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.

One Reply to “Making Beat Street”

  1. by coincidence, i knew the manager of rockwell for a long time. he has dropped out of sight recently. he was in the udt-navy,before it was the seals. his life would make an interesting movie.

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