The best film ever made about hip-hop is also the first: Wild Style.
Released in 1983, Wild Style covered all four elements of hip-hop—graffiti, MCing, breakdancing, DJing—in the culture’s earliest days. It’s not a documentary, but at time it feels like one. The setting is hip-hop’s nursery, the South Bronx, at its run-down grimiest; the leads are played by real-life graffiti legends Lee Quinones and Lady Pink, then fresh-faced street kings; Fab 5 Freddy co-stars, and the Rock Steady Crew is shown busting moves; pioneering rappers and DJs such as Grandmaster Flash, the Cold Crush Brothers, Kool Moe Dee, Busy Bee and other old-school legends are captured performing in their prime.
The film is defiantly low-budget and raw, but that didn’t lessen its impact. It’s become a Magna Carta of sorts, a founding document for a culture that at that time was unknown beyond the streets of the five boroughs. The year the film was released, Run-DMC dropped their first single, “Sucker MCs,” and hip-hop quickly began exploding from a local sound to the global juggernaut it is today—which has only made Wild Style, with its pitch-perfect time capsule of hip-hop culture in its adolescence, that much more indispensable. Released independently in a handful of theaters, the movie wasn’t a box-office smash, but future generations of hip-hop fans and artists alike made sure it remained a cult classic. The Beastie Boys and Cypress Hill both used snippets of dialog from Wild Style for classic early-’90s albums while Nas, De La Soul, and AZ are among those who have sampled the movie’s angel-dusted soundtrack and score.
30 years later, a new, remastered Blu-ray and DVD re-release is in stores on Oct. 15th has Wild Style looking more vibrant and pristine than ever. To celebrate the film’s indelible legacy, we spoke to many of the players behind it—three decades later, every last one of them has become a legend in his or her own right. Here they break down the ins, outs, ups and downs of the first (and only) film to successfully capture hip-hop in its rawest, purest form.
As told to Alex Gale (@alexgale)
Charlie Ahearn - Director/producer of Wild Style, co-author of Yes Yes Y’all
Lee Quinones - Legendary graffiti and visual artist from the Lower East Side, starred in Wild Style as “Zoro”
Fab 5 Freddy - Renowned visual artist and music-video director, former co-host of Yo! MTV Raps, co-starred in Wild Style as Phade
Lady Pink - Legendary graffiti and visual artist, starred in Wild Style as Rose
Grandmaster Caz - Member of influential Bronx rap group Cold Crush Brothers, plays himself in Wild Style
Grandmaster Flash - Legendary DJ, front man of influential rap group Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, plays himself in Wild Style
Patti Astor - Renowned indie film actress, co-starred in Wild Style as Virginia, former owner of the influential Fun Gallery in New York
John “Crash” Matos - Legendary South Bronx graffiti artist, played unspoken part as member of Union Crew in Wild Style, also worked on animation and graphic design for the film
Chris Stein - Guitarist of Blondie, worked on the soundtrack and score of Wild Style
RELATED: 50 Best NYC Graffiti Artists
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.
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.'
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.
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.
THE GRAND FINALE:
[Ed. Note—The final scene of Wild Styleis a massive outdoor concert at the Amphiteater in East River Park, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, which Lee painted for the occasion. Kool Moe Dee, Double Trouble, Busy Bee, Rammellze, Rocksteady Crew and other hip-hop pioneers performed.]
Patti Astor: The Amphitheater scene is like a hip-hop Woodstock. Fantastic Five and Cold Crush delivered maybe one of the greatest performances in hip-hop of all time.
Charlie Ahearn: It was totally illegal. It was totally an outlaw event. It was done without permission both times, which is amazing. It’s an outdoor park jam, but I never saw an outdoor park jam like that. That was 25 times bigger than any outdoor park jam. [Hip-hop] wasn’t like that, but that’s not to say that it can’t represent that. That was the new bar that’s set—if you wanted to be hip-hop you got to come up to that bar. It was sort of like a challenge to set that bar and say, "This is hip-hop.”
I had a roll of $100 bills in my back pocket, and every time someone would perform I would stick my hand out and they would walk off stage and grab a $100 bill. That was my job. —Charlie Ahearn
Lee Quinones: It was in my neighborhood; I spent a lot of time in that park as a kid. As a five-year-old, I used to go to plays at that amphitheater, in the late or mid ’60s. Now in the ’80s, this place had been vacant for the last 10 or 12 years. I wanted to bring something that was credible to that place that reflected on my own personal experience there. I was like, “Here it is, the epic ending to a film about my life.” We got kids from all over the neighborhood to roll paint and throw color. I was like, “We wrapped. Great, I’m done I’m out of here.” And then they find out the sound was no good.
Charlie Ahearn: All the live music, including the Amphiteater, was re-shot because when I got to the editing room in the winter, the more I saw the footage, I decided the sound quality was low. The speaker systems that we were using, which were the Cold Crush speaker systems, they tapped out. It was bad. I thought, “It has to be good sound or else the film won’t work.” So everything was re-shot and I used better sound equipment and it sounds really good.
Lee Quinones: To re-shoot that scene? I was like, are you kidding me? I got to face 3,000 people again? Charlie went into cardiac arrest when he found out I cut my hair. They had to get me a wig. That’s one of the follies of Wild Style.
Charlie Ahearn: Unfortunately, I don’t have [the original footage]. That’s what everyone wants to know. In the original, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious come out and do the The Amphitheater.
Fab 5 Freddy: That’s probably the only regret—the fact that some of those guys are not in it and they were filmed. The fact that we had Flash and the Furious Five and Cowboy, one of the greatest rappers to ever touch a microphone—he was the foundation. They were the shit and we couldn’t see them in full glory. The sound was doo-doo. We reached out to do the Amphitheatre again, but Flash and the guys had blown up to a point they were no longer available. We couldn’t book them. They became big with "White Lines" and different records that popped.
Grandmaster Flash: Ahearn did want to put me in more parts of the movie, but it didn’t work out. I don’t know why—probably because of all the cancelations and retakes. We were hot commodities. It wasn’t easy for us to set aside a weekend.
Grandmaster Caz: The original scene, we were in. But we had a prior engagement the day they re-recorded so we had to forego The Amphitheater scene. I wish we would’ve did it. We had a show somewhere.
Charlie Ahearn: A funny story [from the second Amphitheater shoot] is that we were in a bus going down through Harlem, and I had the Treacherous Three on the bus. They were headlining that day at The Amphitheater; they were replacing Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. We’re coming down the hill and Special K looks out the window and says, "Hold the bus! I got to talk to my old lady, she’s right there on the corner. I’ll meet you down there." So he goes off to talk to his girlfriend on the corner, whoever she is, and he never showed up. So when it came time to actually do the scene and I’m rolling cameras. I said, "You can perform, but I’m not rolling 16mm on the Treacherous Two." Which was probably not fair. It’s unfortunate because they were so great but I was just mad. I thought, "Fuck you guys if you can’t get your own group together." The whole time, during the show, you can see Kool Moe Dee by the side of the stage getting more and more pissed off. And then finally, he goes out and gets the whole place going crazy. I didn’t have anything to do with that. I was hiding behind the DJ table. I had a roll of $100 bills in my back pocket, and every time someone would perform I would stick my hand out and they would walk off stage and grab a $100 bill. That was my job.
Patti Astor: That scene is one of the highlights of my acting career. I’m a very lucky person; I was there for that amazing energy. Did I know we were making history? No. But did I know we were doing there was something incredible happening? Yes.
Charlie Ahearn: I showed it to people in the Independent Film Market in the fall of 82 from 16mm. That was definitely the first time it was shown to anyone. It was also shown in Montreal in November of 1982. I showed it to [noted film agent] Irving Shapiro, who ran it to films around the world. He suggested I show it to people at New Directors and they were very enthusiastic about it. They showed it in the spring, which a big deal. They made a 35mm print and we brought it to the Cannes Film Market—I wasn’t allowed to show it at the festival because I had already shown in Montreal, which I hadn’t known at the time. Shapiro put an ad in the back of the magazine there showing a breakdancer that attracted enormous amounts of attention. They didn’t know what it was, but it seemed fresh and interesting. At that moment the film was sold to Japanese television, which is where the film premiered in October of 1983. It was also sold to theatrical markets in Italy and Scandinavia, in countries around the world. It was already about to screen on German and British television. I knew at that point that the movie and subsequently hip-hop was going to go around the world and be a global phenomenon.
Lee Quinones: That film pretty much single handedly changed the world—who can deny that?
That plane ride was madness. It was 13 or 14 hours in the air fueled by cigarettes, weed, and cocaine. —Grandmaster Caz
Charlie Ahearn: The film was originally shown in Japan. The world premiere was in Tokyo, before New York. We flew the entire cast of the movie to Tokyo and we toured Japan. We had Futura , Zephyr, Dondi, Fred, Lady Pink, the whole Rock Steady Crew, Cold Crush, Patti Astor, Busy Bee—it was pretty incredible. We did outdoor concerts all over Japan and they were on national television. They got treated like they were rock stars. Most of them had never been outside of the Bronx before, so it was sort of shocking and unfortunately set expectations far too high for where the future was going—which was not really very much.
Fab 5 Freddy: We went to Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, and maybe one other city. We went over there like a fucking army. There was break dancing, graffiti artists, and it was all the right motherfuckers. It planted seeds that still bear fruit.
Grandmaster Caz: That was mind blowing. That was the first time I was overseas. First time any of us were overseas or on a tour.
Patti Astor: When we met at the airport, Charlie passed out the cash for the per diems and people went straight to duty-free and bought Dom Perignon. Then we get on the plane and the boomboxes come out. Champagne corks were bouncing off the ceiling.
Lady Pink: I never traveled with such ill-behaved people. I come from a very good family. We have manners. Our plane was threatening to land. They informed us [during] the flight going to Japan that they don’t tolerate drugs of any kind, so we had to go into the bathroom in the back of the plane and do all the drugs that we had right there on the spot. We had to smoke it all, snort it all. It all had to disappear by the time we landed [in] Japan because we were all afraid we were going to get nailed. They said they’ll take your passport, you’ll get arrested, you can’t leave the country for 10 years. They scared the bejesus out of us.
I went with my mother. She was my date. She used to take me to all these great films as a kid, and here we are at the Times Square theater watching a film with me in it. It made her cry. —Lee Quinones
Grandmaster Caz: That plane ride was madness. It was 13 or 14 hours in the air fueled by cigarettes, weed, and cocaine. When we got there. I’m up in my room and Busy Bee rings my phone. He’s like, "Yo, come to my room, these Japanese motherfuckers is knocking on my door. They got sticks" So I put on my hardware—we had spikes and chains and all that shit—and went downstairs to Busy’s floor, but nobody’s there. He says they had these two Japanese girls in their room, and these guys were looking for them. They were Yakuza, or pimps or something. So they knocking on the door, KG opens the door like, "Yo, ain’t no girls in here man. You gotta knock on someone else’s door." KG came out in the hall, and they chased him with them sticks! He was running, banging on the door like, "Yo, let me in!"
Lady Pink: The worst part was we were in Japan and we couldn’t find any drugs. What a dilemma! We’re all running around like mad people. We finally located some weed in the American Army base and it smelled like fish. It was the most horrendous stuff, but we smoked it. What can you do?
Grandmaster Caz: We meet this Army guy who did service over there. We’re like, “Yo, where can we find some weed?” He’s like, “I got it.” So we went upstairs into the bathroom. There’s 12 of us in the stall with the guy. He’s got little, tiny $3 bags of weed he’s trying to sell us for $15. We’re like, “C’mon man, we from the hood.” Anyway, the guy sold us a few bags. We roll up the weed in a little joint and we passing it around, and then we hear footsteps come in the bathroom and everybody [gets quiet]. There’s a knock on the stall door, “Who in there?” and [Fab 5] Freddy said, “Yo, it’s me. I’m shitting.” He said, “You no shit. What’s that smell? I call the police.” Once he said he’d call the police, right there the stall opens and one by one everybody just took off.
Charlie Ahearn: When we landed in Tokyo in ’83, rockabilly was the cool thing at that time. They all dressed in leather jackets with pompadour hair. They were trying to imitate American youth culture, and all of a sudden we have Rock Steady Crew coming up and challenging guys dancing rockabilly. I think they were swept off their feet, and people wanted to give up whatever they were doing before and wanted to adopt this.
Grandmaster Caz: When we first got there, nobody knew what the hell we were doing; by the time we left they were emulating us. They were trying to breakdance. The DJs were trying to scratch records. We brought hip-hop to Japan.
Charlie Ahearn: When it was first shown in Times Square it was the second highest-grossing movie in New York City. Terms of Endearment was the highest grossing film for that week. I didn’t know whether it was going to be as popular as it was.
John “Crash” Matos: We used to go Times Square to watch the kung fu movies. It was cool to have the premiere there, because everyone was hanging out there anyway.
Grandmaster Caz: We all went to the [New York] premiere. We just wanted to see it downtown; we brought everyone in the neighborhood to go see it. It was a zoo in there. It was crazy. It was like, “Wow, we made a movie. We come to this theater every week to see kung-fu movies. And now I’m coming to the same theater and my movie is in it?” To see Wild Style on the marquee alone was phenomenal.
Fab 5 Freddy: It was like a crowd full of people that would be at Harlem World. Our core crowd plus graf heads, coming out to see those who they knew so well on the screen. It was unbelievable, it was beyond pandemonium, beyond what you could imagine. The crowd that supported the music, coming to see some shit that you could only hear on some third or fifth generation cassette tapes. Keep in mind, only a handful of rap records dropped by that point. And even though Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” got a lot of play, if you really knew, you knew that it wasn’t what it was really about. It was some grimier, dustier, more interesting shit; you got to see [that] in the movie.
Lee Quinones: I went with my mother. She was my date. She used to take me to all these great films as a kid, and here we are at the Times Square theater watching a film with me in it. It made her cry. That was a really beautiful moment I’ll never forget. When I walked out of that theater and I saw the line around the block and then around the next block, it kind of spooked me.
Lady Pink: I was absolutely horrified. I took my mom to see it and she doesn’t speak very much English, but what she can understand is the word “fuck,” and that was just on every other sentence. I was so embarrassed in front of my family when they saw that. I had only been exposed to normal feature films from Hollywood and this was my first independent film. It was just horrible. I thought I looked terrible, I sounded awful. I didn’t like it. I still don’t like it. You can’t make me sit through that. No one knew it was going to be a classic film, or what would go on, 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: I didn’t need great reviews—which I didn't get. People thought the film didn’t have much of a plot and people said the acting wasn’t any good. [But] people turned out for it. The film did great in Times Square; it didn’t really play well around to the rest of the country because nobody knew what the hell it was. The other place that it did well was in Philadelphia because Philly knew exactly what the film was about. Places like Chicago, they thought we made it up.
Chris Stein: I remember going to the U.K. pretty early on and guys would come up and beg me for white labels copies of [the soundtrack], and that was only within a few years of it coming out. I had my mind blown pretty early on.
Charlie Ahearn: Someone bought a 35mm print and was going around to the islands in the Caribbean in a boat. I showed up in Trinidad in 1985 and it had just played in the downtown theater and people were writing the word “sick” all over the place. They would write “Wild Style is sick,” meaning cool, like “ill.” Then I was riding out in the country and I saw this shack in the middle of the countryside that had Wild Style pieces on it. It went to places like Korea, Finland.
Chris Stein: The film is awesome. I remember telling Charlie, as soon as this thing comes out Hollywood is going to copy it. Beat Street came out right after. It’s pretty bad.
John “Crash” Matos: [Beat Street] was a commercial rip-off.
Fab 5 Freddy: I was like, “Here comes Hollywood with their money thinking they know better than everyone.” There are some cool brothers behind that film, no disrespect to them, but some things are best done from within.
It’s probably the most accurate movie about hip-hop culture to date. It showed us in our natural habitat—as hip-hoppers in New York.
Grandmaster Caz: Wild Style puts movies like Beat Street and Krush Groove and all those movies that came after in a different perspective. This is the most authentic movie about hip-hop ever made. [Beat Street] was trying to be a hip-hop movie, but it was trying to be a movie more than it was trying to be hip-hop. I mean, what does Harry Belafonte know about hip-hop?
Lee Quinones: There’s films that have been wannabes, copycats, follow-ups, whatever you want to call them, but just cannot ever touch the authenticity. No one was acting; they were actually being themselves. Busy Bee, Fab 5 Freddy, Patti, everyone was who they were. You can never get that in a nutshell at that time in New York. You can plan for the script in Hollywood, but you can never get it in the raw innocence that Charlie was able to capture on film.
Grandmaster Flash: It’s probably the most accurate movie about hip-hop culture to date. It showed us in our natural habitat—as hip hoppers in New York.
Grandmaster Caz: I think it brought a realization to people that hip-hop is not just the music, it’s an entire culture of all these things together. It kind of helped etch hip-hop in stone.
Fab 5 Freddy: It’s the movie that kind of put it all together. To be even more specific with you, the term hip-hop didn’t even exist beyond something that was shouted out from party to party, from MC to MC at that time. When we were beginning to start the media push of framing what the film was about, Charlie and I talked about it, and I thought we needed to call it something. We didn’t want to just call it rapping, because that was just one aspect. [Hip-hop] became the obvious thing to call it as representative of what we were doing it. [Wild Style has] got the DJ scene, you got Lee painting The Amphitheater, and then you got Rock Steady in the park—it all fit together. It made it seem like, "Oh yeah, these really are related."
Lady Pink: It has stereotyped us into being hip-hop people. It has been incredibly difficult since then to be taken seriously, to have my artwork taken seriously when I’m some gimmicky little hip-hop star from the movie Wild Style. And don’t get me wrong, I adore Charlie Ahearn, but this is what has happened. It’s all about commercialization and marketing. It makes a neat little package that can be tamed down and sold to the masses for major profit. That’s just the American way. We were thrown in there as an afterthought, as a visual part for this mass marketing of hip-hop. Graffiti became the background for the rap music and the breakdancers. But honestly, you were only exposed to that kind of stuff if you lived in certain kind of neighborhoods. In other neighborhoods you heard Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and you saw people doing Irish dancing. My favorite music is probably heavy metal. I love Metallica, System of a Down, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix.
The film is definitely corny and the film is definitely spotty. The plot isn't much, but I think the feeling is very strong in the film. I can stand by that.
Charlie Ahearn: Lady Pink, whenever she’s interviewed, she has to go on a soapbox. She hates hip-hop. It’s cute. I don’t take it seriously. She is hip-hop, whether she likes it or not.
Lady Pink: I am not hip-hop. We’ve always been so focused on doing our art, getting it done, getting it done properly [that] we have no room for any music, or fashion or anything like that. We are just a bunch of bum artists, and that goes in there with the whole hip-hop thing, but I’m just really not feeling it.
Grandmaster Flash: The places that I go now—Germany, Budapest—so many people know that movie from the scene of me DJing in the kitchen, cutting up Bob James “Take Me to the Mardi Gras.” That tells me that’s one of the biggest scenes in the movie. Before I get ready to play Rock the Bells, I say, “By a show of hands, how many people have seen Wild Style?” As soon as I drop that beat, I already know what’s going to happen.
Charlie Ahearn: [Wild Style] didn’t become historic for another decade. It had to be rejected totally before it could be rediscovered. By ’88 and ’89, it was all over. People were like, “No. I never did any of that. That’s embarrassing. I would never b-boy.” It was already considered passe because things kept changing and kids are always into what’s new. The DJs always were there, but nobody was listening to the DJs before. They’re like the monks—they‘re carrying the flame because they’re collecting vinyl. They're the ones who knew [about the film.] It hadn’t been out in a long time; there was no distribution of it. People were bootlegging it. I started bootlegging it. And then it started slowly—this idea that there was a history to this, that the film represents a history. The idea that there were people before Run DMC and that they had a whole thing that evolved for 10 years before that. It started to dawn on people.
Lee Quinones: Wild Style is a cult classic. Walking down the street and getting tapped on the shoulder by Yasiin [Bey] aka Mos Def or LL Cool J or someone of that kind of caliber. They still call me “Z” or “Zoro.” It’s a great feeling when you get that kind of feedback. It’s inspired many people around the globe that are household names now.
Fab 5 Freddy: Nas started off Illmatic with a scene from the film [Ed. Note—"The Genesis" samples the soundtrack’s "Subway Theme."] It was perfect. When I was on Yo! MTV Raps, he told me how his father took him to see Wild Style when he was 8 or 9, and it had this crazy impact on him. That was special to me. I told him I wanted to work together, and I ended up directing the video for "One Love.”
Charlie Ahearn: There isn’t really anything that represents that generation well. Even if it’s not literally accurate, I think it’s pretty accurate in its feeling. I’m proud of that, however humble the film might be. The film is definitely corny and the film is definitely spotty. The plot isn't much, but I think the feeling is very strong in the film. I can stand by that.
Patti Astor: I may never win an Oscar, but when some kid tells me Wild Style changed his life, that’s good enough.
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