I’ve been writing a lot about hip hop lately. In the fourth chapter of the doctoral dissertation I am near to completing, I argue that hip hop culture is a site of contestation—a heterogeneous dialog from which groups and individuals collect practices, sounds, memories, traditions, versions, and historical figures to construct a notion of authentic individual identity constituted by multiple simultaneous overlapping social identities. As such, I have been spending a lot of time contemplating a relatively early period in hip hop—though from a different perspective it could be a late period, as hip hop has died many deaths to be reborn—when hip hop as cultural practice decidedly transformed into hip hop as commodity. I have been trying to imagine the point when the very market forces that can be said to have killed hip hop as it was once understood were also responsible for spreading its promise from the South Bronx to as far as East Germany and Japan so that it might live.
It is because of this writing that I spent a little time with Beat Street, a film from 1984, which barely merits more than a mention in my specific academic interrogation, but that on a personal level means a helluva a whole lot to me—at least the title track does. The film itself is not that good, and as Jeff Chang says of it in his fantastic book Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation (2005), “Beat Street proceeded from the assumption that hip-hop needed to be dumbed down…reduced to a kid-friendly Broadway production, scrubbed clean for prime-time, force-fitted into one-size-fits-all.” (193-4). It is poorly acted, does not make good use of all the talent gathered together for the film, and its original script, penned by Stephen Hager, one of the first journalists to cover rap and graffiti was scrapped for something where “professional actors spoke like Shakespeareans stranded by their agents in the concrete jungle.” I’ve re-watched it in recent years, and none of these criticism seems off-base. And yet, I can still listen to “Beat Street Breakdown” and not only return to the feelings it evoked in my 13-year old self, but hear the song as a manifestation of the tensions that the movie was indicative of—the conflict between hip hop’s primal urge to “get up” and its need to remain a folk culture that resists and re-appropriates dominant culture rather than be subsumed into it. The thing is that Beat Street is the first really successful and mainstream hip hop movie, and as such it capitalizes on a narrative of “coming up” that undermines hip hop’s very cultural roots. As one of the trailers for the film explains in its cheesy rap, the goal of hip hop is “to make it to Hollywood.” At the same time I totally understand the need and desire for recognition and for some money. People gotta eat. Like I said, there are a lot contradictions in hip hop. It is its contradictions.
In 1984 I lived in Brooklyn’s Red Hook Projects—public housing that was immersed in both some of the worst results of Robert Moses’s legacy and the heating up of the crack wars. A corner that now has nice little fenced off grassy areas and a mini-playground for the kids, was an open concrete space in front of two adjoined brick six-story buildings, strewn with broken glass and garbage and adjacent to small barren lot of dirt in which little kids often played. I had to wait for Beat Street to make it to the second run movie theatre to see it, but I saved some pennies to get my hands on 12”single of the lead track. I had seen the commercial for the film many times, excitedly turning up the volume each time it came on, and so I knew what few lyrics I could hear in ad by heart. It spoke to me.
The king of the beat
I see you walking that beat from across the street
Beat Street is a lesson, too
Because you can’t let the streets beat you.
I may not have been able to express it then, but upon reflection it makes perfect sense. The opening lyrics, which played over and over in the many viewings of that commercial, indicate both a way of being that is particular to street life—“walking that beat”—and that provided a sense of identity, but that could “beat you” if given over to. Though, let’s get something straight—I was nerdy skinny kid obsessed with comics, G.I. Joes and playing skulley. I was fascinated with street life and spent a good amount of time hanging on the block, helped some graffiti-writing friends do some fill-ins on their burners, but I never was a b-boy, and always did my best to avoid fights or any of the rougher aspects of where I lived. However, I still had that fear of never getting away from that.
Anyway, I played the hell out of that record, and even after a good 15 years or more of not having heard the LP version (not the version in the movie), I could not only still feel that aspiration and desperation the Grandmaster Melle Mel and the Furious Five evoke, but I still remembered most of the words.
The song’s intro has what I still consider some of the best record scratching ever recorded. The opening bells that precede it are a nice touch, giving the song of a sense of marking an important hour. It sounds to me as if the sound of the bells is what is being used to provide that scratch, so from the opening tolling bells to the first lyrics, the song builds towards a crescendo of rhythm. Sure, the electric guitar riff and rising synths are a bit cheesy, but the percussion more than makes up for it.
The song is notable for adhering to an old-school rap structure, eschewing the pop song hook of a refrain and shorter running time that many songs would later adopt. The first section mostly retells—or at least heavily references—the movie’s plot, while the second portion is more generally political bemoaning the state of the world in very clear Reagan Era Cold War terms. Yet, despite adhering to the movie plot and the now classic status of that second verse, it is the first section that really speaks to me in ways that resonate with my view of hip hop. Not only its focus on graffiti through its many references to the movie’s character of Ramon (who dies electrocuted on the subway third rail while fighting another bomber who went over his work), but for its focus on making do with a shitty situation, which is really where and how hip hop was born. As the song says, “you gotta make somethin’ out of nothin’ at all.” When I hear “Beat Street Breakdown” nowadays, the emotion I feel is not solely the hope the song tries to evoke as part of its cheesy afterschool special-like narrative, but a pang of irony in regards to the very disillusionment with that hope that Hollywoodization of hip hop that Beat Street represents. When I hear lines like “your works of art brought into being / All that the ghetto stopped you from seeing,” I imagine not only how graffiti art was a form of ghetto cartography, envisioning new maps based on identity writ large on urban space, but I can imagine rap music not as a hip hop’s prodigal son not yet returned, but as its voice seeking to shed light on and explain the whole culture. Furthermore, the song expresses to a degree the “making do” that hip hop did best when it had little to “make do” with, as when it describes,
I’m sittin’ in the classroom learnin’ the rules
And it says you can’t do graffiti in school
There can’t be wrong in the hallowed hall
So my notebook turned into a brick wall.
Reminding me of all those tag-covered notebooks in junior high in which different forms of knowledge about the world combated.
The song also expresses, in part, a collective disillusionment with the American Dream that was certainly a part of my experience as a 13-year old kid living in the projects, with lyrics like:
You search for justice and what do you find?
You find just us on the unemployment line
You find just us sweatin’ from dawn to dusk
There’s no justice, it’s, huh, just us
But it also provides the uplifting message that a movie of its kind can’t not have without endangering its success. And I have to admit, as a kid I needed to feel that sense of possibility, the inevitably of a better time to come for me and for everyone—but nowadays, however, far I have come from that life, I can’t help but feel that that promise goes unfulfilled for so many people. So now when I hear Melle Mel rap,
So after this there’ll be no more hard times
No more bad times and no more pain
No more chump change, none of that bull
Just movies, museums and the hall of fame
I feel a wave of bitterness—or maybe bittersweetness. We still have plenty of hard times, bad times and pain. Plenty of us as still being paid chump change and dealing with bull, even if we do have movies, museums and Melle Mel (as part of the Furious Five) eventually made it into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame. Hip Hop got up big time, and I love that, but its focus on cultural production left its political potential untapped.
The second section moves away from the movie plot to paint a much dimmer picture of 1980s American urban life as bellwether for global possibility. Colored by the sense of imminent destruction, from the opening lines “Newspaper burns in the sand / and the headlines say ‘Man Destroys Man’,” this section of the song moves from the specific ghetto world of the film to the idea that its neglect is just a result of a political landscape with misguided priorities. The lyrics reference Reagan’s obsession with the Strategic Defense Initiative (aka the Star Wars satellite based missile defense) suggesting that he is “Lost in space” and “forgot about Earth” and complains about how government spends “multi-billions, and maybe even trillions, because of weapons ran into zillions.” The song also tries to connect this kind of wasteful spending to an afro-diasporic consciousness by comparing the lives of “the children of Africa” to the ghetto. Sure, the picture of Africa Melle Mel paints casts a narrow image of a very large and varied place, but at the same time for a kid like me in the 1980s, Africa meant just the kind of situations he describes, like the famines in Ethiopia—“flies on their faces, they’re living like mice / and their houses even make the ghetto look nice.” There is an effort there, however poorly executed, to draw a connection between different groups of poor black and brown people throughout the world and the attitudes and ideologies that reinforce their lack of options. The song resonates with the idea that like those children in Africa, we ghetto kids were neglected in favor of “A fight for power,” and whose voices go “unheard,” even as it banks on our identification with that idea so we’d spend $2.50 on a movie ticket. Returning to Chang, in discussing the late-era capitalist formulation of hip hop he suggests that a rapper’s message only matters in terms of the niche of a market to which it can appeal, reducing rap music, heck all popular music, to its most cynical base.
The song ends with a call out to the audience that “the future of the world is in your hands” and to “Throw your hands in the air / and wave them like you just care / and if you believe that you’re the future scream it out and say ‘Oh yeah!’” There is a tension in these lyrics between waving your hands like you just don’t care and having the future in those hands. Beat Street was right that hip hop would be the future and that there was a sense of possibility and optimism that came along with that belief, but now that that future has come and in some senses already passed, it is clear that it was not quite the future many imagined—even if I can sometimes still enjoy basking in the nostalgia of that past hope. But even more than that, Beat Street also represents the amazing ability of hip hop to incorporate even the “fakest” versions of itself into its recreation. So that years on, kids seeing this movie or hearing the title track are hyped enough to seek out the real thing—whatever that is.