Look, everyone! It’s another breakdance movie!
Well, maybe that’s not fair. Though Beat Street (1984) does feature breakdancing, it’s about ’80s hip-hop culture in New York City as a whole, which also included rapping, DJing, and grafitti art. And unlike, say, the Breakin’ films, Beat Street doesn’t lean as much toward the ridiculous.
The movie tells the story of a group of friends in the South Bronx who are part of the Big Apple’s burgeoning hip-hop scene. Kenny Kirkland (Guy Davis) is a DJ and MC; his younger brother Lee (Robert Taylor) is a B-boy who dances with the New York City Breakers; Ramon (Jon Chardiet), a.k.a. Ramo, is a graffiti artist; and Chollie (Leon W. Grant) is a manager and promoter. Beat Street also stars Rae Dawn Chong in one of her first film roles as Tracy, a college student and composer who takes an interest in Kenny and Lee’s talents.
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Based on a story written by journalist Steven Hager, who began writing about the hip-hop scene in the South Bronx in the early ’80s, Beat Street allegedly takes some of its inspiration from the graffiti documentary Style Wars, also released in ’84. In addition to 1983’s Wild Style, Beat Street is one of the most influential and authentic films about early New York hip-hop culture, with a story line and characters that are organic to the scene being portrayed.
Even though it’s a little darker than some of the other breakdancing movies of its time, it still features one of my favorite things in life, something that never fails to make me happy: DANCE BATTLES! To be more specific, BREAKDANCE BATTLES! And these breakdance battles were waged between actual New York City breakdancing crews: the Rock Steady Crew and the New York City Breakers.
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A few fun facts about Beat Street:
- It was produced by none other than Harry Belafonte.
- Filming happened entirely on location in New York City: Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and, of course, the Bronx. Most of the dance battles were filmed at the Roxy nightclub in Chelsea.
- Most of the graffiti art wasn’t true graffiti — it was airbrushed by the film’s set decorators.
- Many cast members wore Kangol hats and Pumas at the insistence of the film’s producers. Why? The film was sponsored by Puma, and many copies of the original soundtrack LP have the Puma logo printed on them: “Puma, as seen in Beat Street.“
- The cast includes two future stars of the ’80s sitcom A Different World: Mary Alice plays Kenny and Lee’s mother, and a young Kadeem Hardison plays a high school student, though his scenes ended up on the cutting-room floor.
Of course, one of the key elements of the movie is its soundtrack. It features some of the biggest players in the early hip-hop scene, some of whom perform in the movie, such as Grandmaster Melle Mel & the Furious Five (Grandmaster Flash had departed the group by this point), Afrika Bambaataa & the SoulSonic Force, and Doug E. Fresh with the Treacherous Three (Kool Moe Dee, one of the Three, appears in the film without sunglasses, as he hadn’t yet crafted his trademark style), whose performance of “Santa’s Rap” is one of my favorite scenes in the movie:
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Other on-screen performances include those by the System, Tina B, Richard Lee Sisco, Bernard Fowler, and Brenda K. Starr. Sadly, the songs performed by Sisco, Fowler, and Starr don’t appear on either of the Beat Street soundtrack albums (more on that in a second), but I did find Fowler and Starr’s performances from the movie on YouTube:
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Also not appearing on the soundtrack, or even in the film itself, is an alternate version of the title song, performed by Kool Moe Dee — it can only be heard in the film’s trailer.
Apparently, Beat Street was the first American film to have more than one soundtrack album: two volumes were released by Atlantic Records, while plans for a third were eventually scrapped. Both soundtrack albums are now out of print, but you can get all the songs, plus a couple extras, right here.
Let’s go break it!
Grandmaster Melle Mel – Beat Street Breakdown
Jazzy Jay – Son of Beat Street
The Treacherous Three featuring Doug E. Fresh – Santa’s Rap
Arthur Baker – Breaker’s Revenge
Afrika Bambaataa & the SoulSonic Force + Shango – Frantic Situation
Tina B – Nothin’s Gonna Come Easy
Sharon Green, Lisa Counts & Debbie D. – Us Girls
The System – Baptize the Beat
Rubén Blades – Tu Cariño (Carmen’s Theme)
Cindy Mizelle – This Could Be the Night
Jenny Burton & Patrick Jude – Strangers in a Strange World
Juicy – Beat Street Strut
Juicy – Give Me All
Rocker’s Revenge – Battle Cry
Ralph Rolle – Phony Four MC’s/Wappin’ (Bubblehead)
Jenny Burton – It’s Alright by Me
LaLa – Into the Night
G.L.O.B.E. and Whiz Kid – Play the Beat
Freeez – I.O.U.
Jazzy Jay – Son of Beat Street [Film Version]