It has been 30 years since Wild Style chronicled the South Bronx's burgeoning hip-hop community, and hip-hop culture is not what it once was. That's not editorializing; it's a fact of the passage of time. And that truth is never more clear than when one watches the vividly realized low-budget film, which essentially acts as looking glass to a hip-hop world we can hardly recognize.
Wild Style crystalized hip-hop's identity at a time when it was tenuous at best, when even those knee-deep in the culture were not characterizing it by name. "No one used the word 'hip-hop,'" writer/director Charlie Ahearn says. "They would say it's an 'MC jam.' The word rap spread as a commercial thing to sell records, but it wasn’t used on the scene."
Wild Style not only validated the existence of that then-nameless community, but per legendary graffiti writer Fab 5 Freddie's vision, the movie illustrated how its players—b-boys, MCs, rhymers, and writers—were not separate entities, but were instead convening to create a culture that could not be ignored. Like a mosaic of tiny images, hip-hop's seemingly disparate elements made the most sense when considered together. It was Ahearn's vision that allowed us that irreplaceable vantage point.
The characters Ahearn strung together, everyone from Busy Bee, Grandmaster Caz, and Lady Pink to the Cold Crush Brothers were ripe with a certain kinetic energy. The rap scene was still simmering, a pot not ready to be pulled from the stove—and Ahearn sensed its great potential. By 1984, "The world had become hip-hop’s world, and vice-versa," Ahearn said.
Today, hip-hop's touchstone film is being re-released on blu-ray, digitally remastered, and more vibrant than ever. The glossy re-release not only draws attention to how much the scene's aesthetics have changed in the last three decades, but how Ahearn's secondary subject, New York, has.
We revisited the locales throughout the Bronx and the Lower East Side where the film's most memorable scenes were filmed, including the graffiti-covered handball court where Ahearn met the film's star, artist Lee Quiñones, and this is what we found.