Words by Seve Chambers
The 1980s were an interesting time for New York City. The metropolis was flat broke, crack was breaking out, crime was very high, gangs ran the land. But also a thing called hip-hop was starting to grow bigger. Anyone who saw it firsthand began to realize it was not like disco, that it was becoming something a lot more interesting. Listening to the music from that time is not enough to experience it though. Some had the resources and intuition to document it on video, but a photographer like Janette Beckman became the people who preserved a lot of it.
The Museum of the City of New York’s current exhibit, “Hip-Hop Revolution”, showcases several photographers like Ms. Beckman who have since become iconic. The exhibit, which closes on September 27th, provides a look at many of hip-hop’s iconic figures just as they were rising in stature. In an interview with WatchLOUD, Ms. Beckman discussed several of her photos and reveals a few interesting details about them. Chances are you have seen her photography before, and decades of shooting artists and cultural movements makes every picture of hers invaluable.
WatchLOUD: How did this whole exhibit come together?
Janette Beckman: Sean Corcoran, he is the print curator for the museum and we’d actually been talking about exhibiting or curating some of my street portraits. So he’d been around my house and he was very familiar with all my Hip-Hop pictures, and then he just was randomly around and said ‘hey, do you want to be in the Hip-Hop exhibition?’ And that was that, the rest was history. It was a kind of cooperative effort. Basically Sean chose them, but I was like ‘hmm. I’d rather have this one rather than this one.’ You know, it kind of went like that. We basically did it together. But it was his. He was leading. He had a very definite idea of how he wanted it to be, and obviously it was just New York-based rappers.
Basically Sean chose them and then I kind of changed a few things up. But you know he’s really open, and he came around my house and looked at all of my cameras. Cause you know I have all of those little signed Polaroids and all of that stuff. And he wanted to include those too, which is really cool.
You started out covering the punk scene in London. How did you end up in New York to take hip-hop’s baby pictures?
The thing is when I was shooting [in] London I’d just came out of art school and all the punk stuff was happening. So basically the economy was really bad in London, and people didn’t have jobs. So you know punk was in a way a reaction to that. I saw a hip-hop show in 1982 that had come to London. It was the first ever hip-hop show to hit London, and it blew my mind. And just coincidentally, that year, that very Christmas I came to New York and you know it was happening all around me, and I just ended up staying to document it.
My approach has always been to do a portrait. I don’t really like to pose people. I want the portrait to document how the people are in their environment. So you know, be it somebody from another country. It was very interesting to me to go to the Bronx and photograph Afrika Bambaataa. Or to go to Hollis and meet Run DMC, and see where people are living and how they are and what their lives are, and what they’re talking about.
KRS One and Scott La Rock
Yeah they came to my studio. I had a studio downtown and I think they wanted me to do press pictures for Boogie Down. And a record was coming out and they needed some press pictures. So I photographed them in a studio and we went outside and walked around in the neighborhood and, you know, took them against some walls. Like shot them outside the police station on East 5th street. I think that was the project police station. You know with cop cars in the background, and I kind of had a good few hours of wandering around and talking and taking pictures. It was great. It was really great. And then shortly thereafter, sadly Scott La Rock was killed. So I don’t think there are that many pictures of them together.
Was anyone else with them that day?
I don’t think they had a posse with them. I’m not sure about that now [that] you’re asking me. But you know, as far as I can remember… if there had been a posse there I probably would have taken pictures. They might have had a manager with them. I don’t really remember that. But you know, I remember just walking around in the streets with just the two of them.
I shot that in my studio and that was actually a backdrop that we had made. That was for the Leaders of the New School record cover. Well part of the shoot. It was like a record cover, press shoot, whatever. So I also did a shoot of them out in Long Island where they came from, for that same project. But that backdrop was actually drawn by a couple of British artists called the Thunder Junkies, and we had that drawn. We just thought that it would be an interesting backdrop.
They were messing around and having fun, and then like I guess the same week I went out to Long Island where they lived and photographed them like jumping around on a school bus. Like around in their neighborhood, hanging out. I went to some mama’s house. You know, they were nice kids. They were nice. I mean who knew that they were gonna get so famous? Who knew that Busta was gonna be such a huge star?
It’s pretty funny because I just had a video camera. I just got one and I didn’t really know what I was doing, and sometimes I would just bring it out on shoots to film stuff. I wish I had done more of that now. Especially I mean, you know characters are pretty funny back in the day.
They’re wearing those jackets. The 8 Ball jackets. Those jackets were made by Dapper Dan, and they were really amazing. I mean that started a whole style. That was like, they just kind of revolutionized the whole way people looked. I mean they had the earrings. They had the African fabric hats. Those jackets. The spandex tights and those little boots. I mean the Salt-N-Pepa look was huge. It’s still huge to this day. I mean if somebody wants to dress as Salt-N-Pepa for Halloween, that’s the look they’re going to rock. *laughs* [The photo] was for the record label and I think for various record covers.
And I mean I photographed Salt-N-Pepa a lot. I actually took probably the first professional pictures of them they ever had taken. They were like so sweet. We were all chatting and having a great time, and then they were like ‘oh we got a record coming out. Can you take our picture?’ And I was like okay, and then that’s how I ended up working with them. I shot them first for some British magazine in the very beginning. So you know it was kind of great. I ended up doing a lot of work with them. I shot them, I dunno, numerous times.
When I shot them the first time they seemed like, you know, kind of best friends that enjoyed hanging out together, and they were really giggly and fun. And uh, basically they kind of became little stars. But they never had attitude. They were always just cool, fun people. And then I got to meet Harvey, their manager. And I met all of his groups and I took pictures for the Daily News magazine of Harvey and all of his groups. And that was like Kid ‘N’ Play and Antoinette and Dana Dane. I mean he had so many groups he was managing. I think it was like most of them were probably from Queens and Brooklyn. But um, yeah it was great to watch the girls grow and I mean it’s amazing. Now they’re in that Geico ad.
I really admire Queen Latifah. That was just a quick shoot because I was doing a book called Rap! Portraits and Lyrics of a Generation of Black Rockers, with Bill Adler. You know, she just seemed like a really positive, strong woman. Now she [did] the Bessie Smith HBO thing which looks incredible. Her career has just grown. I mean, it’s amazing. Look at LL Cool J. I mean I took his first press picture, and now he has a TV series. You know he’s a major star. It’s incredible how people thought that nothing was going to come of hip-hop. It was just this little underground thing that was just out of New York, and now it’s like a worldwide phenomenon. Nobody really knew what, how it was going to grow like that. They’re big stars, they have a reality show. So it’s great to see how everybody grew and you know, and used [hip-hop] as a force for good.
Is the book ever going to be re-released?
No it’s not, sadly. I wish it would be but, I mean we would have to change the format. That book came out in 1991. So, you know we would probably change it up a little bit right now. But yes, out of print for a while. I think you can still find a copy of it maybe on Amazon. I’m not sure. But yeah, we were ahead of our time with that book. You know, we were gonna put Slick Rick on the cover of the book. I shot pictures of him, but unfortunately he went and got in that dumb fight. And he had to go to jail. So our book publisher was like ‘well we’re not putting somebody who is, um, in jail on the cover of a book.’ *laughs* So we then changed up and put Big Daddy Kane on the cover, which was great.
Eric B. & Rakim
Um, *laughs* who were the people I shot that for now? I do not really remember. You know, I’m not even sure what I shot that for. But um, I mean they came to the studio and that was another thing where I did some shots of them in the studio. And I think Eric B. was holding a record. He’d brought a vinyl record and he’d broken it in half, and I got those pictures somewhere. And you know, Rakim I always thought had this amazing attitude. He just kind of had that hip-hop attitude. Bar none, you know. So we went outside and did some shots. Actually there was a parking lot around the corner from where my studio was, and it always had a lot of graffiti on the wall. So it was like, you know I was lucky. I had sort of hand painted backdrops. *laughs* Down by the couch or sofa, super lucky for that. We shot that picture out there. You know he’s just, I dunno. To me he’s like the ultimate. Like I said, the hip-hop attitude.
Yeah [all of that] jewelry, I know. It’s so iconic. The sneakers and everything, and I think Eric B’s got a Kangol hat on if I’m not mistaken. I know the whole thing, the whole styling and everything. Yeah I’m not sure if that’s Dapper Dan clothing as well. I’m not 100% sure about that. But what Rakim is wearing may be. It might be. But yeah, I know somebody made a pool table cover just out of that Rakim picture. Made a whole cover for a pool table, which I can imagine could be really cool. But yeah, I mean Rakim is like one of the best rhymers in Hip-Hop. Probably ever, in my opinion. So, yeah it is pretty iconic.