—of course not. That didn’t exist. And yet, as a description of rival MCs battling, it’s totally expressive of that. I think the whole movie is like that.
Grandmaster Caz: Our rivalry with the Fantastic Five was genuine. It wasn't just for the screen, this was in real life. We were vying for the number one spot left by the Furious Five and the Funky Four, who had broken up, so the quest to be the top group in New York was on, and it was us and the Fantastic Five vying for that position. Things never got violent, but things definitely got heated. Even today, there’s an underlying tenseness, you know what I mean? But it made for some good performances on our end.
Charlie Ahearn: Early on, I had sent out little packets of material to two places I had heard might be interested. One was ZDF, which was West German television, the other was channel 4 in London. A friend in the independent-film world, which back then was like 12 films—this is before Spike Lee and Jim Jarmusch happened—she had heard that these channels were interested in independent films from America. I was shocked and amazed to find myself getting letters of interest from both of them in two weeks. I also raised money personally, but the basic funding I got from ZDF and the U.K. really put some wind in my sails. It was somewhere around $75,000, which was pretty close to what I needed to shoot the movie. We were working with a skeleton crew, about 5 people total. Everyone was being paid minimally. Performers were getting paid per appearance. I was also trying to get money from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which seemed like one of the few options out there. They sent me a letter saying that the subject matter was not of national interest; it seemed like a local story. They said, Why would we fund a movie about vandalism on the subway? It’s ironic, because they did fund Style Wars later.
Lady Pink: I don’t know how [Charlie] got so lucky to rent the M train yard for an evening, but that was a lot of fun.
Charlie Ahearn: It was done with permission. I told the MTA I was doing a documentary. It cost me a third of the whole budget to do that and I had to give them a check a month before we shot the scene. So a lot was on riding on that, but it gives the movie a lot of realism.
Lady Pink: Most the time of filming it was just a lot of waiting. So we snuck around the yard and we went into some of the trains and we were scribbling on the inside. We were all tagging up together and bonding. No one found out—not until now.
Charlie Ahearn: Lee Quinones never showed up.
Lee Quinones: I was slightly sick that week but I used that sickness as an excuse to primadonna myself out of that scene. At that time, I was still actively painting. I was a little difficult to deal with.
Charlie Ahearn: I got Dondi, who was someone who I always considered for the role of Zoro, to put on this durag and play the role there, and then I re-shot all the details. I shot close-ups of Lee’s face at another time and then I shot close-ups of the back of Dondi painting a train. That was done inside of a loft—I built a train and shot that. So much for realism for a documentary.
Lady Pink: One of the things I remember from the movie is my exposure to the South Bronx; the area by the yard was so scary; I had never been in such terror before. I don’t come from a ghetto. We were filming with Charlie and a bunch of white guys with cameras. We were worried for them, honestly. The area was all burnt out, Hiroshima, Nagasaki-looking.
Charlie Ahearn: [The movie] takes a group of people that, from the outside were looked at like Fort Apache, The Bronx, a movie that was melodrama from one end to the other. People were pictured shooting up and doing every conceivable horrible thing to each other. As much as I was working against "Rapper’s Delight" as a model, I was also working against Fort Apache, The Bronx, which was the previous year. Like, "This is a great example of what not to do." There’s nothing to be gained by making melodrama out of this stuff. You’re much better off surprising people with how regular as people they are. That’s the right move to make so you don’t go, "Oh, they’re them." And that’s why black kids from the Bronx would see our movie and tell their friends to go see it. They identified with it. They didn’t feel like they were being made into some kind of “other” people. But stick-up kids were part of the mythological rap culture. I heard the term a lot. I thought [showing them] could be a way of bringing the sort of dark side of the Bronx into the movie, without making a lot out of it. I met [the actors] the night before we shot the scene—that shows you how loose the production was. I didn’t know them, I just knew they looked really hard. I saw them at the Dixie and said, "Would you guys like to play stick-up kids? I’m shooting this scene tomorrow night." And they were like "OK, bet." So we met to shoot the scene at 11 o’clock at night. I gave one of the actors a starter pistol I had brought, which I was really proud of because it had weight—it didn’t feel like a plastic gun. He said, "This is a pussy gun, I can’t use this," and he reaches under his car and pops open the front door. He had this raggedy sawed off shotgun under the front seat. This was my signal that I had really hit pay dirt because these guys were obviously for real. Everything they did in the scene from then on was theirs, and I’m sure they were doing lines that they had rehearsed many times in real situations. They’re not with us anymore—the two main guys in the scene.
Patti Astor: Charlie told me, "You were so great in that scene." I told him, "What are you talking about? I had a shotgun to my head—you think that thing wasn’t loaded?" Later Charlie told me he thought at any moment those guys were gonna turn to the whole crew and say, "Drop your wallets and give us all your equipment." I miss all those guys. I wish we had stayed in touch—I should’ve had them on my squad when the mafia were coming around and threatening me about Fun Gallery.