“Graffiti Rock”: The 1984 variety/dance TV show that could have showcased the hip-hop culture beyond NYC

By on March 18, 2016

In 1984, Michael Holman, manager of the New York City Breakers dance troupe, had an idea for a hip-hop variety/dance TV show called “Graffiti Rock,” which he hoped would reveal to the rest of the world a colorful lifestyle that was already being lived by an entire counterculture on the Lower East Side and the South Bronx.

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At the time, hip-hop — the term was used to include all elements of the scene, including fashion, music, graffiti, and breaking, not just rapping — was still relatively unknown in many areas across the rest of the country, even though elements of it had existed as early as 1979.

Holman knew his show — patterned somewhat on the popular format of shows like “American Bandstand” and “Soul Train,” where music and dance were performed in front of audiences, both in-studio and at-home — would be a natural hit once they had a chance to see it.

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Holman wanted to show the country that hip-hop already had its own unique dance styles of dance, its own language and fashion, and mixed rap music, graffiti artists, and DJ s scratching on multiple turntables, all of it on a set designed to showcase what he was seeing in NYC. In fact, the name “Graffiti Rock” had actually come from a live hip-hop event he’d attended on the Lower East Side, created by the celebrated photographer and videographer Henry Chalfant years earlier, which had also been called Graffiti Rock.

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Holman had found a financial partner on Wall Street, Steve Memishian, who put together a group of investors to put up $150,000 to fund a pilot for “Graffiti Rock,” and Holman was able to get Kool Moe Dee and Special K — two-thirds of the Treacherous Three — to co-host the show with him.

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Lamar Hill, the third member of the Treacherous Three — known as L.A Sunshine — had grown up in the same neighborhood as Kool Moe Doe (Hill on 129th Street, Kool Moe Dee, aka Mohandas Dewese, on 128th) and they were close friends as well as bandmates, but at the time of the taping they’d had a falling out after L.A. Sunshine had stolen Kool Moe Dee’s money and he’d purchased drugs with it (Dewese has always been anti-drugs and alcohol), and Kool Moe Dee was so disappointed that he did not allow L.A. Sunshine to be on the show. It wasn’t long after the taping that Kool Moe Dee would leave the trio and embark on a solo career.

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Holman also hired Afrika Bambaataa as a music consultant for the show, and, thanks to his connections with Russell Simmons, he was able to book a singer named Shannon, who is today best known as the “International Queen of Freestyle” and for her million-selling hit, “Let The Music Play”) and colossal rap duo Run-D.M.C. as the show’s special musical guests, who were to do probably the greatest televised performance ever of their track “Sucker M.C.’s.”

Sometime in the spring of 1984, Holman taped the “Graffiti Rock” pilot episode at the Metropolis, an East Harlem TV studio located on the corner of 106th and Park (other online sources give other street corner descriptions but this one appears to be accurate).

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“Graffiti Rock” Original Still by Martha Cooper

As promised, Holman made sure that his show would showcase every aspect of the the hip hop lifestyle — rap, graffiti, and DJ Jimmie Jazz spinning records on the set — and there was even an unconventional rap battle between Kool Moe Dee and Special K (Kevin Keaton) and Run-DMC, although Kool Moe Dee (who was likely to win an outright real battle as he was the takedown king, having won lots of freestyle battles around the Bronx by then) was warned ahead of time by Def-Jam’s Jazzy Jay to not actually make it an actual attack-style battle, as he didn’t want his act embarrassed on national TV by anything Kool Moe Dee said about them.

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Holman had originally envisioned someone like Fab 5 Freddy or Mr. Magic hosting the show, but neither of them were available, so Holman hosted the show himself.

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“Graffiti Rock” Original Still by Martha Cooper

The New York City Breakers — some of them with names like Action, Flip Rock, and Icey Ice — filled the dancefloor with their then outrageous dance moves, but had nearly refused to perform when a SAG representative told them that they should not appear at Holman’s taping unless they were paid more money.

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“Graffiti Rock” Original Still by Martha Cooper

At the time they were still riding high after their appearance in the 1984 movie Beat Street, but Holman (who was given an Associate Producer credit on the feature film release for Orion Pictures) was able to convince his dance group to take what little money that he could afford to pay them with an offer of more when the show were picked up for distribution.

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Michael Holman and The New York City Breakers with Andy Warhol

Holman had been convinced or at least warned by some of his producers that he not make the show “too scary” and made sure that there were a lot of white faces among the dancers, including two teens from the downtown scene, dressed in the B-Boy style, Debi Mazar and his friend Vincent “Prince Vince” Gallo, who was in a band with Holman (and Jean Michel Basquiat) called Grey.

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Gallo would of course later turn to directing and filmmaking, and today is known for films like Buffalo 66 and Brown Bunny, while Mazar (who appeared with her boyfriend at the time, known as Kel 139) would go on to become an actress, appearing in films like Goodfellas, Jungle Fever, and HBO’s long-running TV show “Entourage.”

Mazar has even talked about her appearance on “Graffiti Rock” on talk shows before, like “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” where she explained that she had known Holman and many of the people seen dancing in the show because they’d all known each other from hanging out in the club scene. It was her first appearance on camera, and she thought for sure the show would be a hit, based on a local buzz around town about it (many people scheduled viewing parties in order to watch the show together).

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Also seen during the pilot episode were graffiti pieces by the artist Brim, and hilarious slang translations of words like “Fresh” that would be splashed onscreen like something from an old “Batman” episode.

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On the night before the show’s debut, June 28, 1984, Holman and Memshian threw a party at the Roxy, a nightclub located in the Chelsea section of Manhattan, to celebrate the airing the next day of America’s first hip-hop TV show, and it was there that Jazzy Jay (one of the founders of Def-Jam) introduced a chubby, long-haired 21-year old NYU student and record producer named Rick Rubin to Russell Simmons, who hit it off immediately, talking about their favorite hip-hop records. At the time, Rubin was living in an 8th floor dorm room on campus (during his senior year, the Beastie Boys’ Adam Horovitz had bunked with him).

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Rubin and Simmons would soon enough be swapping stories about how they hadn’t been paid for some of their artists: Rubin told his friend about never seeing a dime beyond the initial advance for his work on T La Rock and Jazzy Jay’s “It’s Your’s,” his first producer job, from either Arthur Baker or Streetwise Records, and Russell Simmons regaled Rubin with stories about how he’d signed Run-D.M.C.(featuring his brother “Run,” aka Joseph Simmons) to Profile Records because the label — unlike other independents, like Sugar Hill Records — actually had a reputation for paying royalties, but despite selling tons of records for Profile, neitehr Simmons or his artists were being significantly paid, and they certainly weren’t rich. Profile — unlike deep-pocketed majors like Mercury, who had signed Kurtis Blow and flowing him all over the world — just didn’t have the cash on hand to pay for “regional” support.

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That same day (6/28/1984), the New York Times published a preview of the show that said hip-hop was shifting “from being a community’s private expression to becoming a pop fad”:

”Graffiti Rock” brings an ‘‘American Bandstand” format to the hip-hop culture – break dancing, rapping, graffiti art and ”scratching” disk jockeys. The half-hour show, tonight at 8 on Channel 11, includes teenagers dancing to records, a glimpse of sneaker-lacing fashion, exhibition dancing from the New York City Breakers and raps from the team of Run-D.M.C. and from two-thirds of the Treacherous Three, all against graffiti-style backdrops by Brim Fuentes.

In hallowed ”American Bandstand” style, a singer, Shannon, lip-synchs her current hit, ”Give Me Tonight.” And just before commercials, there are definitions of hip-hop slang like ”fresh” and ”chill out.”

The show is hardly fresh. It presents hip-hop as one big party – that is, hip-hop with its anger and hard-hitting protests softened. At one point, the show’s host, Michael Holman, shows a disk jockey ”scratching” a record – moving it back and forth under the needle to make percussive sounds – and then warns, ”Don’t try it at home with your dad’s stereo.” As hip-hop shifts from being a community’s private expression to becoming a pop fad, ”Graffiti Rock,” which is clearly a pilot for a series, is ready to capitalize on it.

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“Graffiti Rock” aired on WPIX channel 11 in New York City and on 88 additional markets around the country, to good Nielsen ratings, on June 29, 1984.

Unfortunately, despite encouraging TV ratings, Holman and his producers were unable to sell their TV show, which they’d intended as an on-going series. Most of the TV station managers that Holman and Memishian met at NAPTE (National Association of Producers of Television Entertainment), an annual convention gathering in Las Vegas, told them that they already had “Soul Train” on their schedules. They simply couldn’t comprehend the vast difference between the two shows.

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Some of them told him that the show may have been too “black,” or too “street,” but regardless of whatever reason the stations chose to pass on the show, there would not ever again be a TV show with all of the elements of hip-hop represented.

At the time, in 1984, the hip-hop scene was a multicultural and multiracial phenomenon, incorporating the ideas and inspirations of all kinds of people, but it eventually became a more exclusive part of the black music, even ending up with its own bin cards and Billboard chart names. Years later, in the late 80s, MTV would jump on the bandwagon with their own shows – “Yo! MTV Raps” and “Rap City” — but neither represented the scene as it existed in NYC in 1984, the opportunity slipping away.

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There were certain other stations in larger markets who were waiting on other cities to pick up the show before they did: Chicago was waiting on L.A. to bite, and L.A. was waiting on New York, but according to Holman, the syndicated stations in NY at the time were “controlled by unsavory characters, and they wanted money under the table to put the show on the air!” Holman’s and Memishan’s investors balked at having to deal with them, and so the show wasn’t even picked up where you might expect to have seen it.

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Rick Rubin would of course continue meeting with Russell Simmons at Rush Management’s Broadway offices, and he went with him to Danceteria and Disco Fever to check out hip hop acts, and before long, Rubin had Simmons promoting his artist T La Rock, who Rush picked up as a new client.

Over the years, “Graffiti Rock” has not been forgotten, and there have been occasional tribute-style references to the show. the video for their song “14 Years of Rap,” Non Phixion and Arsonists used a set designed to look like the one on the TV show, and the words “Graffiti Rock” can be seen and heard sampled at the beginning of the track.

The Beastie Boys would also sample an excerpt heard on the show — “… Alright, you’re scratchin it right now, cut the record back and forth against the needle, back and forth, back and forth, make it scratch, but let me tell you something don’t try this at home on your dad’s stereo only under hip-hop supervision, alright?” — on part two of “Alright Hear This,” a track from their album Ill Communication.

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Gnarls Barkley would also parody “Graffiti Rock” in their 2008 music video for “Run (I’m a Natural Disaster)” (from their album The Odd Couple, featuring Justin Timberlake).

Holman, meanwhile, would focus on filmmaking, as a writer/producer and occasional director. He wrote the screenplay for, and act as 2nd unit director, on Basquiat, a feature film release for Miramax (he’d also written and directed his own short film, also called Basquiat as well as a film titled Vincent Gallo as Flying Christ.

He’s written and directed numerous music videos (many of them for Run-D.M.C., Doug E. Fresh and other hip-hop artists), PSA’s, and TV commercials for various clients, including Nickelodeon’s “Eureeka’s Kastle,” an ACE Award winning Children’s Program (1989-91), Nickelodeon’s “Blue’s Clues,” a 1996 prime-time preschooler’s entertainment/ educational series, and the Discovery Channel’s 1991 show “Future Tense.”

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More recently, Holman has been focused on the 30th anniversary edition of “Graffiti Rock,” and last year (on June 19th) he turned to Kickstarter, offering up a slew of hip-hop artifacts in order to fund a documentary film called “Graffiti Rock: The Untold Story,” a behind-the-scenes DVD compilation which will provide a closer look at pretty much everything you’re reading about here in this blog.

Holman’s desire for the 45-day campaign was that the re-release of “Graffiti Rock” will educate young hip-hop aficionados on how the movement took off, and the kind of close community that helped put hip-hop culture on the map. Hopefully, that doc will see the light of day sometime in the near future.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.