As hip hop’s dance practitioners were entering public consciousness after appearances in Flashdance and Breakin’, in the summer of 1984 Beat Street became the first big-budget film to connect b-boying, djing, rap and graffiti together as hip hop culture. Beat Street is widely regarded as one of, if not the most, influential films in terms of bringing hip hop to the world stage. Produced by Harry Belafonte, it follows a young, innovative hip hop crew from the Bronx as they attempt to “make it big” downtown. Union laws prohibited graffiti artists from working on the film’s set, producing a poignant visual disparity between the existing graffiti and the murals created specifically for the film by professional artists. Beat Street features some of the best performers of the time, from DJ Kool Herc, Bambaataa, Melle Mel, Doug E Fresh and Sha Rock to the legendary breakers Rock Steady Crew and New York City Breakers.
Beat Street’s story focuses on a hip hop crew from the Bronx in the early ‘80s. Visually, the film presents the urban decay that is well-documented of the time, from burnt-out and abandoned buildings to subway cars and tunnels covered with graffiti. The film explores the dynamics between the Bronx and Manhattan or uptown vs. downtown through clashes between b-boy crews and the politics of the crew trying to break into a more lucrative and popular scene. This includes the Roxy, an actual nightclub where the film’s producers cast many of the performers. By 1984, Run-DMC, the nation’s biggest hip hop act of the time had released a well-received record, thus cementing the MC’s position at the pivot. Beat Street, however, captured hip hop’s ascension to the mainstream at a critical and truthful stage in its development. It contextualizes the DJ as one of the premier conduits of the culture with equal footing among b-boys and MC’s. It reminded audiences that the not-so-distant roots of hip hop were collaborative in nature. In terms of local marketability, the presence of Rock Steady Crew and the Universal Zulu Nation in the film had a trickling impact on every borough. By the fall of 1984, b-boy crews and kids mimicking members of Afrika Bambaataa’s crew could be seen in just about every public school. Stylistically, Beat Street captured New York urban fashion at a time when disco, new wave, and punk had a genuine, non-commercial relationship to hip hop enthusiasts.