THE TRUE STORY OF BEAT STREET
JayQuan & Steven Hager
I wrote a script called: "The Perfect Beat " and I took it to Jane Fonda's production company in New York. I was hoping to find some politically aware company that would let out a truthful picture of the origins of hip hop. They passed on it, but one of Fonda's executives tried to get me to sign a contract giving her rights over the property for like $500.
Then I went to Harry Belafonte. Harry wanted to make a nice movie that really didn't touch the dark side or show the violent and nasty aspects of life in the South Bronx. Harry bought my script, then threw it out the window and replaced it with a limp and bogus storyline signifying nothing, only kept a few of my character's names. They gave me "story credit", but in reality, there's nothing in the story of Beat Street that resembles my story at all.
My film was closer to Boyz in the Hood than the dream world they came up with.
But now I'm older and have kids myself, I understand where Harry was coming from. I think he was motivated by a strong desire to create positive role models for young black kids.
The real story on the current hip hop industry is how they took something created by teenagers, most of whom were looking for a tribal alternative to the gang scene, and turned it into one of the most pro-violent genres in media. The gang-bangers did not create hip hop, but they sure took it over once it started to make money.
If you want to say something real or serious today, especially of a political nature, you won't get a deal. "The Message" wouldn't even get released. But if you want to rap about guns and bitches and cater to the worst aspects of the 11 year old mind, they will welcome you right into the board room.
Did you read the chapter in my book on Hip Hop? That's the real story. Break dancing did not start in 1983. Important people in break dancing history are The Nigger Twins (1975) and The Zulu Kings (1976). Then it flips from blacks to Hispanics and innovated by The Rockwell Association (1977), The Disco Kids (1978), the Rock Steady Crew (1980).
Break dance crews were highly likely to get into a fight after an organized competition, or any throw down. But when crews fought, it usually didn't happen at the party, but afterwards or the next day.
There was a lot of urban myth created by the first break dance story in the Village Voice. But then, there was a lot of BS swallowed by reporters in the early days, most of which was spun by kids 11 and 12 who didn't know any better than to talk shit to a reporter. Kind of like Lucy in Peanuts.
But the culture developed right after an intense gang period, which had become burnt-out due to violence overload. The girls especially, I think, began pushing for a new culture that provided a safer environment. People got tired of all the shooting and killing. When the prettiest girls in class start dating the deejay, it sends a message to everyone.
The other extremely influential factor ignored by everyone was the influence of drugs. Marijuana and LSD played huge roles. Later many scenes became dominated by dust and/or crack. It ran a trail from the creative explosion of cannabis and LSD to a cocaine overdrive that took a lot of people over the top. There's a lot of people who went through and came out the other end who probably have great stories to tell. But if you're going to tell the nightmare of the hard drugs, you also have to admit the initial forces were unleashed in part due to marijuana and LSD.
These kids lived in a world where to step back from an aggressor was a sin. Macho mentality. But the deejays, breakers, writers and mc's were the intellectual and artistic elite, they weren't the thugs. Macho code forced them into many battles nevertheless. Many venues were mob related or operated by gangs. Street deejays had to be down with a serious security scene (guns), which meant making alliances with local gangs.
But the ultimate hip hop arena was always the party: the block party, house party or club party.
And the ultimate gang arena has always been the gauntlet or the rumble.
That's the difference.
It's two different mindsets. One's about fun, creativity and style, the other's about domination through violence.
So that's why I think the worm has turned and why I don't bother listening to much gangster rap.
Steven Hager- writer of the script “ The Perfect Beat” which became the movie “Beat Street”, author of the much sought after book: “Hip Hop: The Illustrated history Of Rap Music, Break Dancing and Graffiti” and Editor In Chief of High Times magazine.
JayQuan: It’s an honor. What year did you come into contact with Hip Hop, and how did it happen?
Steven Hager: I think the initial contact would be arriving in New York in 1978, and seeing kids with Ghetto Blasters and seeing the trains. When I first saw the trains I thought that the city paid the artist s to do that stuff. I couldn’t believe that the city was mad about the murals, because some of them were so amazingly beautiful. I had a moment of realization when I was at an art opening called “New York New Wave” around 1980. They had a whole section of graffiti art, and I was looking at a subway car by Futura 2000. The car was called "Break", and it was made to look like it was snapped in half. There was this big gash in the center of it. There was a song called “The Breaks” by Kurtis Blow. It occurred to me that all of this was connected. That’s what made me want to go investigate the whole thing.
JQ: What were you doing at the time, were you already a writer?
SH: I was working for the Daily News as a reporter. They hired 100 people to re launch the paper and make it hip. It lasted a year and then they fired us all. I got to do stories on the art scene, and one my first stories was Futura 2000. He invited me to the Soul Artists meetings, and I also ended up going to the Mudd Club where I met Fab 5 Freddy. Freddy introduced me to Afrika Bambaataa, in fact he gave me his phone number first and I called him. I did 4 or 5 interviews with Bam and that was the start of everything for me.
JQ: Had Wild Style come out when you met Freddy?
SH: No they started filming it while I was doing my research.
JQ: When you went to interview Bam was there any sense of fear that you might be harmed, or in the wrong part of town?
SH: He was livin’ in co -op city. He wasn’t in the South Bronx anymore. He was a good archivist; he kept a lot of stuff. Just listening to him I realized that the national media had just totally ignored the whole story. I must have sent queries to every major magazine in America at the time, and no one was interested in Rap, graf & Breakdancing – it was totally off the radar.
JQ: What came first your book or screenplay?
SH: I did a huge article on Bam, and the Village Voice sat on it for like 6months and it drove me crazy. I asked Bam early on “what do you call this whole thing” and he said I call it Hip Hop. I had never heard the word Hip Hop and it surely hadn’t been in print before. So I wrote this article for the Village Voice about Bambaataa’s life and it eventually turned into my book. I just expanded on it and interviewed more people, but it was hard to get that first article published. Nobody saw any money being made – there were a few records out, but no one saw the cultural importance of the whole genre. The New York Times told me that it was just a fad. It’s like saying Reggae or Rock was a fad. Im sure people said that Elvis was a fad!!!
JQ: Did you have any idea that your book (Hip Hop) was selling for over 500.00 on Ebay and Amazon.com?
SH: The publisher that published it didn’t give jack shit about the book. I hated the whole design, the layout and everything about it. They used cheap paper, it was horrible – I worked so hard and all the money that the publisher gave me I spent on pictures. I tried to buy the best photos that were available at the time. The book very quickly went out of print, and they never cared about it. I did see it selling for over 500.00. It was bizarre to me the whole trajectory of the book just missed me completely.
JQ: Yeah I have an old library copy that’s not in great condition, and I paid a lot for mine.
SH: As soon as it went out of print the Rock Steady Crew made Xerox copies of it, and passed them out at their gigs. One thing that happened as a result of me meeting all these people who created Hip Hop, was that it made me reconnect to my musical roots which was 60s Garage Band Rock. I ended up starting a band and getting heavily involved in music from that inspiration. I wasn’t gonna rap because that wasn’t my background but it was good to see these guys take charge of their culture, which is something that you cant buy on TV, you just do it. It was awesome to see these kids just doin it. I spent like 5 years just tryin’ to put my musical roots back together. Then I lost contact with the whole Hip Hop thing, and that’s the nature of journalism – you get really deeply involved with something for 3 or 4 years, and then you move on to another topic.
JQ: Were you at all impressed by the fact that these guys took 2 copies of Billy Squire, Bob James and Aerosmith records and created something totally new?
SH: Well they were rewriting the book on everything, the same way that the Original Jazz & Be Bop guys had the zoot suits and their own slang. This was a whole new thing that evolved out of a group mind. There were a handful of innovators who had that magic that just took everything to a new level. It was very magical just being around those guys, and the vibes coming off of them.
JQ: As far as the Emcees, who impressed you the most with rhyme skills and showmanship?
SH: At the time that I was working on my book the big showdown was always between Kool Moe Dee and Melle Mel. Wherever they were gonna go one on one was the place to be, and that was usually the Disco Fever. I think that those were some of the super hyped up moments.
JQ: You’re saying that they battled more than once?
SH: Oh yeah at least 4 or 5 times at the Fever!!! Moe Dee could tell you for sure.
JQ: I can never get the full story on that. Moe said that it wasn’t a real battle, and that out of the utmost respect for Mel he wouldn’t really battle him. Sal (Disco Fever owner) says that he never paid much attention, because he was running the club & Mel as egotistical as he may seem, he is a modest dude and he won’t talk too much about it….
SH: Yeah they used to go at it. I think that Moe Dee toasted him pretty badly…
JQ: What did you say that the original name of you screen play was?
SH: It was called “The Perfect Beat”, named after the Bambaataa song.
JQ: Was it loosely based around your research?
SH: Yeah, it was stories that I was told, and I jumbled them up and changed names. It was supposed to be a slice of life drama, and I wanted to capture the grittiness and feel of what was going on. To me the cusp was everybody was in a gang and then when they go to school the next day everybody is a dj or a rapper. So there was this period when everybody sort of made this evolutionary jump. That was the period that I felt was the most important period.
JQ: According to what you have gotten from Bam, did it really go that smoothly, where Bam said ok instead of fighting we are gonna dance rap & do graffiti?
SH: Well he gave me the exact dates on his personal trajectory, but there had been such intense violence for so long that it just wore down everyone’s spirit. When Herc started throwing these parties you couldn’t really come in with the gang mentality. Now some still did of course, I know that some Black Spades may have gone to Hercs parties and still fly colors, but a new attitude was comin’ and it wasn’t about being in a gang, but bein’ in a rap group. Bam also said that the females had a lot of influence. They were really fed up and sick of the gang violence. And you know the guys are gonna go wherever the hot girls go.
JQ: That’s interesting. I think that in life in general that we (men) do most of what we do for the attention of women, but in Hip Hop and on a street level I really think that if so many women didn’t support the tough thug persona, that we would see less of it.
SH: Yes…… exactly
JQ: Let me get more into your script. Some rappers have told me that the Perfect Beat, which became Beat Street was actually written about them….
SH: Well Kool Moe Dee, Phase 2, Kool Herc, Bam, Futura 2000 & Grandmaster Caz all told me stories, and influenced what I wrote. But you have to understand – none of what I wrote ended up in the movie. I weaved the stories together and mixed up the characters.
JQ: So are you saying that your movie would have been grittier like Wild Style, but they cleaned it up for Hollywood?
SH: Well the thing that I don’t understand is the environments that they created in that movie that the kids lived in. I spent 2 years going around from one apartment to the next in the South Bronx; I know what those apartments look like. There were some differences between the upper middle class characters and the ones who were penny less. Like the Hispanic kids who lived 5 to a room. I saw all of that, and nothing in that movie resembled the houses that I had been in. The guys in Beat Street had apartments with 10 times more money, equipment and shit than I had!!! It was so unreal to me the environment that they created. This was basically Harry Belafontes’ world. Like his kids and what they would have in their house’s. I didn’t feel like it captured the real people at all.
JQ: So you basically sold the rights to the story to Harry Belafonte…you didn’t have anything to do with the casting and what not?
SH: I got auditions for many of the people in the movie, and I recommended the two dance crews that had the battle scenes, and they honestly were best scenes in the movie. The only worthwhile scene in that movie is when Rock Steady and Michael Holman's group (New York City Breakers) battle. I got Arthur Baker involved with the sound track also.
JQ: That was a very good move. What about the Sugar Hill acts like Furious 5 & Treacherous 3?
SH: I gave them a list of the most important acts, and they basically did what they wanted to do. But the Furious 5, Treacherous 3 and Funky 4 were the top of the hill at the time, and I recommended them.
JQ: Were you getting away from Hip Hop by the time that Run Dmc debuted?
SH: No, not yet, I loved Run Dmc. They blew everyone else off the stage when they came out. Everyone else in the South Bronx was tryin’ to evolve. They had been doin this for a while, and what Run Dmc did was bring back the original spirit and energy. Everyone else was flyin’ off into tangents. Furious 5 were dressing in S&M gear, Bambaataa was looking like Funkadelic & George Clinton, and here came Run Dmc with the original thing and no one could touch ‘ em.
JQ: So when did you stop listening to Hip Hop?
SH: Run Dmc was probably the last group that I bought music from, and went to see in concert. I moved to a new cultural arena and I felt that the best sh*t had already been done. I could have stuck around to see people make millions off of the bubble gum songs, but I chose not to.
JQ: I’ve noticed recently that there isn’t a lot of support for the original school of Emcees, and when they attempt to release material many of them are made mockery of by current artists, djs and fans. Do you think that they should still attempt to make music?
SH: I think that they should still try, as long as they have something to say. When you have great talent it doesn’t just go away. There should be an old school tour goin’ on every year.
JQ: You mentioned that you bought photos for your book (Hip Hop: The Illustrated History), you had some good never before seen photos – like Cold Crush in the phone booth, Furious 5 with Flash holding the camera and Treacherous 3 sitting on a car. Were any of those taken just for your book? Oh yeah my favorite Caz holding his rhyme books...classic.
SH: Oh yes, many of the photos were taken just for that book. There were a lot of photographers who knew that I was working on a book, and I would tell them what shows and places to go to.
JQ: What are you doing today, and what have you been up to since Beat Street. I see that you are editor for High Times magazine.
SH: I got pulled into High Times right after I got fired from New York daily news. I was never much of a pot smoker, but if I was at a party and someone passed a joint I would never turn it down. I never bought it or anything like that and it was never part of my life until I came to the magazine. But I realized that this was the last nationally distributed publication that was independently owned that hadn’t been bought up by one of the multi national corporations that run the media. They gave me the freedom to write what I wanted, so I got into covering political assassinations and conspiracy theories. I also started to understand drug policy and how understanding the drug war is key to understanding the great scam that’s perpetuated on the people, and how wars are created for profit and people are kept mind controlled with a bunch of garbage.
JQ: I’ve always wondered since the first time that I saw High Times magazine, how do you get away with overtly promoting lamps and other things to grow weed, and just the whole mag….. how are you able to overtly put it out there like that?
SH: We want people to grow their own weed for sure. It’s the most valuable most useful medicine on the planet, and better we grow it than buy from pharmacies or drug dealers on the street. If you grow your own you know what's in it, and that it hasn’t been tampered with. You know that its nice & clean and pure – it’s the real plant you have taken care of and formed a relationship with the plant, and if you need the medicine its there for you. It’s like growing gold. The first amendment gives us the right to campaign for the legalization of marijuana, and if we wanna give out grow information as part of that campaign that’s part of the first amendment too. As long as we are not growing pot, selling or distributing it there's nothing wrong. We are just distributing information.
JQ: I thank you for your time, and it’s been an honor…..