Origins of Beat Street: Interview with Rasheema Kearney

I went to an art show in Long Island City titled New York/New Wave, curated by Diego Cortez. “Break” a photo of a subway car painted by Futura 2000 was included (along with hundreds of other photos of graffiti art). “These Are They Breaks” by Kurtis Blow was just starting to climb the charts, one of the first rap songs to enter the mainstream. While staring at Futura’s painting, it occurred to me graffiti and rap music were deeply connected. I went on a search to find Futura so I could write about him (and buy a framed photo of “Break”), and in the process, made connections with Fab Five Freddy and Afrika Bambaataa.

I must say this a thousand times a day, Hip Hop is a culture.  I can clearly remember going to the movies when Beat Street was first released.  Everything amazed me.  I was intrigued by the graffiti (art), the New Yorker dialogue, breakers, and music.  Every kid in the 80’s era wanted to move to New York and become a rapper after seeing Beat Street.   It wasn’t until I did the research on Beat Street did I learn the writer, Steven Hager was white.  Are many people surprised when they meet you?

Nobody today seems surprised by my whiteness. But I have to admit a few people did look at me funny when I was attending Bam’s shows at Bronx River Projects, where I’d often be the only white face in the crowd. After the shows were over, Bam always put a bodyguard on me to make sure I made it back to the subway. After I signed the contract handing rights over to Belafonte, he slyly grabbed a copy of all my interviews by asking me to provide a copy to the Schomberg Library in the Bronx. 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.

The one time Harry was asked by the press about the origins of Beat Street, his response was “A yuppie white guy came to my office with the idea.” This shows how out of it Belafonte was. I was a product of the late sixties garage rock movement and grew up on the streets as a runaway, just like Jean Michel Basquiat. Being a Yuppie was never my style. Garage rock was the fountain from which Punk rock sprung.

Many decades later, I realized searching my name on the internet mostly turned up links to the Schomberg Library. I emailed them recently as asked for them to return my transcripts. They claimed they didn’t have any of my material and just kept gaslighting me. The day I signed and turned over the transcripts was the day my name and presence disappeared entirely. I got zero recognition and retain little to this day. I got the Morris Levy Frankie Lymon treatment from Harry Belafonte. 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 threw a party with Harry to celebrate the anniversary. I wasn’t invited. This was way before I asked for my transcripts back and got snowballed.

In 1983, Charlie Alhearn released Wild Style.  Wild Style was the first Hip Hop movie.  Wild Style is actually the movie that introduced the art of free styling and party battles.  In May of 1984, Charlie Parker and Allen DeBevoise released Breakin’. Sadly, I can’t say that it really fit into the hip hop culture.  It definitely wasn’t a great movie to be released after Wild Style.  On June 6, 1984, a beast was released.  Beat Street the king of the beat.  Did you ever expect for Beat Street to hit as big as it did?  If not, why?

Actually, I was pretty disappointed with the final product. My script was closer to Boyz n the Hood. It was closer to reality. I didn’t recognize any of the interiors or characters in the final film. They all seemed way too middle class, and not street smart (except for the dancers and rappers who were just playing themselves.) What saves the movie are the battles with New York City Breakers and the Rocksteady Crew, and a few of the rap performances. One major problem is that I wanted the Furious Five and the Treacherous Three in the film, but the Furious were in the midst of a huge legal problem and Flash couldn’t even perform for several months or use his name. The Cold Crush Brothers would have been a viable substitution, and I encouraged Harry Belafonte to use them, but he demanded an audition, and the Cold Crush refused because they were the premier group at the time and felt an audition was an insult. Actually, that was a mistake on their part because they could have captured a huge audience by appearing in the film. At the time they were more interested in live performance than records or films. Grandmaster Caz should have become a major star, but never got over the hump.

What is your opinion of the transformation in Hip Hop from then to now?

Don’t really listen to much hip hop, especially the gangsta stuff, just don’t connect with the message. I did like Asher Roth’s “I Love College” even though it’s just a party song because I like Asher’s personality.

What would you like to see change in today’s Hip Hop?

It’s not for me to prescribe anything to today’s artists. But I’d like to see more respect for the First Generation. I’d like to see more remakes of the original songs, and more use of the First Generation on the CD’s being released today. The big hip hop stars of today should reach out to people like Grandmaster Caz, Sha-Rock and Coke La Rock and invite them to do duets with them.

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