Grandmixer DST, Photograph © Janette Beckman

Janette Beckman and I were invited to appear on WFMU’s “Coffee Break for Heroes and Villains with Noah” on Tuesday, June 1 from 9am–noon, to discuss the art of Hip Hop photography. I first met Janette back when we were working on Made in the UK: The Music of Attitude, 1977–1983, a retrospective of her career documenting the Punk, Mod, Skinhead, 2 Tone, and Rockabilly culture in the UK.

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It was during that time that Janette showed me a copy of her first book, Rap, with Bill Adler, showcasing her work from the burgeoning Hip Hop scene during the 1980s. Needless to say, I fell off my chair when I caught a glimpse of her photographs, many of which have become icons unto themselves. From this, inspiration was born, and Janette published her third book, The Breaks: Stylin’ and Profilin’ 1982–1990, which she kindly allowed me to subtitle after her original subtitle, Kickin It Old School, appeared as the name of a corny Jamie Kennedy movie coming out at the same time.

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Janette has photographed the likes of… EVERYONE. Check out this list, it is legendary: Afrika Bambaataa, GrandMaster Flash and the Furious Five, the Fearless Four, the World Famous Supreme Team, Lovebug Starski, Salt’n’Pepa, Run-DMC, Stetsasonic, UTFO, Roxanne Shante, Sweet T, Jazzy Joyce, Slick Rick, Boogie Down Productions, Eric B. and Rakim, EPMD, NWA, Ice-T, 2 Live Crew, Tone Loc, Gang Starr, Ultramagnetic MCs, Rob Base and DJ EZ Rock, Special Ed, Leaders of the New School, Jungle Brothers, Beastie Boys, Rick Rubin—and more! Hell, honey, even shot Jomanda! That’s for real. Got a love for you. You know, I just had to do this interview…

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How did you get into shooting Hip Hop?

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Janette Beckman: I was working for a British music magazine called Melody Maker when I saw my first Hip Hop show back in 1982 in London. The show featured Afrika Bambaata, Grandmixer DST, Futura 2000, Dondi White, breakdancers, and double dutch girls.  It was absolutely mind blowing—we had never seen anything like it—and it seemed to me to be the new Renaissance in music, art, fashion and dance.

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FUTURA and DONDI, Photograph © Janette Beckman

Being from the UK punk scene what did you make of it?

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JB: The punk scene in London had reached it’s peak and I think everyone was looking for the next new thing. Hip Hop was much like the UK punk scene when it first started: so creative, groundbreaking, and in many ways both movements came from the streets—art and music created by “working class” kids who were inventing new things never seen before.

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What was Hip Hop like back in the days, when artists were first getting record deals, but still didn’t have the marketing machine behind them?

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JB: When I first arrived in NYC in 1982, Hip Hop was new and fresh. It seemed to me as an outsider coming from UK that the artists were free to do what they wanted, the music came from the streets and really told stories of what was happening in peoples lives, from the political like “The Message” and Public Enemy, to the raps about love, girls, sex, sneakers.

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Anything seemed possible and the small record companies were much more interested allowing the artists to have creative freedom from the way they dressed to the beats and the raps. There was an amazing creative energy—riding on the train hearing some kid rhyming, seeing girls wearing the first giant hoop earrings, the fake LV outfits, the new way to lace your sneakers, the graffiti. Of course this was before MTV, stylists, the Internet started to dictate the way you were supposed to look.

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Looking through The Breaks, I am totally blown away. You shot some of the photos that have long been burned into my brain. What was your favorite shoot, and why?

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JB: My favorite shoot was for the British magazine The Face. They asked me to photograph the emerging Hip Hop scene and sent me out to Queens on a warm summer day in 1984 to photograph a group called Run-DMC. I took the subway to Hollis where Jam Master Jay met me at the station and walked me to the leafy block where they were hanging out with some friends. I just took out my camera and started shooting. The photo of Run DMC and posse is one of my favorites because it is such a moment in time. Totally unposed.

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Photograph © Janette Beckman

Please talk about your Ladies of Hip Hop shoot for Paper, as that photo is a classic!

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JB: I had been working for Paper magazine since their first issue. They told me they were gong to get the Ladies of Hip Hop together for a shoot. I think it was in a Mexican restaurant on West Broadway. The ladies started to arrive and the boys were told they had to leave. Ladies only this time. What an amazing group—all getting along so well and having fun—and Millie Jackson was there, the “Godmother” of it all.

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Eazy-E, Photograph © Janette Beckman

Please talk about shooting Eazy E, as I find this photo so touching. No profiling, no posing, no gangsterism in Eric. I love it…

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JB: I was working on the final shots for my first book and had traveled to LA to shoot the important West Coast scene. NWA were recording their new album in a studio in Torrance and had agreed to have me shoot them. There was an alley at the side of the studio and I asked the group to pose for me. I only took a couple of shots of each of them.

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We were talking about the recording. They liked my British accent and asked if I would be up for reading some lyrics on their album (it turned out to be lyrics about how to give the perfect blow job, which I thought maybe would not be right for my debut in the recording industry).

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What do you think about the way Hip Hop has changed—as an economic force, a global culture, an art form, and a way of life for so many people of all ages?

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JB: Hip Hop has really changed the world. I love the idea that people are rhyming in Africa, India, France in every language. What some people thought was a fad is a now, thirty years later, a worldwide phenomena used for advertising, soundtracks, TV, billboards. Artists like M.I.A, Ben Watt, and Santogold are mixing Hip Hop with their own beats and making some thing completey new—much like Hip Hop artists took disco and R&B beats and made them their own. And still kids on the street
around the world are keeping Hip Hop real.

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www.janettebeckman.com
Don’t Stop! Get It! Get It!