Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Glimpses of Hip-Hop's firsts at the Museum of the City of NY

The Mash-up: Run DMC by Janette Beckman & Queen Andrea

It was a time when rappers, MCs, graffiti artists, b-boys and b-girls ran the city streets. The boroughs overflowed with a mix of vibrant color and raw grit, peaking the senses while drawing all around closer.

There began the story of hip-hop, a movement that started out in the parks and spread to become an expressive culture full of heart.
Today marked the opening of the Museum of the City of New York’s latest exhibit, Hip-Hop Revolution. Detailed with photographs, preserved memorabilia and listening stations, the collective display joins together the work of Janette Beckman, Joe Conzo and Martha Cooper - each who have varying ties to the city, but share in capturing the essence of hip-hop at its origin.

The work features over 100 images of icons and pioneers during 1977-1990, and chronicles its development which continues to impact style and music for decades to come. 

“Everything was happening all around me and it kind of swept me up,” said Beckman, of London, who began living downtown in 1982.

Upon arriving New York, she completed work for The Police, The Clash, The Sex Pistols and Boy George. British punk, Mod and 2 Tone were her background, but that changed after being exposed to the underground hip-hop scene that acquainted her with Run DMC, Salt-n-Pepa, Eric B. & Rakim and Afrika Bambaata, to name a few.

“To me hip hop and punk are very similar,” said Beckman. It was adversity and the lack of opportunity that she saw give way to a distinct creativity and innovative spirit reflected in the style, skills, storytelling and culture of hip-hop.

Her work was deemed too raw for many record labels she applied to jobs initially for, but that natural state depicted the reality of the times. “There were no stylists or hair and makeup people on most of these shoots,” said Beckman.

Joe Conzo's photos including the Cold Crush Brothers
For photographer and Bronx native, Joe Conzo, he said the premise of stylistic and skill based competition also fueled the hype and lead to constant improvement and innovation within the evolving genre.

“Who could wear the flyest clothes, cleanest sneakers, the dopest haircut, the dopest shirts, this that and the other,” Conzo said.

He was witness to a Bronx in shaky times, but the mentality was never being in a state of ‘without,’ but was about creating and reinventing with what resources were available. Hip-hop became a socio-cultural movement and the lens was his way of preserving the life within his community and experiences with his peers.

He painted a picture of the South Bronx, where a walk down the street was filled with the aroma of either cuchifritos or veal parmesan in the air, and down the corner across the street would be rhythms from the congeros. The mixture of music, which also melded with the close of disco, and height of crews such as the Cold Crush Brothers and the Rock Steady Crew are what revolutionized the scene entirely.

Today Conzo’s work is archived at Cornell University’s Hip-Hop Collection, which involves the digitization of over 10,000 photos, but to him those days in the Bronx were as fresh as yesterday.

“You just walked to school and it was just a different cast of characters where ever you walked,” said Conzo. “The Bronx is considered a rainbow and it was just a phenomenal time.”

Frosty Freeze (Rock Steady Crew) by Martha Cooper
Martha Cooper, of Rhode Island, started her work in the late 1970's as a staff photographer for the New York Post and is respected as veteran documentary photographer of urban scenes. 

Her images of street art and b-boys were proof to the outside world that there was something significant to her initial interest that soon grew into a dedicated passion. Cooper captured the makings of Wild Style and Style Wars just as it explode on the scene. The dance of breaking was unlike any choreographed before and her efforts pitching the ideas to editors was the beginning of greater coverage.

Cooper, who has been featured in National Geographic to Vibe, published books throughout the years portraying the expansive movement and evolution of hip-hop. Her rare images include that of the Rock Steady Crew, Keith Haring, Fab 5 Freddy, Crazy Legs and the Dynamic Rockers.

Hip-Hop Revolution is a follow-up of the museum’s 2014 City as a Canvas exhibition on graffiti art and runs until Sept. 15.

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