Before hip-hop became popular worldwide, Charlie Ahearn was there with his camera, taking pictures and documenting the nascent art form. The artist and filmmaker, freshly transplanted from Binghamton, New York, plunged into the downtown Manhattan scene, but constantly found his attentions drawn uptown, in the Bronx. “There were, especially in the area of hip-hop as a musical art form, so many things happening in the summer of 1980 in the Bronx that seemed to me to be radical, avant-garde creativity going on among a high school-aged subgroup,” Ahearn remembered over a recent phone interview.
P.P.O.W. is sharing Ahearn’s memories in its exhibition Charlie Ahearn: Scratch Ecstasy. Celebrating the director and artist’s over-25 years of show promotion, filmmaking, and publishing, the exhibition provides a ground-level glimpse of the birth of hip-hop. The centerpiece of the show is a 20-minute, eponymous slideshow “Scratch Ecstasy,” featuring over 300 images from hip-hop parties at the now-defunct Bronx club Ecstasy Garage, scored with an original mix from DJ Grand Wizzard Theodore. While the majority of images come from the pre-1981 birth of hip-hop, there are a few snaps from a 1983 trip to Japan to promote Wild Style, Ahearn’s narrative feature chronicling the scene and the work of graffiti artist Lee Quinones. Ahearn also combines some slide images into silk-screened paintings made in 2017 representing some of the era’s biggest names on canvases as big as 4 by 5 feet. Video pieces from 2005 to 2016 round out the show by providing contemporary portrayals of rapping, b-boying (breakdancing), and writing (graffiti).
To celebrate the opening of this look back at the origins of hip-hop, Ahearn — along with DJ Grand Wizzard Theodore, who is featured on the film’s soundtrack — will present a May 24 screening of Wild Style at the Lower East Side’s Metrograph, a venue with special resonance for Ahearn.“Metrograph is really close to Lee Quinones’s murals,” he explains. “That theater is in what I consider one of the most amazing cultural neighborhoods that I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Shortly after putting the finishing touches on pieces for the exhibition in a New Jersey studio, Ahearn shared the knowledge and perspective on hip-hop culture that made him a player in its spread around the globe.
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Jon Hogan: After moving to the city in the ’70s, you formed the Colab (a shortened version of “Collaborative Projects”) artists’ collective with your brother. What niche did you hope to fill in the New York art world of that time?
Charlie Ahearn: Colab was a really interesting group of friends. We were organized to pool some of our creativity in group projects. This culminated for me in the Times Square Show, which was happening right south of 42nd Street, off of Broadway. Well over 100 artists were pooled from all boroughs. Richard Goldstein wrote an article in June of 1980 and promoted it as a watershed for what would become the art of the ’80s. It’s not that it encapsulated the ’80s, but it certainly was one of the primary aspects of what the art of the ’80s became: this interaction between art and creativity in the streets.
JH: With a Super 8 camera, you created the kung fu film The Deadly Art of Survival. What drew you to the nonprofessional actors of the Deadly Art of Survival martial arts school in the Alfred E. Smith projects?
CA: I never thought of it as using nonprofessional actors. They approached me to make a film, and they were already martial artists. And they were already doing live narrative martial arts scenarios in front of audiences.
The Deadly Art of Survival allowed me to work in [the Lower East Side], and I learned a lot about the culture from making that. I became very intimate with looking at Lee Quinones’ murals. When we were organizing the Times Square Show, I had met Fred Brathwaite [the rapper and cultural promoter known as “Fab 5 Freddy”], who had seen my posters for The Deadly Art of Survival. We started to hatch a plan to make a movie that later became Wild Style.
The most important plan, for him, was to bring Lee to the Times Square Show the next morning and for them to make a mural out in front of the building. I got some spray paint for them, and they knocked out a nice big Fab 5 on the side of the wall. You have to understand that this was the middle of the street in Times Square, and this was not our building. It was just the way we did everything at the time. You didn’t ask if it was okay. You just did things.
JH: Did you or Quinones select the work showcased in Wild Style, and what was the deciding factor?
CA: The main thing I was focusing on was his handball courts. And of course the movie opens with him climbing over the top of a handball court. He was coming down a rope as if he were Spider-Man or some kind of outlaw superhero artist entering the subway yard.
JH: The film’s hip-hop performances — one of the first documentations of the art form — are often intercut with action. For instance, you can hear a hushed Busy Bee performance in the background while Fab 5 Freddy and Quinones play three card monty in an office, and the camera often cuts to the stage at full volume. What was your thinking in interweaving action with music?
CA: In the film, I wanted the performers to be stars, as important as anything in the narrative. You’re seeing real performances. The performers are never background in the movie. Yes, you cut to that scene in the office, but what’s going on onstage has its own story. You see a battle between Rodney C. and Busy Bee. You see the whole thing. You don’t just see it as backdrop for narrative. Most of my favorite parts of the film take something that could have been described in an interview and manifest it with a musical scene.
JH: The exhibition Charlie Ahearn Scratch Ecstasy boasts pieces with original scores from DJ Grand Wizzard Theodore, who appears in Wild Style. What did Theodore bring to the table?
CA: One of the keys to the exhibition is the slideshow, which is a recreation of something I was doing live at the Ecstasy Garage quite a bit. I’m using that as a focal point because it’s not the most well-known place in the Bronx. I thought that it was an amazing laboratory for creativity. The audience was primarily high school students. You had MCs in groups hanging out onstage taking turns at the microphone. You had DJs like Grand Wizzard Theodore or DJ AJ or Mean Gene performing for several hundred kids in the room. They may each have only paid $4 or $5 to get in. It was very cheap, and I thought what they were getting was incredible.
In a way, [the slideshow] is the first wave of hip-hop as it’s coming from local clubs and becoming something that’s seen by the world. I worked for months with Grand Wizzard Theodore, and he would play me countless pieces of music from his collection. Every once in a while, I’d go, “That’s it! I remember that song playing and how people responded to it!” He was recreating the [Ecstasy Garage] sound for me for the slideshow.
It doesn’t mean that what you hear in the slideshow is what you’d hear in the club, because you had rappers getting on the mic. It’s not exactly the real thing, just like Wild Style is not actually the real thing. Like moviemaking, it tells a story that is very concentrated.
JH: And it’s a bit of a curated experience, too.
CA: Yes, it’s what I’d like people to see.
I always shot slides because some artists shot their work on slides. There were other artists at the time, like Jack Smith or Nan Goldin, who were using slides as artwork. I would look at the slides and say, “Oh, damn. This one’s out of focus” or “I love this image, but it’s too dark.” It was perfect when I started to think of scratching words or images into the slides.
Even though the scratching looks kind of like punk art at the time, I thought the process was very much like hip-hop. You’re taking things that nobody wants and making something new with it, like graffiti on a broken down building. Even the scratch mixing is taking records people haven’t heard in a long time.
JH: In your mind, what are the standout images in the slideshow?
There are some moments in it where you see the high school-ness of the place. Someone shooting pictures for a magazine or something might not have shot these types of things because it looks so humble and so high school, but I like those kinds of images.
Charlie Ahearn Scratch Ecstasy opens at P.P.O.W. (535 W 22nd St, Chelsea, Manhattan) on May 18 and continues through June 24. Charlie Ahearn’s Wild Style is screening at Metrograph (7 Ludlow St, Lower East Side, Manhattan) on May 24.