British photographer Janette Beckman arrived in New York City in December 1982 to spend the Christmas holiday with some friends. But after a couple of weeks in town, she was hooked — and never left. Beckman remembers staying in a loft of Franklin Street in Tribeca just opposite the Mudd Club when the neighborhood was still an artist’s outpost.
“I didn’t mind the sketchy industrial neighborhood. I had been living in an unheated squat in rainy London and there was heat!” Beckman revels in the memory of the steam heaters designed after the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic that made rooms so hot, people were forced to throw open their windows in the dead of winter. “There were artists living in the building and I was in the thick of it. We’d go out to clubs and then meet up at Dave’s Corner, a luncheonette which was opened 24 hours on the corner of Broadway and Canal Street afterwards. It was a very exciting time.”
Armed with her portfolio of photographs documenting London’s famed punk scene, Beckman went around to the record labels to see art directors in the hopes of shooting for them. But her photographs of the punk icons including Sex Pistols, Clash, and Siouxsie Sioux were too gritty for the high glossy aesthetics of 1980’s American pop. “They just looked at me and said, ‘We can’t really use you because the people in these pictures, their hair isn’t combed,’” Beckman remembers. “I was disappointed because I came from the music scene in England and thought I was going to get work.”
Janette Beckman soon found her groove photographing the burgeoning Hip Hop scene for British magazines like The Face and Melody Maker, as well as a new downtown magazine casually named Paper. Her work quickly caught the eye of emerging Hip Hop labels like Def Jam, Sleeping Bag, and Next Plateau who introduced the first wave of Hip Hop artists on wax including LL Cool J, Salt-N- Pepa, and EPMD.
Although men dominated Hip Hop and photography at that time, Beckman realized that being a British woman was an asset. Decidedly “other” she could move freely through different worlds, engaging with artists on their home turf. Whether going up to the Bronx to photograph Afrika Bambaataa, heading out to Hollis, Queens, to collaborate with Run-DMC, or flying out to LA to shoot N.W.A., Beckman fused the genres of portrait and documentary photography with style and verve.
“It was just me and the artists,” she remembers. “There were no stylists, make-up artists, or art directors at the shoot. Someone would give me an address and I would show up with my camera and document it all. Sometimes I would get lucky and a bunch of kids would step into the shot or there would be a cool sign or some graffiti on the wall that helps to tell the story.”
The 1990s: A New Decade
“There was a big shift in Hip Hop in the early 1990s,” Janette Beckman remembers. Although MTV started out not playing videos by Black artists, causing David Bowie to call them out in 1983, by the end of the decade the network had changed its tune. With the success of 1988’s Yo! MTV Raps, Hip Hop began to make its way into the mainstream.
In 1989, Billboard introduced the “Hot Rap Singles” chart while Grammys created its first award for “Best Rap Performance.” At the same time, the government was waging a campaign against the art, with the FBI writing a letter to Priority Records to protest N.W.A.’s 1988 song “Fuck tha Police” and then President George H.W. Bush speaking out against Ice-T’s 1991 song “Cop Killer” at a Drug Enforcement Agency event.
After a decade, Beckman understood the times were changing and was getting ready to move on but not without a greatest hits collection and a proper swan song. Together with founding Def Jam publicist Bill Adler, she published the very first photography book on the scene — Rap: Portraits and Lyrics of a Generation of Black Rockers, in 1991. That same year, she also got the call to photograph A Future Without a Past, the first album for Leaders of the New School, featuring then unknown Busta Rhymes.
What’s the Scenario?
Hailing from East Flatbush, Busta Rhymes was just 19 when the Leaders of the New School (LNS) broke onto the scene, emerging from the Native Tongues Posse, a collective of artists including Queen Latifah, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, and The Jungle Brothers who pushed Hip Hop in new directions with Afrocentric lyrics, eclectic sampling, and jazz-influenced beats.
A first-generation Jamaican-American who went to high school with the Brooklyn legends Notorious B.I.G. and Jay-Z before transferring to Uniondale where he met LNS, Busta was on the verge of becoming a break out star, having already recorded his song-stealing verse on A Tribe Called Quest’s “Scenario,” which would drop the following year.
With rap breaking into the majors, Janette Beckman was fielding calls from labels like Elektra Records, which had just signed LNS. Beckman arranged a two-day shoot: one day in the studio and a second on location at Uniondale High School, in Long Island. The school was closed, but that didn’t stop them from staging an impromptu photo shoot.
“My philosophy has always been to let people be themselves. I don’t like to pose people. I want to capture them as they are at that moment. I think that’s why they felt comfortable jumping around, doing all these wild and crazy poses,” Beckman says.
“When we got to the school, no one was there. We found the school bus and they immediately jumped on top of it. I was shooting with a Hasselblad, and it was not the easiest thing but I had to get this picture because it was so fabulous. We spent the day out there taking pictures and it was really fun. They were all characters in their own right but Busta was a slightly larger character than everyone else.”
A Future Without a Past
At that time, Janette Beckman began working on the idea for a TV show with some friends about New York, and started carrying a video camera to learn how to use it. “I was trying to do a little video at the same time, but it can get complicated when you’re also the photographer,” she says.
“They started rapping in the studio, and I was like, ‘Holy shit!’ I picked up the video camera and asked, ‘Can you do that again?’ And they did. It was the greatest thing and I was so glad to capture it. Turns out, the lesson was, I should have been doing that all along.”
By Miss Rosen
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, including Time, Vogue, Aperture, and Vice, among others.