The Tin Whistle

counterculture history and conspiracy theory

Origins of Beat Street: Interview with Rasheema Kearney

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Grandmaster Flash today

Beat Street has and will always be a major monument in Hip Hop. What was the inspiration behind Beat Street?

I went to an art show in Long Island City titled New York/New Wave, curated by Diego Cortez. “Break” a photo of a subway car painted by Futura 2000 was included (along with hundreds of other photos of graffiti art). “These Are They Breaks” by Kurtis Blow was just starting to climb the charts, one of the first rap songs to enter the mainstream. While staring at Futura’s painting, it occurred to me graffiti and rap music were deeply connected. I went on a search to find Futura so I could write about him (and buy a framed photo of “Break”), and in the process, made connections with Fab Five Freddy and Afrika Bambaataa.

I must say this a thousand times a day, Hip Hop is a culture.  I can clearly remember going to the movies when Beat Street was first released.  Everything amazed me.  I was intrigued by the graffiti (art), the New Yorker dialogue, breakers, and music.  Every kid in the 80’s era wanted to move to New York and become a rapper after seeing Beat Street.   It wasn’t until I did the research on Beat Street did I learn the writer, Steven Hager was white.  Are many people surprised when they meet you?

Nobody today seems surprised by my whiteness. But I have to admit a few people did look at me funny when I was attending Bam’s shows at Bronx River Projects, where I’d often be the only white face in the crowd. After the shows were over, Bam always put a bodyguard on me to make sure I made it back to the subway.

In 1983, Charlie Alhearn released Wild Style.  Wild Style was the first Hip Hop movie.  Wild Style is actually the movie that introduced the art of free styling and party battles.  In May of 1984, Charlie Parker and Allen DeBevoise released Breakin’. Sadly, I can’t say that it really fit into the hip hop culture.  It definitely wasn’t a great movie to be released after Wild Style.  On June 6, 1984, a beast was released.  Beat Street the king of the beat.  Did you ever expect for Beat Street to hit as big as it did?  If not, why?

Actually, I was pretty disappointed with the final product. My script was closer to Boyz n the Hood. It was closer to reality. I didn’t recognize any of the interiors or characters in the final film. They all seemed way too middle class, and not street smart (except for the dancers and rappers who were just playing themselves.) What saves the movie are the battles with New York City Breakers and the Rocksteady Crew, and a few of the rap performances. One major problem is that I wanted the Furious Five and the Treacherous Three in the film, but the Furious were in the midst of a huge legal problem and Flash couldn’t even perform for several months or use his name. The Cold Crush Brothers would have been a viable substitution, and I encouraged Harry Belafonte to use them, but he demanded an audition, and the Cold Crush refused because they were the premier group at the time and felt an audition was an insult. Actually, that was a mistake on their part because they could have captured a huge audience by appearing in the film. At the time they were more interested in live performance than records or films. Grandmaster Caz should have become a major star, but never got over the hump.

What is your opinion of the transformation in Hip Hop from then to now?

Don’t really listen to much hip hop, especially the gangsta stuff, just don’t connect with the message. I did like Asher Roth’s “I Love College” even though it’s just a party song because I like Asher’s personality.

What would you like to see change in today’s Hip Hop?

It’s not for me to prescribe anything to today’s artists. But I’d like to see more respect for the First Generation. I’d like to see more remakes of the original songs, and more use of the First Generation on the CD’s being released today. The big hip hop stars of today should reach out to people like Grandmaster Caz, Sha-Rock and Coke La Rock and invite them to do duets with them.

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