Back in the early 1980s, people were still trying to figure hip-hop out.
Now in its fiftieth year, this cultural movement built by DJs, rappers, break dancers, and graffiti writers began in New York, spreading from the South Bronx to the Lower East Side, then seeping into American pop culture. The music, in particular, quickly became a mainstream phenomenon. The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” and Kurtis Blow’s “The Breaks” were crossover hits, and Debbie Harry famously spit a few verses on the Blondie tune “Rapture,” technically making it the first rap song to hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100. In 1981, the TV newsmagazine 20/20 aired a lengthy report on the genre, which Hugh Downs called “all beat—strong beat—and talk.” But in the wake of disco’s demise, a few questions remained: Was this new form of African American expression going to be a short-lived trend? Was it a fad, the future, or (as some white listeners feared) a call for revolution?
In 1983, cinema played a role in solidifying hip-hop as a major cultural force and giving audiences a deeper sense of what this young, vibrant scene was all about. Charlie Ahearn was the first filmmaker to fully bring hip-hop to the big screen. Collaborating with gadfly and future Yo! MTV Raps host Fab 5 Freddy (who stars as a hustling club promoter and worked on the score with Blondie cofounder Chris Stein), Ahearn created Wild Style, a story built around real-life graffiti artist Lee Quiñones. As Raymond, who tags under the name Zoro, Quiñones practically serves as the movie’s hip-hop tour guide. Ahearn follows the character as he stubbornly maintains his rep as a maverick, “bombing” subway cars all by himself in the dead of night. Even when his on-again, off-again girlfriend (Sandra “Lady Pink” Fabara, another revered graffiti writer) encourages him to collaborate with other artists and a flighty newspaper reporter (underground film actress and art maven Patti Astor) introduces him to hoity-toity folks in the downtown art world, he’s always in lone-wolf mode. “You gotta go out and paint and be called an outlaw at the same time,” he says.
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