Origins of Beat Street
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 recently put the original script up on Amazon and 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.