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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I had a period that lasted less than a year when I was considered a hot, emerging screenwriter. Of course, as soon as Beat Street came out, that myth evaporated because even though the movie did ok, the script was awful, not that they used a word of my dialogue—in fact they didn’t keep anything but the characters’ names.
But there were a few months when I got to know what it feels like to be constantly courted for one project or another. I started working on a couple of treatments before Beat Street came out, one was the story of Frankie Lyman and the Teenagers that I was working on with a young black director, and the other was a comedy about the South Bronx, featuring a parody of Curtis Sliwa battling a local crack-head drug lord.
At the time, I was working on Art After Midnight with art director Flick Ford, and Flick had a business partner named Rob Taub, who was also a comedian who was dying to work on a project with me. Curtis Sliwa had just emerged at the time and I thought his organization, The Guardian Angels, was ripe material for satire. Curtis created an unarmed citizen militia that began riding the NYC subways in uniforms to make the passengers feel safe again and provide a free emergency response team. Before that he managed a McDonald’s in the South Bronx. Curtis turned out to be quite savvy about manipulating public events to promote his all-volunteer force. Who knows, maybe Curtis even inspired me a little, because within in a few years I’d create my own emergency response volunteer force, The Freedom Fighters, the first hemp legalization organization in America, founded by me and Jack Herer just three years later.
Imagine my surprise when five years later, I end up going on the road to major college campuses for a few years debating Sliwa on the issue of marijuana legalization, which he was against naturally. Curtis’s favorite phrase was “sensory mind wing ding,” which was his term for a hippie pothead. We got along great as Curtis is a charming guy and not exactly the Archie Bunker character he plays on stage and when he’s on the radio, although he can lapse into one of those rants anytime, it is often mostly for comic effect.
The cops really hated Sliwa, though. In fact, some of them hated him so much they hired the mob to rub him out. The hit was supposed to take place while he was locked in the back of a taxi cab and everything went off as planned, except Curtis jumped around so much in the back seat they only managed to plug him a few times in the gut. Somehow, he got out of that cab and got to hospital and spent years trying to track down the mobsters and cops who set him up. My impression of Curtis certainly improved after he showed his mettle in this incident, although the media tried to play it like maybe Curtis invented the whole story? Yeah, sure, Curtis shot himself a few times so he could blame it on the cops? Not very likely.
But that film script, Bronx Crusaders? That went out to Hollywood where the bigwigs said “it’s not funny.” See, Len Bias had just died and coke was now considered something you couldn’t joke about, even though I always thought cokeheads were pretty funny. The execs were all rushing into treatment programs. I mean, Cheech and Chong made millions poking fun at potheads, why can’t we have a classic cokehead comedy to match up against Scarface?
Unfortunately, that media company Flick and Rob started was working with all the big corporations at the time and initially very successful, but didn’t survive the rapid technological changes that were on the horizon. In fact, the failure of that business created a cascade of tragedies, the foremost of which was the breakup of Flick’s first marriage. I even trace the dissolution of the wonderful Soul Assassins, who would have been famous had Little Steven’s Underground Garage only been around at the time, with that same spiral of doom, as John McNaughton would say.
I found the treatment for the Bronx Crusaders and was thinking about putting it up for free on Smashwords if anyone wants to check it out. I guess there’s still hope for some of these projects I once tried to manifest.
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.
Haven’t seen Not Fade Away yet, but I’m super interested in this just-released attempt at capturing the garage band movement of the 1960s, although the initial reviews are not great, so I guess it won’t be creating a new franchise for Sopranos creator David Chase.
Immediately after Beat Street, I tried to launch my own garage band movie, and even had a great script titled The Runaways. I have a habit of walking away from energy centers at peek levels, and could have had a successful career as a professional hip hop journalist, but, instead, right after Beat Street and my book Hip Hop came out, and inspired by my new South Bronx friends, I decided to return to the music of my roots. In both cases (garage, hip hop), huge creative vibes were unleashed initially by kids age 14-16, with no one else involved, except our inspirations, which, in my case, initially emanated from England mostly (although Amsterdam had a scene just as good as Liverpool’s or London’s). Yes, it was the Beatles who made me want to pick up a guitar, but when I finally got that guitar, it was Rolling Stones songs I actually performed on stage with the Knight Riders. I was still in junior high when I saw their first performance at a sock hop at the end of the school year. I had no idea a bunch of kids my age could engineer such a mind-blowing rock sound. They only played one or maybe two songs, but I was changed forever. I didn’t recognize the song at the time, but later discovered it was Get Off My Cloud, although it could just as easily have been Gloria, the chords are similar and that now famous garage rock anthem from Them and Van Morrison was actually picked up by a local band in my town before the Shadows of Knight covered it. Within a year I was playing bass in the Knight Riders.
So when I talk about the 1960s garage band movement, I lived it, not as a star, but as a teenager struggling to take on a new cultural identity against intense resistance, mostly from my own father. They call it a “generation gap” today, but it was really a generation war.
Although I’d later learn to embrace non-violence, that wasn’t the way it started, and if you read my first short story (East Village), which is free on smashwords (and now illustrated with my art from the period), you can get inside my 16-year-old mind, and it was certainly chock full of violence, the love of which may have been initially planted by the mainstream media. Many teens of the era, me included, had to run away in order to become ourselves. And those adventures often led to big cities, like New York, where some freaky movies and weird shit always went down. After some of those adventures, we became jaded, cynical, old souls pretty quick.
My next short story, also on smashwords, and also recently updated with photos and illos from the period, covers my climactic battle with my parents, which occurred in 1967. The cover photo (left), taken by Bugsy, reveals my regular uniform at the time: black double-breasted leather jacket, jeans and long-sleeve white shirt. I think every black kid in my high school coveted that jacket, and some even warned me never to leave it in my locker unguarded. The fact it was double-breasted is what made it so distinctive. If you want to experience the raw emotions unleashed during the era, you will find them here, although it will cost 99 cents, as I need to get something back from all this art I’ve created. The next one, however, is free.
My final short story in this trilogy from the 1960s, is a dispatch I wrote while hiding out from the Vietnam War in Stockholm, Sweden, where I had a wonderful apartment and gorgeous girlfriend (left), and a brief gig as an extra in a film (Joe Hill), but still felt strangely empty upon being separated from my beloved homeland for such a long stretch. This was near the zenith of my nihilistic tendencies, and the story lapses back into the black humor of East Village, a much needed relief from the trauma of The Steam Tunnels.
Hopefully I’ll soon post my original garage band script that bounced around Hollywood for over a decade. I almost got a low-budget version done through High Times, and even had a cast assembled and a $100,000 budget drawn up, but then the funding fell through. The main thing about this post though is if there are any people out there interested in 1966-9, you might want to check out these three eBooks because they were written during the period. In other words, it’s the real deal. Us hippies were a lot tougher than you think.
I 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.
Patti Astor has an incredible sense of ceremony. She was way cooler than me, but our trajectories weren’t that far off: Patti emanated out of Cincinnati and the SDS, and me out of the anti-war movement in central Illinois. We were both into experimental theater and film, although she became an underground star, while I had to go into journalism to survive. Eventually Patti’s career as an actress was eclipsed by her role as a master of ceremonies.
In fact, her ceremonies were peerless at the time. Patti knew how to surf the zeitgeist and could manufacture “juice,” which is what the emerging hip hop kids called telepathic energy and star power.
The East Village art scene was pretty complex and dynamic, but I seem to remember a time when Patti was dating Jean Michel and I guess everyone considered them the King and Queen at that point. Patti had divorced Steven Kramer, who was another incredible artistic force at the time in his own right. It takes a tribe to make real culture happen. And when that tribe forms, these magical creatures appear to channel the energies of the group, creatures like Jean Michel, Fred, Patti.
I remember sitting in back of the Fun Gallery with Fred and talking about Congo Square. Fred knew the real history of the counterculture. It started in the one place where slaves gathered on Sundays in New Orleans, a site that quickly spawned the most fascinating cultural eruption in North America. The French slaves from Haiti had merged with the local Native Americans to create multicultural forms of song, fashion, dance and gesture based on spontaneous improvisation and freedom of expression. Soon people from all over North America were traveling to New Orleans just to visit Congo Square on a Sunday and watch the incredible ceremonies that unfolded every weekend.
What those visitors found were dance circles. Sometimes many would form, but at other times, when something really immense was going down, there would be only one circle and one or two dancers in the center. Some of these dances were considered wildly erotic in their day and I’m pretty sure the drum section was probably the best in North America at the time. Many of the dancers wore shells and bells that added a musical element to their performances.
Congo Square is the birthplace of blues, jazz and rock’n’roll. And the thing that always struck me was how close those Kool Herc parties in the mid-1970s were to the vibe and spirit of Congo Square. In one case you had these slaves who only had one day off, and in the other you had these teens in the South Bronx, a place recently branded as the worst slum in America. And part of the baptism of this oppression includes the birth of new styles of song, dance, fashion and gesture? And the fact Jean-Michel was Haitian just seemed to fit right in.
At the height of the East Village scene, Patti was constantly throwing these soirees, and you never knew who was going to be attending, just that the mix would be wild and fantastic. Often the point of these events was to sell some art on the spot to save the Fun Gallery, but real collectors were strangely somewhat short in supply at the time, although I’m sure many regret that absence now. I remember being at one of these events, when I was single, and I suddenly found myself in nose-to-nose direct eye contact with the most amazing dark-haired goddess. And believe me, I’ve met many amazing, totally amazing goddesses and usually I can command some sort of instant rapport, or even a semblance of normal behavior, but, in fact, in this case I was just a deer in the headlights, speechless. Meanwhile, she stood there staring me back, not saying a word, but certainly not showing intimidation, quite the opposite, in fact, this girl radiated tons of self confidence.
I remember thinking at the time, I guess she knows I’m the famous Steve Hager who wrote Beat Street and has the first book on Hip Hop ready to come out any day now. But the next day, I was talking to Patti and she asked me if I’d met Phoebe. I was like, Phoebe? Yeah, Phoebe Cates.
That’s when I realized the incredible goddess I essential blew off by not being able to speak a single word, was an actual emerging movie star. And the funny thing is, I also stupidly blew off the blonde goddess Madonna at the Fun House (but that’s another faux pas, and one already covered on a different blog).
I began plotting my next move and spending a lot of time thinking about Phoebe Cates, which wasn’t hard since she had a movie being covered daily on the newly created Entertainment Tonight (a show I embraced at first but have come to hate for creating the template that destroyed the media). Of course, I returned every afternoon to the Fun Gallery, but that was nothing new, as checking in with Patti and Bill had been part of my daily orbit for weeks. And then D-Day arrived. I walked into the Fun Gallery and Phoebe and a girl friend were lounging in bean bags looking at some Fab Five paintings that Bill had set up for them.
But for some reason I veered over to the desk and found myself on the phone talking to Kenny Scharf. I’d just come from the office of Vanity Fair and been given an assignment to write about a different gallery in the East Village, as the editor didn’t want to give the Fun any juice even though he knew that was my personal headquarters. I didn’t tell Kenny about these politics, I just said, “I got a gig with Vanity Fair,” hoping I said it loud enough for Phoebe to hear.
I don’t remember much on the rest of the moment, just that I never tried to introduce myself (and I think Bill offered to do it for me) and probably just slunk out of there eventually and then wandered around in a mindless daze of indecision. I thought I’d see Phoebe around again, but in fact never did. A few years later, she would marry Kevin Kline and move into Hollywood royalty. Years later, I discovered Kenny had told a bunch of people that I’d been hired as an editor at Vanity Fair and was embarrassed after a bunch of them told him that wasn’t true. In fact, I never “worked at” that snooty magazine and that one little gallery review probably comprised my entire output in their pages. But that was okay, because I’d soon take over High Times.
Review by: Sifu TORO on Feb. 03, 2012 : 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.
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.
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:
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…”
PenthouseOctober 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 PostOctober 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 ServiceMarch 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 HeraldDecember 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.
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
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