Beat Street, What Went Wrong?

Hip Hop Family Tree panel by Ed Piskor.

After I signed the contract handing rights over my script to Harry Belafonte, he slyly grabbed a copy of all my interviews by asking me to provide copies to the Schomberg Library in Harlem. I didn’t realize the library would advertise that fact and lead a parade of researchers, including Jeff Chang, to the treasure trove of early hip hop history. Many decades later, I realized searching my name on the internet mostly turned up links to the Schomberg Library.

I emailed them recently and asked for the return of my transcripts as they hadn’t even given me credit for donating them.  After admitting a problem, their lawyer switched gears and claimed they didn’t have my transcripts and from then on, just kept gaslighting me. The day I signed that contract and turned over the transcripts was the day my name and presence disappeared entirely from Beat Street. I got zero recognition upon release and retain little to this day. I got the Morris Levy/Frankie Lymon treatment from Harry Belafonte.

Phase came downtown for my 33rd birthday party at Lucky Strike in the East Village.

Henry Chalfant was a super cool dude, one of the first photographers to document NYC graffiti. Manny Kirchheimer was the first filmmaker, and his film Stations of the Elevated is online. While I was working on Beat Street, Henry was just completing Style Wars, which was largely the work of Tony Silver. Tony I didn’t like so much. It was Tony’s idea to build Style Wars around Cap.

Belafonte and his crew already had my script, a realistic portrayal of a budding rap group trying to make a record. Slice of life and It also had a Romeo-Juliet style story concerning a South Bronx rapper hooking up with a girl from a privileged background.

Cap deserved respect for his throw-ups.

But when Belafonte got a sneak preview of Style Wars, everything changed and my script was tossed and they began writing a new one using my characters names, and it was all about Cap, who they renamed Spit.

Cap was never mentioned in my book or my script. But when I asked Phase 2 who were the current kings, Cap was the first name he mentioned. “You have to give him props, because he’s so up,” said Phase.

Graffiti was divided into crews and crews had conflicts that sometimes included dissing each other’s work. Sometimes it involved tag rights, like the conflict between Snake and Snake-1. Snake 1 began adding “king of all snakes” to his tag.

The graf created by the Hollywood artists did not capture the essence of New York street art.

Cap was not the loner they portrayed him as. He was in the Morris Park Crew, some of whom were dust heads. Instead of asking Phase or Tracy about Cap and his crew, Silver focussed on the younger writers in opposing crews building Cap up as the evil villain of graf, dissing the most sacred rules. Some of those kids were scared to death of Cap in real life, but in the film they talked big shit about how somebody was going to cap Cap. I imagine some of that drama could have been coached and encouraged by Tony.

Eventually, Cap was run out of the crew so demonized was he by Style Wars and Beat Street.

Beat Street should have started with the murder of Black Benji and the Ghetto Brothers Peace council.

The opening song should have been “Just Begun” by Jimmy Castor. The sound track should mostly been based on the real street hits, Apache, Mexican, Give it Up or Turnit Loose.

All art and graffiti should have been supervised by Phase and other greats and featured Dondi, Lee, Futura, Zeph, and given cameos to Haring and Samo.

The actors should have been real South Bronx or capable of walking, talking like a real South Bronx teen.

The interiors should have looked like real South Bronx homes, which means the black rappers were more middle class with nice couches covered in plastic, while the Latins more often were under the poverty line with mattresses on the floor.

As a result of these blunders, the film was not very successful. Really it flopped. Christmas theme in July? What happened is it got massive video rental sales. Which was nice as it got me a lot of royalties through the years, although nothing close to what Harry captured.

The Schomberg Library threw a party with Belafonte to celebrate the anniversary one year. I wasn’t invited. That was before I asked for my transcripts back and got snowballed.

Get a copy of “Hip Hop: the Complete Archives” and read the original script that springs right out of the era, one originally being fueled largely by cannabis, and later, by cocaine. Crack, on the other hand, only produced casualties. I’d like to stage a reading of the original script with some of the OGs playing themselves.

Is graf a part of hip hop or not?

GrandFlashGrandmaster Flash has opened up the longstanding debate on the basic elements of hip hop culture. In a recent interview, he stated writing has nothing to do with hip hop, and should be considered a separate movement apart, and not an integral element. In fact, Flash blamed the media for incorporating writing into hip hop, and a lot of writers immediately agreed with his position.
I have to admit being a bit stung by some of his comments because I wrote the first major magazine article on the subculture and put the words “hip hop” into play in the national media, and included writing as a part of the culture.
Writing was a city-wide phenomenon that started in the late 1960s in upper Manhattan and spread to the South Bronx before going all city, all boroughs. It spread quickly wherever there were subway tracks and trains. When the original masters of the first generation emerged as gallery artists calling themselves United Graffiti Artists, almost all were from the South Bronx, and the list was headed by Phase 2 and Bama.
kool_herc_1Few realize today Kool Herc began as a writer, long before he got his first deejay system, and he ran with Phase 2 and Stay High 149, both of whom would go on to have epic status. Herc threw his first jam in 1973, and hip hop was his to incubate for the first three years. Coke La Rock was the first emcee during this period, inventing lines like “you rock and you don’t stop,” and putting “ski” on the end of everything. Coke was also the weed dealer, as well as emcee and deejay whenever Herc took a break. I’m pretty sure Herc considers graf a part of his culture, why else would he pose in front of it?

Afrika Bambaataa at Bronx River by Sylvia Plachy
Afrika Bambaataa at Bronx River by Sylvia Plachy

In 1977, Afrika Bambaataa began forming what soon became known as the Universal Zulu Nation, dedicated to peace, unity and having fun. Bambaataa declared that deejaying, emceeing, breaking and writing were the four elements of what he named “hip hop,” a phrase invented by Cowboy and made popular by Lovebug Starski. You simply can’t discard the fact the primary visionary behind this movement expressly included writing as a part of the culture from its inception. Bambaataa will tell you he had this vision of a new culture in 1974, shortly after he discovered Kool Herc, so he dates the birth of hip hop not with Herc’s first jam in 1973, but a year later.
There have always been hundreds of writers who say hip hop never influenced them, and they are correct. Most writers never attended a hip hop jam, and didn’t know much about the culture until the media began covering it around 1980, and even then, awareness moved very slow at first because there was so much resistance to recognizing the culture. But it is incorrect to say the media invented the “graf-rap” connection, because that honor goes to Bambaataa.
BreakbyFuturaIn 1981, I went to an exhibit titled “New York/New Wave” at PS 1 curated by Diego Cortez. Although panned in the Village Voice, that show changed my life. There was a huge room filled with photos of over a hundred subway cars, but one in particular drew my interest. I’d recently been given a copy of “The Breaks” by Kurtis Blow, which had recently become the second 12-inch gold record in history, and the first rap song to go gold as well. The subway car that caught my eye was “Break” by Futura 2000. I contacted Diego, got Futura’s phone number, and ended up attending a Soul Artists meeting on the Upper West Side. Futura introduced me to Fred Brathwaite, who gave me Bambaataa’s phone number. And that’s how I ended up writing a story called “Afrika Bambaataa’s Hip Hop” for the Village Voice. So, I entered this universe through graffiti, and while I respect Flash and the many writers who reject any hip hop-graf connection, I know one actually does exist.

Making Beat Street

I was the first professional journalist to travel to the South Bronx to document an explosion in youth culture that had been going on for a decade while being completely ignored by the media.

After publishing some landmark articles in the Village Voice, I began work on a film script. Since I’d gotten most of my hip hop history from Afrika Bambaataa, the first hip hopper to come downtown, I concentrated on the Black Spades involvement, and failed to mention the Ghetto Brothers or their peace council.

I’d seen The Warriors but had no idea the film was based on a real event. When I asked Bam why the gangs had broken up into crews, he attributed it to the girls getting sick of the violence. In reality, Benjy Melendez played the key role in bringing conga drums back into the streets. I wish Bam had clued me into Benjy’s importance in laying a foundation so hip hop could emerge.

I got played by Harry Belafonte, who bought the rights to my script, and then pressured me to turn over my interviews with hip hop’s founders to the Schomberg Library in Harlem. I was so naive. I had no idea how valuable those transcripts were or how inclusion at the library would soon be broadcast all over the internet, drawing historians to reap the benefits of my research for free without ever having to speak to me. Once Harry got control of those interviews, he didn’t need me anymore.

Recently, Belafonte sold his archive to that library for millions, so maybe Harry sits on their board of directors. When he pressured me to turn over the material, I had no idea I’d been soon fired off my own film project. But revealing me as the true instigator only took spotlight away from Belafonte, who never understood hip hop, which is why Beat Street put more effort on staging the African dance numbers than the break dance battles.

Back in those days, I never met an art director who comprehended graffiti had a unique style. Their attempts to hire airbrush professionals to replicate graffiti were always an utter fail. Imagine if Phase 2 had been supervising the graffiti in Beat Street. Instead, like me, Phase was cut out of the film entirely.

Belafonte had been deluged by chuckleheads claiming they knew the real history of hip hop, and how it came out of Brooklyn, or Queens, or Manhattan, or any damn borough but the Bronx. According to these fools, Phase was a faker and I didn’t know what I was talking about. I heard similar stories when I later published Art After Midnight. One reviewer claimed Jean Michel Basquiat had zero talent and implied I was only promoting him because we were friends. The publisher seems to have bought into that lie because they soon shredded all copies, which is why the book is so hard to find.

When the Schomberg held a 30-year anniversary for Beat Street, they failed to even invite me. Then I noticed that the gifting of my archive had been credited online not to me but to my editor at St. Martins, so I asked the library to return my transcripts and take my name off their website. A reply from their lawyer claimed they never got any transcripts from me.

I put the original script on Smashwords (Looking for the Perfect Beat), and still hold out hope someone will produce the real story with my original title and script.

Buddy Esquire: King of Hip Hop Flyers

Here’s a shot of Easy AD of the Cold Crush with Buddy Esquire (wearing sunglasses).

Buddy started writing graffiti in 1972 and used a variety of tags until he settled on ESQ. Most people would consider 1972 to be pretty early in graffiti history, but to his credit, when Buddy was asked if he was one of the graffiti pioneers, he said, “no that was Phase 2,” who only started a year earlier.
One day some officers from the local precinct came by his house to tell his parents about his artistic vandalism, and Buddy got grounded for half the summer and lost his comic book collection as punishment. So Buddy got out of graffiti, even though neither the police nor his parents found his marker and spray-paint stash.

Buddy must have been pretty good at b-ball (as was Phase 2), as his partner in park basketball throughout the 1970s was a 6’9″ dude named Eddie Pinckney, who went on to win a championship with Villanova in 1985 before going pro.

In 1976 rap music began spreading in the Bronx. The new style had kicked off in 1973 with a Kool Herc party, but a year later Afrika Bambaataa merged the creative elements of ghetto culture and soon began calling it Hip Hop.

In 1977, Buddy was customizing jean jackets, and had mastered a professional style that looked nothing like his graffiti or the stencil letters others were applying to shirts and jackets. The Funky Four all got their jean jackets customized by Buddy. Later that year, he made his first hip hop flyer for a local block party. In November of 1978, Tony Tone asked him to do a flyer for a Breakout jam. The results were so good that when Tony, Charlie Chase and Grandmaster Caz put together the Cold Crush, they began using Buddy for almost all their flyers. Meanwhile, Phase 2 had already established himself as the main flyer maker for Grandmaster Flash and the Furious, as well as the creator of the “hood deco” style, which certainly helped goose vibrations and expectations. Before long, The Furious and Cold Crush would become the premier groups of hip hop, and Buddy and Phase would be known as the hip hop flyer kings.

I just saw on Facebook Buddy is no longer with us, and wonder what could have possibly happened. If anyone knows, please drop me a note or a comment and I’ll update this. And if anyone knows about any upcoming tributes, please spread the info.


http://www.amazon.com/Hip-Hop-Steven-Hager-ebook/dp/B00IOXGNHY/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1415014199&sr=8-1&keywords=hip+hop+by+steven+hager

The Legendary Phase 2

I ‘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.

The 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.

The Stay High 149 Controversy

It’s the most famous tag in graffiti history and also one of the oldest. Yet it’s creator remained a mystery for decades. I searched for Stay High in the early 1980s when I was writing the first history of hip hop, but could never locate him. Later, after I became editor of High Times, Stay High actually reappeared for a brief time and I invited him to the office, where I did a video interview with him and discovered his real name was Wayne.

Several years later, however, I was contacted by a graffiti artist named Luis who told me that he was the original Stay High and that Wayne had actually bitten his tag. Apparently this all started down in Florida, where Luis had an exhibit and told a bunch of local writers he was Stay High 149. Soon, there was an outcry against him for trying to steal Wayne’s legacy.

Luis came to High Times and tried to explain the situation. He claimed that Phase 2 would back up his story that there were two Stay Highs around 1969, both writing the same tag? I asked Phase and he strongly denied that. But I have to admit, I was taken in by all the evidence Luis had marshaled to his cause. He had photos of himself standing in front of faded tags in the Bronx. He had a story about the Junior Latin Lords, who supposedly had a clubhouse on 149th Street.

Although a lot of old school writers were really pissed at Luis, I went ahead and posted my video interview with him, hoping that people would step forward to either confirm or deny what he was saying. I just couldn’t understand why Luis would make up this story as he seemed to be a serious artist. Meanwhile, while he was at the office, I asked him to write “Stay High 149” on my eraseboard. He did, but the signature was a bit clumsy, with none of the flow you’d expect. Luis said his cousin and others would come forward to support his story. But to tell the truth, no one has ever come forward to back up Luis and that video has been up for years now. You can watch him tag my eraseboard and make up your own mind just based on that.

I should have listened to Freedom when he first contacted me to say Luis’s story was absurd. According to Luis, he invented the tag in in 1966, which would have easily made him the most advanced graffiti writer in New York history?

A few days ago, I asked Luis to come in and take a lie detector test to see if he was actually telling the truth. This was his reply:

“Hey, Steve, when we first met you was convinced that I was the real deal, now you ask if I’m willing to take a test. I know I’ll pass with flying colors but what will that prove, there are people that would probably say it was rig. Take yourself for example, you have your doubts because of what you have heard. I believe that is the reason you changed your mind about me on the Cannabis event. Thanks, but no thanks. I don’t have to prove anything to anyone, haters will always be haters no matter what…Peace!”

It’s too late to apologize to Wayne, he’s gone, but I hope nobody else gets sucked into this and I’m sorry I ever took this guy seriously.

Meanwhile, I’ve got a new controversy as someone is claiming to have invented 420 and is saying the Waldo’s are liars. I’ll be posting on this very soon, but felt I needed to clear this up first.