Charlie Ahearn was born in 1951 in Binghamton, New York, and is an American film director and creative cultural artist currently living in New York City. Although predominantly involved in film and video production, he is also known for his work as an author, freelance writer, and radio host. He is married to painter Jane Dickson.
Life and work
Charlie Ahearn came to New York City in 1973 to attend the Whitney Museum of American Art Studio Program. Later he was joined by his twin brother, John, and they became part of the artists' group Colab - short for Collaborative Projects - which was a group determined to go beyond the traditional art world and galleries, and find a way to "be creative in a larger sense".
For several years during the 1970s Ahearn, then living in downtown Manhattan, concentrated on making 16-millimetre art films. In 1977 he went to the Alfred E. Smith Projects in the Lower East Side to film local youths practice martial arts with his Super 8 camera, which exposed him to hip-hop. Whilst there he saw murals by graffiti artist George "Lee" Quiñones and started filming them alongside the local kids who were break-dancing This was something that was to influence his artistic output in the following years.
At this point, Ahearn was approached by some of these local youths who wanted to make a martial arts film, and Ahearn agreed despite never having attended film school and not knowing how to make a feature-length film. Being inspired by some of his favourite kung fu films such as 36 Chambers, Mad Monkey Kung Fu, and Five Deadly Venoms - as well as the films of Bruce Lee - he wrote, directed and produced the film titled The Deadly Art of Survival. The film was made during 1978-1979 in Super 8 format and featured Nathan Ingram, a martial arts instructor who lived in the Lower East Side, and had struggled to teach the local youths discipline and self-respect and establish a martial arts school of the same name as the film.
Ahearn showed the film in an abandoned massage parlour that Colab had taken over on the corner of 7th Avenue and 41st Street in the then rather shady Times Square area (where Ahearn also lived on 43rd Street and 8th Avenue, from 1981 to 1993). CoLab's art show - titled The Times Square Show - had a strong street orientation and included all kinds of street art (including graffiti). The show introduced artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kenny Scharf and Keith Haring.
At this point Ahearn was approached by graffiti artist Fred Braithwaite, later known as Fab 5 Freddy, who wanted to make a film about hip-hop (as a broad culture encompassing emceeing, DJing, graffiti and break-dancing) and graffiti as an art form. Braithwaite was an acquaintance of Lee Quiñones, whom Ahearn had long-wanted to film and whose murals he has always admired. Braithwaite brought Quiñones in to meet Ahearn and the three began discussions about creating a hip-hop movie. Soon after the meeting, Braithwaite and Ahearn attended an event in a north Bronx neighbourhood called the Valley, where Busy Bee Starski, who went on to appear in several of Ahearn's productions, was performing on stage as an emcee. Ahearn approached him asking whether he would be interested in being part of the hip-hop film project - an inquiry to which Starski replied by immediately taking Ahearn on stage and announcing over the PA that they were to began making a film together, thereby making the co-operation publicly known and closing the deal in a manner very typical of the spirit of the Bronx in those days.
As a result, in the summer of 1980 Ahearn began working with Braithwaite and Quiñones on what was later to be a classic hip-hop feature-length film by the name of Wild Style, taking its name from the graffiti-painting style of the same name: a style that is very symbolically described as an "energetic interlocking construction of letters with arrows and others that signify movement and direction". Ahearn wrote, directed and produced the film, wanting to go beyond fiction and documentaries and make a film that showed real people doing real things, as well as portraying the visual explosion seen in New York at the time in the shape of graffiti that fascinated Ahearn so much Additionally, in light of his creative and natural activist approach to art, Ahearn saw a chance to touch upon more general topics such as the classic conflict between art and commerce.
Wild Style screened two years later in 1982 and later premièred in 1983 in Times Square, breaking records by selling out at all screenings in the three weeks it played. Quiñones took the lead role, and Braithwaite and Lady Pink had supporting roles. The film also featured prominent hip-hop music, break-dance and graffiti figures as The Cold Crush Brothers (J.D.L., Grandmaster Caz, Almighty K.G., Easy A.D., DJ Charlie Chase, and DJ Tony Tone), the Fantastic Freaks (Waterbed Kevie Kev, Prince Whipper Whip, Ruby Dee, Dot-a-Rock, Master Rob, DJ Grand Wizard Theodore), Zephyr, Dondi, Futura 2000, Grand Mixer DXT, Rock Steady Crew (Frosty Freeze, Prince Ken Swift, Take One, Mr. Freeze, Crazy Legs), Rammellzee, Shockdell, Double Trouble (Rodney Cee, K.K. Rockwell, DJ Stevie Steve), Busy Bee Starski, DJ AJ, and Grandmaster Flash, although part of his scenes featuring his Furious Five crew has to be cut out of the released version because of technical reasons.
The highly successful soundtrack of the film, which was composed entirely from scratch to avoid rights clearances, was produced by Fred Braithwaite, in collaboration with Chris Stein of chart-topping rock act Blondie. Grandmaster Theodore mixed the album and Grandmaster Caz wrote the lyrics.
Wild Style and its soundtrack have since been regarded as the most accurate portrait of hip-hop culture and was even named as the definitive hip-hop film. Its popularity quickly spread to even the furthest reaches of the world, as shown by the fact that Ahearn and a select group of around 30 actors and performers from the film and others that didn't appear such as DJ Afrika Islam, were invited to Japan in 1983 to promote both the film and the hip-hop culture in general.
Ahearn transferred his Hip-Hop archive, including detailed "Wild Style" production notes, artwork, photographs, and audio and video recordings, to the Cornell University Hip Hop Collection in 2012.
Other film projects
In 1992, Ahearn moved on to other projects, resulting in his video Doin' Time in Times Square, which was shown at the New York Film Festival. He also produced a series of Artist Portrait Videos featuring Kiki Smith, Tom Otterness, Ahearn's brother John, Martin Wong, Jane Dickson and Leon Golub. Shortly before the turn of the century Ahearn wrote and directed his next feature film, Fear of Fiction, which opened in July 2000.
His most recent works include Cinema Outlaws, a two-person talk with Ahearn and John Waters at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art; Under One Groove, a two-person photo exhibition with Ahearn and Jamel Shabazz ay MU Eindhover, Netherlands; Art in the Age of Hip-Hop; and a two-person talk with Ahearn and Fred Braithwaite at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
In the new millennium, Ahearn worked on a series of musical shorts with some of the stars from Wild Style. Bongo Barbershop (8 minutes, 2005) stars Grandmaster Caz in a battle with Balozi Dola, a Tanzanian emcee. Busy on the Beach (4 minutes, 2006 Produced by Victoria Hart Glavin) features Busy Bee Starski taking the audience on a tour of his Baltimore neighbourhood, nicknames the Beach. Brothers Fantastic (7 minutes, 2007) features Master Rob and Waterbed Kevie Kev from the Fantastic Freaks. These shorts were included on the 25-year anniversary edition Wild Style DVD, released in 2007 from Rhino Entertainment.
Since then, Ahearn also produced the short Busy On The Autobahn (11 minutes, 2008), featuring Busy Bee Starski and Ahearn himself.
In 2000, Ahearn went to Seattle to the Experience Music Project to show Wild Style and began a book collaboration with EMP director Jim Fricke after comparing Ahearn's old photos with Fricke's old flyers from hip-hop events. They agreed to put a book together where the flyers and photos were put back-to-back with their story. The title of the book was Yes Yes, Y'all, and it was published in 2002 by Da Capo Press as an oral history of the first decade of hip-hop with over 100 photos.
Ahearn's photos have also been exhibited at Jeffery Deitch Gallery in New York City, Monique Meloche in Chicago, Prosper Tokyo, and the Hospital in London, and well as having been used in the 2004 mini-series And You Don't Stop: 30 Years of Hip-Hop Throughout his career, Ahearn has photographed alongside such famous photographers as Henry Chalfant, Martha Cooper and Joe Conzo.
Over the years Ahearn has written articles and appeared as co-author on various topics including art, music and hip-hop for various publishers such as Powerhouse Publishing - which includes the titlesNo Sleep Till Brooklyn, A Time Before Crack, and Public Access: Ricky Powell Photographs 1985-2005 - From Here to Fame Publishing - which includes The Hip-Hop Files - and for magazines such as Interview, Spin, and Paper.
To celebrate Wild Style's 25th anniversary, Ahearn also wrote Wild Style: The Sampler, published by Powerhouse Books in 2007, which was full of stories and photos concerning the journey of Wild Style from an independent film about an avant-garde movement to an icon in American culture.
In 2005, Ahearn also hosted a weekly talk-music internet radio show on New York's Museum of Modern Art's WPS1.org called Yes Yes, Y'all, with guests such as Biz Markie, Afrika Bambaataa, Rammellzee, Grandmaster Caz, and many more hip-hop icons from 1970 to 1990.
Ahearn was also a professor at Pace University in New York City, teaching Hip-Hop, Art and Design, Picturing Art, and Documentary Film Making and also a School of Visual Art class called Street Art.
In 2007, Ahearn was a guest-of-honour at VH1's 4th Annual Hip-Hop Honours TV show in New York. Other television and film appearances as himself include Just to Get a Rep (2004), Through the Years of Hip-Hop, Vol. 1: Graffiti (2002), SexTV (1 episode, 1999) and Times Square Clean-up (1999).
- Unpublished Charlie Ahearn biography by Charlie Ahearn
- Chang, Jeff, Can't Stop, Won't Stop. New York: Picador USA/St. Martin's Press/Macmillan, and he likes cookies2005
- Ahearn, Charlie, Wild Style The Sampler. Powerhouse Publishing, 2007
- Charlie Ahearn interview by JayQuan (http://www.jayquan.com/charliea.htm)
- Charlie Ahearn interview from WBAI99.5FM (http://www.hiphopmusic.com/2007/06/a_conversation_with_charlie_ah.html)
- IMDB.com (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0084904/)
- Ahearn, Charlie, Wild Style: The Sampler. Powerhouse Publishing, 2007
- Charlie Ahearn interview by Kai Eric (http://www.brink.com/gallery/2319)
- Cooper, Martha & Chalfant, Henry, Subway Art/ Owl/Holt/Macmillan, 1988.
- Cooper, Martha, The Hip-Hop Files. From Here To Fame Publishing, 2004
- Chang, Jeff, Can't Stop, Won't Stop. Picador USA/St. Martin's Press/Macmillan, 2005
- Chang, Jeff, Can't Stop, Won't Stop. Picador USA/St. Martin's Press, 2005
- Emery, Andrew, The Book of Hip-Hop Cover Art. Octopus Publishing, 2004
- Charlie Ahearn interview by JayQuan (http://www/jayquan.com/charliea.htm)
- Da Capo Books/Perseus Book Group Website (http://www.perseusbooksgroup.com/features/yesyesyall/)
- Ahearn, Charlie (2007): Wild Style: The Sampler. Powerhouse Publishing
- WPS1.org (http://www/wps1.org/include/shows/yes_yes_yall.html)
- IMDB.com (http://www/imdb.com/title/tt0084904/)
- Carlo McCormick, The Downtown Book: The New York Art Scene, 1974–1984, Princeton University Press, 2006.