In our series, Contact High: The Stories Behind Hip Hop’s Most Iconic Photographs, writer Vikki Tobak talks with those who have played critical roles in shaping hip hop imagery. They offer a rare glimpse of the creative process that went into the making of each photo.
Getting access to the original and unedited contact sheets, we see the ‘big picture’ being created can look look directly through the photographer’s lens. Photographers typically don’t show their contact sheets. They’re a visual diary. Film negatives on a roll of analog film allowed these photographers (and now us) to see the full range of images in order to develop the “money shot.”
For our latest installment, photographer Delphine Fawundu travels to Queensbridge Houses to talk about the Mobb Deep photo shoot that was pure golden era authenticity.
New York, 1995
“For all of those who want to profile and pose, Rock you in your face, stab your brain wit’ your nose bone. You all alone in these streets, cousin…” —Mobb Deep, Shook Ones Pt. II
More than just lyrics, profile and pose has informed much of what has come to define early hip hop imagery, shaping popular perception with mean mug portraits, bravado poses and sometimes even moments of introspection and photographic intimacy. Photographers guided the narrative. Delphine Fawundu was one such pioneer who helped shape the story. On assignment for Beat Down magazine, Fawundu photographed Prodigy and Havoc of Mobb Deep for their second album, The Infamous, in 1995.
Beat Down was a bootstrap, but influential hip hop newspaper headquartered not far from Queensbridge Houses in Long Island City where this shoot took place. Fawundu felt it important to capture the group on home turf. The 3,142-unit Queensbridge Houses is the largest public housing development in the U.S. and the fertile ground that gave birth not only to Havoc and Prodigy, but also a generation of notable hip hop artists — Nas, Marley Marl, MC Shan, Roxanne Shante. The story of Queensbridge is, by now, well documented, preserved in amber as part of the hip hop historic narrative.
That narrative of Queensbridge is integral to Mobb Deep, serving as inspiration for The Infamous’ and a backbone for the visuals: Gritty. Hard. Unapologetic. The Infamous was Mobb Deep’s the second studio album, released on Loud Records and producing the classic Shook Ones Pt. II. Each song is a different chapter in the hard street life Havoc and Prodigy have experienced in their Queensbridge neighborhood … While describing their lives with brutal realism and raw imagery, Havoc’s love for his hometown hits you in the head like a Mike Tyson comeback punch.” Elliot Wilson wrote in Vibe Magazine in his review of their album.
Today, Fawundu has broadened her photography practice to focus on subjects of the African diaspora, producing the 2010 documentary Tivoli: A Place We Call Home: A Community Faces Gentrification at the Brooklyn Historical Society and a solo traveling exhibition for the Women’s Institute of the GMHC titled Touched: Black and Latina Women Living with HIV.
Delphine Fawundu:At the time I shot this, everyone was talking about Mobb Deep. We met up in an apartment and did some of the shoot in the hallway, however, most of it took place outside. We rolled up to Queensbridge Projects and met Havoc downstairs. He walked us up the stairs of a building and knocked on someone’s door. Inside was an older woman and Prodigy. I’m not sure who’s apartment it was. However, introductions with the older woman, who could have been a grandma, if I remember correctly, instantly brought things down to earth. Feelings of home lingered within me,and then it was time to really meet the strangers (Mobb Deep) that felt like I already knew. In other words, they were quite cool, respectful and professional.
I’ve always had this thing about shooting where the artist was from. And this image really shows that. They determined how they wanted to be styled. The thing I loved the most about shooting back then was that artists were more into the authenticity of their look than turning things into a fashion shoot. My editor, Haji, who also accompanied me on the shoot, asked if I wanted to do the photos in Queensbridge and I was elated.
The Camera Nerd Out
I used a Nikon FM2 and a Mamiya 645. My film of choice was Kodak TMAX for black and white. I would use either Agfa or Fuji for color.
You mention the approach to style was more authentic during this time. Talk about the street style and culture at that time.
It was the 90’s: Army fatigues jackets, pants and hats, baggy jeans, big tee shirts and sweatpants, skully hats, bandanas, and Timberlands or military styled boots. This was also a time when it was the thing to sport a boldly labeled tee-shirt, sweats or jeans by young Black designers such as Karl Kani, Walker Wear, Mecca, and Enyce.
What was your career like at the time of this shoot?
I was about three years into my career at the time. I was shooting either artist’s portraits, studio sessions or events at the time.
What photographers/creative did you admire?
I studied the works of Roy DeCarava, Gordon Parks, Mary Ellen Mark, Chester Higgins, Lorna Simpson and Carrie Mae Weems.
What made you first want to become a photographer?
As I reflected later in my career, I realized that I was always the photographer in my crew. I just didn’t know the possibilities in terms of a career. I first got inspired to make this a career choice when I was interning at MCA Records back in 1992-3. I would admire the photos that would come in from the publicity shoots. One day, this photographer named Koi Sojer came in with a bunch of images. I had already been shooting images and realized that mine were not so different from hers. At that point, I decided to try it out. My first published image was a small picture of Busta Rhymes performing at the “Posse” film release party.
What was the process of looking at the contact sheet like?
The contact sheet would allow me to gravitate to which photos I actually wanted to print. Later on, I actually exhibited a series from this shoot and included the negative imagery.
How does it make you feel looking back on these?
I am a big fan of hip-hop music and when I look back at these images I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to capture historical moments within this tremendous and important movement.
Do you still shoot analog or make contact sheets?
I haven’t shot analog in a while, however, I recently bought a new film camera, a FujiFilm GF640, and I plan to shoot more analog very soon.