As real as it gets
Award-winning music photographer Janette Beckman captures a slice of music history with her latest exhibition, Hip-Hop Revolution
In 1982, Janette Beckman travelled from London to New York to visit friends. She never left. The photographer ended up staying to shoot for magazines back home such as The Face and Melody Maker, and the city’s emerging hip hop artists became her favourite subjects.
“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 is part of a new exhibition, Hip-Hop Revolution, at the Museum Of The City Of New York.
“Janette caught us being us,” says De la Soul’s DJ Maseo, “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 p***ing us off with all your pictures.’ [That] was a great day in Long Island.”
Famous for her documentary-style photography, Janet would shoot emerging artists against the backdrop of many New York neighbourhoods, leading her to become coveted for a style she says conventional record labels found “too gritty”.
When I photographed Roxanne Shante, she was just 14 years old and her record Roxanne’s Revenge had gone to No 1 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.
“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 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 – it all helps to document that particular moment in time”
“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 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.
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. I love the way she is coming on so strong in the photo and the beauty shop sign in the background is so Brooklyn
“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.”
Photos by Janette Beckman | Getty Images.