Steven Hager’s History With Hip-Hop
It’s been more than thirty years since the release of what many consider to be the seminal film on hip-hop culture, Beat Street. But what many are not aware of is that the film was based off the script Looking for the Perfect Beat by writer, journalist, filmmaker Steven Hager. Hager is known to many as the first journalist to document the hip-hop’s beginnings in the South Bronx, and he is also a big supporter of the legalization of personal use of cannabis. (He is the one who created the Cannabis Cup in 1986!)
Brooklyn Radio’s Lara Gamble reached out to Hager when word of a tribute to Beat Street would take place at B.B. King (R.I.P.) Blues Club & Grill in NYC and was able to speak with him about his humble beginnings in journalism and were enlightened by the story of his disappointment in what became of his script, a real documentary on the birth of hip-hop right here in NYC.
What’s your earliest memory of hip-hop?
Well, let’s see. Probably talking to Afrika Bambaataa because he’s the one who came up with the concept. I mean, there were several elements. There was the graffiti. I saw that the second I arrived in New York City from Illinois in 1979. I thought like Walt Disney was doing the trains.
You know, they were so beautiful back then. People don’t realize. Like when a ten-car burner would pull in all Christmas-themed, and it was like The Night Before Christmas. I’m thinking, “Walt Disney must be doing this because this is a lot of work.” And it looked professional to me. I didn’t realize that the people in New York hated graffiti, so that was a surprise when I learned that.
I came in through the art world. I came in through graffiti. Rap music was a whole different story in 1979 when I arrived. I’d see the kids walking around with boom boxes on their shoulders, and they’re playing their tapes, which were people talking. So, now everybody in New York hates that shit. You know what I mean? And it’s not on the radio. So, I was aware that there were these street kids who were considered thugs that carried these boom boxes around.
When I was at the New York New Wave Exhibition that Diego Cortes put together, in 1981 maybe, he had a whole wall of just graffiti photos. That’s the first exhibition for Jean-Michel Basquiat really. All the big writers were there. They all had stuff there.
I was looking at the photos of the trains, and I saw this photo where the train looked as if it’d been split in half. And I saw that the title was “Break,” and just coincidentally that week, I think, “These Are the Breaks” by Kurtis Blow had just become a hit song in New York City. So, rap was starting to cross into record sales and radio just at that moment. And when I saw that train, I realized, “Holy cow. The music is connected to this graffiti.” I said, “Something really important is going on. This is really significant, and nobody’s writing about it.”
So, I spent a couple years writing proposals to Rolling Stone to everyone you could think of. Nobody wanted the story. So, eventually, Fab Five Freddy introduced me to Afrika Bambaataa and gave me his phone number. I went up to the Bronx and spent some time with Bambaataa, and he just laid out the whole thing, the evolution of what was going on. He didn’t really blow his own horn, but ultimately, he’s the one that said, “Okay, we’re doing all these things right now. We’re exploding with creativity. Let’s call it hip-hop. Let’s make it all about peace and unity and having fun.”
You know, he put the philosophy into it, which doesn’t exist anymore. The philosophy got lost along the way and so did Bambaataa and almost all the first generation was pretty much forgotten. And there’s pretty much the universal consensus that the culture’s off the rails, and it’s not being true to its original birth.
The one thing I did do, through all this study, was interesting because I came to the conclusion that this culture is something that was actually created in Congo Square in New Orleans, which was the only place where people of all colors and nationalities could gather for ceremonies. It was illegal, for instance, to play drums.
You couldn’t have the kind of scene that went down in Congo Square anywhere else. It was only a small area, and only five hundred people were ever involved, and only fifty of them were actual performers, singers, dancers that were really innovating the culture that created blues, jazz, rock ‘n roll and everything hip-hop that we know today.
When I stumbled into the Bronx River projects, what did I find? I found a circle just like Congo Square, and I found people going off in the center of the circle just like Congo Square. And I heard a lot of conga drums go off, and the dancers were waiting for the conga solos to go off just like Congo Square.
So, you know, to me, it was like I was seeing something of the equivalent of the birth of a new culture, but it was the reinventing of everything, not the birth of it. Every generation gets a shot at this. They need something new to make something happen. And it’s like, the people that get the call, they’re the ones. They’re the magic creatures. It happened nowhere else. It happened in the South Bronx.
Two hundred people were involved in early jams and picked up on the energy, and fifty of them were players in the game that accelerated the process and went off. And that’s all it takes. And this could happen anywhere, anytime people want to get their heads together and figure stuff out. It is all about peace and unity and having fun. Unity in all cultures, by the way. It’s not about the kind of nasty vibes that hip-hop culture is famous for. That didn’t even exist back then.
It’s funny, but, you know, one time, Kool Moe Dee made a funny rap about Busy Bee because he was the crown prince, you know what I mean, in a way. He was like the leader for so long, for so many hip-hop shows, and Kool Moe Dee represented a newer, more involved form of rapping, and he put Busy Bee down. It was kind of a sucker shot. Busy didn’t know it was coming. He was downstairs drinking champagne, and he didn’t even hear about it until the next day and said, “Oh, snap! What is this guy doing to me?”
It’s like, nobody did that back then. And in fact, Kool Moe Dee never did it again, as far as I know, never ever did it again. Never snapped on anybody like that. But, of course, then it became just common. “Oh, yeah. I’m going to degrade you, and I’m going to smash you.” It became it’s own little combat form within hip-hop.
Everyone had beef with everyone.
But see, the original generation wouldn’t do that to each other. They had too much respect for each other. That wasn’t what the culture was about. Putting some other guy down? No, no. That’s not what it was about. It was about lifting the people up, not putting them down. I hold out hope there will be another generation to come around. I just hope the original pioneers get some respect some day.
All these rich rappers, they should paying into a fund for an old folks home to take care of people. I’m serious. There are a lot of people that are on the edge. I’m talking about the pioneers! They are on the edge. Survival is tough right now. They’ve got nothing. Money wasn’t made until Run-D.M.C. came in in 1984. So, from 1974, that’s ten years of cultural innovation and creation where nobody cashed in at all. So, you know, that’s my rap.
What prompted your move from Illinois to New York?
My girlfriend was an artist, and she wanted to come to New York. I just followed her here. I would have gone anywhere she wanted to go.
Did you have any mentors early on that led to your pursuit of writing full time?
I had my own underground newspaper, The Tin Whistle, when I was sixteen years old. Actually, I had a fanzine in junion high before then, so I’ve been in publishing since I was fourteen, I guess. I always enjoyed reading a lot. I knew I had a talent for writing, so I had been kind of working the craft.
You know, I’ve always had a knack for finding something that was going to be big before anyone else got there. That’s one thing, so hip-hop just dropped in my lap. I kept thinking, “Why isn’t anybody else doing this?” For a couple of years, I was the only guy. I was the only professional journalist there, you know what I mean? I’ve got a sad story to tell about Beat Street.
Yeah, I’ll get to that. So, you’ve published work on a number of different topics, including pieces advocating personal cultivation of cannabis and an analysis of the assassination of JFK. You touched on it a bit before, but what was the inspiration behind your script Looking for the Perfect Beat?
I knew it was going to be a big movie that was going to come out. And at that time, I knew there was an underground movie being made by Charlie Ahearn, and I was following that around. I was watching what Charlie was doing. I wrote a treatment like, “Let’s take this to a bigger level than a little, low budget underground movie” like what Charlie was making.
He made a great movie for what he had. He had nothing. I don’t know what he spent on it. $100,000? Probably a lot less. I just wanted to make a real story. I knew, “This is it, man.” I had my shot right there to do a Saturday Night Fever meets West Side Story in the South Bronx. So, that’s what I went for!
But also, it had to be an R-rated movie. It had to get down. It had to talk about the crack epidemic. There was a little phase in there at the beginning of hip-hop where there was a lot of angel dust going around. And that was the craziest. You know, the stories people told about that time. The thing was, people realized real quick, “No, no, no. We can’t have this stuff around.” DJs, everybody were all, “No, we don’t want that. Get that out of here.”
Because when people were under the influence of angel dust, they would do whatever was in the deepest recesses of their minds. Whatever was back there, they’d just go for it. And a lot of people, you know, didn’t have really good places back there, so some really crazy shit was manifesting and some hilarious stuff too.
Like the story Busy Bee told me was, he showed up at this girl’s house who was way out of his category and class, a girl from his high school who he would hardly ever talk to. It ended that they had an affair right there on the spot. She had a boyfriend. He was so insistent and so confident, and he had no memory of this.
Later on, the next day, he had this memory of this thing and was thinking, “This isn’t real.” And so, he calls her up and he asks her if he went over there yesterday. He had no memory. She said, “Yes you did.” And he said, “Did I basically have an affair with you? And she said, “Yes you did.”
To me, stories like that, they can work in movies. It’s like, the angel dust alone was priceless. I actually opened my movie with an angel dust scene, kind of. So, just the one best moment that I had in my movie, but eventually at the end, crack comes in. I was trying to do a little Romeo & Juliet type West Side Story love story in the South Bronx with real bits of the real story from the real people.
I just interviewed fifty people, the fifty people I thought were the big contributors and tried to assimilate everything they told me. It’s funny too because I could actually write, back then I was so heavily into it, I could write like they talked. You know, it’s all slang, heavy slang, heavy South Bronx slang. I can’t do that today, but I could do it after six months of being up there interviewing people day after day.
Many Beat Street fans are unaware that the movie was inspired by your script, and you’ve said that “nothing from the movie resembles your story” but that you “now understand where Harry was coming from.” Can you elaborate a bit on that?
Well, there was sex and drugs in my script and violence. What actually happened is, there were two factors, I think. First of all, Style Wars came out. In Style Wars, they showed this low-class character who was totally outside the culture who was erasing and covering up people’s tags and burners. You know, they gave a lot of attention to this knucklehead who was not part of the culture, and he wasn’t understanding what was going on in the culture.
And so, they all of a sudden decide, “Hey, you know. This story is better than what Hager’s got. This is better than the love story.” And you know, to me, not only that, the worst part to me was I sat everybody down over and over again and played them “Apache” and “Just Begun.” I said, “These songs have to be in the movie. This is the magic. This is the soundtrack. When the big scene goes off and the dancers go down, ‘Apache’ has gotta be on. You gotta do it for real. It has to be this way.” Of course, they threw all that out the window and decided to exploit the music to the maximum and refused to really….
There’s nothing real in the movie. It looks, to me, like it took place in Harry Belafonte’s apartment. The set and everything that the kid is involved in. The kid himself is not anything close to anybody that I saw in the South Bronx who was into hip-hop. He’s a middle-class kid! That’s not saying anything bad about that, but it wasn’t real. There wasn’t anything real there except the dance battles. The two crews were real.
You know, Harry wanted a teen movie for families and stuff. He wanted to put a very positive spin on everything, so I understand that. His doesn’t have the kind of brand that associated with a lot of movies with a lot of drugs and sex and violence. So, I just picked the wrong guy.
I actually went to Jane Fonda first. I was looking for somebody who was politically correct but not that politically correct. So, that’s the way it played out. I am still hopeful some day the real script is going to get produced. The character’s names are all the same. They lifted my characters and just transposed them into this other story. There’s nothing there. There’s nothing real there. My story was all real. So, some day it’s going to get made.
It could happen. There are multiple interpretations of the same story that have come out for multiple films.
Yeah, like Beat Street 2. It is published. I published pretty much everything I wrote on hip-hop a couple months ago. I put it in one volume like three hundred pages, and the original script Looking for the Perfect Beat is all there. So, people can marvel over it like, “Why was all this just thrown out the window?” ‘Cause there’s some really nice scenes there.
When were you approached to speak at the tribute to Beat Street at B.B. King’s?
I read about it through Facebook, I think. I think, Arthur Baker posted something to my page about it saying that we should show up there and storm the podium or something. I don’t know what he’s mad about. He’s got $100,000, man. I don’t know why he’s mad.
I guess he’s mad because he realized that they really dropped the ball with the soundtrack. Everything was a disaster. Harry Belafonte was the wrong choice. What can I say? It’s like he was not atuned to what rap was all about, and unfortunately, it didn’t become what it could have been. It could have been as big as Saturday Night Fever. It did introduce hip-hop to most kids out there.
It is a cult classic.
Yeah, yeah because it was the first time we saw hip-hop. So, it’s like that first moment you suddenly realize, “There’s a paradigm shift going on!” And it’s like A Hard Day’s Night when The Beatles came out, and everybody realized, “Oh they are super cool!” It was like everything had to change super fast. It just showed you a whole new style, a whole new sense of cool, and it just swept the world. That was going to happen with Beat Street or without Beat Street. There’s no way to deny the power of that kind of creative force.
Do you have any other current projects that you want to promote?
I’ve got so many. I’m trying to build a cathedral in Colorado that will respect all cultures and also provide a sanctuary for the use of cannabis, so people can use it as a spiritually enlightening tool. All great medicines are sacred, but this just happens to be the world’s greatest medicine that suffered two thousand years of intense persecution, and it’s like it’s time to unveil the whole story.
I’ve been working for months now on the origins of Christianity and how it’s all based on cannabis. Same as all the other religions. When people discovered they could activate cannabis by mixing it with milk, they started with hot milk. They called it “soma” or “oma” in Iran. They have another one in China, but it’s all ma, ma, ma, magic. Shaman. It all came from that. It all came from this plant!
So, this is all consciousness I’m trying to bring back because I think it’s going to help bring peace back. It’s a really peace-inspiring plant. I think it’s wonderful that the laws are changing, and I want to bring people to a higher consciousness about it. It’s not about getting intoxicated. It’s about trying to harmonize.
I’ll tell you one thing I’d like to plug right now is my book on the Lincoln assassination. I spent eleven months researching that case, and everything that has been told about that is a lie. The official story is a lie. Booth was a confederate spy that was involved in a plan with one hundred people to kidnap Lincoln and take him to Richmond where they were going to hold him for ransom. And like I said, there was one hundred people in this. At least six of them were federal agents working for the war department.
So, the war department knows all about Booth. They know what’s going on, and the day that they were going to kidnap Lincoln, they thwarted it by changing the itinerary. So, the kidnap was a fail. But then, somehow they get to Booth and they tell him, “We’re not going to let you kidnap him, but we’ll leave him unguarded at the theater, and we’ll give you all this money if you go shoot him. And we’re going to do it one way or another, so you can do it, or you can wait for us to get somebody else, but it’s going to happen right away.”
So, I believe that was the story that was given to Booth from inside his own culture of the spy network. He thinks he’s talking to a confederate. He doesn’t know he’s talking to a double agent is the way I believe it went down. So, everything has been fabricated. Evidence was destroyed. It took fifty years to find out Booth’s fiance was the daughter of a Republican senator. It took a hundred years before they let the war department documents out for anybody to look at.
The first researcher to look at the documents immediately concluded there was conspiracy inside the war department to leave the president unguarded and to have him killed. If you just study the case on what’s been, only in the last five years really…we’ve learned the identity of the guy who bribed and coached all the witnesses for the official trial.
This is what’s wonderful about the internet – what’s going on right now. So, all the original documents are all online. Information is changing because it’s so accesible. So, if you have the brains to piece the puzzle together and connect the dots, you get a very clear picture of the inside job on Lincoln. So, I encourage people to open their eyes. This is the world we live in. A lot of lies. A lot of social control. Propaganda. That’s the world we live in.
That sounds incredibly interesting. I’ll definitely pick that up.
Yeah, you didn’t expect this to go so far field in so many directions.