Madonna and me

Monica from Tommy Boy Records wanted me to check out the Fun House. “Arthur Baker and John Robie are hanging out there all the time,” she said. After writing the first story on hip hop in the Village Voice, Monica felt I should turn my attention to the way break dancing was spreading out of the South Bronx and into the other boroughs.

The first night I arrived at the club, Randy, the lighting guy, offered to introduce me to Madonna right off the bat. At the time, she was the girl friend of the house deejay, Jellybean, and already had a reputation as a voluptuous siren. I probably said, “naw, that’s okay.”

See, I was just finishing my book on the origins of hip hop, and I’d already heard the electro-bubblegum sound Madonna was working on. In the early stages of any new cultural wave, its often very hard to distinguish the truly talented, from the talentless opportunists (who always rush in). Aside from the bubblegum melody, Madonna’s voice didn’t sound all that impressive to me. But, then, I’d never met Madonna in person—or seen her perform.

That night Madonna came up behind me and started talking to me like we were old friends. I was wearing a Levi vest that East Village artist Ellen Berkenblit had customized with one of her iconic punk ponys in white marker on leather. Ellen was a very obscure artist, but one Rene Ricard was currently gushing over. Rene was already famous for “launching” Julian Schnabel and Jean-Michel Basquiat.

“Ellen, right?” she said.

“Uh, yeah.” I mumbled, keeping my full attention elsewhere.

Madonna wasn’t one to stick around where she wasn’t wanted. (That night she would tell someone I was probably gay.)

Actually, I’d already decided to base my Fun House article around a girl named Alyse, and the Juice Crew. I had this feeling Jellybean wanted a story mostly about him, and Madonna. Maybe I was channeling the responsibilities of power regarding my status as a Village Voice cover-story writer. I’m sure I came off as arrogant at best.

Later that week, however, I got to see Madonna perform on stage at the Fun House with her backup dancers. She was amazing and captured my full respect immediately. She obviously had a gift for choreography and oozed with youthful sex appeal. I knew right then she was going to be a star. I suddenly wished I  could turn that unfortunate first encounter around, and wondered if that opportunity would ever present itself.

Unfortunately, any plans along those lines were dashed forever the day my Fun House article appeared on the cover of the Voice, because the police raided the club early that evening. It just happened to be Jellybean’s birthday, and Madonna had a huge party and special command performance planned, so I’d become very unpopular in some circles. A couple of rumors came down the grapevine: “Madonna hates you” and “The Fun House is going to have you knee-capped.” Apparently, the club didn’t like the references to illegal substances included in my story. Some felt those comments were the reason the police felt compelled to make the raid in the first place.

“Steve Hager’s story on the Fun House is still remembered as a classic,” Baird Jones would write later in his gossip column. “Although when the expose got that illegal club busted, Steve had to lie very, very low for a few months.”

I did run into Madonna a few weeks later in the basement dressing room at Danceteria. She looked through me like I didn’t exist, while effusively welcoming my sidekick, German photographer Andre Grossmann. She even let Andre follow her home and take pictures of her in her own environment, until she had to throw him out because he wouldn’t stop taking pictures. At the time, Andre probably had no clue he was going to make a lot of money off those photographs many years later.

Excerpted from Hip Hop:  The Complete Archives.

Art After Midnight reviews

“…drugs, sex and chicanery… with verve, charm and sophistication…”

East Village Eye, August 1986: This is the first full-scale treatment of the overlapping club, art and performance scenes which have wrought tremendous changes in New York’s art world. Since it began in the late ’70s, a generation of artists sidestepped the frozen, hierarchical world of Soho galleries and began doing their work in nightclubs. Art After Midnight tells their story with verve, charm and sophistication. The book is not art history, not esthetics. It is a social history, a chronicle of artists’ lives, and of the broader milieu through which they moved. As one who hung out through most of this, I can testify that Steven Hager got it right. Not much is left out, and what I didn’t witness sounds like I pictured it. Art After Midnight reads like an expose—drugs, sex, artworld maneuvering and chicanery. Hager rips aside the sanctimonious veil that covers most writing on art to show us the real movers of the new scene as real people. (I know I’ll never read in Artforum how Zurich art dealer Bruno Bischofberger “rolls into” a Fun Gallery opening with “a babe on each arm.”…the Dionysus of the fun art Blitzkrieg was Kenny Scharf, insisting on his right to remain in the nursery, with its intoxicating funny-faces and delirious horrors….ten years from now, how will we feel about the lions of today?…Hager’s book provides a vibrant panorama of the beachhead.—Alan Moore

“…riotously illustrated…lively narration…”

Booklist September, 1986: Having already given its South Bronx sibling the once-over in Hip Hop, Hager turns to the East Village art scene that flourished simultaneously (c. 1975-85). His riotously illustrated chronicle tells how, inspired by such 1960s avant-gardists as Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground rock band and by the gross satirical filmmaker, John Waters, the young artists created successive waves of neo-dada, first in punk music, then in performance art, before the burgeoning of new galleries in the East Village brought most of them back to painting,  where they had generally all begun. The scene finally fell apart when, like avant-gardists before them, the best talents in the movement became famous and started to sell to high-dollar collectors. In the meantime, an immense amount of fun was had, fun that Hager conveys through a lively narration sparked by commentary of most of the scene’s principle artists, performers, and musicians.—RO

“…as artless as the scene itself…”

ELLE, June 1986: Long on hindsight, short on insight, Steven Hager’s book on the rise of the East Village art scene comes off as artless as the scene itself. Yes, you may learn how the Mudd Club got its name (I’ve already forgotten) and what CBGB & OMFUG stands for (who cares?), that Keith Haring went to Grateful Dead concerts because “he wanted to be a hippie,” or that David Byrne was described as “a cross between Ralph Nader, Lou Reed and Tony Perkins” in an early press release, and you’ll hear all about Kenny Scharf’s Jetsons fixation, but you won’t get much meaningful evaluation of the often questionable art to emerge from one of the more fringe movements of this century. —Peter Occhiogrosso

“…a Big Chill for the punk generation…”

The City Paper, July 4, 1986: Take the in-crowd focus of Interview, add gushy innocence of a teen music fanzine and a dash of the I-know-what’s-important pose of Artforum, and you’ll approximate the tone of Art After Midnight, a coffee-table postmortem on the East Village punk scene, RIP (roughly) 1977-1982. The scene itself comes across as fun, ingeneous, wild and wacky, with that mix of profundity and utter frivolity we associate with the hijinks of any art student crowd anywhere anytime. Hager’s I-was-there slant, meanwhile, is a kind of heavy nostalgia editorializing that makes the book a Big Chill for the punk generation. Every generation is nostalgic for and overly apologetic about its wild and wacky youth. The East Village scene was clearly a lot of fun for Hager, and he does a good job of making it sound like fun in this book.—John Strausbaugh

“…art that the serious have to take seriously…”

Boston Phoenix October 8, 1986: They were young—the first generation weaned on Let’s Make a Deal—and they had no standards whatsoever. They were American: they ruled the world. And they just wanted to have fun. They succeeded, some, like Haring, Basquiat and Byrne, beyond their wildest imaginations, and in the process they made some art that the serious have to take seriously. This book may not diagnose the disease very well, but it sure as hell is a fun display of the symptoms. —David Bonetti

‘”…detailed descriptions of clothing and hairstyles…”

City Arts  January 18, 1987: Aptly, author Steven Hager chose the style of a gossip columnist to relate the history of this neighborhood, which has seen the birth of punk rock music, performance art, and the newest school of visual art, Neo Expressionism. Hager talks about the lives, relationships and social gatherings of East Village art and music celebrities, including fairly detailed descriptions of their clothing and hairstyles. For those who believe in the purity of artists and their rejection of crass commercialism, this book will be an eye-opener. Hager’s description of the new art superstars, most of whom achieved substantial commercial success while still in their 20s, illustrates the overwelming influence of television, blockbuster Hollywood films and popular music on these artists. —Patty Somlo

“…outrageous energy….”

Publishers’ Weekly May 30, 1986 The outrageous energy of the participants and their subsequent notoreity will carry the reader through this uncritical, discursive pop history of what [St. Martins’] calls the “Global East Village.” He begins with CBGB’s and its development as the premier club for punk rock and the nihilistic youth culture of its audience. The author then covers various groupings that were make to make Manhattan’s East Village and neoexpressionism buzzwords of the ’80s. Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kenny Scharf and Keith Haring receive extensive coverage, as well as performance artists like Ann Magnuson and “personalities” such as Patti Astor. The book culminates with the explosion of galleries in the East Village and its impact on the New York art market-place. Hager’s treatment is unremarkable but, as always, the East Village provides its own momentum.

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.

Art After Midnight: The East Village Scene

I was super disappointed with the layout and production of my first book, Hip Hop, so I brought in my own personal art director (Flick Ford) to lay out my second book, Art After Midnight: The East Village Scene.

Hip Hop was about the South Bronx in the 1970s, but my second book was going to be about how the punk movement and the hip hop movements collided in the East Village in the 1980s. The book has been out-of-print for decades and copies in good condition sell for over $100, so it’s about time it was released as an ebook at an affordable price. When it came out, a lot of critics thought it was a bit lightweight because it concentrated more on nightlife than art criticism, but many artists, including Kenny Scharf and Ann Magnuson, have recently told me it remains the definitive document of the Mudd Club and Club 57 era. The book is now available at Amazon.

The first history of Hip Hop

Long out-of-print and with copies selling for upwards of $500, the original hip hop history written by the first journalist to document the scene is now available. When the book first appeared in 1984, here’s what some of the press had to say:

“…extremely well-written…”

Rock&Roll Confidential, #16/September 1984: HOME XEROXING PROSPECTS…Hip Hop by Steven Hager is an intelligent, vividly illustrated and extremely well-written account of the rise of hiphop culture. It begins at the beginning, that is to say, with James Brown and details the destructive policies of New York planner Robert Moses that created the South Bronx in the first place. By the end of the book you’ll feel close enough to many of the graffiti writers, breakers, djs and rappers that they’ll seem like old friends. —Dave Marsh

“…sets the record straight…sorted out fact from fiction…”

Paper Magazine: Steven Hager’s Hip Hop attempts to set the record straight on the endlessly argued questions of who did what first where. On the case for years, interviewing anyone and everyone, Hager (who also came up with the idea of Beat Street) has sorted out fact from fiction and written as “true” a story as we’re likely to get. — David Hershkovits

“…the best and most reliable history…”

Penthouse October 1984: Within a few months time the Hollywood films Breakin’ and Beat Street were huge summer hits. A half-dozen books on break dancing are on the market, not to mention more movies and instructional aids. In Hip Hop,  the best and most reliable history of the break-rap-graffiti subculture, author Steven Hager reveals that break dancing actually started around 1973 amid the urban devastation of New York’s South Bronx and had all but disappeared by 1978, supplanted by newer dances like the “freak” (ritualized dry-humping) and robotic “electric boogie,” What saved breaking from disappearing into the limbo of great lost dances? Mostly the growing popularity of disk jockeys like Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, and Grandmaster Flash, who encouraged competitive dancers at club and community-center functions.—Robert Palmer

“…thrilling intricate story…”

Artforum: Did Keith Haring’s use of found frames make his work something other than graffiti, which defines its own field? Did the Funky Four + 1s “That’s the joint” and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message” speak separate languages? Such questions don’t come up in this fine book; Hager is stronger on sociology than art, more acute on the secret history of the scene than on its spectacular emergence. The prehistory was really secret: budding graffiti writers seeking the new Bronx Kilroys, would-be DJs looking for the right party to crash, cops chasing guerrilla artists, turntable wizards stripping the labels from their records to out-fox the competition. Hager makes it all a thrilling, intricate story, all set against the heroic opposition between master-builder Robert Moses, destroyer of the Bronx, and Afrika Bambaataa, tribune of a new culture built on the ruins of the old. But Hager loses his tale once it becomes public, as perhaps it has lost itself. His claim that hip hop “has the potential to infiltrate and subvert the mass media, energizing them with a fresh supply of symbols, myths, and values” doesn’t define hip hop: it defines America’s ability to recuperate the idea of subversion itself. Still, Hager talked to the right people—better yet, they talked to him.—Greil Marcus

“…thorough job of research…”

Pulse: New York City always seems to be at the cutting edge of trends in pop culture. Recently, breakdancing, hip-hop and rap records, and, to a lesser degree graffiti art have broken out of their Gotham origins, gotten picked up by the media and—as a result—have become important movements in ’80s pop culture. Steven Hager’s Hip Hop is a fast reading history of how these movements started—and developed —that focuses on the many personalities that made it happen. Hugo Martinez and Keith Haring, Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash—from street-gang origins to recognition by serious art and music critics—they all come alive here in Hip Hop. This is a quick read—you can knock it off in an evening—but don’t get the idea that Hip Hop is one of those quickie exploitation jobs cranked out to cash in on current fads. Hager—whose original newspaper article inspired the film Beat Street—has done a thorough job of research, tracked down many obscure artists, breakers, and DJs for some cool interviews, and tied everything together in beautiful style.

“…Hager is an ace reporter…”

Village Voice  January 14, 1986: Hager offers a good helping of relevant data, bringing us through the two phases of graffiti’s art world acceptance, pinpointing crucial journalistic moments (though not his own Voice profile of Afrika Bambaataa, which is where Beat Street began), and devoting an epilogue to the fallout from the biggest of all hip hop’s breakthroughs—the crassly out-of-context  appearance of the Rock Steady breakers in the crassly pop-populist Flashdance. But Hager is an ace reporter, not a critic or social historian. —Robert Christgau

“…for those who wonder how it all started…”

The Palm Beach Post October 26, 1984: Most of us have probably seen enough break dancing to last us several lifetimes. For those who still wonder how it all started, a new book has come out called Hip Hop by Steven Hager, who tells us, among other things, that the graffiti sprouted on subways and walls were started by a young Greek named Taki, who put his first tag on an ice-cream truck in 1970.

“…formidable job of reporting…”

Knight-Ridder News Service March 30, 1985: Hip Hop takes its title from the street term for the entire urban subculture of rap music, break dancing, and graffiti art. The book comes packaged as if it were a bit of fluff intended to capitalize on the break dancing craze. The text, however, is a formidable job of reporting. Hager, a former reporter for the New York Daily News, tracked down many of rap’s most elusive figures, like the South Bronx disk jockeys who played the first rap records on turntables set up on street corners, and the earliest rappers, whose performances were given a parties and on inner-city playgrounds. The result is a description of a vibrant subculture.—Ken Tucker

“…fine investigative report…”

Voice of Youth Advocates: New York journalist Hager, who followed the hip hop scene for years before mass appeal set in, does a fine investigative report here. His sources: the horse’s mouth. The book is full of quotes of original New York hip hoppers he has interviewed: graffiti artists such as Futura 2000 who began “writing” on subway trains and now commands thousands of dollars in commissions, deejays such as Grandmixer DST who reveals here the secrets of his “scratchin'” technique, rappers who record their staccato rhymes now but whose tradition extends back to prisoners composing rhyming fables called toasts, and break dancers in hit films who began as street gang warriors. Their voices give Hager’s account authenticity.—Cathi Edgerton

“…explains how hip hop happened…”

The Boston Herald December 9, 1984: Hip Hop was written by Steven Hager, a longtime reporter on the musical and artistic subculture that’s rocked the world after busting out of New York’s slums. This serious but not heavy-handed guide explains how hip hop happened and what it’s all about.

“…it’s impressive…”

New York Daily News: Steven Hager’s Hip Hop isn’t a definitive study but, considering how hard it is to get information on the street culture of the South Bronx (few written sources, many reluctant or self-serving informants), it’s impressive.—David Hinckley

“…hits home with little-known facts…”

Billboard Sept. 15, 1984: Hager hits home with some little-known facts: that blacks were performing a form of break dancing in the mid-70s and at some point abandoned it, to be revived by Latin males, that graffiti artists often collect in “gangs” to study each other’s technique and avoid police while utilizing their favorite canvasses, New York City subway cars, and that a Bronx DJ named Kool Herc played a crucial role in the development of hip-hop music. —Nelson George

“…excellent book…”

KLIAT January 1985: This fascinating book is not a how-to manual, but a discussion of the evolution of Hip Hop, that subculture of dance, art and music that started in the South Bronx. He doesn’t romanticize Hip Hop, but he doesn’t treat it condescendingly either. An excellent book Hip Hop is worth owning. —F.L.

“…the best read on the subject…”

East Village Eye: Steven Hager’s new book Hip Hop is certainly the best read to be found on the subject. Hager was the first major writer to pick up on the movement, and he remains the best. His book encompasses the entire spectrum. —James Marshall

“…messy, ego-obsessed scrawls…”

New Musical Express September 22, 1984: There seems to be an inability to ridicule the more ridiculous aspects (like the graffiti artist who arrived at a rival’s house with a shooter threatening to use it unless he changed his pen-name). He also shares the age-old white critic’s fallibility of reading more importance than is necessary into black man’s art—most of the illustrations herein show street graffiti to be messy ego-obsessed scrawls. —Gavin Martin

“…obsolete as last month’s Magic Marker….”

Heavy Metal Feb/March, 1985: The walk from the South Bronx to the Lower East Side is long, and Hip Hop is like the view from a Greyhound bus. Encompassing break dancing, rapping, scratching, and street fashion, spanning from the present day New York back into the beyond, Hip Hop is a lot to digest. Even worse, the bleached-out black-and-white pages lack the visual beauty of their subject. Writer Steven Hager has renovated his Soho News and Village Voice articles to dissertation length, and even tacked on a glossary and bibliography that will, if we know Hip Hop, be obsolete as last month’s Magic Marker. —SM

“…formidable job of reporting…”

Hip Hop back in print

Two years ago I re-published the first book on hip hop on Smashwords. Since a dogeared original copy of Hip Hop sells for around $100 (when you can find it) being able to download this ebook version (in virtually any format for any viewing device) for $4.99 was a boon to anyone interested in researching the origins of the dominant cultural movement of our time.

But now I’ve packaged the original text along with just about everything I ever wrote on the subject into one volume. The result is a paperback titled Hip Hop: The Complete Archives, and it’s available for under $12. The book is packed with pictures, including a few never-before-seen exclusives.

Joseph Heller and Louis-Ferdinand Celine

In 1970, I attended a lecture by Joseph Heller at Valparaiso University. Heller’s best-selling novel (Catch-22) was about to be released as a major motion picture.

During the lecture, Heller mentioned the inspiration for his main character came from a French novelist. I made a mental note to check out that novelist, but by the time I got home, I’d already forgotten his name. So I wrote a letter to Heller.

Much to my surprise, I got a quick response providing the answer as well as recommendations for other writers to check out. I immediately read Journey to the End of the Night and afterwards, Catch-22 seemed like a pale imitation (sorry Joe). I couldn’t understand how a book that created the modern anti-hero and revolutionized stream-of-consciousness writing remained so obscure. I considered myself an authority on counterculture literature, and had been reading everything I could find for over five years, and yet, didn’t discover Celine until I was 19 years old.

The reason seemed to be Celine had become a rabid anti Semite after the lack of success of his first novel. Maybe his first publisher was Jewish and that got the ball rolling. But our two most famous American novelists, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Earnest Hemingway were both notorious anti Semites, and The Sun Also Rises positively drips with hatred of Jews and gays, yet it didn’t seem to hold back Hemingway’s career at all.

Celine wasn’t the only man of letters to conclude that a conspiracy existed between British intelligence and some dynastic banking families of Jewish heritage. Didn’t Ezra Pound come to similar conclusions?

Journey to the End of the Night is a masterpiece and should have been recognized as such. The fact that Celine later in life wrote essays suggesting Jews should be expelled from France really should have no impact on his previous work as an artist, especially since there are no traces of antisemitism in his first novel.

Of course, Heller was Jewish himself, and Catch-22 never would have existed without Celine’s inspiration. If critics are going to insist on rejecting Celine’s considerable artistic accomplishments based on views he later expressed in essays, then I’m afraid there is very long line of racists whose work ought be treated with equal disdain. Celine was a huge influence on William S. Burroughs and many other groundbreaking novelists. Bukowski called him “the greatest writer of 2,000 years.”

Within a few months, I would write “The Stockholm Manifesto,” a rant heavily influenced by Celine. You can read the short story in my fiction collection titled 1966.