Classic 80’s Hip Hop Documentary Wild Style ReviewedWritten by Johnny Proctor
Their plan to give a global audience the opportunity to witness first hand the revolutionary movement that was happening inside The Bronx was to prove to be the catalyst for a stratospheric explosion across the culture. Outside of that specific area of New York the rest of the world knew very little (if at all) of the craft of graffiti artists, rappers & break dancers, then came Wild Style.
All too often when a so called secret society is exposed to the mainstream and the cat is let out of the bag the community is normally never the same again and forever tainted. These kind of reveals generally come over as heavily commercialized and watered down for the general public to digest. There’s always exceptions to the rule in life however, Wild Style was just that.
As much as Ahearn was making a film to show the masses just what was in the air at this moment in time in the still very much early days Hip Hop and graffiti communities, he was making it on his own terms. By doing so capturing a truly magical, all planets aligning moment in time when New York’s subculture was at it’s most raw, primitive and energetic and allowing the watching audience to see it for exactly that.
A time where it was unimaginable that Hip Hop would go on to change the face of the musical landscape while becoming a billion dollar business in the process. Set in early 80’s derelict South Bronx, Wild Style, a film which has more of a documentary feel to it than actual film, the loosely based plot tells the story of the young mythical graffiti artist, Zoro. An early days Banksy of sorts with the touch of an angel when holding a spray can in his hand, tagging the NY subway trains at night while ducking and diving from the law in addition to trying to find the path to turning his sublime talent for spray painting into something more lucrative.
The part of Zoro, played by “Lee” George Quinones, himself already a respected figure in The Bronx graffiti art scene. Along with Quinones the cast is littered with non actors with Ahearn instead choosing to cast what was almost the entire Bronx community of rappers, dancers and spray painters to play themselves.
As a result, acting in the conventional and academic sense is dangerously at a minimum but if you’re watching Wild Style and you find yourself critisizing the acting in front of you then you’ve already missed the point in the exercise.
Put simply it was the first film to dedicate itself to the inner workings of the Hip Hop and graffiti art world at the ground level and more than 30 years later it is still the most important and vital to the scene. The three decades plus that have passed since it’s release has seen the soundtrack alone persistently sampled by big hitters such as Nas, Tribe Called Quest, Big Daddy Kane, Beastie Boys and Jurassic 5 to offer up some examples.
With a stellar assortment of practically every rapper, B boy, emcee, and spray painter that mattered in the early days of the South Bronx scene, the lack of real plot can leave Wild Style appearing as nothing other than a mechanism to piece together a collection of scenes showcasing this urban musical and artistic subculture at work, and with the talents on show that really isn’t a bad thing
Quinones joined by fellow South Bronx graffiti artist, the legend, Zephyr to represent the spray painting community, it’s the hip hop and breakdancing contingent which takes Wild Style to a whole new level. With seminal figures of the scene at the time such as Cold Crush Brothers, Rocksteady Crew, Busy Bee, Grandmixer DST Double Trouble, Fantastic Mc’s and Grandmaster Flash all playing themselves the cast is the equivalent of a browse through the family tree of Hip Hop royalty.
When you can sit back and watch the epic Mc Battle between Busy Bee and Rodney Cee live at The Dixie you can’t help but give Wild Style a pass when it comes to it’s lack of real dialogue and acting of any high standard. That’s not to suggest that it is lacking completely in an acting sense, that’s where Fab 5 Freddy comes in.
His character “Phade” steals the scene any time he appears on screen and is without a doubt one of the coolest and charismatic characters ever committed to celluloid. Jeff Bridge’s “Dude” from The Big Lebowski generally gets everyone’s vote as the coolest film character in movie history. The reason for this is that there simply hasn't been enough people who have seen Phade at his best!
I’m not even sure if it’s possible for something to appear as beautiful while symmetrically gritty but Wild Style just about pulls it off. From the opening credits, showing you a montage of artistically spray painted subway trains riding through the bleak and run down South Bronx accompanied by DJ Grand Wizard’s – Subway Theme, you know you’re being sucked into a world that you won’t want to depart until Ahearn says it’s ok to do so.
His work is a piece of genius that effortlessly encapsulates the basic and primitive experimental values that Hip Hop had at it’s inception, and those same values it misses today . As “real” a film you’ll ever see. Yes there was a plot but due to most of the cast not even being actors, Charlie Ahearn allowed most shots to be left open for improvisation.
Even the scene where Zoro and the journalist he’s heading to a party with are accosted by a stick up crew, for this part of the film, Ahearn used three members from an actual South Bronx gang to perform the stick up, even allowing one of them to use his own shot gun for the scene! But that’s what makes it, it’s realness and honesty. This isn’t some after the event cash in when Hip Hop has already reached success as a form of music.
This is an almost fly on the wall look at a musical and artistic scene that had already had its foundations laid and was now figuring out what to do with itself. Knowing that the main character Zoro was actually a real life graffiti art legend, knowing that when seeing a rap battle in the basketball court between Cold Crush Brothers v Fantastic 5 you were watching two sets of rappers who actually DID have a hated rivalry between each other and that they weren’t just playing up for the cameras.
Watching Fab 5 Freddy practically playing himself on screen due to him already being in real life a rap concert promoter, known spray painter and quintessential key figure inside the community who had his fingers in many of Hip Hop’s pies.
Everywhere the camera takes you, you’re left with the impression that all of this would be going on at that exact moment in time regardless if there was a camera around or not. During those days in the early eighties South Bronx residents were having the time of their fucking lives right under most people’s noses and thanks to Ahearn we all got an invite to the (bloc) party.
With so many iconic and memorable images it will be a movie that will forever keep a tight grip onto its cult following while adding new recruits as the years pass.
The unforgettable and iconic images like Grandmaster Flash, mixing it up in the kitchen, a scene that Kanye West & Common recreated for the Dave Chappelle show. Double Trouble sitting on the steps rapping back and forward in a scene that was subsequently re-enacted in a Sprite commercial starring Nas and AZ decades later. The previously mentioned rap battle between Cold Crush & Fantastic, a scene also parodied by Sprite in a commercial starring Missy Elliot and NBA heavyweights Kobe Bryant & Tim Duncan.
Any scene at The Dixie which looked like the equivalent of an indoors block party any-time the cameras walked through the door. Inside the place, a case of Heineken beer, weed, Kangol hats as far as the eye can see and free styling ( the first time ever seen in a film ) up on stage with a menagerie of New York’s finest rappers.
Wild Style isn’t old skool, in the scheme of things it’s more like fucking kindergarten. The graffiti art / Hip Hop documentary that officially isn’t even a documentary that went on to become the inspiration and launchpad for a generation of rappers and graffiti artists. It isn’t just a film, it’s way more than that in the sense of what way it paved for those influenced by it.
Film? It should be looked upon more as a historical time piece where a musical and cultural movement in its infancy was captured on film at the exact right place at the exact right time and for those reasons, is a work of art that should be eternally cherished in the annals of Hip Hop’s story.
If you like Hip Hop then I won’t insult you by telling you to watch it, most of you will have done so already. If you’re not into Hip Hop? I would still urge you to watch it if you want to be see just how the biggest selling genre of music arrived at where it is today.