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Secret photographs catch hip-hop stars off guard

Words by Rob Chilton

Previously unseen images document four decades of hip-hop in a dazzling photography exhibition

Jay-Z laughing with Kanye West, Lauryn Hill seductively pointing at the camera, Snoop Dogg pensively blowing bubble gum and Eric B. and Rakim showing off the spoils of success are some of the highlights of a photography exhibition showing at Manarat Al Saadiyat in Abu Dhabi.

Showing for the first time outside of America, Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop features posed portraits but also contact sheets of outtakes that reveal famous names during unguarded moments.

Exhibition curator and journalist Vikki Tobak tells EDGAR, “The contact sheets show all the intimate behind-the-scenes moments and tell a deeper story. You see artists being frustrated, working it out, making mistakes… I’m a total contact sheet nerd!”

The exhibition began as a book written by Tobak. The event in Abu Dhabi, she explains, aims to “celebrate hip-hop’s visual legacy. Hip-hop is now a global force and I wanted to trace the visual identity back to the roots. People always knew what hip-hop sounded like but what did it look like?” Tobak spoke to EDGAR about the project.

Photo by Barron Claiborne Biggie Smalls (New York, 1997)

Can you describe the importance of the relationship between photography and hip-hop?

To look back on certain photographers and iconography and see this vast archive of imagery tells an important, powerful story. Before hip-hop became popular worldwide, many of the photographers in this exhibition came from the same communities as the artists. They were documenting neighbourhoods, block parties, clubs and that was important for the photographers to understand the whole culture, not just the music.

How difficult was it obtaining copyright permissions for this exhibition?

I visited dozens of archives and was surprised at just how many images are still out there. Some of these photographers hadn’t looked at their contact sheets in years and were surprised at what they saw looking at the outtakes after so many years. These rolls of film, many stored away in shoeboxes and closets were holding iconic moments, still unprocessed.

Photo by Drew Carolan Eric B. & Rakim (New York, 1988)

The contact sheets are the hidden gem of this exhibition, right?

Yes, for sure and I’m a total contact sheet nerd [laughs]. They show all the intimate behind-the-scenes moments and tell a deeper story. When you look at these contact sheets, you see artists being frustrated, working it out, making mistakes… The public often only sees the finished product, the perfect shot, the perfect song. I wanted to hear about the messy parts, the hardship and the overcoming. That’s a universal story for both the artists and the photographers. Photographers understand that their photos are part of a larger conversation about identity, culture, race and all that hip hop has manifested as part of the broader cultural document. So I wondered, what decisions were being made along the way about the imagery that would shape hip-hop? In getting access to these original and unedited contact sheets, we can see how photographers thought about sequencing, when to click the shutter and how they took photos from different perspectives. They let the viewer observe all of the other shots taken during these legendary moments or what legendary street photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson coined The Decisive Moment. Contact sheets are like being let in on a secret. Photographers don’t often show their contact sheets, it’s quite vulnerable to show your imperfections but that’s what makes them so powerful.

Photo by Armen Djerrahian Mos Def (New York City, 2000)

When you were growing up, what did hip-hop mean to you?

Growing up an immigrant kid in a traditionally African-American city like Detroit, music became a part of my identity. My family emigrated from Kazakhstan to Detroit when I was five years old and I started school not speaking English. It was the music on early Detroit radio like Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin and early house music that gave me a window into what I came to understand as America. It defined my understanding of culture and the role music played in creating narratives and history. You can say hip-hop defined who I was, like so many young kids across the world.

When did you start to get involved with hip-hop?

In the early 1990s at 19 years old, I moved to New York from Detroit and got a job at Payday Records/Empire Management. At that time, Payday represented some of the most important names in underground hip-hop: Jeru the Damaja, Masta Ace, Mos Def’s first group, Jay-Z’s first singles deal. But Gang Starr is what the label was really known for. I worked with them as director of publicity and marketing when they were recording Hard To Earn, making sure they sounded and looked right in the media. I would accompany them on all their shoots, their interviews, and I got immersed in that world. I toured with them, I travelled the world with them, and learned what it was like to see the images being created along the way be put out into the world. After the label, I became a music and culture journalist. Later on, when I started working as a producer for CNN and CBS and went deeper into photojournalism, the dots started to connect. I became really interested in the way organisations treat their archives, and thought about hip-hop imagery, how all these years later we have this vast archive, but, we don’t have the stories behind what was happening within the culture at that time.

Photo by Clay Patrick McBride Kanye West and Jay-Z ( New York, 2005)

Was there a video, an album, or a song that made an impression on you?

If I had to pick just one, it would be Public Enemy’s album It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back. I was in high school in Detroit and the sounds coming out of NYC were everything. Public Enemy was speaking truth to power and the production was unlike anything I ever heard. And Chuck D’s voice was like a wrecking ball to all that we were questioning as young people.

How did you come to hear it?

I think my skateboard friends Eric and Leto somehow got a copy of the cassette. We listened to it all night in this makeshift house they all shared in Cass Corridor in Detroit. That’s also when a lot of subcultures were converging, skateboard kids and hip-hop kids and punk.

Photo by Jayson Keeling Lauryn Hill (Brooklyn, 1996)

Do you think you’ll continue to love hip-hop forever or do you fall out of love with it?

It’s definitely a young man’s game but I will always love music that speaks to its time. And hip-hop is evolving. Frank Ocean pushing the limits on masculinity and style, XXXTentacion and Mac Miller allowing space to talk about mental health, amazing women like Megan Thee Stallion, Cardi B and Rapsody being in charge of their careers and speaking up for women in the industry. All of that is evolution and I’ll always love that.

Photo by Jorge Peniche Tyler, The Creator (Los Angeles, 2011)

Finally, the big question: should hip-hop have a hyphen or not?

[Laughs] Hyphen all the way! I actually had the same question and the copy editing team at Random House [publishers of Tobak’s book Contact High] that was proofreading the book told me definitively.

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