When Janette Beckman learned the “New York Scratch and Rap Revue,” the first Hip Hop showcase in the UK was headed to London, she immediately offered to shoot it for Melody Maker. The year was 1982, and the culture was as fresh as the crease down the front of a pair of Lee jeans. The concert proved to be a turning point in Beckman’s life.
“Everyone was on stage together at the same time: Afrika Bambaataa was on the turntables. Fab 5 Freddy was on the mic, DONDI and FUTURE were making a mural. The Rock Steady Crew was breakdancing. The Double Dutch girls did their thing,” Beckman says.
“It was a Renaissance moment for me. I was used to people in leather jackets thrashing it out on stage and here were these people making art, music, poetry, and dance in this wild, crazy, creative thing.”
The Melody Maker reporter, Paul “up-to-the-minute” Simper, evidently thought less of the show, writing in the December 4 edition, “The fact remains that all these musical and physical contortions are simply a passing craze like skateboards. Enjoy it while it lasts.”
“Meanwhile, I am like ‘this is the best thing I have ever seen. I am moving to New York!’” Beckman says with a laugh. She arrived in New York that very month and never looked back. The young photographer quickly took her portfolio around to music labels, who saw her photos of the UK punk scene and turned up their nose. “I had Police album covers, the Clash, Boy George — and they said, ‘Your stuff is too gritty for us. Everything is airbrushed here and we can’t give you any work.’”
Down but not out, Beckman preserved and the call finally came. Elektra Records needed someone to photograph The Fearless Four. “I went to the studio and there they were in head-to-toe leather outfits and Jheri curls. The whole place was smelling of weed and I was very happy because it was my first Hip Hop cover.”
Soon thereafter, the phone started ringing and for the next decade it did not let up. Cutting edge magazines like The Face and Paper commissioned Beckman to shoot the newest Hip Hop acts. She was then introduced to new indie labels like Def Jam, Sleeping Bag, and Next Plateau, all of which needed a professional photographer to capture the style and attitude of their artists. Beckman fit the bill perfectly.
Beckman would go on to shoot some of the 1980s biggest acts including Run-D.M.C., Public Enemy, Salt ‘N’ Pepa, EPMD, Eric B. and Rakim, Gang Starr, Boogie Down Productions, MC Lyte, and Slick Rick — creating some of the most iconic images of the era. On November 21, a selection of these works will be on view in Beat Positive at 10 Corso Como New York New York.
Being a woman in the male-dominated industries of photography and Hip Hop didn’t faze Beckman in the least. “It was great,” she says. “Being from another country, I think they regarded me differently. People hadn’t traveled in those days so it was a great way to introduce yourself and start a dialogue. For me it’s very important to have the trust of the people you are taking pictures with.”
Trust is an integral part of Beckman’s process. She describes herself as “something between a portrait photographer and a documentary photographer” who does not concept her pictures. “I would just go wherever they were. I like to go see how people live, what they are doing, and what they are about then photograph them in their environment.”
While you’re reading: check out this Spotify playlist of hip hop legends who Janette Beckman photographed — curated by Miss Rosen
Beckman remembers photographing a new group called the Freshmen standing in front of a bodega with a boombox. School had just let out and the kids immediately ran into the photograph transforming group portrait into a community event.
“It’s that moment in time, when you are out there and,” Beckman pauses then points to a picture of MC Lyte, who impulsively hopped on top of the shoulder of the guys in her posse just for the shot. “She has attitude. She looks fierce,” Beckman says with a nod. “It’s good to let people trust you. Then they feel at ease to do what they want and be who they are — and that’s when I get my moment.”
Those moments often found their way back into her life, perhaps most spectacularly when they appeared in the Tower Records windows on West Fourth and Broadway — just opposite her photo studio. “I used to get a big kick out of that,” Beckman says. “I feel like that’s why I am on the planet: to document things. I wasn’t taking pictures of these people because they were famous – they weren’t famous. They were all at the beginning of the career. They were excited about it and so was I.”
Beat Positive is on view at 10 Corso Como New York through February 2, 2020.
Photos Courtesy of Fahey/Klein Gallery