dressing the part | beat street
While not perfectly representative of hip-hop culture, Beat Street is still an important piece in its legacy.
Beat Street (1984) was not the very first hip-hop movie; that title goes to Wild Style from ’83. But while Wild Style was a low-budget indie creatively shot on the fly, Beat Street was the first big Hollywood picture to bring hip-hop culture to mainstream America. Produced by Harry Belafonte, Beat tells the story of Kenny (Guy Davis), an underground DJ from the South Bronx who dreams of spinning in Manhattan’s biggest clubs. Kenny’s crew dreams big as well — Ramon (Jon Chardiet) is a graffiti writer with artistic aspirations, b-boy Lee (Robert Taylor) just wants to dance, and Chollie (Leon W. Grant) is a wannabe music manager. Ray Dawn Chong plays Kenny’s love interest, a music student who wants to put a contemporary spin on classical music by mixing it with break beats and break dancing. Featured alongside the cast of trained actors were some of the scene’s seminal figures, including DJ Kool Herc, Rock Steady Crew, Afrika Bambaataa, the New York City Breakers, and Melle Mel.
Because Beat Street was a high-budget studio film, Hollywood politics came into play which ultimately led to a softening of the original screenplay, penned by Steven Hager. There were title changes (it was originally called Looking for the Perfect Beat), the script was reworked and commercialized, and the casting questionable (most of the main players admit they knew nothing about hip-hop). All of this resulted in a lack of the grit and authenticity that made Wild Style such a landmark movie. However, over 30 years later, Beat Street still stands as an important pop culture study in the history of NYC street culture. It exposed the juxtaposition of the burnt-out Bronx landscape and the glitzy hi-rises of Manhattan, which were just subway stops apart. The street art wars were spotlighted, even though the actual graffiti in the film was painted by professional scenic artists due to union restrictions. And then there were the costumes from designers Bernard Johnson and Kristi Zea, which were a mixed bag in terms of authenticity, but still gave the world a taste of hip-hop style.
The leather bombers, Pumas, and army/ navy surplus worn by Kenny and his friends are on-point. And the dance crews likely picked clothes from their own personal wardrobes. But much of the street and club wear are more Lower East Side than South Bronx, like the animal prints, multi zippers, piano key ties, and wrap-around shades. (Where are the Cazals and Kangols? Or even ball caps?). And we’re not entirely convinced that a hip DJ dude would wear a khaki jumpsuit with tchotchkes on the shoulders and leg-warmers to the biggest gig of his life, as Kenny does in the finale. Nevertheless! Beat Street was shot in 1984, after all, and remains a fun time capsule look at 80s youth fashion, even if it isn’t perfectly, believably hip-hop.