Fab Five Freddy and Charlie Ahearn were recently visiting artists at SAIC. In their lecture they talked mostly about New York in the 1980s and about the making of their film, Wild Style, which was released in 1982. I had the opportunity to interview them the next day, having them both elaborate on subjects covered in the talk, but also get to topics such as their current projects, recent developments in hip-hop culture, and the state of hip-hop within pop culture. Hopefully this will give the reader an opportunity to gain more insight into two pivotal figures of the early ’80s hip-hop scene...
Timothy Ivison: I think everyone has noticed a huge resurgence in interest in the ’80s, and in re-appropriating the literal signifiers like old-school ’80s Nike Airs, but also the attitude and everything from the club scene and the hip-hop style to even the rock atmosphere with a return to ’80s punk and things like Liquid Sky and electro beats and stuff like that. What do you think has prompted that?
Charlie Ahearn: There has been a reaction to commercial youth culture — we won’t call it hip-hop we’ll just call it commercial youth culture — and as corporations become increasingly more clever in disguising how they are trying to brainwash young people into spending more money in their direction...and it goes on in the most surreptitious and the most cloaked fashions because the corporations are becoming ever more clever in being able to reach young people in undisguised ways to basically get their money flowing in their direction — that’s the game (and it is the game).
TI: The type of hip-hop you referred to in the lecture was a very specific, almost historical moment in New York, in the early ’80s...and now when you talk about hip-hop, you can’t just talk about New York in the ’80s. You have to talk about all these different subcultures of hip-hop around the world. I think what I was trying to get at is: What hip-hop do you promote through the types of images and the types of media that you create?
Fab 5 Freddy: I don’t know...for me hip-hop is an idea that is different for a lot of people. It’s not really a monolith — it’s not really, like, etched in stone anywhere. So it is a lot of things. I think in the best case it is an embodiment of a spirit of creative rebellion, freedom and all of those things which keeps people drawn to it, people keep looking to it and for it for some type of creative...utopian vision, if you will. I think one of the ideas with Wild Style was actually to depict a world even earlier than when the film was made. It was trying to capture a point in time when it was about to reach the media. I just came back from Brazil — a country that has the second largest population of people of African descent — a really problematic racial and class system, in a sense. In the last ten years hip-hop culture, in the best sense of the word, has become like a dominant thing for people there, who really need something, a way to express themselves. Most of the leading rappers there embody the Public Enemy spirit, even some of the NWA spirit. And they’ve created awareness in a country that never really had a Black Power movement, a real major social movement, particularly with people of color there, so that has resulted in a lot of changes in the country. They just instituted affirmative action and have put some of those issues on the table...I like seeing that because people are obviously not doing it for the money.
TI: You guys made a clear distinction [in the lecture] between early hip-hop and what happened when Run-DMC came out — representing that street style — and talking about the way they dressed and how that was kind of a turning point towards the rapper as a personality, but also a representative of a community...
F5F: Absolutely, yeah.
TI: Leading into Public Enemy and that whole “rapper as a political platform”...and you obviously see that happening in Brazil...I think that [the internet] has had a huge impact on the dissemination of culture in general, especially hip-hop. When Wild Style came out, and also when music videos were first getting played, that was kind of the introduction of another earlier medium —video, and video technology and I was wondering (both you and Charlie), how that affected your visual style...
CA: No, video came out after we did Wild Style.
F5F: Well, MTV might have started, but we were not affected by that because they weren’t really representing black culture. I think for Charlie and I...I know Charlie was heavily involved in what was known as the underground film scene in New York and those were things that I was inspired by. I remember particularly in the development of Wild Style there was a cool theater on 8th avenue in the ‘40s that would do these really kind of cool revivals...I remember it was a double bill...I think it was, was it Black Orpheus and The Harder They Come?
CA: Yeah The Harder They Come, that’s right...
F5F: I remember seeing films like that and Charlie was like, “Wow...” ‘cause we wanted to do things in that vein, show these cultures and scenes that you couldn’t see anywhere else.
CA: We wanted something that would play to a high-school audience. We didn’t want to make a documentary because at the time, nobody looked at documentaries — documentaries were something shown on PBS on Sunday nights. In a way, The Harder They Come mixes all these real performers that were great artists in Jamaica at the time and infuses it with the structure of a story that is kind of heroic and very simple and that’s really the kind of model I was looking at.
TI: You were saying, it was Style Wars, that it kind of influenced by Wild Style, and things like Breakin’ and Breakin’ II...
F5F: Well I don’t know about Breakin’ and Breakin’ II, but Style Wars was definitely seeing a certain energy developing and they knew we were making a film. There were some other interesting ways of looking at it, but I think a lot of those other films are an example of something that obviously still goes on, where people in Hollywood think that they can do it and do it better, or whatever. But as the dust clears, there’s only Wild Style that remains as an accurate document. There are some things in Beat Street that are cool, but I think their attitude towards what they were trying to do was like, “Oh, we saw that film, but we going to show you how to do it...”
TI: They had a much more superficial plot arc as well...
F5F: I think it’s typical when you have people that really don’t have a love, like when you’re trying to dabble in a culture that’s really vital, and try to have people who are, not necessarily outsiders, but don’t really have a real love or a passion they’re not going to get it right. Technically Wild Style is not a masterpiece, from a technical point of view, but people really respond to the intent and the passion that went into it, the way we felt about the subject matter really shines through.
F5F: We were dealing with a group of people who really had no voice and there was no real medium. People like us, at the time — young African Americans, Latinos — were often and still are for the most part, depicted as the root of all evil. The South Bronx, at the time, it was the poster for urban blight in the world. Those images of the decimated homes of all those people was just everywhere and it was pervasive, and the image was so...It was something that now, with music videos 24-7, hip-hop in every city, on every radio station, was non-existent and the voices were not heard. The way people look in that film were not seen, unless they were the criminal or being grabbed up by some white cop in some Hollywood film.
TI: I wanted to talk about what you think the influence of music videos has been and how that has changed. Because at first, coming out of the ’80s they were kind of a novelty, and now it’s almost the dominant way that people receive hip-hop culture and music in general, really. You’ve taken part in introducing and also directing a good deal of music videos and it’s become a really powerful medium and I was wondering what you thought about that.
F5F: There was a period in the beginning where it was really creative because it was all happening for the first time, for the most part. Especially with a lot of black artists, there hadn’t been a lot of stuff done. There were a lot of opportunities to do things, once again, that hadn’t been done before. So there was a good creative period, along with the music, which was probably a lot more creative. I mean, a lot of the blueprints and molds were still being formed at that time. But as it became more of a commodity, and not just from the business point of view or the corporate control, but a lot of the artist too, just became repetitive in terms of their music...and then the videos became the same. So it’s not as interesting as it was. Sometimes when you see those old flashbacks, and you hear those old songs and you see those videos you love them so much more because you realize, like, “Wow, man...” Even though they’re sooo much slicker now they’re just not as interesting, nor is the music — it’s a lot of the same stuff over and over. So there was a really cool period, there are some people who try to bring it back to that direction, but it’s such a pervasive monster, it’s hard to like pull it back in...
TI: What do you think of that whole new crop of videos?
F5F: I think it’s cool. I think some of that stuff is cool because some of those guys have the right kind of sensibility and they’re kind of giving people another look at aspects of the culture that are a lot more real, more to the core... kind of spurring on this interest. Almost all of those films reference Wild Style in some respect, which is cool.
CA: They come in different forms: There’s the “I have my own DV camera and I’m going to make a movie no matter what” form of documentary. There’s a movie called Freestyle, Breath Control, and several movies like that, where people have their own DV cameras and they go out and interview people and they gradually build over the years a connection to the scene and enough to begin to make a film. Scratch was not done that way, a lot of it is shot on 16mm. I think the film is a beautiful image, it’s a really nice movie...it was done more on a professional level, and they had a lot more money to work with. They spent a fortune on getting music rights, we know that. I know they went out and spent hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars to get those music rights for that picture, because it was chock-full of stuff. That’s a different case. Then there are people who are trying to make films that are dramatic, in other words, they are not documentary, they are hip-hop. There’s a film called Bomb the System that you might not have seen yet - it’s not out yet, and there’s a couple films that are in the works that are dramatic pictures that are this sort of new crop of hip-hop movies. I mean, there really haven’t been what I’d call hip-hop movies, there have been documentaries, but not what I would call a real hip-hop movie done in a really long time. So there’s a new wave of movies that are more...they integrate dramatic...
F5F: I think 8 Mile was a pretty good hip-hop movie that I enjoyed, actually. For me, I got a look at a world I wasn’t too familiar with --- y’know, that whole trailer park world where people come from. I like the rhymes in that movie, it was pretty interesting... That is one of the most inspiring aspects of the culture - and one of the truest. In a little film called Freestyle, which hasn’t been released but has been on the festival circuit...when you get around cats in the cipher, sometimes off the top of their heads, sometimes going at each other...you just feel a spark that’s so much like, what this whole thing is about. It’s just really about skill and response that you get from those people in that cipher, that circle that gathers around it, is immediate. And you know that, “Oh, somebody just blew you away...” You know because the crowd will just be like, knocked out. That’s so cool, and it’s something that is so pure...and it’s interesting too that some of the guys who are the best at that don’t make or haven’t made great records, or haven’t been able to translate or transfer that freestyling ability to making a four minute song. It’s kinda funny...
TI: Often times they have cross over into the poetry slams and things like that.
F5F: Yeah, there’s an overlap into that world, too.
CA: Which is really beautiful. You know, that whole notion that we are a nation of poets hasn’t really hit us yet. It’s like, Iceland was a nation of poets at one time. It’s like we have become a nation of poets through hip-hop and it hasn’t really sunk in yet, to the extent that...I’m not saying that no one is aware of it, I’m just saying that the idea of a whole nation of poets...
F5F: Are we a nation of poets?
CA: I’m saying that generationally, just as graffiti art created a whole generation of people who are graphically involved, through emceeing, we have become a nation involved in the spoken word in a way that was not true before. People are walking the streets, doing rhymes for their friends, etc...that goes back to the earliest forms of poetry: that poetry was a rhythmic device to memorize long things and this is the roots of poetry itself taking place.
TI: I’ve definitely heard people refer to hip-hop and rapping as the only really important modern poetry, that this is the poetry that speaks to contemporary society, but I think it’s also really hard for a lot of people to take that to heart or really believe in that. Things like the poetry slam seem to prove something and show that there is an interest in writing and also in the spoken word.
CA: I’d like to say something, because I didn’t mention it last night: we were talking about where all this stuff came from, the hip-hop in the Bronx, the roots of the culture...and I wanted to just mention this book, Yes Yes Y’all, that I worked on and that I made with Jim Fricke from the Experience Music Project. It’s chock-full of interesting stories...and there are great pictures. More importantly there are flyers from back in ‘76, ‘77, that really like, you can look at these flyers and see who was really there and what was going on. In a way, for the first time, we get a picture of the foundation of hip-hop.
TI: Do you have any projects like that coming up? I read something about you wanting to put together some kind of web project with a live show [The Fab Five Freddy Show]?
F5F: I did that for a while, but that was affiliated with a company that went under with the whole dot-com thing, so that was y’know, whatever, but it was fun for a minute. I’ve written a few articles recently that are kind of like projects that I want to do in film. Like this book about Brazil, I’ve been doing a lot of stuff in Brazil. I wrote a big feature piece in Vibe magazine not long ago on everything going on in Brazil, the hip-hop scene, the sociopolitical...another one on “stepping,” a kind of dance that has been going on in Chicago for a while.
TI: So it seems like writing has become an important part of what you are doing.
F5F: Yeah, it’s a way for me to get the word out and it also motivates me to get the research, and the research is like a great way to share it in a written form before it comes in a visual form. It’s kind of an extension of what I’ve always been doing, just meeting people like, “Hey are you up on this?” I’ve been blessed to have stumbled onto these things kind of early, typically. So it’s a way to keep doing that, but in other mediums.
TI: There is an international effect where you see people spray painting Wild Style in Germany and things like that.
CA: Well, it is interesting when the culture goes to a place like Germany...people read the text like a bible. They imitate certain forms and there have certain things like the book that Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant did. Subway Art, people in Germany, for a decade, fed off those images and created their versions of, exactly, specific photographs in that book. Or Wild Style or Beat Street, they would look at certain scenes and they would...like if you weren’t doing it exactly like it was in the movie you weren’t doing it right, because they didn’t have anything, it was not coming from something that was local, so there had to be a way to authenticate the move or the style of it. So there was this sense of incredible imitation of the thing. In graff style, it built off this sense, because they started with these magazines that were traveling around all over Europe, like Germany...Romania has a magazine, Lithuania, and Czechoslovakia has a magazine. These magazines have styles in them, and they are style books that people copy –– style guides. And it’s expanded it to the point where people have become even more technique oriented to be able to...extend the technique a little further and a little further until you’ve got places in Europe where graffiti is so beyond, technically, what people could have imagined in the ’80s.
Back to Features