Thoughts on Wild Style on its 25 Year Anniversary
A few weeks ago, Noz posted some must-see You Tube links to a documentary called 80 Blocks From Tiffany's. Taking an honest look at late 70s Bronx Gangs, the Savage Skulls and the Savage Nomads, the documentary simultaneously provided a rarely seen window into the womb of early hip-hop and motivated me to dust off an old VHS copy of 1982's Wild Style, to take a look back at the first and arguably the most important hip-hop film ever made.
By standards of any conventional film, Wild Style is terrible. The plot is thin, an unclear tale of a guy named "Zorro" (real-life graf legend Lee Quinones) who seems to only really want two things in life: his girl to like him and to be able to spray-paint a really cool mural in time for a big party in the local amphitheater. The dialogue is even worse and the acting maybe worst of all. But watching Wild Style for its craft is like listening to Weird Al for the gut-wrenching confessionals: completely fucking pointless (unless you interpret "Amish Paradise" as a frank depiction of Yankovich's struggles with his faith).
Wild Style's brilliance stems from the Grecian Urn-like way that Charlie Ahearn's cameras forever capture a critical moment in musical history. Shot in a verite style, the film reveals the ravaged South Bronx at the turn of the Reagan years as an impoverished and practically lawless slum of burn-out buildings and vacant lots. More importantly, the film reveals the astonishing creativity of hip-hop's creators: adidas-clad breakers dazzling crowds, afro'd teenagers bombing Day-Glo murals onto subway cars, legendary hip-hop crews moving crowds, DJ's inventing new break-beats to rap over daily.
Grandmaster Flash and Grand Wizard Theodore man turn-tables with the utmost precision, setting the table for legendary MC's like the Fantastic 5 and The Cold Crush. Whenever the filmmakers figure out that no one cares about Zorro and his woman (no Catherine Zeta-Jones) and instead depict the nascent art form, it's transfixing. In particular, a short basketball court battle between Cold Crush and Fantastic 5 should be required viewing for anyone who's ever liked Wu-Tang or Jurassic 5 at one point (read: everyone reading this sentence).
But the parties themselves steal the show, as Wild Style's bashes rank with Teen Wolf and Revenge of the Nerds as some of the finest party sequences in celluloid history. At the center of it all, are performances of some of hip-hop's earliest anthems, ready-made party cuts ideal for rocking the massive crowds already starting to gather. Critics often defend the cynical vacuity as of ring-tone rappers like Young Joc, Young Berg, or Young Yung (he's already huge in Miami), as hip-hop returning to its party music roots. But unlike most modern rappers' hackneyed attempts to write a huge hook to move units, the early rappers performed with a sense of spontaneity and artistic purity. Most importantly, the songs and the music are just fun. (I apologize in advance you find listening to "Sexy Lady" fun. Might I suggest a Cold Crush Brothers tape and/or a cold bath.)
Sure, it's slightly reductive to pine wistfully for days that you don't even remember, days that obviously won't return. But it's impossible not to get a bit nostalgic for a period when hip-hop was more MC Melle Mel than MC Rove. Not to say that there aren't artists today continuing to build and expand upon the culture as depicted in Wild Style. Of course, there are. But if nothing else, it's interesting to take a look back and see how far the genre has come in the 25 years since.
Download from the Wild Style Soundtrack
MP3: The Cold Crush Brothers Vs. The Fantastic 5-"Basketball Throwdown"
MP3: Grandmaster Caz-"South Bronx Subway Rap"
MP3: Fab Five Freddy-"Down By Law"