It’s seminal! There were certain things that became the means by which hip-hop culture conquered the world, the original memes of graffiti and rap that went global. And this is the very first movie to do that. So it’s super, super important. It’s naive, and fresh, and not cynical. If you think about how urban movies are so much about the grit, crime, and despair, stuff like that, this movie is actually a really happy optimistic kind of film… In so many ways this was a really joyful kind of thing. And really, what’s more radical than joy? – Carlo McCormick
Matthew A. Eller: Currently I’m sitting with Carlo McCormick outside the entrance to the Holland Tunnel for some reason, to chat about his spectacular new show he curated for the 40th Anniversary of the film Wild Style. In a couple of sentences tell people who you are.
Carlo McCormick: Hi, I’m Carlo McCormick. I’m a critic and a curator based in New York City.
Matthew A. Eller: Tell us a little bit about this show and how you got involved with Wild Style in the first place?
Carlo McCormick: Charlie Ahearn, who made Wild Style, wanted to in some way memorialize this landmark achievement of 40 years, and Jeffrey Deitch has always been really supportive of Charlie and of that whole community, so knowing I was a fan, and friend of all the artists involved, they asked me to curate this exhibition.
Charlie and I have worked with all of these artists in one way or another at different times for over 40 years. With a movie that’s 40 years old a majority of who’s in this show are in their 60s by now but we were all kids when we met, so for me, it’s not just this kind of historical momentous occasion- It’s a love letter to the youth, and the energy, and the impossible dream of what it was to be in New York City in the early eighties.
Matthew A. Eller: Okay, so what is Charlie’s & your origin story together? Did you know each other before the filming of Wild Style?
Carlo McCormick: I’ve been a big supporter of his wife Jane Dickson’s art for decades, and I’ve long loved the sculpture of his twin brother John Ahearn. Similarly Charlie has always supported my wife’s films as well. He’s family. We’ve known each other a long time. His generation is older than me, so they knew me when I was just a bratty kid.
Matthew A. Eller: When you originally heard about this indy movie about “Hip-Hop” music & culture being made did you think it would end up being this culturally revolutionary?
Carlo McCormick: The whole movement was revolutionary from the start. It was really huge in my imagination. I can speak for downtown. I can’t speak for uptown on all of this, and there is very much an uptown meets downtown vibe in the movie. But downtown I think we were all very sure that we were in the middle of something special. By our local measure everyone was incredibly famous downtown, but that didn’t translate to what real fame was. These people were downtown legends already, especially the writers like Lee, Futura, or Dondi. So yes, we thought we were all famous but when someone like a Richard Prince or a Madonna would get really famous, well, that’s a different kind of fame, which didn’t really matter to us because downtown was its own self ratifying system.
Matthew A. Eller: Plus, the movie turned out to be more than just a movie. The logo alone that Zephyr designed with Dr. Revolt turned out to be bootlegged all over the planet.
Carlo McCormick: It’s seminal! There were certain things that became the means by which hip-hop culture conquered the world, the original memes of graffiti and rap that went global. And this is the very first movie to do that. So it’s super, super important. It’s naive, and fresh, and not cynical. If you think about how urban movies are so much about the grit, crime, and despair, stuff like that, this movie is actually a really happy optimistic kind of film. It’s like song and dance. It’s kind of classic in that way. So it’s a subculture… in a really beautiful flowering. And you have to remember so much of these gestures at that time coming out of the city were like wild beautiful weeds growing out of the cracks in the sidewalk. This was long before gangsta rap for instance. It’s like that whole early hip hop thing of; “Yes, yes, y’all, wave your arms in the air like you just don’t care”. What does that mean? It means, I’m gonna wave my arms in the air- I’m not in my defensive or aggressive mode. That’s what the party was. In so many ways this was a really joyful kind of thing. And really, what’s more radical than joy?
Matthew A. Eller: I’ve actually talked to Charlie about this but it’s crazy to me that it’s been sampled so many times. From the Beastie Boys “Professor Booty” to the intro of Nas’s “illmatic” it just pops up everywhere. I guess it’s a cultural phenomenon to say the least?
Carlo McCormick: Yeah, it’s an early signifier. One of the things that was really important with this show was to make it about the visual art. So it’s not about the Cold Crush Brothers or Busy B, about the Rock Steady Crew, or Crazy Legs and Frosty Freeze. All those figures are foundational, but after a whole fucking year celebrating the 50th anniversary of hip hop, the fact that this movie documents how it was very much an art movement beyond the world-changing force of the music, foregrounding that really appeals to me.
Matthew A. Eller: And of course it introduced Lee as a star to the rest of the world.
Carlo McCormick: Lee was a star in many ways. But a lot of that whole thing of Lee being this mysterious, enigmatic guy is also being born in that movie. He was a squirrelly guy, and the Vandal Squad really had a hard on for him. Lee was really like public enemy number one.
But again, this show is not about hip-hop. It’s about the movie. It’s about the artists. It’s about the visual artists around that movie. So it’s the fact that Lee, Pink and Fab Five Freddy, they’re the stars of the movie and they’re significant graffiti artists, that Futura and Dondi do cameos in there, and Zephyr and Revolt and Crash and Daze and so many others- they all worked on different sets and scenes, so it’s very much an art movie.
The other thing is that Charlie Ahearn is very much an artist. His filmmaking is just one his mediums of artistry, and now he’s making paintings that are in the show. Filmmaking was just the best way he could tell this story, and he does lots of beautiful films. But Charlie, his wife, and his brother, were part of Colab, a really vital art collective which, like graffiti, was something that fundamentally changed the downtown art scene and the way we saw the world.
Matthew A. Eller: You gave me a little tour of the show which features a lot of living and artists who have pass away, and there are a couple of artists that aren’t in the movie at all?
Carlo McCormick: It’s a friends and family show. I wasn’t trying to do a big comprehensive thing about the movement, it’s influences, and stuff like that. Nothing like a beyond the streets kind of thing. It was more about keeping it about a community. And a community that’s basically family, because we’ve all known each other for so long.
But there’s some people that maybe wouldn’t be obvious to that community. Probably the most egregious to people would be Kaws. He’s definitely a generation different and it’s kind of a shit magnet to choose someone so famous. But the important thing about Brian here is that he’s really, really good friends with everyone in this show. He’s family. And he’s been so generous and so supportive. There’s so many of these artists at different times who were struggling and he really sustained them. He didn’t just buy work from them. He’d buy work from galleries as well to help everyone. He’d buy them at auction to raise their worth. He was really smart. And he pays backwards in a really beautiful way. Kaws from the very beginning had a better map than the rest of us. And it’s because he watched everyone, and learned from their mistakes.
Kaws is in acknowledged here in the same way that Martin Wong is, for that immeasurable combination of style and affection, how each became very successful artists and used their success to support graffiti. Again, you know, Martin wasn’t in Wild Style. He collected all these artists, and he supported them. And he built this collection around them, which is now in the Museum of the City of New York.
And, then I guess another one which is a little less obvious chronologically is Os Gemeos. And that’s just because they’re more Wild Style than anyone in the show. I mean you’ve got to find their picture in the encyclopedia when you look up Wild Style. They are Wild Style Brazil!
Other ways of extending the family is with a lot of photographers who were working then. Henry Chalfant who was documenting a lot of important work on the trains. Martha Cooper, who was not only documenting the culture, but took really iconic photos. During that time Joe Conzo was on the set. Kathleen Campbell who was also on the set and was really great. And then Jeanette Beckman who, coming from London, brought high style to the look of hip hop.
Part of the show is not just about this movie that came out in 1983. It’s about it being an independent movie. So it was actually made from 1981 to 1983. It took two fucking years to make this movie! It had no budget! It’s amazing it ever fucking came out! So it’s about everything that happened over those two to three years.
During this time this great hip-hop tour featuring all these people like Rammellzee, Futura, Dondi, Fab Five Freddy, Grand Mixer DST, Afrika Bambaataa, Rocksteady crew, they all go on this tour of Europe. It’s called the “Rap Tour”. Literally this shit hasn’t even broken in America hardly and it’s already spreading super deep into the UK.
And Jeanette’s over in England and she photographs that tour and then she’s like “Holy fuck! What is this shit?” And then six months later she moves to New York City.
So it’s all these different ways in which it’s all a discovery, a coming of age for each of us, and how we all ended up there. It’s about sharing a culture, and there’s a lot of love to share. One thing I’d say is that this is a group show made up of almost entirely people who would say no to being in a group show at this point in their careers, but were all totally stoked to hang together.
Matthew A. Eller: During my tour I of course being a photographer spent some good time checking out the photo section, and it features incredible iconic stuff, and tons of behind the scenes shots of the cast & crew. It’s pretty incredible.
Carlo McCormick: Yeah, you’re getting to see Charlie directing people and stuff, its nice. How could that not be in the show?
There was different things we could of done but we didn’t try to emphasize the soundtrack. Which, as you said, has been sampled and super important in the history of that part of hip-hop. But we also didn’t do a lot of ephemera. Just the Phase 2 flyers from that era. This is my way of talking about Phase, who otherwise was pretty distant from this scene because he always thought he was better (laughing).
Matthew A. Eller: It’s a big show, but it’s a small show. It’s all in one room. How hard was it to pick who and what goes where?
Carlo McCormick: It’s a lot of work in there though! It goes up really high. And then Rammellzee’s sculptures always have such a monstrous presence. I love the fact that one doesn’t think of sculpture when one thinks of graffiti but its here. We have Rammellzee, John Ahern, and Kaws kind of sharing the same dance floor. It’s fucking beautiful. That’s what happens at a block party. To me, that’s like the essence of it.
Matthew A. Eller: I won’t be posting any photos Kaws’s sculpture because it was not completely installed yet, but it’s huge and bright yellow!
Carlo McCormick: It’s really a nice monster piece. And what’s so great about it? It looks like it’s sort of plastic… but… no, no, that’s bronze painted to look like plastic!
Matthew A. Eller: It’s truly an eye catching piece. But we are out of time so one last question. Can you give me one humorous story from back in the day about Wild Style?
Carlo McCormick: Well I don’t know about funny stories, but I do remember the first time I encountered Lee’s handball court, which is represented in the show with his giant lion piece.
I was a teenager. I tried to get a straight honest job and they fired me. They fired me even though I had the highest productivity rating of anyone on this whole floor of people doing menial shit.
They said my attitude was so bad, but what they really meant was that I was a fucked up drug addict. But I was kind of happy though because they fired me and escorted me out of the building and they asked me to take everything with me from my desk like staplers and shit and put them in a cardboard box. Well, I actually remember not having my own office supplies… so maybe I did have a bad attitude (laughing)! But anyway, they told me they’re going to pay me for the rest of the week… but just don’t ever come back again again (laughing). Anyway, I just started walking east because I was downtown in the financial district and end up walking by that Lee’s handball wall. It was a momentous thing for me to experience Lee’s work in the wild. Changed my life.
But! If you want real Wild Style stories, come to Jeffrey Deitch Gallery on November 21st, because Charlie’s going to moderate a panel with Lee, Lady Pink, and Fab Five Freddy, where they’re going to tell lots of fun stories. Better if they tell them because they were the ones who were in the actual room, and they got the real funny fucking stories.
Matthew A. Eller: Thanks so much Carlo, and I can’t wait to see the madness it becomes on Saturday night!