Interview with Janette Beckman

Christina Parrella

Run-DMC, Chuck D, the Beastie Boys—Janette Beckman's photographs of hip-hop's early icons are powerful evocations of a bygone era in New York City. On view as part of Hip-Hop Revolution, a new exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York (opening April 1), Beckman's images feature the stars in their salad days—Kangols, Cazals and Dapper Dan jackets included—and are among the definitive documents of 1980s music culture. Shown alongside work by photographers Martha Cooper and Joe Conzo, Beckman's portraits (including shots of Flava Flav, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and Salt-N-Pepa) have also been augmented by street artists like Cey Adams, Claw Money and Revolt. This additional project, called "Mash-ups" and organized by Adams, is a fitting way to lend the photographs a new vitality.

"It's very punk and it's very hip-hop, making something new out of something old," Beckman says. "I took those pictures in the '80s, so now to have artists shine a fresh light on them is a really beautiful thing to me."

Beckman, who hails from London and documented that city's punk scene in the '70s, went on to shoot for magazines including The Face, Rolling Stone and Esquire. She says she applied her experience documenting bands like the Clash and the Police to NYC's hip-hop scene—appropriate considering how the two genres shared a common rebel spirit. On the eve of the opening of Hip-Hop Revolution, we sat down with Beckman so she could discuss some of the shots featured in the exhibition. See what she had to say about their subjects by clicking through our slideshow.

Janette Beckman and Cey Adams. Photo: Kate Glicksberg

Hip-Hop Revolution is at the Museum of the City of New York from April 1–September 13, 2015.

Big Daddy Kane (1988)
Janette Beckman: I shot this photo of Big Daddy Kane for the cover of my first hip-hop book, Rap!: Portraits and Lyrics of a Generation of Black Rockers. Bill Adler [Beckman's coauthor] and I chose Kane because he was one of the most skilled MCs in hip-hop. I love this photo; he looks so handsome.

Chuck D (1987)
JB: Melody Maker commissioned me to shoot Public Enemy. I wanted to portray Chuck D as serious and thoughtful. It was an important time in their culture. Their album [It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back; released in 1988] expressing urban tension and black anger would change the world. I was living on Avenue B at the time; the following summer "Don't Believe the Hype" blasted from every radio in Alphabet City.

LL Cool J with Cut Creator, E Love and B-Rock(1987)
JB: I had shot LL Cool J's first press photo for Def Jam in 1985. This photo was taken outside the Jones Diner two years later. LL was more confident, an established artist wearing a Kangol hat and gold chains just hanging out with his posse.

MC Lyte with Master T, Big Drew and K Rock (1990)
JB: I went to shoot MC Lyte in Brooklyn. She was considered to be one of hip-hop's pioneer feminists, her first song, "I Cram to Understand U (Sam)," recorded in 1986, was about a relationship that fell apart due to the boyfriend's addiction to crack. I love the way she is coming on so strong in the photo and how the beauty shop sign is so Brooklyn.

Run-DMC (1984)
JB: All the British magazines knew I was [in New York City], so they were like, Oh, we have this group Run-DMC. They're new; why don't you shoot them? I called Jam Master Jay, and he told me to meet him by the train station. I ended up taking one of my favorite photos. It's just such a moment in time to me—I love it because it's not posed. It's just kind of a hang-out picture. You know, you're looking at the styling, the Kangols, the sneakers and the Cazals. I didn't know where Hollis, Queens, was. I got off the train, and I was like, Wow, this is a leafy suburb. I was expecting it to be more like the South Bronx or something.

Salt-N-Pepa (1987)
JB: I took the first picture of Salt-N-Pepa, before they were even signed to a label. I had them come around my house. We just spent the day wandering around the Lower East Side. I was taking snaps, and they were giggling and dancing around in front of murals. Then they were like, Oh, we got this record coming out; can you be our photographer?

Beastie Boys (photograph by Janette Beckman, 1985; artwork by Alice Mizrachi)
JB: Cey [Adams] actually managed to find a lot of female graffiti artists [to assist in the show], which is unusual because [graffiti is] so male dominated. This one is great.

Keith Haring (photograph by Janette Beckman, 1985; artwork by Cey Adams)
Cey Adams: My thing ended up being really personal. I just looked at the image of Keith and thought about what it was like hanging out with him, and it took on this whole other life.

Salt-N-Pepa (photograph by Janette Beckman, 1987; artwork by Claw Money)
JB: Claw is so amazing. She gave this Salt-N-Pepa photo girl power.

Flava Flav (photograph by Janette Beckman, 1987; artwork by Eric Adams)
CA: I don't think I've ever done anything with my son before. He chose Flava Flav because as a kid he was always in the [Def Jam offices], and Public Enemy was always there, and it's like second nature to him. He would be sitting over there while we were taking photos over here, and now he's participating. It's huge.

LL Cool J (photograph by Janette Beckman, 1985; artwork by Jules Muck)
I met Muck when I was shooting this graffiti thing going on at Yale. Artists were asked to decorate this huge skate park near Yale, and Jules Muck was one of them. I liked her work, so I told her about the mash-up project, and she was like, I want to do one. Everyone always asks, why did [she] put Eeyore in there? I'm not really sure why, but I think it's really great. [LL Cool J] actually used the original image recently for a tour T-shirt.

Ultramagnetic MC's (photograph by Janette Beckman, 1989; artwork by Revolt)
JB: Revolt is a character. I really love that photo; it's just so hip-hop to me. It's got this crazy magnetic energy coming out of it.