📷: Eric B & Rakim, NYC (1987) ©Janette Beckman
In 1982, British photographer Janette Beckman landed in New York with plans to spend Christmas with a friend but was quickly entranced by the city’s singular mix of creativity, rebellion, and decadence. After a decade of “benign neglect” promulgated by the Nixon White House, New York emerged like the phoenix from endless swaths of ruin and rubble, reinventing itself as the center of the universe.
Beckman stayed in a building down in Tribeca near the fabled Mudd Club at its peak, not unlike the South London semi-squat where she lived during her art school days. Ensconced in a community of artists drawing from the DIY ethos of the times, Beckman immediately felt at home — so much so that she simply never left. For as much as London and New York have in common, Beckman was struck by the clear skies and warmth of the people in her adopted hometown.
Having gotten her start photographing the explosion of youth cultures including punk, mod, rockabilly, reggae, and 2Tone dominating the London underground during the late 1970s and early ’80s for magazines like Sounds and Melody Maker as well as album covers for bands like The Police, Beckman had established herself as a young August Sander in the making. Her gift for portraiture, whether studio or street, lay rooted in a simple truth: she loved people.
As a young girl coming of age in the 1960s, her mother warned her not to stare at strangers, but her curiosity remained piqued. Photography gave her license not only to look, but alo to engage in adventures in search of the perfect shot. Although her parents didn’t want her to be an artist, Beckman rebelled against the 9-to-5 life. “I got fired from all my jobs, and then my mother was like, ‘Okay, you can go to art school,'” she says. “There I found a bunch of people that were like me I think misfits in a way. We were just obsessed with making art. And that’s where I started. I really wanted to photograph people because I had been very shy and I found out a way to approach complete strangers.”
Soon after graduating from the London College of Communication, Beckman got a gig teaching photography at the Kingsway Princeton School for Further Education in East London. While out and about, she snapped the now-iconic 1976 photograph of the Islington Twins with a cheap Russian version of a Rolleiflex and set into motion a chain of events that would take her gift for portraiture to unforeseeable heights.
Shortly before decamping to New York, Beckman pitched an assignment that would change her life forevermore. “New York Scratch and Rap Revue,” the first Hip Hop showcase in the UK, was coming to London and she would not be denied. She covered the concert for the December 4 edition of Melody Maker, completely blown away by the power of the four elements on display at the same time. With Afrika Bambaattaa on the turntables, Rammellzee grabbed the mic while the Rock Steady Crew set the stage aflame with DONDI, FUTURA and PHASE 2 spray painting murals at the same damn time.
After spending years covering British scene, Beckman was entranced by the vibrant energy coming straight out of New York. After arriving, she immediately began hitting up the record labels looking for work. But at the time, the American music industry was deeply entrenched in a vision of glamour and floss brilliantly exemplified by Michael Jackson in a glowing white suit and black silk shirt casually laying back on the cover of Thriller. Beckman’s raw, gritty portraits of British artists like Joe Strummer, Billy Idol, and Boy George were antithetical to the image of fantasy and luxury driving American music marketing at the time.
But a visionary exec at Elektra recognized talent and gave Beckman a call: they needed a photographer to shoot a promo for the Fearless Four, a Hip Hop group out of Harlem that struck it big with their 1982 hit, “Rockin’ It.” Beckman obliged, and from that single encounter forged her own path photographing the emerging Hip Hop scene. She began working for indie labels like Def Jam, Tommy Boy, Sleeping Bag, Wild Pitch and Next Plateau, as well as covering the culture for hot new mags like Paper and The Face. Although new to Hip Hop, Beckman recognized the kindred spirit of street style, innovation, and self-invention that defined punk — not to mention her lifelong love of soul and disco music.
In 1985, Beckman moved to an apartment on Avenue B and Eighth Street just as the East Village became the epicenter of New York’s avant garde art scene. “I was living on the Lower East Side and every week there were graffiti shows at galleries,” she says. “Kids were breaking on pieces of cardboard in Tompkins Square Park. Hip Hop was all around. The art director at Sleeping Bag sent everybody on the label, but she never came on the shoots so I’d listen to the cassette tape and figure something out. Like that photo of Antoinette; her manager had the idea of getting a stretch limo and we went over to the West Side Highway so there wouldn’t be anything behind it. She brought her whole crew and they were fly. The fact that they could even rent a stretch limo for the photo shoot was a big deal back then.”
As artists like Run-D.M.C., Salt ‘N’ Pepa, LL Cool J, EPMD, Roxanne Shanté, and Slick Rick took Hip Hop from the parks to the airwaves, Beckman’s work was everywhere, from record covers to magazine spreads. Free from the watchful eyes of art directors, publicists, and marketing teams, she worked directly with the artists to create images that were as authentic as the beats and rhymes themselves. Soon the phone was ringing off the hook as the majors had come around, not just to Beckman’s photography but to Hip Hop itself. In the scramble, Mercury signed Kurtis Blow and Island brought on the World Famous Supreme Team, while Warner Bros. went for the Native Tongues new sound of the Jungle Brothers and Monie Love. And the photographer’s name on everyone’s lips was Janette Beckman.
In 1991, Beckman teamed up with Def Jam publicist Bill Adler to publish Rap: Portraits and Lyrics of a Generation of Black Rockers, the very first Hip Hop photography book, priced at $13.95 so that it was accessible to a wider audience. Throughout her career, Beckman has been a populist, championing both the artists and the fans in her work, and devoting herself to the celebration of cultures and communities largely marginalized, misrepresented, or wholly erased from art history.
With the recent publication of Hip Hop Years The B Sides 1982-2020 (Café Royal Books), Beckman did a little crate digging of her very own. Drawing inspiration from the era when artists released deep cuts on the flip side of 45s and cassette singles, she dove deep into her archive and unearthing a collection of never-before-seen photograph of Hip Hop artists including Busta Rhymes, Missy Elliott, Method Man, Joey Badass, and Eric B. and Rakim. Gracing the cover is a portrait of Big Daddy Kane, who recently told Beckman on Instagram, “I think you caught the most iconic shot of me to this day.”
Beckman’s beautifully backlit group shot of Boogie Down Productions up in the Bronx speaks to the importance of taking artistic risks despite the seeming limitations of the medium. “I wasn’t able to print this properly until digital,” she says. “But I couldn’t just let it go. That’s a good lesson for all photographers: don’t ever throw anything out because you don’t know when it’s going to have its moment.”