There aren't many filmmakers who are in the right place at the right time to capture the start of a subculture; most documentary projects come together around an idea or movement when popularity is at a fever pitch -- but by the time the dust settles and the film comes out, the fever has cooled and we're left with an embarrassing relic of a moment in time. (See the two dueling Lambada movies in 1990 -- or better yet...don't).
Charlie Ahearn's 1983 triumphant Wild Style, playing Monday, January 19 at the Alamo Drafthouse, is one of those rare films that was ahead of the zeitgeist. It was instrumental in successfully documenting a new little movement called hip-hop and its fresh, multiple points of entry: graffiti art, break-dancing, fashion, turntable mastery and rap music. Ahearn had been approached by charming graffiti artist Fred Braithwaite, who essentially handed him the keys to the kingdom: Hang out with Fab Five Freddy and his friends who were starting an artistic revolution in the Bronx, turn the camera on -- and the film will practically make itself.
See also: The Ten Best Hip Hop DJs In Denver
Ahearn crafted a very loose thread of story for the film, which revolves around a graffiti artist named Zoro being pursued by an uptown journalist for an inside scoop in his exciting new world. But the bulk of the film is a documentary introducing the world to the hip-hop pioneers who would soon become household names -- or at least the notable powerhouses whose careers in that burgeoning world have stuck with us for decades. To borrow an inch of Blondie's "Rapture," here are five fab Freddies who told us everyone's fly:Grandmaster Flash
In an effort to bypass the music-licensing issues that plague most soundtrack-heavy films, Ahearn and Braithwaite got every artist inWild Style
to create original songs for the film so that the culture could be represented free and clear. One of the biggest artists to bust out onscreen with his cinematic antics was Grandmaster Flash (aka Joseph Saddler), whose mixing, scratching and cutting birthed the DJ as we know it best. Just beforeWild Style
hit, Flash was credited with Furious Five hits "The Message" and "White Lines" -- though their relationship came to blows over lost royalties and other infighting. Despite the pain, Flash's touch paved the way for decades of artists to come.
Grand Wizzard Theodore Though he was a DJ apprentice to Grandmaster Flash, Grand Wizzard Theordore (aka Theodore Livingston) is credited as the creator of the "scratch" technique that is the heart beat of hip-hop. As legend goes, Theodore was playing records at top speed in his room when his mother came busting in to bust his chops. While she hemmed and hawed, Theodore held his place on the record by slowly moving the disc back and forth and noticed that it created a sweet sound all its own. He shared this new tool with Flash, who helped develop it with mixing and cutting to take it to the next level. Grand Wizzard went on to make beats for MC clans the Fantastic Five and the Cold Crush Brothers, keeping the pulse of his creation the whole time.
Lady Pink Playing the role of fictional Lady Bug in Wild Style, small but mighty Sandra Fabara steals much of the film with her personable, quick wit and cute looks -- but it is her graffiti art as Lady Pink that leaves her mark on the screen and in history. Grieving over the loss of a deported love, Fabara began spraying his name all over New York but soon realized that hers was the name that mattered most, and so the moniker Lady Pink was born. Going beyond subway cars and walls with her tags, Fabara was exhibiting in gallery shows and, by the age of 21, had her own solo show, Femmes-Fatales, mounted in 1985 at Moore College in Philly. Her expansive canvases may now hang in the Whitney, the Metropolitan and museums the world over, but it's how her art infuses Wild Style and the look of hip-hop that will forever be stamped in time.
Keep reading for two more hip-hop pioneers.
Busy Bee Starski A fast warrior in the coliseum of the rap battle, MC Busy Bee Starski (aka David Parker) can spit a rhyme with the best of them, including pioneering peers Melle Mel, Kool DJ AJ and Afrika Bambaataa. In Wild Style, Starski can be seeing putting some young MCs to shame with his quick and often comedic raps. After the film's release, Bambaataa urged Busy Bee to join his Zulu Nation, where he inspired a generation of MCs to truly master their game.
Fab Five Freddy The grand conductor of the scene, rapper, visual artist and filmmaker Fab Five Freddy (aka Fred Brathwaite) was at the front of the hip-hop train well before he tapped Charlie Ahearn and told him where to point his camera. Freddy was running the Fabulous 5, a graffiti crew, and covering half of the New York subway system in swaths of color and design. But he worked hard to get artists beyond the streets and into galleries, and laid the floor for people like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring to bust in on their own merits. The music and the breakdancing that came with the look were calling, too, and Freddy could rap, laying his rhymes over numerous beats and helping every talented new artist get a gig at a club or, at the very least, some respect. His influence and eye led him to become co-host of the groundbreaking MTV hip-hop show Yo! MTV Raps from 1988 to 1995, which may have bn the final platform to launch hip-hop into the mainstream.
See all of these pioneers in Wild Style when it screens at 7:30 p.m. Monday, January 19, at the Alamo Drafthouse, 7301 South Santa Fe Drive in Littleton, as part of the Shiner Soundtrack series. Tickets are $10.75 and available at drafthouse.com
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Dear Constant Reader, learn more about Keith Garcia on Twitter: @ConstantWatcher