Wild Style was the first hip hop motion picture. Released theatrically in 1983 by First Run Features and later re-released for home video by Rhino Home Video, the movie was directed by Charlie Ahearn and featured Fab Five Freddy, Lee Quinones, the Rock Steady Crew, The Cold Crush Brothers, Patti Astor, Sandra Fabara and Grandmaster Flash. Full Phat finally got to see it 27 years later.
An unintended benefit of the snow flurries which hit the South east this week was being given a hotel by work on the Albert Embankment. As I am now a retired player, instead of trawling the pond life of Lambeth for a shag I went to fill a gap in my cultural knowledge; a seminal hip hop film was screening at the Prince Charles Cinema in Leicester Square (Time Out London cinema of the year 2009).
In my early teens I was a classic early 80s white provincial hip hop fan - a lover of breakdance, scratching, MCing, and graffiti but very much NOT a practitioner.
To slake the cultural thirst in Canterbury we had the wonderful Richard’s Records, white boys in shell suits spinning on their heads in the Butter Market, and arse wipe graffiti on the St George’s underpass.
Seeing the films was tough in the days before widespread video rental. There was a rudimentary student film club in Keynes College, which showed Breakdance and Beat Street (Arthur Baker soundtracks, amen!) but I never saw the pearl - Wildstyle.
I’d always thought it would be a great film to see from a fan’s point of view, as it features so many of the young B boys and fly girls who became pioneers of the new, multi dimensional hip hop culture that became the biggest selling music form of the 90s and noughties - Fab 5 Freddy, Crazy Legs Crane, the Cold Crush brothers. But I hadn’t expected it to be so smart, so conscious that it was recording a really significant cultural movement, and that it would showcase this movement that united some very obscure leisure activites into an international youth culture so effectively.
There is a narrative of sorts, as the graffiti artist Zoro struggles with his artistic identity. It’s not a tenuous narrative that’s just there for its own sake either - his struggle to stay “underground” and anonymous metaphorically represents the ambivalence of the whole of hip hop culture at that point in time. It was the time of “Rapture” by Blondie, of “Buffalo Gals” by Malcolm McLaren, when the wealthy bohemian punks who hung out in Upper East Manhattan realised that the kids in the ghettos of the Bronx and Queens were doing the most interesting things in New York.
The soundtrack to the film is jointly credited to Chris Stein, Blondie’s creative chief, and Fab 5 Freddie. The tension between being true to the game and selling out to the whites from Manhattan is represented in the film as Fab 5, who embraces the chance to escape the underground, raise his profile and get stone cold paid by the uptown set, is regarded with suspicion and hostility by those who want to keep graffiti and hip hop an underground secret. Once Zoro’s face becomes known, he fears that he will no longer be able to paint the subway trains that take his art all over the city. To hell with that says Fab 5 - put it on a canvas and sell it to the city…
It is of course the same dilemma represented in many art films, such as Vincent and Theo, and shows a remarkably early prescience of how overground this tiny movement would become.
The catalytic element is a white downtown journalist, who Fab 5 has met at an uptown party and who wants to interview the elusive Zoro. She looks like Debbie Harry with a few extra pounds (or minus a heroin addiction) and again references the interest of the punk subculture in the hip hop subculture. Her trip to the Bronx allows us to see it with the eyes of an outsider, and the scenes which scan the graffiti covered subway trains rattling slowly past what looks like a city that has been bombed are documentary in their realist power. Burnt out gas stations, crumbling 10 storey apartment blocks, shells of factories. It’s shocking that the destruction depicted has not been caused by war, but by a form of economic ethnic cleansing (“Reaganomics” as the Captain Rock track put it- the consequences of Osbournomics are coming our way soon). Let the racist market decide who should thrive and who should decay…
The portrayal of the power and resilience of hip hop culture as the community’s way of coping with being economically abandoned by an inhumane government is inspirational without being sentimental. Zoro’s intention in risking his life painting subway trains is simple- he just wants to make a miserable place look better. Fab 5 wants to tell the whole of America how exciting and creative life is in the Bronx. The joy, energy and excellence of the culture being showcased is wonderful and is skilfully weaved into the narrative without contrivance by using the frequent parties to move the story along. We see Crazy Legs and the Rock Steady crew doing some breath taking break dancing, Double Trouble, Cold Crush brothers and Busy Bee MCing, a young Grandmaster Flash scratching, Fab 5 and Zoro spray painting. The closure sees all the rival MCs, taggers, and break dance crews uniting to hold a party for the community in a disused outdoor amphitheatre which Zoro has decorated to show his commitment to his lover, who is far more community minded and brings him out of his withdrawn self obsessed insularity to share his gift and shed his anonymity. All the tensions between rivals are put to one side, as is the obsession with keeping the movement an underground secret. In the film as in reality, Fab 5 wins- the culture gets downtown exposure, the rest is history, and white kids can buy the Electro compilations from Richard’s Records and spin on their heads in shopping centres in the home counties. Fab 5 of course became the first hip hop presenter on MTV- presenting and producing Yo! MTV Raps. Thanks Fab 5 for not being afraid of the overground and letting us all play.
“Fab 5 Freddie told me everybody’s fly
DJs are spinning I said my my
Flash is best, Flash is cool”