Beat Positive is an exhibition which documents the early days of hip hop. Photographers Janette Beckman and David Corio went to New York in 1982 to document this new music scene bubbling in America. Working for music publications like NME, they gained inside access to what would become a music and cultural phenomenon that took the world by storm.
The photos were taken by both Janette and David on their trip to the Big Apple. Hip hop, at this stage, was still very much contained to America and was a music scene in it’s infancy. Both of the photographers’ pictures catch hip hop at it’s most innocent. Shown in the photos are all of the now-trailblazers of the hip hop scene, but at the time they were taken, they were just young adults having fun and doing what they loved.
Hip hop’s rise to the forefront of the music industry has been well documented, and it has certainly not been without controversy or tragedy. The introduction of huge sums of money and big record labels somewhat corrupted what hip hop was initially all about. It was about sharing energy with others and it was inclusive, certainly not violent.
The East coast/West coast wars were the breaking point, in which two of hip hop’s greatest artists were killed – Notorious BIG and Tupac amongst others. The atmosphere around hip hop soured somewhat from the mid-nineties into the new millenia, but in these pictures, the photographers have captured how it was at the beginning. Fun, happy, completely new and energetic.
The exhibition, Beat Positive is on at the Getty Images Gallery in Fitzrovia, and the show revisits the b-boys, graffiti and the music that defined the period between 1982-93. The exhibition includes the portraits of the fledgling artists who would become considered the Godfathers (and mothers) of rap music such as Run DMC, Slick Rick, Salt-N-Pepa, Whodini, Grandmaster Flash, LL Cool J and Queen Latifah.
Salt-N-Pepa were a hip hop trio from New York and really, they were the first female hip hop group to gain widespread acclaim. Their larger success came later with songs like Push It, but in these photos the ladies were just starting out.
Janette Beckman describes when she met the trio,” I got commissioned by a teen magazine to shoot this unknown band and I was living on Avenue B on 8th Street so I said [to the band], “Just come around and ring my bell and we’ll take some pictures on the street”. It was a hot summer day in New York, so we just went and walked around Alphabet City, which was a little run down and it was great.
It was before social media, so people weren’t used to posing. There was no such thing as a selfie. Fortunately, they were very natural. They would start dancing when a car passed by that was playing music and I’d take a picture.
I love this picture because it’s got this feeling of New York back in the day. They’ve got their gold ropes and the Salt-N-Pepa earrings. After the shoot, they said, “We have a record coming out, would you like to shoot the cover?” So I ended up doing that one and their second and the famous picture with their eight-ball jackets (above).
These girls changed the game because, before them, it was pretty much all guys rapping and they were the first girls to talk about boys, in that song Let’s Talk About Sex, and that became really important.”
EPMD, Babylon, Long Island
This is one of our favourite pictures as it shows the bravado side to hip hop with the matching outifts, big gold chains and big shiny rims on the cars. EPDM, which stands for Erick and Parrish Making Dollars, were a hip hop duo hailing from Brentwood in New York.
It was their song Strictly Business from their album of the same name which had people’s heads turning back in the late 80s. Sampling Eric Clapton’s version of I Shot The Sheriff, they were the first hip hop group to use funk and rock samples in their songs rather than disco, which was the usual music form sampled in early hip hop. The use of rock samples became far more popular as hip hop evolved into the 90s, so EPMD were certainly instrumental in shaping the sound of future hip hop.
Janette Beckman shot the duo and explains the frenetic liaison, “I used to do a lot of covers for them and this was the third EPMD one I’d done. They told me to meet the guys in Long Island somewhere and it turned out to be on the east side, right near the water. We were supposed to meet at noon and we arrived at 11.30. We wanted to use the Dead End sign with the water behind. It was in the fall [autumn] and there was less light.
We were waiting for them and waiting for them and they didn’t turn up. It was before cell phones and pagers and we were getting really worried. I drove with my assistant to find a phone box and called their manager and he said, “Oh yeah, I think they’re getting the rims on their cars polished up in the Bronx”. That was like a two-hour drive in traffic. Just about half an hour before the sun set, we hear the roar of these motors.
They got out of the car and sat on the hoods and I said, “What are they wearing?” because I’d never seen this fashion and, in a way, it sort of looked like ladies’ pyjamas. I was like, “Wow, this is cool but different”. This became an iconic cover in culture, especially due to those gold rims – they’re very special, apparently, for car people.
I maybe shot five rolls of film – it was the days before digital – and the sun went down. We got the shot, and they said thanks and left, and that was it.”
The Rock Steady Crew, London
This fantastic mid-air shot shows a breakdancer from the Rock Steady Crew in full flight at a London show in 1982. Pictured in Victoria, the Rock Steady Crew were a music/breakdancing group from the Bronx in New York City. Their big hit (Hey You) The Rock Steady Crew managed to reach No. 6 in the UK singles chart, which was a big achievement for a hip hop track at that time and was an early sign of the success to come.
The picture below was taken by David Corio at The Venue in London. You can almost see the two cultures colliding when comparing the audience and the performers. The audience are wearing knitted sweaters and smart jackets whilst the performers are in their spinning around in their tracksuits. The audience members seem to gawp in fascination at something they have never seen before.
David Corio explains how the audience were completely fascinated by this new, refreshing art form that they were witnessing for the first time,
“This was in Victoria, just opposite the railway station. This was like the second hip hop show in the UK – Grandmaster Flash had played here a few months before and this was a whole revue with breakdancers and Double Dutch skippers. Afrika Bambaataa, and Fab Five Freddy did this graffiti piece as the show went on. You were immersed in hip hop culture in one fell swoop and also Janette (who photographed the other pictures) was there (bottom right, to left of standing dancer’s knee) which I only realised recently.
It was the first time people in England had witnessed breakdancing and some of them were spinning on their backs and heads and, if I remember, this guy spun on his head and almost levitated and was just hanging there. I love the expression on all the people, like no-one has ever seen anything like this. It was a real revelation. When Bambaataa came on stage, there were no musicians, there’s a guy with a couple of record decks. It was so different to what people had experienced.
Look at what people are wearing: It was very non-hip hop, woolly jumpers. But that changed pretty quick. It was an awakening for people, me included, that it was about more than guys in leather outfits, rapping away on a mic. There was more to it.”
Run-DMC in Queens, 1984
Run-DMC were a group that achieved many firsts for hip hop. Widely known as one of the most influential (if not the most) groups in shaping hip hop and bringing it to a larger audience, they blazed a trail for a new era of hip hop, away from the funky disco to the hard hitting beats. Run-DMC were the first hip hop group to have a gold album (Run–D.M.C., 1984) and be nominated for a Grammy. They were the first to earn a platinum record, the first to have their videos broadcast on MTV, and the first to appear on American Bandstand and the cover of Rolling Stone.
However Janette met them before all of this, just in their local neighbourhood in Queens and she recalls sensing something different about the group. There were certainly no bright colours or fringed jackets in sight.
“They gave me a phone number and it was Jam Master Jay’s mum’s house. I called up and they had no idea what The Face was. He said, “OK, meet me at the Hollis subway station”, so I got on the train with my Hasselblad camera, no assistants.
I got off the train and Jay met me and we walked down the street and there were these guys just standing there. This must have been the third or fourth shot I took. They were like ‘What do you want us to do?’ I said, ‘Just stand there’.
They changed everything. The clothes they’re wearing, they weren’t dressed up in leather fringe outfits – the Adidas and Kangols, this is pretty much hip hop fashion at the peak of change.
They do look serious. I can’t remember them giggling but they were serious about what they were doing. If you listen to lyrics to songs like It’s Like That, they were political in a different way. In hip hop you have to have an attitude and they had it”.
Biz Markie, London, 1988
Known in the hip hop world as the joker of the pack, the rapper’s songs are light hearted and funny, intended to extract a laugh. Just take a listen to Just A Friend and you’ll understand! Corio, knowing the rapper’s jokey tendencies was expecting quite a character when he shot Biz Markie in London, and he certainly wasn’t let down.
“You really can’t go wrong with Biz Markie. They were on the Cold Chillin’ tour [when this was taken]. There was him, MC Shan, Marley Marl and Big Daddy Kane. The record company was just off that lane in Kensington and they said I had 20-30 minutes to photograph all of them – and they wanted all of them individually.
I yanked out Biz first of all and he immediately started hamming it up. He climbed on top of a parked BMW and was bouncing on the bonnet. We didn’t know whose car it was. I thought, “We’re gonna get arrested here”. But right away, he was sticking his tongue out, his face right in the camera, really mugging.
He had those rope chains on that he was sort of strangling himself with. They looked really bulky and I said, “Can I feel, one of those?” He took the big one off, handed it to me and it was as light as a feather. It was hollow. It was sort of stage jewellery. Not solid gold, by any means.
He was just one of those people: You didn’t have to say much. Every time you took a picture, he was doing something different. he was a clown but knew what he was doing. he was easy to get on with.
There’s an innocence to it and that’s probably due to the fact that in the late 1980s, there was less control by record companies and management. It was just me and him. There was no stylist or hair and make-up and I never worked with an assistant, so it was easier.
A lot of people, when you photograph them, you can feel their concentration levels waning after a few minutes, so its good to shoot quickly and get something. I mainly shot in black and white and I regretted not having shot in more in colour but it goes with the grittiness of that type of music.
There is a timeless quality to it.”
Roxanne Shanté, 1989
Another trailblazer in the hip hop world was Roxanne Shanté. She was the first female to have a hit record and was the only female member in the hip hop collective The Juice Crew.
Roxanne Shanté was also involved in two of the earliest recognized beefs in hip-hop: The Roxanne Wars and The Bridge Wars. So it’s fair to say she is a hell of a strong character, able to stand up as a solo female artists amongst all the male dominated groups and come out on top.
David Corio describes how he got his winning shot of Shanté’s hair slide and huge, chunky earrings,
“She was really cool and professional and stylish but when I met her, she was sat down and she wanted to do the pictures there. I hadn’t seen her hair from behind, she seemed really young, I think she was about 18 or 19 but she was really street smart. She had this big badge on her jacket of a little boy and I said something like, “Oh that’s sweet,” and she said, “That’s my son”. She’d had a kid when she was 15.
We finished the shoot and she got up to go and turned about and I was like, “Wow, I didn’t see your hair slide,” and the earrings were double on each ear, like two huge bits of bling, and just seeing it summed her up as much as doing one of her face, so that was the final frame. Quite often taking pictures, it will be the first one you take or that last one that will be the money shot, I don’t know why but that was definitely one of those. Sometimes it’s just luck.
It’s great seeing all of the pictures hanging with other people’s because this era between ’82 and ’93 was this golden age, in that there was an innocence and, as the decade moved on, it became more business-oriented in a way.
It sums up a very important time in music and in style and fashion. Punk had finished and there was a lot of indie pop, but not everyone wanted to listen to jangly guitars and depressed guys in raincoats and this was so fresh.”