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Jamel Shabazz: A Time Before Crack

Getting to know New York before crack cocaine.
May 26, 2011, 11:00pm

This interview kinda goes off on a tangent about crack abuse, but before street meant eating Kaws doll cupcakes and wearing BAPE, the culture and style had its roots in poverty and hardship, so it's worth detailing that stuff. 50-year-old Jamel Shabazz grew up in Brooklyn in the 70s; after finding work in the prison system, he took photos on the streets of New York for 20 years before his first book was published. You'll recognize Back in the Days as the classic old school hip-hop photography book. He was also responsible for A Time Before Crack and Seconds of My Life, and just shot Umbro's New York Cosmos campaign.

Vice: You've been shooting since the late 70s, right?
Jamal: I picked up my first camera in 1975 and I've been shooting ever since. My father was a professional photographer, so I always grew up with images and photography books around me. *In these pictures, New York always looks such a mess, but also sort of high energy. Like when I was growing up, New York was meant to be this scary place.*
For me it was a really exciting time, I was young and I was taking my passion to a whole other level, the photography was sort of a gateway for me to engage with younger people about life. Through that, I met so many wonderful people that went on to become my friends. When did you start getting photographs published?
I was first published in 1989 in Trace magazine. It was always a hobby, never done professionally, it was a game, if someone wanted to give me money, I'd say just get me a quarter orange juice. What were you doing for sustenance in all that time?
I was a college student during the early 80s and then in 1983, I became a New York City correctional officer and that was my employment for the next 20 years. It paid pretty well, which allowed me to go out there and record the images I have. I spent 20 years in correction and I always took my camera with me, even when going to work. You were used to dealing with all sorts of people then? Nowadays, the whole iconography of the b-boy thing looks cute and safe, but I guess hanging around in the Bronx in the early 80s wasn't that easy?
It was a very difficult time. My occupation was bittersweet because when you work for the law enforcement and you're on the street, there's people out there that may identify that you work in a prison. Fortunately, I was a good person and that resonated in the street. It allowed me to travel because I had a good spirit and I knew how to engage with people, with intelligence and seriousness. They would open up to me and I used that as an opportunity to kind of inspire them. I was in the military, so I had discipline and that prepared me for the hard issues on the streets. I'm also an avid chess player, so I understand strategy and sacrifice and things of that nature. Who were the most interesting characters you managed to capture? I am also interested in the book title "before crack", why did that make a big difference?
Time Before Crack is one of my most important books. The crack epidemic in New York during the 80s devastated so many communities, not only here in New York City, but throughout America. Crack was intentionally placed in the community to help fund the wars in Central America, when you understand that, it's painful. So much changed once crack had been introduced, the gangs could make a lot of money, and many good people turned to selling drugs; it was an incredible phenomena. I watched good people fall victim to it in numerous ways. I watched older people fall victim to crack, abusing it and selling it. Working in the prison, I saw first hand the casualties of war, the thousands of people from my community coming into the system due to crack addiction. I put out Time Before Crack to show people the beauty of our communities before that drug; you can look at these photographs and see people smiling, you can see a spirit of love and togetherness. Once crack came, everything changed, even the language, people's style, attitude, music… everything. Gangs flourished again–they were kind of dead in the 70s in New York City– but once crack was introduced, they resurfaced and it escalated throughout America. The Bloods and Crips started to flourish not only on the West Coast but here in New York City, so it became quite a violent place. Tragically a lot of the people in the book died due to violence and addiction; there's secondary causes linked to that, like asthma attacks. Also, lots of people got HIV because AIDS and crack went hand in hand. Why did it disappear?
Crack never disappeared; what we're dealing with now is post-crack because the victims are coming out of prison. The politicians, in the 80s and 90s, talked about being hard on crime, so they took away a lot of the social programs in prison and prison became this big profit making industry. Everybody forgot about the jobless people coming home from prison; that's post-crack. You have a lot of children that were born to crack addicted parents, a lot of children were placed in foster homes, so now at the age of 21, they're back in the system again. Pre-crack, the music was positive; rap music was about struggle and it had a message. The music that came out during crack days, was all about money, power and revenge. But this post-crack era alarms me more than anything else because people have become very desensitized and violence and drug dealing are glorified. How did the street change over the 80s? 
Back then, most teenagers didn't have cars, so jewelry represented power. A big rope chain represented a degree of power because wearing one opened you up to being violently challenged. Crack brought around the whole bling culture, bling became a sign of power and that's what people wanted to have. In my community, in the 70s, people wanted to be clean, they wanted to be fashionable, they wore clean sneakers and pants with the crease in them, everybody wanted to look good. Then people fell victim to crack, they couldn't afford the upkeep, parents couldn't take pride anymore. I saw fashion rapidly change throughout the 90s; t-shirt and hood became popular. People used to wear tailor made pants when I was growing up. Back then, I couldn't have imagined the simple white t-shirt being the popular look.

On one hand, you were very much reveling in a culture that could easily end up in prison?
That is true, some of them got murdered of course. Sometimes you could just be an innocent bystander and get murdered. But there are success stories too; some of these people went on to university. I was motivated to continue and take photographs, so I that I could engage with young people and take them away from this negative lifestyle and guide them. So being a photographer helped me engage in conversation. What people don't see in my images is the way I would speak to the subject for at least 10-15 minutes before taking any pictures. I was more concerned in having a conversation with them rather than with the image. Are you still taking pictures?
Every single day, my camera is with me everyday.

How did you get involved in the Umbro Cosmos project?
Umbro reached out to me, saying their slogan was New York swagger. They felt that I'd be the very best person to bring out that swagger. I instantly fell in love with the idea. It was great to document the diversity and the landmark locations representing the heart and spirit of New York City. Were you a fan of the Cosmos at the time?
I've developed an appreciation for soccer from having traveled to different countries, and of course I'd heard of Pele back in the 70s and all the great work he was doing in Brazil and with the Cosmos. What happened to the people whose pictures you took?
Many people that I've photographed have amazing stories, I have a new book out called Back in The Days Remix with new images and text. I found out that one guy went on to become a university professor. I was blown away by how he transformed his life and went back to school and got a PhD. There are doctors, lawyers, policemen. Did you know at the time that these were big important fashion images? Were you aware of what you were documenting at the time?
In terms of the fashion component, yes. Being from Brooklyn at that time, practically everyone was fashionable, you know, I was drawn to the spirit. For the most part you know the alpha female or the alpha male by the way they dress. You knew that if a person was dressed really dapper, you could photograph them because they wanted to be seen and recognized. On the same day, I'd shoot someone dapper, a few minutes later I might go shoot someone homeless in the train. In some of my documentary work, you see homelessness, prostitution, drug addiction, you know, you see the fear; I'm looking forward to sharing that body of work too.

Since you're there, what about the transformation of the hip-hop culture from the peacock clothes of the 70s and the 80s to the whole sportswear, breakdance thing?

I look at the old blaxploitation movies of the 70s, guys wearing high heeled shoes and flamboyant maxi coats… it looked kind of crazy back then, basketball players like Earl Munroe started wearing tracksuits and it resonated, becoming extremely popular in mid 70s. I think the Carribbean culture had an influence too, no one really talks about this but Jamaican New Yorkers brought the London influence to American culture. They came with the London trench coats, the Clarks shoes and Kangols. The Jamaicans came to New York with gold teeth and people wanted to emulate this when they first saw it.