Set in the South Bronx, the film follows the lives of a pair of brothers and their group of friends, all of whom are devoted to various elements of early hip hop culture. Kenny Kirkland (Guy Davis) is a budding disc jockey and Master of Ceremonies, and his younger brother, Lee (Robert Taylor) is a hardcore b-boy who dances with Beat Street Breakers (the New York City Breakers). Kenny's best friends are Ramon (Jon Chardiet), a graffiti artist known by his tag, "Ramo", and Chollie (Leon W. Grant), his self-styled manager/promoter.
The film begins with the main characters preparing for a house party set in an abandoned apartment building, where Kenny is the featured DJ. An uninvited Lee and his breakdancing friends crash the party, and nearly get tangled into a battle with a rival troupe, the Bronx Rockers (the Rock Steady Crew). The battle of mostly words is broken up by Henri (Dean Elliot), a squatter who lives in the building and is befriended by Kenny, Chollie, Ramon and Luis (Franc. Reyes).
Kenny has dreams of performing in New York City's top nightclubs. No club is bigger than the Roxy, and on one visit he crosses paths with Tracy Carlson (Rae Dawn Chong), a college music student and composer. A breakdance battle between the Breakers, Rock Steady ensues and Tracy admires Lee's performance. She then invites him to audition for a television show focusing on dancing. Lee, Kenny and their crew arrive during a dance rehearsal, and Lee gives his performance only to find out he won't be on television. Protecting his brother's interests, Kenny rips into Tracy for leading Lee on; Ramon steals a videotape of Lee's dance as the crew walk out.
A remorseful Tracy then shows up at the Kirkland home to apologize. Lee was not home but Kenny was, working on a mix tape. Tracy clarifies her story, saying that she did not promise to Lee that he was going to be on the TV show. She then takes an interest in Kenny's mixing and the two find common ground. Kenny and Tracy then head into the subway, where they meet up with Lee, Ramon and Luis spray painting an abandoned station platform. They pack up and leave when they hear noises, thinking it may be the police; it turned out to be a rogue graffiti artist known as Spit who defaces Ramo's work (and the work of other artists) by spraying his tag over it. As the group take the train back uptown, Kenny and Tracy break away and spend the rest of the evening together, striking up a romance while walking and talking.
Chollie talks Kenny into a guest spot at the Burning Spear, a club run by DJ Kool Herc. Kenny not only spins but presents a special Christmas-themed skit performed by the Treacherous Three, Doug E. Fresh and the Magnificent Force. The crowd's positive reaction convinces Kool Herc to invite Kenny back. But both Kenny and Chollie see the regular gig as a stepping stone to their bigger goal. They return to the Roxy, where auditions are being held for new talent. Chollie convinces Kenny to let him do the talking, and waits for the auditions to end before he succeeds in getting the talent scout to check out Kenny at the Burning Spear.
The scout keeps his word, and is impressed enough that he offers Kenny a performance on New Year's Eve. Tracy offers to help Kenny out by allowing him to work on a computer keyboard system at her studio. However, Kenny accidentally presses a wrong button and deletes his work. Stubborn and frustrated, Kenny leaves the studio, saying he had enough material for New Year's Eve.
Meanwhile, Ramon is feeling pressure from two sources. His father, Domingo (Shawn Elliot), who despises his graffiti, wants him to find honest work, while his girlfriend Carmen (Saundra Santiago), the mother of his son, longs for them to be together as a family. Ramon eventually gets a job in a hardware store, and he then takes Carmen and their baby to live with him in Henri's building. But Ramon does not stop thinking of the subway trains that are his canvas. When he sees a white painted one pass him by, he vows to put his mark on it.
Later that evening, Ramon and Kenny find the train and proceed to paint one side of the lead car. As they work on the second side of the car, Ramon hears noises, and they discover the rogue graffiti artist, Spit, defacing the completed side. Ramon and Kenny chase Spit through the tunnel and into a station, and a fight ensues. Spit sprays paint in Ramon's eye, and both men tussle on the roadbed before they roll onto the electrified third rail, which kills them instantly.
As the group mourn the death of their friend, Kenny considers not performing for the New Year's Eve show at the Roxy. However, with the help of Tracy and despite initial reluctance from Chollie, Kenny turns his big break into a celebration of Ramon's life. The show is the film's grand finale starting with a rap performance by Kenny while images of Ramon and his work were shown on a screen in the background. Kenny is followed by Grandmaster Melle Mel & the Furious Five and a Bronx gospel choir, and backed by dancers and breakdancers.Rae Dawn Chong - Tracy Carlson
Guy Davis - Kenny "Double K" Kirkland
Jon Chardiet - Ramon "Ramo"
Leon W. Grant - Chollie
Saundra Santiago - Carmen Carraro
Robert Taylor - Lee Kirkland
Mary Alice - Cora Kirkland
Shawn Elliott - Domingo
Jim Borelli - Monte
Dean Elliot - Henri
Franc. Reyes - Luis
Tonya Pinkins - Angela
Lee Chamberlin - Alicia
Duane Jones - Robert
DJ Little Louie Vega - DJ in the background of the club
Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force - Themselves
Jazzy Jay - Himself
Doug E. Fresh - Himself
New York City Breakers - Beat Street Breakers
Rock Steady Crew - Bronx Rockers
Clive "Kool Herc" Campbell - Himself
Treacherous Three - Themselves
Grandmaster Melle Mel & the Furious Five - Themselves
Sisco Kid and Wanda Dee - Themselves
Kadeem Hardison was credited as "High School Student" in the director's cut of the film. However, his scenes were all cut from the final theatrical version.
Some of the plot line was based on the New York City graffiti documentary, Style Wars. Most visibly, the antagonist spit in Beat Street was lifted from the real-life graffiti artist CAP MPC, who was portrayed in Style Wars. It was screened out of competition at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival.
Beat Street was filmed in New York City in 1983, in the boroughs of The Bronx, Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens. Several scenes were shot inside the city's subway system, both onboard trains and in stations, notably Hoyt-Schermerhorn Streets, 57th Street-Sixth Avenue and Fresh Pond Road. Scenes were also filmed on the campus of the City College of New York, which includes the concert venue Aaron Davis Hall. Many of the internal dance sequences were filmed at the popular night club, the Roxy, located in the Chelsea section of Manhattan.
Most of the graffiti art that was displayed all throughout the film was not done by real graffiti artists—it was airbrushed by set decorators.
There are several performances in the movie, notably from established early hip hop groups, Grandmaster Melle Mel & the Furious Five, Doug E. Fresh, Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force and the Treacherous Three. As a member of the Treacherous Three, Kool Moe Dee also appeared in the film.
The musical performance of Kool Moe Dee stands as one of the few media appearances he has ever made without his trademark sunglasses (a style he had not yet adopted at the time). In addition to these acts, Guy Davis, who played Kenny, is also a blues musician in real life.
Three female MCs appear in a party scene in Beat Street—Debbie D, Sha-Rock and Lisa Lee. They perform a limited and limiting performance as a group called "Us Girls" (see video). The first lyrics you hear are sung (vs. rapped). This moment tends to diminish the significance of women in early hip hop performance as if by 1984 female emcees were already exceptional to a musical genre that was still emerging and developing. The group sings in unison, "Us Girls / Can Boogie, too," then each emcee performs a short rhyme.
The film also includes other musical performances from Tina B and The System, both of whom appear on the soundtrack album. Though not featured on the album, there were also appearances by rapper Richard Lee Sisco and singers Bernard Fowler and Brenda K. Starr, known as the Queen of freestyle who later became a Latin artist.
At least three breakdancing battles between the New York City Breakers and the Rock Steady Crew were also included in the film. In addition, the Roxy audition scene features a pair of breakdancing boys known as the Fantastic Duo.
This was the first American film to feature more than one soundtrack album. Originally, Atlantic Records, which released the soundtrack albums, had three volumes planned, but only two of these were released. The second volume was never released on compact disc.
The trailer includes an alternate version of the title song performed by Kool Moe Dee, a version that was not featured in the movie or on the original soundtrack albums.
Beat Street's impact was felt internationally as well as throughout the United States. In Germany, for example, movies such as Beat Street and Wild Style are credited with introducing the hip hop movement to the country. Because movies are so easily distributed over borders, part of the importance of this movie lay in its ability to influence both East Germany and West Germany, which at the time were still divided. Beat Street was of particular importance in the East, where it is said to illustrate for young people the evils of capitalism. Because the film focused so heavily on the visual aspects of hip hop, such as breaking and graffiti, these aspects had the heaviest influence on the emerging German hip hop scene.
It was precisely these visual aspects that helped bring hip hop culture to Germany, rather than simply a genre of music. Beat Street appeared in the German Democratic Republic at almost the same time as in the West. Dresden, the center of the Beat Street scene was geographically out of western media range, making it a perfect center to explore this genre of music. The hip hop scene for the entire public would meet at breakdancing competitions, emceeing competitions, and graffiti spraying. Puerto Rican and African American breakdancing, hip hop and Latin freestyle dance sounds, and inner-city American graffiti made up what Germans knew as hip hop culture. The aftermath of Beat Street propelled events such as competitions in emceeing, break dancing, and graffiti spraying throughout Germany.AZ mentions the film in his song "The Come Up", in the line "Before Beat Street, streets was heavily in deep with the ryders."
The Notorious B.I.G. in his song "Suicidal Thoughts" said, "Should I die on the train tracks like Ramo in Beat Street/People at my funeral frontin' like they miss me."
Jay Electronica mentions the film in his song "Exhibit A (Transformations)" in the line "Who gone bring the game back/who gone spit that Ramo on the train tracks".
Ras Kass in his song "Won't Catch Me Runnin'" said, "When my voice hits the mike, I electrocute Spit like Beat Street."
Mr. Lif, on "Elektro", rapped the lines: "So I use the same flow to put niggas under in The Serpent and the Rainbow/Go back to Beat Street and resurrect Ramo knock the shit out of Spit verbal eclipse"
Prozack Turner of Foreign Legion mentions the movie in "Wonderful Life" - "Remember Beat Street? I was Lee on my kitchen floor".