The Legendary Phase 2

GrafhistorybyPhaseI ‘d completely forgotten about my first interview with graffiti legend Phase 2, always a mysterious and hard-to-find character—and even more today than when Sisco Kid helped me track him down in the early 1980s.

I remember Phase came all the way down to the offices of the East Village Eye with me while the art director was laying out the story so we could take a portrait of him for the article. While we were there, I convinced Phase to make an illustrated history of graffiti off the top of his head (a portion of which appears at left) and I sat there watching him on deadline telling him to hurry up. Meanwhile, Phase is trying to do his best to honor some of the greatest tags in history. It’s amazing how effortlessly he pulled that assignment off.

I’m pretty sure the art director at the time was Dave Allen, an English dude who’d just arrived in NYC via Los Angeles. It was Dave who told German photographer Andre Grossmann that he should start hanging around with me, as I was onto sometime really big, which I was. Andre took a portrait of Phase for the article and it was the beginning of our collaboration, which would intensify after I moved over to High Times.

Craig Castleman’s book on graffiti had just been published and praised in the New Yorker by one of my favorite writers, Calvin Tomkins, but I found the book riddled with disinfo. Instead of interviewing the top dudes, which is what I was trying to do, the book relied on comments by toys and lesser talents, some of whom (according to Phase) had a distorted view of graffiti history.

Soon, I would be talking with Harry Belafonte about producing my film script “Looking for the Perfect Beat,” which mixed up real stories about Futura 2000 and Phase 2 (two of my favorite writers, although from different generations). I also got a book deal with St. Martins’ Press, although they never knew what to do with the first history of hip hop and actually cataloged it as a “dance book” because it came out as break-dancing arrived. Castleman called me up in a frenzy when he read my book and accused me of ripping him off, even though his book never really delved into anything but graffiti and was nothing like mine at all. Even so, I’d done a better job with graffiti history than he did, and I guess he knew it. And it was up to me to lay out the history of the gangs, the environment that helped spawn the culture, and how gang style evolved into hip hop after people got tired of violence and wanted to just have fun again. There were a lot of people like Castleman hovering around graffiti at the time, but not noticing rap music, break dancing and a whole new style of talking and walking were exploding in the Bronx.

BlackoutPhaseThe funniest part was how the Belafonte production team got swarmed by black dudes from Brooklyn who insisted hip hop started in Brooklyn and that Phase 2 and the other dudes I was promoting were really complete nobodies. In fact, when Phase delivered his one line in the final movie, at the big free screening arranged for all Harry’s buddies, Phase was actually booed by many in the crowd? Holy cow, what were they thinking?

After the screening Alisha, Harry’s assistant pointed out those boos as if it was some sort of condemnation of my perspective, or maybe just her rationalization for jettisoning me. After all, they didn’t use my script and the result was a disaster. I only wish someday, someone would actually produce the original script I wrote, which anyone can read on smashwords. Read my story, then go watch the movie and tell me something terrible didn’t somehow go awry with Beat Street.

Anyway, the real reason I wrote this blog was to let people know that the original interview with the great Phase is included in my opus on the origins of hip hop.

First time “hip hop” appeared in print (and it wasn’t me)

Phaseatmybirthday3I didn’t realize there was a controversy about the origins of the term “hip hop” in the media until Michael Holman contacted me via facebook. Michael was part of the original downtown scene that included Jean Michel Basquiat and Fab Five Freddy. He’d just started managing the New York City Breakers when I first met him. The picture of him and me with Phase 2 and Stephen Crichlow was taken around this time at my birthday party at Lucky Strike. I wanted to get his crew into my film Beat Street, so I introduced Michael to Harry Belafonte. At that first meeting, Michael made a pitch to be the director of Beat Street. Both Harry and I felt though, that he was too inexperienced for a multi-million dollar project, but Harry liked him and signed him on as an associate producer. Who knows what might have happened though because the arrival of Andrew Davis as director signaled the demise of my script, although my original story is available on smashwords.com so any interested parties can dream with me about what might have been. I wonder if Michael even ever read it? Maybe he’s just the guy to go to back to Hollywood and get it done finally in time for the 50th anniversary of the birth of hip hop.

More to the point of this blog: ever since my original Voice article on Afrika Bambaataa was reprinted in a best-of hip hop journalism compilation, I began getting credit for putting the words “hip hop” into print for the first time. Not so, as it turns out, since Michael Holman apparently did that in a interview in the East Village Eye in January 1982. The interview probably took place shortly after Fab Five Freddy lured Bambaataa downtown to the Mudd Club for the first time, although Bambaataa and Fred soon began spending a lot of time working on the soon-to-come downtown-uptown merger that helped birth an explosion of creativity out of both camps. Michael and Charlie Ahearn were the first independent filmmakers to arrive on that scene. Anyway, I hope this mea culpa clears up the whole controversy.

Meanwhile, I’m about to release the first three ebooks from my new High Times Greatest Hits venture on smashwords. But I also have turned my attention back to my original Hip Hop book, which, although available in beta form on smashwords, desperately needs a complete overhaul with images and new material, as well as corrections to numerous typos. Thanks to Michael, I’ve been inspired to dive back into that project and hope to have an amazing new edition out in a few weeks. Among the gems I’ve uncovered so far is a picture of Kool Herc in 1975 taken by Coke La Rock and a complete copy of Bambaataa’s English class paper on street gangs.

StreetGangBam copy

 

 

 

 

 

What Really Happened to Beat Street?

Review by: Sifu TORO on Feb. 03, 2012 : star star star star star
I’m sitting here after reading the script thinkin’, WHY!? Why did they re-write it into a story so far from the original script, and so far from the reality of where Hip Hop came from? Steven Hager wrote a script that really takes you into the reality of early 1980s everyday life in the South Bronx, with respect to the pioneers of Hip Hop. I would really like to see this script on the big screen some day. The script is a piece of Hip Hop history. Pay the $2.99! It’s really worth it!!

Others, like Alisha, who had brought my original script to Harry Belafonte’s attention must have also wondered what in the world had happened. What happened to the slice-of-life drama I created?

What happened is Andrew Davis was chosen by Orion Pictures to direct the movie and I had a private meeting with Andy at my apartment right after he was hired. I played a bunch of classic hip hop records for him, telling him it was essential to get songs like “Apache” and “Just Begun” into the soundtrack for the climactic break-dance battles. (But none of these songs would ever make it into the film.) I also told him that Harry wanted to make all these crazy changes to the script and I didn’t agree with them. “I’m not worried about Harry,” replied Andy. “I know how to handle Harry.” On paper Andy and I should have gotten along: we both were graduates of the journalism department at the University of Illinois. But I could tell I was already being jettisoned from my own project. Andy was taking over and becoming the new script writer, and my script was getting tossed out the window. In fact, I never spoke to Andy again after that day. He was not interested in my input. In all fairness, Andy became a very accomplished director of action films within a few years. I particularly liked his “The Package” starring Gene Hackman, filmed mostly in Chicago. But Andy never became a great writer. And Harry ended up clashing with Andy and firing him off Beat Street. A TV director was quickly brought in to finish the film, but by then, the project was in a shambles, and the story had lost all cohesion.

Rock’s First Diva

After I finished my book on hip hop (and been basically pushed out of the my own Beat Street film project), I turned my attention to finding out what happened to the biggest stars of early rock history in New York City. Rap music was starting to catch on around the country, and I was afraid the original creators of hip hop were going to be ripped-off by the many corporations that were moving in to cash-in on the new movement, just like their historical counterparts many years earlier.

My investigations led me to Frankie Lymon and Arlene Smith. Frankie was long-dead, so I ended up meeting Jimmy Merchant, who’d co-written one of the biggest hits of the era, “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” and had been a founding member of The Teenagers with Frankie. I eventually discovered Arlene was living in the South Bronx, not far from some of the hip hoppers I’d spent the last three years hanging out with.

My sister had just moved to a cabin in Woody Creek, not far from Hunter S. Thompson, so when Christmas came, I flew out there to spend the holidays with her and visit the famed town of Aspen and its spectacular ski slopes. I’d never skied before, but I fell in love with the Highlands. I got an unexpected call from Harry Belafonte one night. I guess he was having problems with the director Orion had selected, Andy Davis, and Harry was wondering why I wasn’t hanging around the production office. When I found out I wasn’t going to be the scriptwriter, I basically walked away from the project, although David Picker made sure I got story credit (thanks again, David!). Harry wanted to see me as soon as I got back to New York.

The next night, I got a frantic call from Arlene Smith. Stupidly, I’d sent her a copy of my manuscript at the same time I’d delivered it to my editor at the Voice. Tulani Davis had already told me she loved the article, and I was confident I was about to get my third major feature (and possibly another cover story), following my articles on Bambaataa and the Fun House. But Arlene’s new manager didn’t like the article at all and wanted me to kill it. After I told Arlene I couldn’t do that, the manager called me. He was pretty rude and aggressive and indicated he knew Robert Christgau, head music critic at the Voice, and he was going to get the article killed, whether I liked it or not.

Imagine my surprise when Tulani told me several weeks later that the article was not going to run because Christgau had vetoed it, even though she loved it. I was so flabbergasted and upset ( I’d put a lot of gumshoe reporting into the piece) that I sent a copy to someone I trusted who knew a lot more about the music business than I did, David Bither (who now runs Nonesuch Records), and asked for his opinion before I went to war. David basically said there was some good stuff in the story, but my analysis of the business side of early rock history was a bit over-simplistic, so I dropped the whole thing. But I never wrote another story for the Village Voice, or even talked to Tulani again. I completely forgot about the whole episode until I started putting my greatest hits on my smashwords site and realized, this is one of them!

You can read the article the Voice rejected by clicking the link that says “click here for free eBooks” in the column on the top-right of this page.

Origins of Beat Street

I’d been pitching a story on rap music, break dancing and graffiti to almost every publication in New York for months. Nobody was interested. Not Rolling Stone, not the New York Times, nobody.

Then Tulani Davis, an editor at the Village Voice, took a look at my massive profile of Afrika Bambaataa and said she wanted to publish it, but it would take months before she got around to editing it.

Meanwhile, I wrote a three-page treatment for a film called “Looking for the Perfect Beat.” First, I took that treatment to an office Jane Fonda had just opened in New York. I guess Jane passed on the idea, but one of the women in her office took me out to lunch in the theater district and offered me $500 on the spot. She had a contract she wanted me to sign. I took the contract home, looked over it and decided it was a bad deal.

The next person I thought to visit was Harry Belafonte. See, I was looking for someone with a political consciousness who would do justice to the story without trying to exploit the original creators of the culture, all of whom deserved to reap some reward. Alisha, a woman in Belafonte’s office loved my treatment. So did Harry. He offered to produce the film and that night I started expanding the treatment into a full-blown script. After I finished the first draft, it was sent to Harry, who was vacationing at his palatial estate in Jamaica. I had to go to Harry’s office one afternoon and take a long distance call from him. He wanted to go over the changes he wanted made while Alisha listened in on the other line as his witness. I began making notes on some post-its, and quickly filled up ten of them and soon ran out of space and got frustrated with the barrage of comments that kept coming and coming. “Maybe you should hire someone else to finish this,” I blurted out. I could tell Harry was floored by my statement. He took a long pause. Alisha tried to smooth things over, but it was all pretty much downhill after that.

The film got made. I got story credit. But almost nothing (other than the characters’ names) made it into the final film. I was jettisoned from the production team and a bunch of dudes from Brooklyn moved in to advise Harry. During the pre-screening of the final cut, these dudes all booed when Phase 2’s tiny cameo came on, and Harry ended up deleting Phase from the movie I guess because all those dudes from Brooklyn claimed he was actually a “nobody” and didn’t invent anything and hip hop started in Brooklyn? Brooklyn did have the center of energy at the time due to the rise of Run/DMC, but not only was Phase 2 a key innovator of Wild Style graffiti, he helped create Up Rocking, he invented the “ghetto-deco” style that took over hip hop flyers, and he innovated a lot of other stuff inside the culture. Maybe someday they’ll restore his cameo? Anything is possible.

I put the original script up on Smashwords and was amazed at how well it holds up. Especially compared to the very weak film Beat Street turned out to be. I thought I was going to be moving to Hollywood, and maybe I would have it I’d had a bigger piece of paper to write notes on. I immediately wrote another script about garage bands in the late 60s after Beat Street came out, and Scott Yoselow at the Gersh Agency liked it enough to pitch it. But it never sold. I got sidetracked after I was made editor at High Times, and never had the time to write another film script. Meanwhile, you can read my original script and dream about what could have been. And I still have those original ten post-it’s with Harry’s “suggestions” although I must admit I don’t think any made it into my script.