In the endlessly reverberating words of Birdman, when you speak about Eddie Otchere you better put some respeck on his name. The Brixton-born photographer has a back catalogue that spans the dawn of the jungle music scene that was cultivated in 90s Britain, and is embellished with portraits of some of hip hop’s most iconic MCs. He’s the man behind the lenses that have captured the likes of the Wu-Tang Clan, Nas, Jay Z and Biggie Smalls. On UK soil, he’s photographed trailblazers like So Solid Crew, Tricky, and Goldie.
He speaks about his work and his culture with passion and purpose, unwavering in his vision to capture the sweetest parts of life as they are. “I knew what I was here for. I knew I had to document my life, my scene, my people. And that’s that. No one else was going to do it for me,” he says. “Behind everything I do there is a negativity, but I’m only trying to show you the inverse.”
For Black History Month he worked alongside Holly-Marie Cato, imparting his know-how onto newbie photographers at an analogue street photography and darkroom workshop at Leica Gallery London. He spoke to VICE about a career spent documenting Black music history.
VICE: You were very active in the jungle music era, but what about the genres that followed in Black British music?
Eddie Otchere: I need to shout out the grime kids because they’re grown up now, they’re proper men now. They’re doing proper tings, and respect to that. I really love what they do and love the way they do it. I’m a junglist kid, so the grime kids always felt like the youngers who’d come to our raves but they were youngers still. When they came up with their own ting, it was like garage slash grime. Their sound evolved into their own thing, they created their own subculture. So when I saw D Double E and that lot raving at some hotel I was like, respect to these kids man, they’re fucking holdng it down. I was there to document the jungle scene but I wasn’t there to document the grime scene. I’d started having children then, I was just busy. So this was the one time where I’ve been out raving with these grime kids who are much older now – those shots were taken this year.
Can you tell us about some of the work you did with So Solid Crew?
That was like a turn of the century thing. I was there for So Solid, I was there for the Battersea crowd and I was there to create their first iconography. And yeah again, I’m proud of them. Proud of those guys, proud of what they did, proud of how they crossed over into the mainstream in their own way.
I vividly remember them having a number one with “21 Seconds” and they invited me down to Top of the Pops to come and join them. And as I walked into the BBC all I could smell was weed, and I was so proud of them because they smoked the fucking place out. That was a first, certainly for that generation. It felt good to feel like Battersea boys were doing alright.
What’s the difference between photographing rappers compared to DJs or producers?
Rappers are quite interesting because they come like explosive, ready-made creatures who are ready to go off on you. They’ve got nothing but pure energy. But when I was photographing junglist producers they just didn’t want to be seen. Like Shy FX is literally Shy FX – he’s shy. He’s important but he just didn't want to be seen so it’s very difficult. Drum and bass producers never wanted to do anything because they were really withdrawn types of people, which is great, actually, for me. It just meant that I had to approach it very differently. I also knew that I had to document who they were because they’re pioneers and leaders in the field.
Goldie was very supportive of me, allowing me to come and shoot in his clubs and that meant that I could meet them in the clubs, in context, so that when we linked up to do shoots it wasn’t like we were strangers. That meant I had to make them feel comfortable because they never sought the limelight the way a rapper wants the limelight.
How important is Notting Hill Carnival to British culture and the work that you do?
It made us [photographers] what we are. Come on, there isn’t a year that you don’t go to Carnival. There isn’t a year that you don’t go down there and take a picture. Even if it’s of you and your mum.
No city on Earth has two million people raving on its streets and nothing goes wrong. This year’s carnival was lit, there's no denying it. It’s what we’re here for. Like we brought this to you, you racist fucks. And we only did this because you were racist fucks. Because you came in and tried to fuck over our community. So we went back and fucked you over and then said you know what, we’re not going to respond to your racism with violence. We’re going to respond to your racism with love. And we’re going to build something that’s better than you. And that's what the carnival is. It’s a group of not just the Caribbean people, but the Africans – everyone comes together to make Notting Hill work.
Sound systems are a big part of the carnival. How important do you think they’ve been for Black British culture?
What’s good about Black history and Black future is that we brought sound systems to this country. Sound systems went on to create jungle, club culture, bass culture, drum and bass, dubstep, hip hop. You can’t have hip hop without a sound system, so I wanted to really big up sound systems as being the best of Black history and the best of Black future. Because our history is oral. Our history is not written down. Our history is spoken and we chat. Sound systems are an extension of our history and therefore an extension of our future.