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Last week kicked off City College New York’s fifth annual Is Hip-Hop History Conference. An annual conference aimed at preserving and promoting hip-hop culture, this year’s opening night was a celebration of the classic hip-hop film Beat Street’s 30th anniversary. Along with event co-founders Elena Romero and Professor Warren Orange, on-hand was the night’s keynote speaker, MC Sha-Rock of the legendary hip-hop group The Funky 4 + 1 as well as Beat Street screenwriter Steven Hagar.
Whether you’re most familiar with Sha-Rock as the “Mother of the Mic” or the “First Lady of Hip-Hop,” there’s no denying her impact, influence and importance to hip-hop culture. As part of The Funky 4 +1, Sha-Rock was seen in the first rap performance on Saturday Night Live, as well as responsible for hits like “That’s The Joint,” and while her skills and presence alone saw her heralded as one of rap’s most elite pioneers, the fact that she was a female and taking part in all these hip-hop milestones permanently etches her into the culture’s history, and in the DNA of every woman on the mic who followed her.
Which is why her keynote address last week was one of absolute fearlessness. Passionate about hip-hop’s place in the world to such a degree where, at one point, she was moved to tears, Sha-Rock’s boldness captured both the importance of hip-hop’s worldwide presence as well as stressed the urgency of preserving and educating further generations about where the now multi-billion-dollar industry surrounding rap came from. This lead to an interesting question and answer segment where she freely admitted that being a female in this early stage of hip-hop wasn’t a particular obstacle because her contemporaries didn’t see her as a “female MC,” but rather an “MC” who had come up in the scene the same way as everyone else.
Sha-Rock also came to Nicki Minaj’s defense when asked about her opinion on Minaj’s latest single “Looking Ass Nigga,” which the student asking the question described as “dogging on all the dudes.” Sha-Rock said “Nicki is very controversial, smart and knows what she needs to do to get your attention…This is how guys are representing themselves these days. This needs to stop.”
The only thing close to real anger we heard from Sha-Rock was in regard to how her and her contemporaries reacted to the Sugar Hill Gang’s initial explosion with “Rapper’s Delight.” Apparently, considering in 1979 that there were already rap records in stores from hardworking hip-hop luminaries by that time, when a completely unknown group called the Sugar Hill Gang took off, nobody could find even a flyer with this new outfit’s name on it, and they were pissed. This animosity has subsided as Sha-Rock admitted to hearing it recently and considers it a feel-good record. Following her address, she was briefly joined by DJ and fellow Funky 4 +1 member DJ Breakout who added “God bless America!”
We spoke to Sha-Rock afterward about how she felt Beat Street, which was shot around the City College campus, reflected the hip-hop culture at the time. She told us “It was an honor. We had to convince [Beat Street producer] Harry Belafonte that we were the best and most powerful females out at the time. He arranged for us to become a part of the movie. I was very happy because it depicted what was really going on and allowed most of the players at that time to be a part of the movie.”
We also spoke to Beat Street screenwriter Steven Hagar who was on hand and actually got to meet Sha-Rock in person for the first time. Hagar described his original script, titled Looking For the Perfect Beat, as “full of profanity and kind of a grittiness that Harry didn’t want to go into…if you go to Beat Street, you see his son’s environment. He had $50,000 worth of recording equipment in his bedroom. Nobody had that.” According to Hagar, almost nothing from his original script remained intact, except for the dancing and the cameo performances. “I look at the movie as really a failure. They had a chance to put out something really good and really real and it just missed the mark because too many hands got into it.”
Hagar, who wrote about Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force for the Village Voice in 1981, which was the first time the words “hip-hop” appeared in print, thinks no film really nailed the authentic grit of hip-hop until Boyz N The Hood. “When LA started to make movies, they got more gritty” says Hagar, who was initially drawn to hip-hop during its initial formation as its galvanizing creation by teenagers was the type of energy he hadn’t felt since the garage rock of the ’60s. He thinks it’s the type of thing that every generation needs to understand. “This explosion of creativity happened to high school kids all across America. The mass media ignored everything for five years and said it was just a fad, just like what they’re saying now about bitcoin. I knew it was going to transform everything but people didn’t believe me.”