“I don’t pose people other than to put them in a good spot for the light.”
In 1982, Janette Beckman traveled from London to New York to visit friends. She never left.
“Arriving in New York at the end of 1982, there was graffiti, kids with boom boxes rhyming on the subway – hip-hop was everywhere,” Beckman said. “I think I fell in love with it and with the city.”
Beckman’s seminal work capturing artists such as Salt-N-Pepa, De la Soul, Run DMC and Grandmaster Flash are part of a new exhibition, “Hip-Hop Revolution,” opening April 1 at the Museum of the City of New York.
The photographs bring back good memories – particularly for De la Soul’s DJ Maseo.
“Janette caught us being us,” Maseo said, “and didn’t try to overwhelm us or push us to do anything we weren’t comfortable with. She was very aware of our schedule and how hectic it was, and she didn’t mind us taking a picture holding a sign saying, ‘You are pissing us off with all your pictures.’ [That] was a great day in Long Island.”
Famous for her documentary style photography, Janette would shoot emerging artists against the backdrop of many New York neighborhoods, leading her to become coveted for a style she says conventional record labels found “too gritty.”
“I love working on the street – showing the place and time, the ads on the window of a deli, the cars on the street, the style of people walking by – it all helps to document that particular moment in time.”
One of her most well-known images is of Cheryl ‘Salt’ James and Sandra ‘Pepa’ Denton before they became famous as Salt-n-Pepa. In it, Beckman captures the young women mid-stride on the sidewalk and seemingly unaware of the photographer’s presence.
Beckman prefers her subjects not be staged.
“I don’t pose people other than to put them in a good spot for the light,” she said. “I work fast and try to capture that moment in time.”
The upcoming exhibition, which also features influential photographers Joe Conzo and Martha Cooper, focuses on a time when hip-hop was something brand new and radical, and these photographers were there to capture the innovation.
“The hip-hop scene in those days was so fresh,” Beckman said. “This was before the Internet, MTV, stylists and big record companies with money. People were telling stories about their lives and just making music. These days I think artists want to ‘make it,’ to be famous and make money – it’s coming from a different place.”
It’s clear that the appeal was the authenticity of the movement before it became mainstream, and it’s this realness that Beckman captures in her subjects.
“I like to talk to them and find out who they are,” she said. “I feel that every portrait is a collaboration with my subject.”
The stories behind Janette Beckman’s famous portraits:
“This was probably my 4th time shooting them, and we always had fun on the shoots. They are wearing those Dapper Dan jackets that would become iconic symbols of the hip-hop era and the gold earrings and Afrocentric hats. They were about female power, the first all female hip-hop group – answering the guys with songs like ‘Let’s Talk About Sex.’”
Run DMC, 1984
“‘The Face’ magazine gave me a phone number to contact Run DMC, and I arranged to meet them at the Hollis subway stop in Queens. Jam Master Jay met me at the station and we walked down to the street where they lived. We walked around the corner and there they were hanging out with some friends on a spring afternoon. To me this photo says so much about capturing a moment in time – dappled sunlight, the car, the sneakers, hats, just natural not styled. I took maybe 20 photos that day with my Hasselblad and this has to be one of my personal favorites.”
MC Lyte, late ’80s
“Considered one of hip-hop’s pioneer feminists, Lyte recorded her first song, ‘I Cram to Understand U (Sam)‘ in 1986 about a relationship that fell apart due to the boyfriend’s addiction to crack. I love the way she is coming on so strong in the photo and the beauty shop sign in the background is so Brooklyn.”
Dapper Dan, 2014
“Doing a story on hip-hop fashion icon Dapper Dan for British magazine ‘Jocks & Nerds.‘ We spent the day walking around in Harlem and I caught this shot of Dap crossing the street – impeccably dressed as always against the buildings in the background.”
Roxanne Shante, 1986
“When I photographed Roxanne Shante, she was just 14 years old and her record ‘Roxanne’s Revenge’ had gone to number one in the rap charts. She said, “I couldn’t go to school no more because of my popularity. The teachers thought it best if I got a tutor because my presence was ‘disrupting.’ We shot the photo on the street near my studio. Roxanne is staring into the camera, wearing the classic gold hoop earrings. So hip-hop.”
“Hip-Hop Revolution,” runs from April 1 – September 15, 2015 at the Museum of the City of New York.Explore more of Janette Beckman’s imagery on Getty Images
Photo © Gudrun Georges