PHOTOGRAPHING THE BIRTH OF HIP-HOP: New exhibit explores the genre’s origins through the work of three iconic photographers

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In the 1980s, Janette Beckman, an expat punk photographer from London, amassed a portfolio of burgeoning New York rap acts like the Cold Crush Brothers, Big Daddy Kane and Public Enemy. It was a labor of love for Ms. Beckman, who had visited New York a few years earlier and was so entranced by the beginnings of hip-hop that she never left. She later collected those images in a book, but she challenges you to find a copy of it today.

“We couldn’t sell it to anyone,” Ms. Beckman said. “Back then, there was not one thought in my mind hip-hop would become this massive thing.”

Was she wrong…continued

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Ms. Beckman’s early portraits are now on display in Hip-Hop Revolution at the Museum of the City of New York, alongside the work of Joe Conzo Jr. and Martha Cooper, photographers whose images from the 1970s through the 1990s document parties and dances that began in empty lots and playgrounds and went on to become part of global youth culture.

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Big Daddy Kane, pictured in 1988, found fame with the Juice Crew in 1986. He is known as one of the most highly-skilled rappers to date

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Afrika Bambaataa, who pioneered electro funk, poses for London-born photographer Janette Beckman in front of a graffiti-strewn brick wall in 1983, in a nod to the street roots of the movement

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LL Cool J, with Cut Creator, E Love and B-Rock in Manhattan in 1987

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Hip-Hop Revolution presents more than 80 photographs taken between 1977 and 1990 by three preeminent New York-based photographers—Janette Beckman, Joe Conzo, and Martha Cooper—who documented hip hop from its pioneering days through its emergence into mainstream popular culture.

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Queen Latifah cemented her place in the annals of hip hop history by rapping about women’s issues and domestic violence

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Hip-hop culture, incorporating such elements as DJing, rapping, and breaking (dancing), was born on the streets of New York City in the 1970s and grew to have a global impact on music, dance, and fashion. The exhibition showcases the experiences of each photographer during these seminal years, as DJs, MCs, and b-boys (breakdancers) were continually innovating, developing new forms of self-expression. The work of these photographers—featuring early figures Afrika Bambaata, Kool Herc, and Cold Crush Brothers, breakers (or b-boys) like Rock Steady Crew, and breakout acts such as Run DMC and the Beastie Boys—form a broad survey of a movement that is indelibly linked to New York City and still has a resounding influence today.

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Rapper KRS-One and DJ Scott La Rock, pictured in 1987, rose to fame with Boogie Down Productions

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Busta Rhymes, a member of the rap group Leaders Of The New School, is pictured in a promotional shot in 1990

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Long Island became a satellite hub for hip hop, from which EPMD (photographed in 1989) was borne

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The trio of shutterbugs share photos that zoom into hip-hop’s pioneering days in the South Bronx, as DJs, MCs, and b-boys and b-girls were inventing new forms of self-expression through sounds and movement. Prominent hip-hop figures such as Afrika Bambaataa, LL Cool J, Run DMC, Salt N Pepa and Flava Flav are just a few of the faces documented, and in the series you’ll get a look at the kind of life and vibrancy that permeated the Bronx and Harlem during the 1980s.

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Revolutionary: This image of The Almight Kay Gee, of the Cold Crush Brothers in 1981, is one of 80 documenting the start of hip hop

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Fashion, dance and music: JDL of Cold Crush enraptures a crowd at Skatin Palace in 1981

MCNY recently sent 6sqft a slew of the more than 100 photographs that will be on show starting April 1st. Jump ahead to get a taste of what’s sure to be one of your most memorable and nostalgic museum visits. “We’re seeing in these photographs the foundation of what many people consider a way of life today,” said Sean Corcoran, who produced the exhibition. “[These photos] show the development of a culture from the grassroots, and these photographers were part of propagating the culture to ever expanding audiences. This is really a New York story.”

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Little Crazy Legs strikes an impromptu pose during a shoot for Wild Style at Riverside Park, Manhattan, in 1983

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Cold Crush’s Tony Tone poses up alongside Kool Herc, a DJ widely credited with inventing hip hop, in 1979

Hip-hop got its start in the 1970s, born at block parties in the Bronx when DJs began experimenting with the percussive breaks of popular songs, remixing them using sampling technology and drum machines that let them scratch, beat mix, and beat juggle. Some credit the great blackout of 1977 with giving hip-hop the legs it needed to expand. The blackout led to widespread looting, arson, and other citywide disorders especially in the Bronx, and a number of looters stole DJ equipment from electronics stores (However, by then, prices for this tech had also become far more affordable). Barely known outside of the Bronx, hip-hop grew at an astounding rate from 1977 onward to blanket the city. Notable artists to emerge during this time included Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five, Fab Five Freddy and Afrika Bambaataa, and the art of b-boying (better known today as breakdancing) also came to be. But it was in the 1980s that hip-hop saw mainstream interest, both in the U.S. and globally.

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Breaking: Martha Cooper captures the High Times Crew break-dancing outside Washington Heights police station in 1980

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Charlie Chase of the Cold Crush Brothers at Norman Thomas High School in 1981

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Filmmaker Charlie Ahearn, who made the hip hop movie Wild Style, is pictured on set in 1982

By the 1980s, the genre also became more complex with new branches of sound and lyrics. In the early years, “New School” hip-hop was born giving rise to now well-known and iconic artists such as Run-DMC and LL Cool J; while Public Enemy, EPMD, Slick Rick, Beastie Boys, Big Daddy Kane, and A Tribe Called Quest rose in the mid-1980s to early 1990s during the genre’s “Golden Age.”

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Gangsta rap and what’s now considered East Coast hip-hop—associated with artists like Ice-T, Ice Cube, Wu-Tang Clan, Dr. Dre, Lil’ Kim and Notorious B.I.G.—came into popularity in the ’90s, and were rife with political and social commentary that spoke to crime rates, poverty, neglect and especially drugs in areas of the Bronx and Brooklyn. Purists argue that these were the last great artists of the hip-hop movement, the genre later diluted as it diversified to advocate “personal, social and criminal corruption.” However, even in the face of criticism, and throughout all of its later iterations over the years—and that includes the music produced by the likes of Kanye West, 50 Cent, M.I.A. and OutKast—hip-hop remains a powerful influencer and is still wildly popular with the masses.

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As real as it gets: Janette Beckman’s Hip-Hop portraits are a (deli) window to another time

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