Hip Hop History: Interview w/ Charlie Ahearn of Wildstyle

Posted: May 3, 2004 in Hip Hop History
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Hip Hop History: Interview w/ Charlie Ahearn of Wildstyle

by Jayquan of the Foundation

Charlie Ahearn and Fab 5 Freddy

JayQuan: How did you first come in contact with Hip Hop , and what year was it?

Charlie Ahearn: Well, there’s no doubt that my ear was onto Hip Hop by 1978. I was living near the Smith projects where Lee Quinones lived in the 70s. I was doin’ these experimental film projects with a 16mm camera where I would film neighborhood kids and come back the next week and set up a projector and project the images on the wall. There was a gym at the Smith projects and kids would come there and dance. I distinctly remember hearing the DJ cutting up James Brown, and the kids would drop to one leg, and stick the other leg out in synchronous fashion like a line of guys at once. To this honky from upstate New York it looked like tribal dancing , I had never seen anything like it , and I didn’t know what Breakdancing was at the time. But I did have my camera and I would tape this even though I didn’t know what it was. I was very excited by this, and there were all these murals in the area by Lee.

When I was shooting this stuff a group of kids came up to me and said that they wanted to make a martial arts movie, and I said sure. I had never gone to film school & I knew nothing about making movies. But I shot these kids with Lee’s murals in the background, and it was like a Bruce Lee martial arts movie set in the housing projects. I was playing around with different percussion sounds to put in the background , and I went to this record store, which ironically is still there at Park Row. This was 78 or 79 and I told the guy that I was looking for something with an extended percussion sound. He said all the kids are listening to this one – and it was Bongo Rock by the Incredible Bongo Band! I bought a single copy , and put it behind this scene with Ninjas. The movie was corny , but I started showing the movie in different housing projects in the Bronx.

I was showing the film in June of 1980 in an abandoned massage parlor in Times Square and Fred Brathwaite (Fab 5  Freddy) came up to me and said that he had heard of me, and wanted to talk to me about doing movies. He said that he had been working with LeeQuinones. He brought Lee down the next day, and that’s how we started making Wild Style!!

Busy Bee

That doesn’t really answer your question yet , because the first time that I officially knew that I was in the middle of Hip Hop Freddy heard that there was gonna be an outdoor jam at this park with Busy Bee performing. This park was in the North Bronx and it was called the Valley. On one side of the park there was dub reggae music playing, and on the other I could hear James Brown music. Fred & I gravitated toward the James Brown music, and I  always say what if we went the other way, it would have been a totally different movie. But that was there in the Bronx, people don’t give it credit, but there were Jamiacians jamming in the park. People talk about Herc but they were there playing.

So we came across this stage area that looked like a miniature version of the Ampitheatre , which is where we got the inspiration later to do that scene because it made such an impression on me. There were a bunch of people on stage and this guy on the side who I later found out was Busy Bee was sweating bullets because he thought that I was a cop. He asked me what was up, and I told him that I was doing a film on Hip Hop and he brought me on stage and said “this is my film producer and we are doin’ a movie about the rap scene!” That was all she wrote – it was my first experience and there were so many people who were there that I got tight with like Rodney C who was there with the Funky 4. It wasn’t a big deal because I was announced so when I came off stage everyone came up to me and wanted to meet me.

JQ: So you heard a DJ scratching James Brown in ’78?

CA: Yes , and in the book “Yes Yes Y’all” there is a flyer for that jam at Smith projects. Theodore & Fantastic were there , Flash was there , I just didn’t know what it was at the time. In the summer of 80 Freddy and I went to DJ A.J. parties , Breakout parties , we went to the subway yards with Dondi. The movie was just a vehicle for these people to get their 3 to 5 minutes , and it was never intended to be a documentary , we never took it that serious. It wasn’t supposed to teach anyone anything – it just is what it is.

JQ: Did the Furious 5 originally perform in the Ampitheatre scene?

CA: Yes , what happened was we shot everything for the film in the fall of 1981, and  that winter looking at the footage , all the musical scenes didn’t sound very good. We used the Cold Crush sound system and it was loud , but it wasn’t clear , which is not good for recording sound for movies. I had to make a painful decision that winter to scrap everything that we shot and to redo the whole soundtrack. We redid the Dixie scene , the Ampitheatre – everything was done twice. The original Ampitheatre scene had Flash & The Furious 5 on stage , and also the Cold Crush. By the spring a lot of things had happened – Flash & the Furious were breaking up again , the Funky 4 had broken up , there was a lot going on. So what you see is the best we could do at the time.

JQ: Do you still have that footage?

CA: It’s in a warehouse in Jersey somewhere , its very hard to get to. If I could get my hands on it I would have released it long ago.The dvd would have been the time to do it , but I found it impossible to go through what I had to go through to get it.

JQ: How did everyone co exist on the set as far as Graf artists &  Emcees/DJs & B Boys ?I hear that  Graf artists didn’t really like being lumped in with Emcees and DJs , and that not all of them were really into rap.

CA: Freddy had a kinda fantasy or vision of Hip Hop as this united front , which was kinda radical at the time. There were interconnections , but there were no visible signs of it. Like in the whole year that I was in the Bronx before the movie , I saw no B Boying – it simply wasn’t there. It was going on somewhere else. I got to know Rock Steady through Lee Quinones. There was a party at his studio , and I met them there. B Boying was considered passé and out of fashion in the Bronx. People remembered it , but when I mentioned that it would be in the movie people would go awwwww that’s been played out so long ago!!! The Emcees really were not into it. The B Boys were not really on the scene at the parties and events except Frosty Freeze. Like wise the people who were down with the Graf scene weren’t at those parties. The only one I saw was Phase II because he did the flyers. Lee Quinones was a B boy when he was a kid bombing trains , but he never went to the parties.

JQ: How did Blondie & Chris Stein come into play.

CA: Before Freddy and I met he was working with Glenn O’Brien on a thing called TV Party. Debbie (Harry) and Chris were always on TV Party and Freddy used to hang out with them. Freddy took Chris & Debbie  up to a P.A.L. show of Flash before the movie , this was the spring of 1980. He took them and introduced them , hence you get the story in the song “Rapture”. Debbie was as big as any pop star could get back then , but she still hung out like that. She made this song as sort of a joke to make her references to Hip Hop , and Freddy had a lot to do with the writing of that song. In fact that song was the first time a lot of people heard rap.

When it was time to do the soundtrack I told Freddy I was scared to let these Emcees rap over the records that the DJs were playing because I would have to get clearance for all this music , and I didn’t want Emcees vocals held hostage by record companies. So I said lets produce the music ourselves , and give it out to the DJs , I don’t think that anyone has tried to do that since !! The DJs weren’t happy about it but they all seemed to like the one track (Down By Law) unfortunately because it makes it somewhat monotonous. Charlie Chase was more innovative and played other beats and slowed down the tempo. Chris Stein went into a studio with Lenny Fararri, who was the drummer  , and Dave Harper who played the bass tracks. They created the groove for the whole album & Freddy was kinda directing them. Fred got together with Grand Wizard Theodore to get musical ideas. Chris Stein came in the 2nd day and all the tracks were done in one 4 hour session. I brought in all kind of sound effect records and cartoons for the DJs to Scratch.

Cold Crush vs Fantastic

JQ: How did the Emcees get along on the set?

CA: Cold Crush & Fantastic were deadly rivals. They were friends growing up , but during this time it was like heavyweights before a match. The others got along fine , Busy Bee hung out with everyone.

JQ: Was there anyone that didn’t appear in the movie , but you wished had?

CA: Yes Spoonie G. He had Spoonin’ Rap on Peter Brown’s label  , I used to love that , the mood and everything. I wanted to work with him , but he was doing the Sugarhill tours and he was a recording artist , and I was on a street level , so during the movie  never really got a chance to talk to him.

I loved the Treacherous 3New Rap Language was my favorite. Treacherous 3 could have been the headliners of the whole movie , but we were on the way to tape the Ampitheatre scene , and we were in a van. Special K asked the driver to stop & he jumped out because he saw his girlfriend on the street. He said he would catch up with us , but he never showed. I was shooting 16mm film which was very expensive, and I told Moe & L.A. if you can’t get your guy here I can’t roll film on you guys. They gave a great show & could have headlined. I worked very closely with Theodore on the music track , and I don’t think anyone has done this since , but I showed him the film in edited form and he watched and Scratch mixed watching the scenes.

I also worked with Grandmaster Caz on the theme songs , my regret was that I wish that I had more of Caz in the movie , and more of Theodores’ Scratch Mixing like the way you see Flash. Originally that scene would have been right before they went to the Ampitheatre to see his group. There was a whole talking scene between Freddy & Flash that had to be cut because they are talking about goin’ to the Ampitheatre.

Grandmaster Flash

JQ: How come the Bob James break (Take Me To the Mardis Gras) is deleted on the Flash scene of the dvd ?

CA: I went to get permission for it , and they wanted an ungodly amount of money, and Rhino wasn’t paying me any clearance money.

JQ: Im gonna name some Hip Hop movies and ask you to rate them on a scale of 1  -10 , 10 being highest.

Beat Street – 6 (the Subway battle scene is so cool)

Breakin’ – 4

Rappin’ – 4

Style Wars – 8 for the original release , 10 for the re release

JQ : How did the book “Yes Yes Y’all” come about ?

CA: I went to Seattle to the Experience Music Project to show Wild Style , and I was disappointed that many people had never seen my photos. So I pulled out a book of photos & Jim Fricke pulls out flyer from like ’76 , 77 and so on. I said we have to put a book together where we have the flyers and photos back to back . So we would have a flyer , a photo and a story . My original idea was to call it “Legends Of Hip Hop” , and focus not so much on the exact truth , but what peoples perceptions were. I had been working on a movie idea about early myths in Hip Hop and I still want to do that , but that was the original idea for the book.

Charlie Ahearn directing

JQ: A central theme in Wild Style seems to be the Graf artists rejection of the mainstream art galleries, how do you feel about where we are 20 plus years later with rap being so mainstream , do you feel that it’s being exploited?

CA: The movie was the dilemma of someone who is an outlaw , and his becoming public threatens that identity. You cant be an outlaw and well known in the art galleries at the same time. In terms of rap I always thought that the street aspect of Hip Hop was in conflict with the commercial aspect. What we saw with Rappers Delight was the defining moment when people who weren’t part of the original culture became stars. It would be like if we never heard the Beatles , but we heard the Monkees and that was considered to be what 60s Rock & Roll was. Now the Monkees produced some great records , but when you hear the Beatles it’s such a highly developed form. When rap became commercialized in ’79 it was in conflict with the way it was developed till that point. But at the same time all artists involved in Hip Hop at the time were trying to earn a living from it. So it would be absurd for anyone not to applaud the opportunity to make things better for themselves. Nobody should wanna put it in a little box and say “if its not on the street corner its not real”. That would be racist and counter productive. So this contradiction between the needs of the commercial world & the street has defined Hip Hop for the last 20 years.

JQ: How were you received in Japan when you took the tour there?

CA: It was culture clash on many different levels for both sides , but it was very exciting. There was this Buddist Monk that came to all of our shows waving his beads……

JQ: Where did the title Wild Style come from?

CA: In the summer of 1980 when Fred and I began conceptualizing an exploring the movie , all the subway writers were using the phrase “Wild Style” to mean the most advanced form of letters , pushed to a complicated abstraction , unreadable except to those who practiced the art form. It was adopted as the name of the movie almost from the beginning. Much later I began to hear about , and meet with a pioneer named Tracey 168 who deserves credit for writing Wild Style in the mid 70s,and he is prominently thanked in the end credits of the movie.

JQ: How did the Sprite commercials come about , and what did you think of them?

CA: I was approached in 1997 by the Sprite advertising people. They wanted to do a series of “homage to the movie” scenes. Now you have to realize that the movie had not been in distribution for a long time and I was planning the re release with Rhino at the time. It seemed like a great opportunity to cross market the movie (since Rhino is notoriously cheap with advertising). I was excited about getting some of the people from Wild Style into the commercials. Also there had been some positive buzz about the ads since KRS- One  had done one etc. It turned out that they didn’t use as many of the original players as I had wished – Caz & Whipper Whip in the B ball scene and Flash & Crazy Legs in the club scene. But overall it was a lot of exposure for a very small movie…….

original article: http://www.thafoundation.com/charliea.htm

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