Today, famed iconic early hip-hop film Wild Style returns with a dazzling new 30th anniversary digital remaster on an incredibly detailed and loaded-with-extras double-DVD! We spoke to director Charles Ahearn, who also recently launched the brand new hyper-detailed and multi-faceted Wild Style website, about the early days of hip-hop film-making and what makes this latest release of Wild Style the definitive edition. We also have a copy to giveaway to one lucky reader, so be sure to check out our Facebook and Twitter pages after the interview!
OC Weekly (Chaz Kangas): Do you recall your first exposure to hip-hop?
Charles Ahearn: Yes. We won't speak in terms of graffiti because, of course, everything in New York was covered in graffiti from when I first arrived in '73. Things were bombed. But in terms of hip-hop music and breakdancing, my first real experience was I was going into the housing projects where Lee Quinones lived with a 16 mm film camera. I was taking shots of people at this project and I walked into the gymnasium on a Saturday night. Somebody was scratching mixing "Sex Machine" by James Brown over and over again. There were these guys in straight-leg Lee jeans with mock turtlenecks and a Kangol hat which we would later know as a classic style. These guys were in two lines facing each other, which for me was really intense looking because typically guys aren't dancing with each other, let alone dancing in line with each other and they would drop in unison to their back ankle. This was 1977 and I know the date because being in that housing project lead me to making a feature length kung-fu movie [The Deadly Art of Survival] that had Lee's murals.
Wild Style features several hip-hop pioneers who've come to be recognized as hip-hop legends. What made you decide who to cast?
You have to imagine, there weren't articles on what was going on. There was nothing to read. No-one could tell you what it was. You just had to go there and see it for yourself and meet people, which is what I began doing right away. Almost immediately [Fab 5] Freddie and I went in the Bronx to look for what they were doing as far as hip-hop was concerned. Nobody called it "hip-hop," they called it "going to a jam." It was just often a big dark room with a single lightbulb over the DJ area and some guys would get on the mic and be doing their rhymes. The amazing thing is a group would go on and do three hours of rhyming. It was marathon that people had so much stuff to do, and there might be 300 people in a room so it was quite popular. It was really a young scene. Whoever seemed open and exciting at the time [were included in the film]. There was no sense of "so-and-so is famous," it was more based on personal relationships.
The film shows a certain sanctity and purity of the graffiti world at that time with the secretive nature as part of the allure, as well as the non-commercial aspect. That in mind, did you face any resistance from filming so many of the elements of hip-hop?
Well, the MCs, the experience that they had had was that the Sugar Hill Gang putting out a record ["Rappers Delight"] in December of '79 was very fresh of an experience. Grandmaster Caz had lent rhymes which appear in this very long track that they had recorded which was enormously popular on radio and had went around the world. The people in the Bronx who had been involved in hip-hop were kind of bitter about that because they weren't on this thing. They wanted to be recorded and be part of it. I think, when I appeared, people's first reactions were that I was a cop. Then, after that, "he's a Hollywood film director." I was really neither, but both of those mistakes gave me a lot of access and allowed for a lot of free movement. If someone really wasn't that friendly, I would leave them alone. I worked with people who were super warm and enthusiastic. I worked for a year before shooting the moving building relationships with people, going to places and taking their picture. This developed bonds with a number of people that was very strong by the time I was making the movie.
How were the initial reactions to the finished project?
The film premiered in Tokyo, Japan before anywhere else, and we were very fortunate because the distributors of the film in Japan were so taken by the movie that they made arrangements for everyone in the movie to go to Japan for this tour. They didn't seem worried about the budget at all. We flew 35 people to Japan for a tour which included all the graffiti writers, all the MCs, the Rock Steady Crew. Just an amazing moment before anyone in America had really heard of this thing, it was playing in Tokyo. The Japanese had already been obsessed with American culture, and when we went to this park in Tokyo, they were all dressed up like greasers and they were dancing to '50s rock and roll music. They had hula-hoops and were obsessed with American culture. We showed up and blew everything away. What we represented seemed really new and that there was a kind of unity to it. People could see that something was going on that was very attractive to people.
In this age where classic films are losing their soundtracks left and right, is all of Wild Style's original music left intact?
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Is there anything you're most excited about that will be available with this new re-release?
I really like the interview I did with Lee because I learned a lot. You would think that after 30 years I would know everything that he could tell me, but Lee is amazing. He's coming from a very deep place in graffiti history and was very secretive about a lot of it. It's interesting to hear stuff from the late '70s that was leading to his involvement with Wild Style.