In his book of essays on pop nostalgia, “Retromania,” music critic Simon Reynolds writes of how we “privilege the emergent phase of a genre . . . rather than those who come later and carried on their work; the latter are settlers, not pioneers . . . but I really think you can hear the difference. In some near mystical way, the spirit of the age permeates the music.”

Anyone who watches “Wild Style” will be inclined to agree. This micro-budget project, shot on the streets (and elevated train tracks) of New York City in 1981-82, captures the birth of rap and hip-hop culture, and the energy on display is palpable — it’s that gleam in the eyes of someone who knows they’re riding a wave of fresh, vital energy. This was a point in time when the scene was still so underground that an uptown white liberal could ask with a straight face about “that rat music.”

From its opening scenes, “Wild Style” captures a scruffier NYC in a lost age before Mayor Rudy Giuliani, with three-card Monte scammers in Times Square, trains covered in elaborate graffiti, and the Bronx looking like a war zone. Sartorially, this was before the commodification of hip-hop: before XXL sizes, athletic wear and the global spread of MTV. It’s a surprise to see all the denizens of this nascent scene dressed as fairly typical late ’70s youths, randomly attired in Levi’s, plaid shirts and even crewneck sweaters, with the emcees looking more like back-up singers for a funk outfit.

Wild Style
Director Charlie Ahearn
Run Time 82 minutes
Language English
Opens March 21

But while some of the clothes were wack, the jams never lack, and the rhyming, turntablism, breakdancing and graffiti art on display is blindingly impressive. It’s no surprise that artists like Cypress Hill, Beastie Boys and Nas have sampled the film on their own albums.

Director Charlie Ahearn makes little attempt at a plot, instead taking a bunch of rappers and artists from the scene and basically having them play themselves: A graffiti writer named Zoro is played by notorious graffiti artist Lee Quinones, his rapper friend Phade is Fab Five Freddy, while his rival/sometime-girlfriend is played by Lady Pink. Also appearing are The Cold Crush Brothers, Double Trouble, Rock Steady Crew, Fantastic Freaks, Busy Bee Starski and Grandmaster Flash, who does some amazing tricks on a couple of turntables in his kitchen. The backing tracks for the MCs in the film were created by Fab 5 Freddy with Chris Stein from Blondie on guitar, with the breakbeats laid down by drummer Larry Ferrari.

The film is a meditation on pursuing one’s art versus the possibility of commercial success. While Phade is quick to embrace the media and get some hype for the scene (just as Fab Five Freddy was a catalyst for this film), Zoro is more concerned with keeping it real — but still desperate for a few bucks.

Utterly dismissive of the graffiti writers who have moved to the uptown galleries, Zoro insists that “graffiti ain’t canvases, graffiti is on the trains and on the walls. Being a graffiti writer is taking the chances and s—-, taking the risks. You got to go out there and . . . be called an outlaw.”

It all seems a bit quaint, but refreshingly so in an age of branded corporate megastars like Kanye West and Dr. Dre.

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