If such a thing as “hip-hop cinema” exists, it was born between 1982 and 1985 with a small group of “hip-hopsploitation” films. These films were the first time a representation of hip-hop was packaged and sold to a mainstream audience outside of New York City. Despite production differences, two of the earliest hip-hopsploitation films, Wild Style (1982) and Beat Street (1984) exemplify the genre and the relatively consistent way the films represented hip-hop. Wild Style was an independent film produced on a shoestring budget by white filmmaker Charlie Ahearn in collaboration with, and featuring, several major players in the young New York hip-hop scene. In contrast, Beat Street was a studio production from the start, and while it was touted as “authentic” by it’s African-American producer Harry Belafonte and Director Stan Lathan, and featured a string of cameos from top hip-hop performers, the film is nevertheless a cheesy and formulaic 1980s studio-pic.
What is clear in both trailers at left is that these films tended to represent hip-hop in two important ways: (1) as primarily about DJing, Graffiti, and Breaking, and (2) as relatively multi-cultural—involving black, Latino, and some white youth—and even marginally gender inclusive. This is important because these representations seem starkly at odds with the way hip-hop is currently represented, marketed, and sold in mainstream America—including in film—where it is widely, if problematically and critically, seen as the hyper-masculine, misogynistic, homophobic, and violent terrain of young black men. I am less interested in arguing about whether these early representations of hip-hop are accurate, and more interested in examining the implications of their failure in the face of this later, narrower, representation of hip-hop. What Wild Style and Beat Street demonstrate is therefore not only the failure of a multi-cultural representation of hip-hop as DJing, Graffiti, and Breaking, to resonate with a mainstream audience, but also the desire to consume hyper-masculine, misogynistic, homophobic, and violent representations of black men. A critical look at early “hip-hop cinema” thus forces us to reexamine the narrative of hip-hop history and ask: what is at stake when hip-hop is defined simply as black/rap music culture?
It is great to see someone
It is great to see someone shift the conversation away from evaluating hip hop films based on their ability to accurately represent hip hop culture. While authenticity/realness does not seem like an adequate framework for examining hip hop cinema, it does seem like a central part of the way we understand the genre. Instead of asking what is authentic, we should ask, "whose notion of authenticity is defining the genre?" Your examples of Wild Style and Beat Street debunk any historical narrative about hip hop as an all black form of artistic expression, so who has rewritten this history and left us with the negative images we see now?
Great Post, Aaron
You're absolutely right to point out the blackening of hip hop culture over the last 30 years, Aaron. What's at stake is an interesting question, especially given the way that so many of the serious younger heads continue to go back to these films as ways of both grounding and authenticating themselves. It seems like they just as often fail to make the connection between the relatively multiracial world of the films, and the make-up of the "underground" revivalist/survivalist hip hop crews out there. That is, the enduring world of underground hip hop has long been dramatically different from the one crafted and packaged for commercial consumption. One of the things at stake in representing hip hop as simply black, then, is a vision of popular culture as a terrain of collaboration, interaction, and possibility. Reifying hip hop as black circumscribes those possibilities, even as it continues to literally sell hip hop as the best way to "understand" the contemporary black experience. Which in turn is, I think, part of a larger social shift in the US to representing the "ghetto" as a place not worth saving, attack on social programs, etc. But that's a different comment thread. I'll wait further responses. Great and provocative kick-off thread for the week. Thanks.
to say that the same discussion could also apply to the 1983 doc STYLE WARS and, in some ways, KRUSH GROOVE, as well--I think you've hit on something really important about the way both Hollywood and pop music responded to the emergence of hip hop as a cultural as well as commercial entity. It would be interesting to look at these "hip-hopsploitation" films alongside the early 80s films that addressed or incorporated hip hop without really speaking its name--FLASHDANCE is the one that immediately comes to mind, but there must be more. What's interesting is that early efforts to commodify hip hop by sanitizing it (thinking of stuff like DISORDERLIES) were less successful than later attempts to commodify hip hop by making it exoticised in all the ways you mention.
Hip Hop Commodified
Thank you for your piece. I apreciated your recognition of how these films appear starkly different from current mainstream perceptions of hip hop. I think you begin the week well by asking both 'how' and 'why' representations of hip hop have moved away from their earliest depictions towards contemporary films like Step Up and You Got Served.
One of the major things, I feel, that should be kept in mind when thinking about hip hop is its commercialization. As far as mainstreaming is concerned, the first commodified form of hip hop was bboying, which became popular internationlly thanks in no small part to Rocksteady Crew's opening scene in Flashdance. Like any fad, bboying (thusly termed breakdancing in its mainstream form) sparked grandly but fizzled quickly. Part of the reason for its mainstream failure, I think, is that marketers could not find a way to make bboying consumable across the board. Simply put, while one could watch Crazy Legs do a windmill, most people could not turn around and do it themselves. Furthermore, you can't really copyright dancemoves. Likewise, DJing as a performance could not be resold. Graffiti, as an illicit act, cannot not be profitted from either. Music, however, was entirely susceptible to commercialization because it could be sold on vinyl. Sold, then crystalized--something, may I add, that was antithetical to hip hop ethos as exemplified by bboy competitions and freestyle rap battles. Returning to hip hop commercialization, once solidified into a "hip hop" form, it then becomes subject to acitivation by anyone selling that form as a commodity. While questions of authenticity may seem passe at this point, they are extremely important to consider during this historical moment because of the ways in which hip hop industry grew and moved--I would argue--away from hip hop culture as understood and lived by its "originators." I am also careful to place originators in quotations because that is entirely open to debate. In line with this, I think we must also agree that there is no single "hip hop," only variations of it as espoused by whomever we ascribe as legitimate purveyors of it. I reference "On the Question of N*gga Authenticity" by RAT Judy here as a great piece that works through this problem of authenticity.
There's an important point that a couple of commentators have touched on briefly - blackness as exoticization. On one level, the reality of the issue of authenticity is, as your piece suggests, that the APPEARANCE of authenticity is crucial to marketing 'blackness' to predominantly white audiences. That's the obverse of the whole 'white rapper' conundrum - it's not a question of whether one actually has a connection to some mythical roots, but of whether one can produce a convincing narrative that places you in relation to the 'hip hop experience' for marketing purposes. On the other hand, there's a real danger in going totally PoMo on this topic - we can't totally dissociate hip hop from its roots in marginalized communities and its special role in connecting and communicating within the black community. I'm 33 years old and white, and I feel like I'm JUST really coming to grips with how different the black experience is from my own. We can't throw the baby out with the bathwater - at the surface level, yes, gangsta posturing is an unfortunate case of marketing the Other. But there's also some deep communication going on by, for, and between people who are on the 'wrong' side of a legacy of racism so mind-bendingly horrific Clive Barker couldn't have cooked it up.
Thanks for this post.
I think there's an interesting tension in Wild Style, where the film seems to be aware that, in documenting a nascent scene, it's becoming an easily-exploitable document of a scene. This is mirrored in the narrative with the rise of Zoro, who moves from downtown "realness" to the threat of possible co-optation by uptown monied interests. Could this be why these early hip-hop films--WS, Beat Street, and Krush Groove--all have very ordinary Horatio Alger narratives, as a way of making the raw (and, for most mainstream audiences, unfamiliar) culture more palatable?
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