Wild Style

A bankrupt New York was the cradle of rap in the early 1970s. Among other things, in order to save money, the city shut down eight fire precincts. Demographic changes and white flight from the South Bronx led many landlords to walk away from their buildings, or even to burn them for insurance money.

South Bronx, 1970s.

This beautiful map by Molly Roy, with artwork by Lady Pink, shows the percentage Bronx buildings burned by neighborhood in the 1970s, along with a legend showing key places in the evolution of hip hop. See an enlargeable version here.

All of this provides the background for the hip hop movie Wild Style.

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 . . . 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.”


When the film first screened in New York City, Vincent Canby, the powerful film critic for the New York Times, explained to his readers:

For the benefit of the uninitiated, rapping refers to a very particular kind of musical communication, in which the singer, backed by a monotonous, rhythmic beat, talks in rapid, always nervy rhymes that proclaim the singer’s superiority in one sort of endeavor or another. Like good calypso, good rapping is a mixture of the primitive, sophisticated and topical. Breaking, or break-dancing, is a way of dancing to these and other forms of music, a religious experience with extraordinary athletic skills. The high point of a great break-dancer’s turn may be a pirouette on his head.

The full film is linked on your syllabus. Here is the famous basketball throwdown scene between the teenaged Cold Brush Brothers and Fantastic Freaks.

Read about the making of the film here.

Cold Crush in 2013, in a concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the film:

The Rock Steady Crew, also featured in the film, with a hit they had the same year:


Lady Pink (Rosie) is still making work. Check her out here.


So is Lee Quiñones (Zoro), pictured above with his wife.

And watch the trailer for a new documentary on Jean-Michel Basquiat (1961-1988), who was part of the street art scene:


(Geoffrey Holder as Baron Samedi in the James Bond film Live and Let Die, 1973.)

In Wild Style, the white journalist who goes uptown to get her story listens to Blondie in her car and rocks a Debbie Harry look. Blondie’s 1981 hit “Rapture” syncretized various current forms of black popular music, including disco and rap. The video contains references to West African/Carribean religion, including Baron Samedi, the lord of the dead in Haitian voudou (and Basquiat has a cameo). What else is going on in this video? Is “Rapture” an homage to black culture, or a ripoff?

Images of the band Blondie and its frontwoman Debbie Harry were a popular visual meme in graffiti art, and the bandmembers bonded with Fab 5 Freddy and other hip hop pioneers in the late 1970s.

On the other hand, in 1979, the conservative cultural critic Nathan Glazer declared about graffiti artists:

I have not interviewed the subway riders; but I am one myself, and while I do not find myself consciously making the connection between the graffiti-makers and the criminals who occasionally rob, rape, assault, and murder passengers, the sense that all are part of one world of uncontrollable predators seems inescapable. 

This is considered to be the first commercially-released rap single, the 1979 “King Tim III” by the Fatback Band — a live funk band playing instruments, not samples — with rapper Tim Washington.

The first commercially-released rap single to achieve mainstream success was “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugar Hill Gang, also released in 1979.

“Rapper’s Delight” uses samples from the song “Good Times” by Nile Rodgers’s disco-funk band Chic. Note how different the sound is from a live band.

(Incidentally, Nile Rodgers was a member of the New York Black Panther party in his youth, in the same section as Afeni Shakur, Tupac’s mother.)

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