Hip-hopsploitation: Representing 1980s Hip-hop in Wild Style and Beat Street

Curator's Note

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 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?   

In short, to answer your final question, I think that the white consumers and marketers/producers of hip-hop have been a driving force in writing the history of hip-hop as black.  At the same time, I think black rap artists have also been part of writing this history.  It's possible to read that "complicity" as an instance of false consciousness (Frankfurt School style), I think we can see it as a more nuanced moment of strategic essentialism where hip-hop artists recognized that they had something to gain in this narrative.  My sense is that there's already a lot of work out there examining the significance of this narrative for black people (in a positive way), but I'd like to see more work out there that examines the significance of this narrative both as a narrative (rather than a historical fact) and as a narrative that also benefits white people.  Discussions of the white appropriation of hip-hop, while certainly valuable, seem to be treating the symptom not the disease.


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.

Great insight here, thanks for responding.  I'm intrigued by the significance these films have for current hip-hop heads, and what their use of them as a means of authenticating themselves, as you suggest, means given the role that these films played in the 80s.  I'd also be really interested to compare the 80s hip-hopsoloitation films with the neo-hip-hopsploitation films of the late 90s and early 00s (You Got Served, Honey, Save the Last Dance, etc). What parellels in these two moments of hip-hop history compelled the resurgence of such narratives?

And yes, not only does selling hip-hop as black circumscribe the possibilities collaboration and interaction and represent it as a legitimate way of "understanding" the contemporary black experience, it also gives the white consumers a scape-goat-able black body on which to displace critiques of sexism, homophobia, misogyny, etc.  Don Imus' lame attempt to blame hip-hop for his own racist comments is just one high profile example of this.

Again, thanks for the response.

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.

Yes, I think this does apply to the other "hip-hopsploitation" films, which is part of why I lump them together as a genre of exploitation films; they all seem to be working to domesticate hip-hop for mainstream consumption.  I think you're right that what was really interesting to audiences about these films was the exoticism of hip-hop culture at that moment.  This perhaps would explain why the most commercially successful of all the films was Breakin', the first to be released to mainstream audiences.  Every film after that made less and less until by the end of the film cycle, they were having trouble recouping their production costs.  I think this is also why films like Flashdance and Footloose created a stir with their cameo bboy/hip-hop performances.

Thanks for your comments.

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.

Roger, I couldn't agree with you more on these great points you've made about the commercialization of hip-hop.  In fact, several chapters of my dissertation are devoted to making a similar argument about the early commercialization of hip-hop.  I'd only add that, on top of the ways that the different elements of hip-hop resist commodification, the forms of media technology availbale to wouldbe marketers limited their capacity to commodify hip-hop further.  Whereas audio recording technologies in the form of vinyl, cassette tapes, and then CDs were established and cheap enough to make commercializing and then consuming the musical elements of hip-hop easy, the video recording technologies (in the form of video cassettes and VCRs) needed to commercialize the visual and performative aspects of hip-hop had not yet reached sufficient saturation for commodification to be particularly viable.

I also agree that RAT Judy's piece on Nigga Authenticity" is a challenging and great piece for thinking through both authenticity and the potential power of hip-hop to radically intevene in racist systems of oppression faced by black people in the US.  That said, and recognizing that it's not the aim of his essay, I think Judy doesn't sufficiently consider the way that the "nigga authenticity" he praises in his piece could also serve as a rational for further repressive state action against black bodies.

Thanks again for the post.

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.

David, I definitely agree with both your overarching points.  The appearance of authenticity seems to be a key feature of how hip-hop, and by extension "blackness," is sold to a largely white audience.  I also agree that there is a danger in calling into question the dominant articulation of hip-hop to blackness that has been with us since the mide to late 1980s since this can easily lead to a discounting and further marginalization of an already historically marginalized community.  At the same time, what I think the hip-hopsploitation films really do, in calling this articulation into question, is make us realize that there is also something at stake in this articulation.  This isn't to say that this articulation of hip-hop to blackness doesn't have some historical validity, or that it doesn't provide moments of power, but that it can also be read as the exercising of racism.  Calling attention to the way that the one-drop-rule continues to function in the form of calling Barrack Obama "the first black president," when he is more accurately our fist biracial president of white and black ancestry, is to note a racist structure at work without, hopefully, undermining the profound symbolic power that having Obama as president holds for many black people in the US.  In fact, I think that in noting the racism that comes with the knee-jerk articulation of hip-hop to "blackness" (and I should add, it's a violent, hyper-masculine, homophobic, and hyper-consumptive blackness) we are just now distinguishing the baby from the bathwater.  Noting this racist ideology does not have to foreclose on hip-hop as also a powerful political tool of black communication.

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?

Yes, I think a large part of what the hip-hopsploitation films are doing, whether overtly/consicously or not, is domesticating hip-hop culture for a more mainstream audience.  With perhaps the exception of Wild Style and Style Wars, which were made by people with some prior connection to hip-hop culture, all of the hip-hopsoloitation films (Breakin', Breakin' 2, Krush Groove, Delivery Boys, Fast Forward, Body Rock, Turk 182, Rappin', and Beat Street) were made by filmmakers removed from hip-hop culture experientially and generationally.  I think it would be safe to say that, at a minimum, in filtering hip-hop culture through their own lenses as people not already immersed in the culture, these filmmakers worked to make it more palatable for mainstream audiences.  The tension around "realness" and "authenticity" that you point to in Wild Style also appears in many of the other films, and seems to me to be a real anxiety both within hip-hop (and thus within hip-hop cinema) as well as an anxiety within the film itself around the way it's portraying hip-hop.

Thanks for the comment Anthony.

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