Hip-Hop Revolution, a brilliant and wide-ranging new exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York, showcases more than 100 photographs captured between 1977 and 1990 by three pre-eminent NYC photographers: Bronx born-and-bred Joe Conzo, who came of age in the 70s; esteemed documentary photographer and former NY Post staffer Martha Cooper; and London-born Janette Beckman, who chronicled the UK punk scene, then “visited a friend in New York in 1982 and never left”.
The exhibition largely focuses on the key pillars of hip-hop culture in its formative days: music (rapping and DJing), breakdancing, graffiti and, of course, the fashion. The subjects are a beguiling mixture of local and cult heroes (Shack Crew, Treacherous Three) and those who’d one day achieve megastardom (Run DMC, Beastie Boys, Queen Latifah) — all of whom seem to share an uncanny confidence and a sense of pride in their local environs.
Before you make the right turn into the main gallery space, you’re met front-on by a giant canvas of a Conzo snap from 1981. It depicts the wiry JDL of hip-hoppers Cold Crush Brothers as he poses onstage — legs akimbo, flimsy shirt asunder, chest bared — at the Bronx’s legendary Skatin’ Palace hangout, while hordes of young females gaze up adoringly at him. The snap perfectly captures the youthful energy and (predominantly masculine) bravado contained within.
Conzo started photographing at an early age, and his snaps vibrate with a rough, earthy quality. “I loved shooting my people in the Bronx — the people I grew up with”, he says. I ask him what what was so special about this time in particular: “[It was] before the record companies got involved, before the real money got involved. It was a time of young kids doing what they wanted to do — an innocent time. The fact that I documented it along with these other photographers, and that it’s being documented in this museum, is just phenomenal.”
Beckman has a similar take on the era, pointing to its protean, pre-capitalist qualities: “It was like punk, in a way. It came out of a bad economy, and people had to make stuff up, create. It was very fresh and exciting. It wasn’t driven by money — not like today, which seems driven by the cult of celebrity. It came out of people’s neighbourhoods and it had a lot more heart.”
Her pictures are the most stylised on display; she was approached by many musical acts for photo shoots. Later efforts show the hip-hop moving away from its less money-conscious roots. Her cover image for ‘On The Strength’, a 1988 LP by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, is hilariously louche. “The shoot was just chaos”, she says. “The band was polishing off a crate of champagne, Melle Mel was running around cracking this big bullwhip, people were touching up the girls. [Band member] Cowboy was missing and nobody knew where we was, so we just decided to dress one of the roadies up in his jacket, and he’s covering his face. The whole thing was just insane!”
Cooper, meanwhile, who has lived in New York since 1977, acted as an unofficial set photographer on her friend Charlie Ahearn’s classic film Wild Style, which alongside Style Wars and Beat Street, constitutes the holy triumvirate of early hip-hop cinema. I ask her why the era retains such an enduring fascination. “Now you have people that have grown up and are relating to it because it was their era”, she says. “But the question of why this culture has spread throughout the world, to places like Japan? Well, it seems like every race, every nationality and the youth in these places are attracted to things that are very difficult to do, for example ‘the dance’.”
She points to one of her own images on a wall nearby: a gravity-defying, upside-down spin by one of Queens breakin’ crew The Dynamic Rockers, frozen for posterity, yet still somehow thrumming with movement.
Movement is perhaps the key feeling evinced by this range of pictures; a sense of forward motion, as though the subjects knew they were destined for big things. “We’re seeing in these photographs the foundation of what many people consider a way of life today”, says Sean Corcoran, the museum’s curator of prints and photographs. Looking at the invigorating display, it’s hard to quibble with his assessment.
HIP-HOP REVOLUTION: Photographs by Janette Beckman, Joe Conzo and Martha Cooper runs at the Museum of the City of New York City from 1 April — 13 September 2015