Beat Street: The Making of a Hip-Hop Classic
Few summer movie weekends were as momentous as June 8, 1984, when a generation of teenagers clamored to their local multiplexes for the dual opening of Ivan Reitman’s Ghostbusters and Joe Dante’s Gremlins — two of the decade’s most iconic films. But for the still-underground universe of New York street culture, that week was significant for the opening of another movie entirely. Released roughly one month after the campy, California-based family flick Breakin’, Beat Street introduced the American mainstream to New York’s then-decade-old hip-hop movement, set in the area in which it was birthed: the South Bronx.
Directed by Stan Lathan and produced by music legend Harry Belafonte and renowned motion picture executive David V. Picker (who was just coming off a three-film run of Steve Martin comedies with The Jerk, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid and The Man With Two Brains), the movie showcased three of the essential elements of hip-hop culture — MC’ing, graffiti writing and b-boying, better known to the masses as breakdancing — while telling the story of a group of friends living in New York City during the height of the Ed Koch years. It featured appearances by some of the scene’s pioneers, including hip-hop’s founding father Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force, Grandmaster Melle Mel and the Furious Five, the Treacherous Three, freestyle legend Brenda K. Starr and, most notably, rival b-boy squads the Rock Steady Crew and the New York City Breakers, whose climactic battle scene at the old Roxy delivered all the action of the conclusions of Ghostbusters and Gremlins combined.
And, thanks to the hype that surrounded Breakin’, Beat Street was able to surf the strong wave of national media attention that hip-hop — and breakdancing in particular — was riding heading into the summer of ’84. The New York City Breakers had appeared on such mainstream network shows as The Merv Griffin Show, That’s Incredible, Ripley’s Believe It or Not and PM Magazine, and they shot a scene for John Hughes’s celebrated teen rom-com Sixteen Candles (though it failed to make the final cut). But it was with the release of Beat Street that breakdancing found an audience with Ronald Reagan, who invited the NYCB squad to perform at the 50th Presidential Inaugural Ball to usher in his second term. By the end of its theatrical run, the film had net nearly $17 million, and spawned a spinoff world tour featuring several of the artists and dancers from the film.
But while millions of kids in America were seeing Beat Street as a thumbnail guide to hip-hop culture, several of the film’s participants have a different version of the story. In that version, the combination of old-school Hollywood politics and new-school street culture collided, creating a kind of thunderclap of heated emotions. To this day, many of those involved in the film with a sour taste in their mouths. The film’s producers took Steven Hager’s gritty original script and “vanillafied” it, according to pioneering hip-hop producer Arthur Baker, while another participant in these conversations, who asked not to be named, implied that the film fell prey to Hollywood backlot racism, calling his role in the film “a dead-end credit.”
In observance of its 30th anniversary, Wondering Sound spoke with nine of Beat Street‘s principals to tell the tale of this unsung ’80s favorite that helped kick in the door for the global phenomenon of hip-hop culture.
Read on at: http://www.wonderingsound.com/…treet-movie-oral-history/