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Stereo Freeze 4.07

April 7, 2009

This week, some words about Wild Style, the 1982 film that was, as its creator put it, “the big bang of hip-hop.”

Definitive Cinema: Wild Style

Charlie Ahearn’s 1982 film Wild Style is hip-hop iconography. Ahearn, an artist and filmmaker in New York, set out to document the burgeoning hip-hop scene in the early eighties, and, together with Fab Five Freddy (who also appears in the film), created one of the best, most enduring genre films in popular music.

A look at why the film is so iconic and influential, though, shows that it goes a bit beyond the representation and documentation found in most genre films, as what the producers were trying to do with Wild Style was present their ideal notion of hip-hop reality; a reality that did not exist at the time of the film’s release, but afterwards would go on to become, in some ways, a blueprint for the culture. As Ahearn said in an interview with Hip-Hop Connection: “We were projecting our love and fantasy of what we wanted the culture to become and that’s what Wild Style was really about. It was like ‘Let’s hope the world buys it and it becomes real!'”

Compiled from footage shot between 1980 and 1982, and featuring many figures of the still young and undefined hip-hop culture in the Bronx, the film documents various happenings around the neighbourhoods where hip-hop was developing, and is tied (sort of) together by a plot following a graffiti writer and his participation in the various features of the scene. In some cases, the film is better known in parts than it is in whole: all of the iconic train graffiti footage, the musical sequences (including Grandmaster Flash’s DJ sequence, shot in his kitchen) and the footage of the dance crews doing their thing. Bits of it have also been sampled on numerous songs, including (among others) the Beastie Boys’ “Professor Booty” (the “shut the fuck up Chico man” conversation) and some of the chants in the Go! Team’s “Ladyflash.”

A long-standing misconception about the film is that it’s a documentary. In some ways, it is, with some of the scenes being simply concert/party footage, but, it is a film with a plot and characters and such. Again, it’s tricky because the actors are all actual figures from the scene who are pretty much just playing themselves, and the film is just a means for the cultural exhibition. In a similar way as the early rock and roll films in the fifties did, Wild Style presents a cultural happening in an enthusiastic manner that went a long way to spread the word. It was screened in many countries, and, along with an accompanying tour featuring some of the artists in the film, served as the first large-scale international exposure that hip-hop received. The film’s presentation of what are now referred to as the four elements of hip-hop culture as being linked did much to establish an identity for the growing culture.

1982 was a very important year for hip-hop. It had arrived on an international scale, thanks in large part to Wild Style, but, by the time of the film’s release, it had already begun to outgrow some of the scenes featured in the film. Again, some of the footage goes back to 1980, when the first attention from outside artists like Ahearn and Blondie’s Chris Stein, who was also involved in the film, came along, and things had noticeably progressed since then. The film serves now as a document of, as well as the zenith and ending of, hip-hop’s initial phase, as, the same year of its release, the next stage of hip-hop was beginning. After 1982, more record deals were going around, there was more publicity to be had, and more of an awareness in the music industry as to what was going on. What it all meant was that hip-hop was no longer being considered as much of a novelty, and the market for it was growing. The popularity of drum machines and synths was leading to a stylistic shift away from the early sound, and, furthermore, rappers were quickly becoming the focal point of it all, which, actually, can already be seen in Wild Style. MC’s quickly became the image most associated with hip-hop, and the final sequence of Wild Style is a good projection of what things would look like in a few years. 

Wild Style constitutes the emergence of hip-hop into its place in pop culture, not only defining the scene for people who had no idea what it was, but also for the scene itself. In the years following the film’s release, hip-hop flourished, and it was soon part of mainstream consciousness, as images of rappers and breakdancers became widespread. Other hip-hop films followed in the wake of Wild Style, such as the documentary Style Wars, which is based mostly on graffiti writers, but is still concerned with the whole culture to an extent. Also following soon after were Beat Street and Breakin’ (both released in 1984), which were more cinematic, big-budget films that have not aged nearly as well. These two films do serve as a valuable reference for how hip-hop, and the response to it, had changed in just 2 years, though. And what it looked like dressed up for mainstream audiences.

As for Wild Style, it still looks fantastic over twenty five years later. The footage is electric and it captures the feel and sounds of the time as no other film has. It is an excellent cultural document, capturing an emerging new cultural expression and defining it for generations to come.

Charlie Ahearn has two books published that are well worth a look, if you’re interested in this period:

Wild Style: The Sampler, a collection of images and stories about the making of the film, put together for its 25th anniversary; and, Yes, Yes, Y’all: An Oral History of Hip-Hop’s First Decade, a collection of images and interviews documenting hip-hop from its very beginnings to its worldwide acclaim. 

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 9, 2009 4:19 pm

    I’m really glad you mentioned the “Shut the fuck up, Chico, man” thing because I’d always wondered what that was from and had no idea. I assume the “Professor, what’s another name for pirate treasure? / Booty! I think it’s booty!” thing which follows is either original or comes from something else…

  2. passerine songs permalink*
    April 9, 2009 4:30 pm

    “Booty! That’s what it is.” If only I knew where that gem came from…

    If you want to see the whole conversation with Chico, it’s around 2:40 of this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SKR-rQtAFNs&feature=related

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