Building hip hop history

We spoke to filmmaker Charlie Ahearn (Wild Style) about his latest film, profiling another legendary hip hop documentarian.

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Back in the day. All photos by Jamel Shabazz

In 2002, a Riker’s Island corrections officer named Jamel Shabazz unleashed his street photography, which captured the inner-city cool of NYC dwellers in the ’70s and ’80s, upon the world at large.

His first book of photos, Back in the Day, captured the b-person cool that had disappeared from New York along with subway graff, Cazales and kung-fu cinemas in Times Square.

Previously unknown on the photo scene, former recluse Shabazz’s pieces rocked the worlds of fashion and street photography in equal measure. To the naked eye, some of Shabazz’s work looks like it could have been shot yesterday, in the fashion districts of Paris, Milan or Tokyo.

Way before Shabazz, another NYC documentarian, filmmaker Charlie Ahearn, had shared the look, sound and feel of early hip hop culture — with its emphasis on graf, breaking, DJ and MCs — with the world at large in his fiction-cum-documentary film, 1983’s undeniably classic Wild Style.

That film remains studied by fans and academics alike to this day, sampled into the ground by rap music producers, and knocked off by copy cats who would never quite be able to duplicate Ahearn’s authenticity in capturing the foundational elements of East Coast hip hop and its faithful.

It made sense, then, that Ahearn would recognize Shabazz as a contemporary worthy of capturing in front of his own lens, with the benefit of his own sensibilities as a historian.

From 2003 until the initial 2012 release of Jamel Shabazz Street Photographer, Ahearn travelled the boroughs with Shabazz to create a portrait of the photographer in his natural habitat, surrounded by the subjects that made his own vision come to life.

Enter yet a third iconic figure, late Beastie Boy Adam Yauch, aka MCA, who founded indie film distro/production company Oscilloscope Laboratories, which in turn gave wider access to Ahearn’s documentary, and therefore Shabazz’s legacy, by releasing it on DVD last month.

With so much legend to unveil, I took the chance to speak with Charlie Ahearn about his relationship to Shabazz, their experience in creating this film, their individual histories, his own challenges in documenting the documentarian, and of course his most famous oeuvre, Wild Style. Here is what he had to say.

Shabazz 2Darcy MacDonald: How did you and Jamel Shabazz meet?

Charlie Ahearn : That’s fairly easy to explain. I got my hands on a copy of Back in the Day, and I just stared at the front cover of this book, which was an image of these two teenage boys on 42nd Street.

That was a corner that I knew so well. I lived for 12 years right next to that corner, and I was there at the time that this photo was taken, so I felt a great affinity towards the image, a very personal identification towards (it). Around 1980 I had moved to 43rd and 8th Ave. to prepare for making Wild Style.

So I opened up the book and started leafing through the pictures and things were just coming to me, very directly. I noticed that there were no captions, no information, anything, for any of the pictures. There weren’t even page numbers to the book. And I really thought that this was some amazing art piece, that Jamel was this new kind of artist, and I just had to get to know this person.

I went to his book signings, and I did get to know him, and the more I got to know him, the more I was drawn to learn more, because there really wasn’t anything in the book that told us much about his background. He was doing something that was retroactive to that day — 2002 was kind of an anniversary of that moment when he was taking these pictures, and I was also going through my own 20th anniversary for Wild Style.

So I felt a powerful affinity to his vision, even understanding that he was coming at everything from a radically different viewpoint, and that this Jamel Shabazz was a very important artist for our times. The way he worked and the mission he was obviously on, I felt, was incredibly powerful.

DM: So at what point did that lead you to the documentation process of what became the film?

CA: We began doing things together. He was assigned to take my portrait, and he was photographing me at Columbus Park, which is in Chinatown. We began discussing the idea of making a film together, and what that would be like. I was very enthusiastic, and we did everything very gradually. I didn’t push him very hard, I was more waiting for him to open up, in a sense, to what he wanted to reveal about his background.

He would call me up, like, once a week, and we’d have an hour-long phone call, and I’d write things down. And I started to get to know him very well. We’re talking about 2003, 2004.

Some of the images that I like the most in the film really did happen early on. The scene I end the film with happened the first year I was working with him. We were out in the subway, and we arrive at a station and a train pulls up. And the conductor on the train stuck his head out the window and said, “Hello, Jamel,” like that! And I thought, well this is a guy that really has roots in New York, and street culture, if the conductor of a train is saying hello to him.


DM: Seriously!

CA: And we went through the books. The book was a like the magic doorway to all these people, and his subsequent books, which became ways for the people to talk about themselves, almost in a way, and to open themselves up.

And that became my ambition for the film: to find a way to tell Jamel’s story through his experience with (other) people, through photography. Which is a very oblique way to do it. But in a way it was great because we went to the African Day parade, and (also) had all these experiences with people from Rikers Island and other prisons Jamel had worked at — that happened through this photography, with these people.

Likewise when we went out to the Veteran’s Day parade, and we met all those people. It’s amazing that out of thousands of people, they would remember him taking their picture, let’s say two or three years previous. And then, giving them their picture later, sending it to them in the mail or whatever. So (Jamel) has this kind of underground network that reaches into the thousands of people. And he is amazingly committed to them.

As a filmmaker, I’ve often championed other artists. Like Wild Style was obviously a film championing Lee Quinones as an artist. And I’ve made many other films with artists. And I saw this (film) as part of that body of work.

DM: What’s it like, for you, to document the documentarian? Especially given that you became friends. Does that make it easier or more of a challenge?

CA: In many ways it opens up tremendous areas that I would not have access to. Very simply, a large range of these people that appear in the film, I would not have had access to if it weren’t for Jamel being there and photographing them.

But then, a lot of the most interesting material that I have in the film is not him directly being there. As a matter of fact some of the most interesting scenes happened in a sense from me using the book itself as a tool to open up people’s lives and feelings. And a lot of people got very open because he wasn’t there to second guess what they were going to say. So it’s true to life in terms of how people react.

And I really love the photographs, as well. So in a sense it is kinda like piggy-backing, but I think in this world we’re living in, it’s part of the cultural exchange we have today. We have a multi-mirrored reality and things are very much about their own reflections. Hip hop is very much like that. Someone was describing inter-textuality to me as the way hip hop is constantly reflecting many areas outside the lyric itself. In a Jay Z rhyme, you have myriad things reflected.

The thing about Jamel that is evident when you watch the film is that he may initially have been considered as someone who captured hip hop fashion in its golden era. But clearly that isn’t his mission or his goal, though he has a good eye for assembling people that are powerfully composed because he is looking at how they’re dressing and finding people that have a unity of style. I think that is rooted in how he derived some of his earliest inspirations by looking at gang photography.

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DM: If I had just picked up that book with no idea at all, I would have thought it was an early document of hip hop fashion, but in fact, it is quite the opposite.

CA: Yes, that is backwards, to say he inspired hip hop. His book didn’t come out until 2002. His photography lay dormant during that whole 20 year period. You can’t say — and though I would say, with Wild Style, in that it was released the moment that it was made, had this kind of instant effect on people around the world — but you have to see (Shabazz’s work) as a retrospective influence.

Yes, people in Germany or people in Japan or in France look at his pictures, and are very influenced by them because there’s a kind of sense, like, “Oh, this is the true way of quote ‘real hip hop.”’

(Pauses, kinda laughs) But I’m even skeptical of that notion. Because even, y’know, what I saw — hip hop fashion changed from ’78 to ’79, from ’80 to ’82, and so on. When you see the big gold chains, you know, that didn’t really come in until later.

So what we think of as the look was always changing. But a Jamel photograph fixes it in people’s eyes. And a book like Back in the Day fixes this image, (30 years later) we look at it and it is fixed now, in time. So people outside of the culture in a sense almost have this as a reference to it now, to emulate.

But we know that if we go into the street, that’s not the way people look. A high school student does not dress like this (now). Someone in Japan might come up with this outfit.

DM: These things now also tend to be cyclical.

CA: Something I’d like to point out is that I am a true student of art history, and of photography history. And having grown up and seen, let’s say, Robbert Frank’s street photography, The Americas — this kind of thing of how it became fixed that street photography came to mean this thing about capturing your subject, and not the layers. And then really disappearing. Because the work of the street photographer was to capture and image and move on.

Whereas Jamel’s work begins where he’s not taking photos of (subjects) unaware. He builds up a whole relationship with the person, where posing is only part of it. A lot of it has to do with him really talking to the person, and finding out what they’re doing, and building with them, as they say in hip hop.

DM: It’s interesting that you both share that sort of mythology, in that sense. Everything I’ve read about you and how you came on the scene tends to portray you as someone very much working in the shadows.

Do you see any parallels to the experience that you went through when getting into the graff scene, as a documentarian, specifically?

CA: I wouldn’t even put us in the same box. I am not from the Bronx, and I am not of hip hop. I chose to explore it as an artist. Jamel really is from Bed-Stuy, from Red Hook, from these places. And these people were like the people that he grew up with in high school.

He has an earlier period where he did quite a bit of photography on a smaller format camera, of people that were on the corners of his neighborhood in Brooklyn. And I think that his whole pattern was created at that point.

We share a lot, I’ll put it that way. But I wouldn’t put myself in his shoes. Because he worked at Riker’s Island prison for 20 years. And he was undergoing severe personal trauma from that experience, which I feel drove his whole career. I feel that it does so to this day. And the film can only point that out so much. It would blunt the point. It’s a very important point, and I don’t share that experience. I wouldn’t pretend to.

On the other hand, I’m on my way up to the Bronx right now. I’ve remained very close to the subjects that were in (Wild Style). And I just got a call from (ex-Funky Four +1 member) Rodney C (saying) Rakim is up there, and KRS is gonna be up there. The word is Rakim is making a film about early hip hop, and I’m headed uptown right after I talk to you.

DM: That’s pretty damn cool. Is Jamel Shabbaz a hip hop fan?

CA: Yes! But he also, like almost all hip hop fans, he likes all different kinds of music. KRS-One to name one is obviously a big fan of Jamaican music and you can hear it in his records. Jamel loves the fact that his photos are associated to hip hop, but he doesn’t want to be defined that way.

DM: So the DVD is out now through Oscilloscope Laboratories, that of course being MCA’s film company, rest in peace. Did you have any kind of relationship to Yauch back in the day?

CA: No, I didn’t. I was obviously a fan of the music, and I love the Beastie Boys. I thought they were hilarious. And I was raising my son, he was born in ’86. So we were playing the Beastie Boys in the car and my son was bopping to the music as a two-year-old! (laughs) That’s how I look at it. ■

Jamel Shabazz Street Photographer is available on DVD. Watch the trailer here: