Already a respected veteran photographer of music and youth culture for her work with Melody Maker and The Face capturing the bands and scene that defined Punk Rock in Britain, by the time the first European Hip Hop tour hit England in 1982, Janette Beckman was aware that Punk was on the wane and looking for what might be next. That primary exposure to the likes of Afrika Bambaataa, Rammelzee, Rock Steady Crew, the Double Dutch Girls, Futura and Dondi, would be nothing less than a life-changing experience for Beckman. “It was like an explosion,” she recalls, “radical, extreme, shocking, from the streets and all about destroying and making new again, it was the new punk.” In the drear and economic deprivations of Thatcher-era England, Janette noted how “you could see Hip Hop from a mile away. It was just so colorful, wild and crazy, the styling was so different, and with the clothing, music, art, the dancers, DJs, scratchers, graffiti, MCs and rappers, it had everything- it had everything.” Visiting a friend in New York City in 1982, arriving on a hot Summer day that “smelled of piss and popcorn,” Beckman could not help but think of The Message while she made her way to the downtown loft she was staying in. “There were junkies in the alley with a baseball bat, everyone was on the edge,” she fondly reminisces. Of course she never left.
Working at a time when few photographers had much interest in Hip Hop, Janette Beckman had an eye for aspects of this world that extended beyond the stars she was documenting. Not being American, Beckman understood “I had no idea where it came from, but the mix of these new afrocentric styles- the chains, glasses, hairstyles, LVs, track suits, buffalo boy furs and of course the Kangols- seemed a brilliant expression of their own cultural alienation.” That sense of difference, being an outsider to this community of outsiders, allowed Janette a more mis-en-scene perspective. Clearly influenced by the legacy of street photography, Beckman also considered youth culture itself to be an important subject of her work. “I grew up near the National Portrait Gallery so I had a keen sense of how art, fashion and culture were all part of what makes history,” she explains, “so I was not just interested in shooting the bands but all the kids around them.” Noting how “what was so fresh and exciting was how everyone was making it up as they went along,” Beckman recalls “it began with artists wearing stage clothes and bringing it to the street and later evolved into how they brought the styles of the street to the stage.”