There are multiple dates that lay claim to the birth of hip-hop. Generally, though, it’s said that “hip-hop celebration day” (now a U.S. Senate-recognised date) is August 11. That’s because, on that day in 1973, Jamaican-American Clive Campbell – aka DJ Kool Herc – threw a now-infamous “back to school jam” for his sister Cindy in a recreation room in the South Bronx. It was on that night that the various pre-existing elements of hip-hop (MCing, DJing, graffiti, b-boys and b-girls – otherwise known as breakdancers) came together and a new culture was born.
If you subscribe to this as the official origin, then 2023 marks 50 years of since the birth of hip-hop. Accordingly, Fotografiska New York is running Hip-Hop: Conscious, Unconscious, a new photography exhibition which has enlisted Mass Appeal’s Sacha Jenkins and Sally Berman as co-curators, mapping the history and growth of the culture from its roots to a truly global sensation.
This means black and white street photography from those grassroots early days, but also the glossy magazine shoots from over the years; there are in-the-moment images capturing ciphers and freestyles, the stylised portraits and intimate moments. These are the archives telling the story as it has been happening and continues to happen, in real time.
We spoke to three of the photographers whose works have been selected about the stories behind their stunning images.
Sue Kwon on her photo of Slick Rick
This was for the March 1995 issue of The Source magazine. Back then at The Source, we just kind of waited around and somebody would be like, “Hey, you want to go do this shoot?” That was how often things transpired. There was no planning or stylist or “what are we going to do for the concept” it was more like, “okay, go shoot”. Slick Rick had been recently incarcerated.
Two days later, I remember us flying into Canada and then we had to rent a car to drive back into Upstate New York [to Gouverneur Correctional Facility]. I think it was like an hour and a half through snow, farmland – nothing to be seen. I'd never done something like this before. I remember being disappointed that we were gonna have to do the shoot in a cafeteria with all the chairs up – in hindsight I do like it, but at the time it was not my idea of a cool background for a very talented rapper.
I remember thinking he was funny – he was cracking jokes the whole time. It was just the three of us in the room. [Slick Rick] was the stylist, I remember we did two looks and they let him change. We didn't have much time – I think I had maybe 20 or 30 minutes to get the photo, the rest of the time was for the interview.
People ask me about the AIDS sign but it was just there – I didn't even think about it until years later; my focus was on him and the Adidas sneakers. I think it was cool getting him in those instead of the construction boots they were normally wearing, because the sneakers were one of his markers – unfortunately he didn't have his signature gold, obviously. He was definitely a natural, he knew how to be on from the moment he walked in the cafeteria.
It was a little bit odd to see him in prison greens and, you know, just being in that situation. I remember me and the writer saying it was sad that we were working with him there. It was surreal, but he was great. He was so poised and dignified in those circumstances.
Adama Delphine Fawundu on her photo of Ol’ Dirty Bastard
I took the photo back in 1994 in Brooklyn. What's special about that photo for me is that I'm from Brooklyn, too – it was almost like a homage to Brooklyn hip-hop. I was actually just following hip-hop culture, particularly in New York City. I was particularly interested in making photographs of artists, where they were from and just really getting the context of neighbourhoods within the frame.
I found out that Lionel Martin was directing a video for Big Daddy Kane in Brooklyn, near Lafayette Gardens housing project. In my mind, I'm like, 'Oh, I have to be there!’ That's what this [image] was – it was behind the scenes of the Big Daddy Kane video shoot for the song “Show & Prove”. The song was this collaboration, so Ol' Dirty Bastard was one of the artists, Jay-Z, Scoob – one of his backup dancers also rhymed in this song – Shyheim and Sauce Money. As a photographer I'm usually invisible, but there were so many people so I had to push my way in.
What was special about this day is that the community was involved. There were people just coming outside from the building to be a part of this shoot. You would hear neighbours saying things like “I remember when he was a little boy!” It made me think about these pockets of communities – particularly Black communities in these urban cities – [and how] you don't hear so much about the multigenerational stories that exist within the space. This person’s there who saw you when you were little, or this person remembers you when they used to walk you to school. I feel like all those little chatterings were happening during this music video shoot.
What I love about this photograph is that it doesn't look like it was a video shoot. It just looks like all of these people were outside. It's such a hip-hop vibe with the people! You see ODB holding his microphone, freestyling or rapping. Big Daddy Kane is in the background, and there’s the guy wearing the Guru shirt. It just brings it all together.
I always love performances, because I feel like they're so instinctual; they're so unplanned most of the time, particularly that one. So to freeze that in the frame is special. It's a cipher, which is so significant when you think about what hip-hop represents, too; this past, present, and future all folding into one and continuing, continuing, continuing.
Christian Witkin on his photo of Missy Elliott
This was 25 years ago. I had a studio in the Meatpacking District back then; it was very hip, grungy. It was that area of the city that was verboten, but there was a lot of nightlife going on. Missy came up with her posse and she was just delightful, right from the get go. She just had this beautiful smile, and I think I really captured that in this photograph as well. I forget if the stylists brought the suits, but it's this pink bubblegum suit – like an overall but made of this… whatever the hell it is? A plastic rubberized suit?
This was actually from a shoot for a multiple artists cover for Spin – so we photographed Missy as well as Thom Yorke, Ani DiFranco and Method Man. This was something I used to do a lot back in the 90s: photograph individuals in different places – and then put them together in a group in a two-point perspective photograph. There was no Photoshop – or at least I didn't have access to it – so I would just use a Xerox machine and enlarge or make smaller the proof selects that I had chosen that I hoped would work together.
There’s an element of control that a lot of other musicians have a hard time giving up in photo shoots, but with Missy it was easy, she was a breath of fresh air. At the end of the day, it’s a collaboration. So the gum? She brought the gum. It just seemed like something she was so comfortable with, something she always did – blowing bubbles, popping, clicking. And so I said ‘No, no, don’t get rid of the gum!’ I loved what she was doing with it. She was twirling it, doing a little performance and we were laughing and that just got captured forever.
I adore this photograph. Missy has so many firsts, it's ridiculous. This woman has achieved so much. When people call her the queen of rap, I say, hell yeah. She is.
Hip-Hop: Conscious, Unconscious is now on at Fotografiska New York till May 20.