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Hip-hopsploitation: Representing 1980s Hip-hop in Wild Style and Beat Street
by Ethan Tussey `

by Aaron Dickinson Sachs for IN MEDIA RES

If such a thing as “hip-hop cinema” exists, it was born between 1982 and 1985 with a small group of “hip-hopsploitation” films. These films were the first time a representation of hip-hop was packaged and sold to a mainstream audience outside of New York City. Despite production differences, two of the earliest hip-hopsploitation films, Wild Style (1982) and Beat Street (1984) exemplify the genre and the relatively consistent way the films represented hip-hop. Wild Style was an independent film produced on a shoestring budget by white filmmaker Charlie Ahearn in collaboration with, and featuring, several major players in the young New York hip-hop scene. In contrast, Beat Street was a studio production from the start, and while it was touted as “authentic” by it’s African-American producer Harry Belafonte and Director Stan Lathan, and featured a string of cameos from top hip-hop performers, the film is nevertheless a cheesy and formulaic 1980s studio-pic.

What is clear in both trailers at left is that these films tended to represent hip-hop in two important ways: (1) as primarily about DJing, Graffiti, and Breaking, and (2) as relatively multi-cultural—involving black, Latino, and some white youth—and even marginally gender inclusive. This is important because these representations seem starkly at odds with the way hip-hop is currently represented, marketed, and sold in mainstream America—including in film—where it is widely, if problematically and critically, seen as the hyper-masculine, misogynistic, homophobic, and violent terrain of young black men. I am less interested in arguing about whether these early representations of hip-hop are accurate, and more interested in examining the implications of their failure in the face of this later, narrower, representation of hip-hop. What Wild Style and Beat Street demonstrate is therefore not only the failure of a multi-cultural representation of hip-hop as DJing, Graffiti, and Breaking, to resonate with a mainstream audience, but also the desire to consume hyper-masculine, misogynistic, homophobic, and violent representations of black men. A critical look at early “hip-hop cinema” thus forces us to reexamine the narrative of hip-hop history and ask: what is at stake when hip-hop is defined simply as black/rap music culture?

This Commentary is related to the following Clips:
Wild Style Theatrical Trailer by Charlie Ahearn (1983) Wild Style Theatrical Trailer