Behind the Photo: Crazy Legs
By Alec Banks
Janette Beckman has had a knack for being in the right place at the right time during her illustrious photo career. As a result, she’s captured many important moments that have come to define Hip-Hop culture throughout the world.
While many looked to New York City as the epicenter of activity across the four elements of the culture, things really exploded when Europe got a taste of MCing, graffiti, DJing, and b-boying.
In 1982, Beckman was working at the British weekly publication Melody Maker Magazine. As one of only two women on the entire staff, she wholeheartedly embraced her outsider status among the men, who primarily had an affinity for both rock and roll and punk music. When the topic of covering “The New York Scratch and Rap Review” — the first European tour for Hip-Hop — was broached at an editorial meeting, Beckman was the only one who expressed any interest.
“I put up my hand up immediately,” Beckman says. “Because I really liked R&B. I grew up on Motown. I loved American stuff.”
The next day she traveled to a small bed-and-breakfast-type establishment behind the Victoria train station in London. The tour had brought over a who’s who of rap artists, including the Rock Steady Crew, FAB FIVE FREDDY, Grandmaster DFC, Afrika Bambaataa, DONDI, FUTURA, and more.
“They just looked so amazing to me, and I just started photographing everybody, and I had no idea who these people were,” Beckman says.
According to her, punk music in England was waning at the time. From the sonic construction of the music to the style of dress, people were searching for the next great subculture to embrace. In her eyes, she knew almost immediately that this was it.
“I walk into this hotel, and here are all these people dressed in a completely different way, and they have this amazing upbeat energy,” she says.
Beckman traveled to their gig at the Venue later that night. During its run between 1978 and 1984, the London-based institution hosted performances from the likes of Al Green, Iggy Pop, Crosby & Nash, the Ramones, the Smiths, and U2. From her position in the photo pit, Beckman witnessed as FUTURA and DONDI painted graffiti on the backdrop, FAB FIVE FREDDY rapped, Afrika Bambaataa spun records, and members of the Rock Steady Crew B-boyed.
“Honestly, for me it was really a renaissance moment, because I just was blown away by all of it,” Beckman says. “I didn't know what it was — it was just the energy and all of the mixing of all these different types of arts was something we’d never seen before.”
She eventually found herself backstage contending with the sweltering conditions. At the same time, Rock Steady’s Crazy Legs was looking for similar relief in front of an oscillating fan. She fired off a flash-assisted frame.
CRAZY LEGS / PHOTO: JANETTE BECKMAN
“I just got that picture and it just says everything, like, ‘I’m hot and sweaty, I’ve been breakdancing on stage for half an hour, I need to cool off,’” Beckman says. “That was it — that’s my Crazy Legs picture.”
The story ran as a double-page spread in Melody Maker with coverage from journalist Paul Simper. Despite Beckman’s love for everything she saw, Simper was on the opposite end of the spectrum.
In his piece he wrote, “So, forget [Malcolm] McLaren trying to convince the rest of us that we should run off, ruin our favorite records by scratching them all together to create new sounds. The fact remains that all these musical and physical contortions are simply a passing crave like skateboards; enjoy it while it lasts.”
Beckman traveled to New York City a few weeks after the story ran. Whether it was the city, Hip-Hop culture itself or a combination of both, she never left.
* Banner Image: Crazy Legs / Photo by Janette Beckman