There’s also a who’s who of great hip-hop artists of the day in Wild Style: Busy Bee, Grandmaster Flash, Kool Moe Dee, Grand Wizard Theodore, Double Trouble, Rammellzee, the Cold Crush Brothers. How did you go about choosing the musical acts for the film?
Well, going to the parties, which we did a lot, there was a bunch of cats Uptown. Of the groups, it was pretty clear who was running shit. You had of course Grandmaster Flash & The Furious 5;,the Fantastic Romantic 5, Cold Crush and then you had the Treacherous Three. These were the groups that were really putting in work, doing parties regularly throughout the Bronx and Manhattan. So I’m telling Lee about these parties like, “Yo, there are these cats from the Bronx and Uptown that’s really doing it with the rhyming on a whole other level.” And Lee was like, “Yo, some of these dudes play in my projects!” That was the circuit…block parties, community centers, the parks…real low budget. So the first time I saw Flash was in Lee’s projects in the gym.
That had to be quite a sight, huh?
It was crazy. This is before Flash and the Furious 5…I believe that Flash only had four members back then [laughs]. If you were a promoter trying to get the word out about your party—which was the role I played in Wild Style—you needed to be in that kind of loop in the first place. But by the time Charlie and I started looking for groups, some of these [acts] were starting to release records. Once we started going to those parties we knew which groups to feature in the movie.
To the outside world that whole underground hip-hop world had to look like it was from another planet. How hard was it to get distribution for such an obscure movie in 1983?
It definitely wasn’t easy. Just trying to get money to make Wild Style was crazy difficult. But the first big thing that happened with the movie was we got accepted into the New Directors Film Festival. That use to mean a lot more back then. This was a festival in which you would be screened, press would come, and if you had something that was right people would start buzzing. Maybe you could even get distribution. Interesting story…Spike Lee was in the New Directors Film Festival as well that year with his first movie right out of NYU. I remember being at the festival the night Wild Style was playing. So this black dude comes up to me and says, “Yo, I love the movie!” It was Spike. He was showing his film Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads. Right away me and him became cool. The crazy part is our distribution in America was a company called First Run Features and Spike had a job working at their office.
What was it like seeing Wild Style on the big screen for the first time?
When we opened in New York we were the highest grossing film in the city the first week. This definitely meant something to the trade papers. The way it use to go down back then is when an independent movie would premiere it would only be in one or two theaters. And that theater had to be in Times Square. That was called first-run, and it spread to a few other cities. Keep in mind, there was only a handful of rap records that were out by that time. And there was still a hurdle for black movies in general. But seeing Wild Style myself in the theaters I was not use to seeing myself on screen. We were at the Embassy on 47th street. I remember going one night, I’m at the theater, and it’s packed! Heads from the ‘hood were there…this is a time period when people could smoke cigarettes and at times weed at the movies. It was much more open. People were talking to screen. But people also laughed at a lot of the scenes I was in.
Did you think to yourself, “What have I gotten myself into?”
[Laughs] I didn’t know what to think. I wasn’t expecting any laughing. But people really loved it. I’m like, “Wow…okay…we can work with that.” You have to understand, I had no intention on acting in Wild Style. That was not the plan. That was a last-minute thing that Charlie had to talk me into. I was just trying to play the background to create something that would open a whole other world up to people. But I had another intention on making Wild Style. At that time in the city, if you were an urban cat that wore whatever street people wore the only time you were seen in the media was for some crime or something negative. So at that time, before the culture we have today where rap swagger has become instantly global, that was not the case. Young black and Latino men were depicted as criminals. That was a motivating factor to have a film that showed people like us on screen being positive. The real people could look at the screen and say, “Wow, that’s how we look!”
Years later, Nas gave a huge shot-out to Wild Style at the start of his classic 1994 album Illmatic. Did you feel any validation that a new generation of fans were citing your film as an influence?
That meant a lot. There are some people that analyze every piece and morsel out of the culture. So that crowd was like, “Wow, we have to see Wild Style now.” Other people had referenced the film. The Beastie Boys used something from the movie. But Nas using that opening Wild Style scene for Illmatic was incredible. That movie begins his young life as a hip-hop fan…his father took him to see it. I would go on to direct one of Nas’ videos from that album…“One Love.” We would talk later and he would tell me just how much Wild Style meant to him.
Why does Wild Style still resonate with people after 30 years?
For people out there that are really curious and want to not just listen to a record and nod their head or bounce in the club, if they want to have a real understanding of what this is all about Wild Style is the beginning point. As this culture continues to grow and move from city to city to country to country around the globe, Wild Style represents the closet thing you can have to the genesis of hip-hop. To look at it myself and think of it in that context of having been around the world, and meeting people in these countries, you realize that Wild Style was the moment for them where they immediately said, “Wow…I want to be a part of this.”