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How a Nightclub Slide Show Laid the Foundation for the First Hip Hop Film

How a Nightclub Slide Show Laid the Foundation for the First Hip Hop Film

Charlie Ahearn revisits the humble beginnings of “Wild Style” just in time for the film’s fortieth anniversary.
FROSTY FREEZE, Patti Astor, DOZE, FRED, Ken Swift, Lil Crazy Legs, REVOLT, SHARP, Lady Pink 1983 © Martha Cooper

Drawn to the vibrant murals bearing the mysterious name “LEE” painted on handball courts, filmmaker Charlie Ahearn ventured into Smith Projects in lower Manhattan with a Bolex 16mm camera in hand during the late 1970s. “I had been thinking, ‘A great artist is coming from the streets,’” Ahearn recalls. “I was looking at graffiti through the prism of Lee Quiñones’ murals, which were all over the Lower East Side — and I was like, ‘He’s right here!’”

Ahearn wandered into a local jam where guys battled through dance, while James Brown’s “Soul Power” blared through the gym. After filming the scene, Ahearn returned to show the work in a community room. “Hardly anyone showed up because no one know who I was or what I was doing,” he says. “Then, in almost military fashion, a bunch of kids in a long line came in, and at the end of them was an older guy, Nathan Ingram, their teacher at a local martial arts school. He said, ‘I really like what you’re doing and want to make a movie with you.’”

Together they made The Deadly Art of Survival in 1979, which was inspired by Ingram’s real life battle against local drug dealers. Shot in super8 on location, Ahearn remembers filming at the handball court when Quiñones rode up on a scooter. Ahearn wanted to collaborate but Quiñones was elusive. Fortunately, fate had other plans.

Here’s a Little Story That Must Be Told

Stoop Rap KK Rockwell, Rodney C 1981 © Cathy Campbell

In June 1980, The Times Square Show opened at an abandoned massage parlor on the corner of 41st Street at Seventh Avenue. Organized by Co-lab, the exhibition featured work by over 100 emerging artists such as Nan Goldin, Keith HaringJean-Michel Basquiat, and John Ahearn — Charlie Ahearn’s twin brother. Charlie and his wife, Jane Dickson, designed the exhibition poster while John was featured on the cover of The Village Voice, which called it “the first radical art show of the 1980s.”

Designed for disruption, The Times Square Show embraced D.I.Y. practices and aesthetics outside the gallery system. At the show, Ahearn met graffiti artist Fred Brathwaite aka Fab 5 Freddy, who mentioned he had seen movie posters for The Deadly Art of Survival while hanging out with Lee Quiñones. “Fred said to me, ‘I really like what you’re doing. Let’s make a movie together,” says Ahearn.

Inspiration struck. Ahearn offered to buy spray paint so that Fred and Quiñones could make a piece outside the building and they did just that, writing a large FAB 5 piece in broad daylight without hassle from the public or police. Ahearn remembers, “That was the beginning of Wild Style.”

Heaven and Hell Is On Earth

DONDI paints Zoro on set, 1981, camera John Foster © Charlie Ahearn

In June 1980, Charlie Ahearn began working on Wild Style — the first hip hop feature film ever made. Filmed in the South Bronx, Ahearn brought together the MCs, DJs, b-boys, and graffiti writers who pioneered the then-underground art form, effectively codifying the four elements of hip hop for the first time.

In celebration of the 40th anniversary of the film’s 1982 release, a new zine charts the making of a classic. Featuring uptown and downtown icons including Fab 5 Freddy, Lee Quiñones, Lady Pink, Patti Astor, Glenn O’Brien, Grandmaster Flash, Cold Crush Crush Brothers, and Rammellzee, Wild Style brought New York street culture to the world stage.

Dixie scene, Fab 5 Freddy, Lee Quinones, sound boom, Favid Beckerman 1981 © Cathy Campbell

“I had been going to the Bronx for years,” Ahearn says. “My twin brother John was already living there, and I would go to the Fashion MODA. After I met Fred, we started going to Hip Hop parties and I immediately became obsessed with them because of the flyers. They showed where it was going to be and who was going to be there and I thought, ‘Damn, this is a road map right here.’”

Every weekend, Ahearn traveled uptown to check out the burgeoning hip hop scene long before it even had a name. “I religiously went to these spots every weekend and sometimes I would bring a camera,” he says. “The camera became my tool for thinking through the film: who was going to be in it, where the locations were, and the photographs were exactly how I wrote that information down. They were my notes.”

Salsa Twins at Amphitheatre © Charlie Ahearn

Ahearn printed out the photos, tacked them to the wall, and began to organize them in sequential order like a storyboard. “Everyone that was in them was going to be in the movie,” he says. “It started at the yards and ended at the amphitheater. I never wrote a script. When we started filming I would show up at the location when we were filming with a typewritten sheet with dialogue and camera directions. It was done D.I.Y. style, making it up as you go.”

Down By Law

By the early 1980s, photographers had adopted the practice of exhibiting their color work as slide shows in museums and galleries, as well as at nightclubs and events. Charlie Ahearn decided to share the photographs he was making in preparation for Wild Style at the Ecstasy Garage, a club located just a few blocks from his brother John Ahearn’s home and studio.

Busy Bee scratch slide 1980 © Charlie Ahearn

“There was another club in the Bronx called Disco Fever, which was a really cool place to hang out with coke dealers at two a.m. It was way too cool for me,” Ahearn says. “I wanted to meet the artists. The Ecstasy was a very large room filled with teenagers drinking Colt 45. There was a single light bulb over the DJ booth and the rest of the place was dark. It was the perfect theater for my slide show.”

Ahearn hung a couple of white sheets on the wall behind the DJ booth and set up two projectors so he could manipulate them back and forth while Grand Wizzard Theodore, who invented the record scratch, manned the turntables. “I thought of Theodore as Thelonious Monk,” says Ahearn, “He was cutting up all these records, some very obscure, and he did in a way that was like jazz to me.”

Ecstasy Garage scratch slide 1980 © Charlie Ahearn

Every week Ahearn would share a fresh edit with new images included in the mix, helping him see the movie unfold before he even began filming. “The Fantastic 5 would perform and Busy Bee would get on the mic, rapping about whatever was on the slides,” says Ahearn. “They even put me on the flyer as ‘Charlie Video’ and I felt like I was becoming part of the scene. This was what I was trying to do in the Smith Projects earlier. I thought of the slide show as a preview of what was coming.”

By Miss Rosen

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books and magazines, including TimeVogueAperture, and Vice, among others.

Wild Style zine is published by Beyond the Streets and will be available in late January 2022.

Cold Crush, Jane Dickson, FAB 5 Freddy in Tokyo © Charlie Ahearn
Wild Style Train by DONDI, Bronx, 1981 © Charlie Ahearn
Cold Crush at Wild Style office 1981 paintings by Jane dickson, photo © Charlie Ahearn

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