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 and 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.”
In our latest installment, come along to Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn as Eddie Otchere talks about the Black Star shoot that was about backpacks, consciousness, Jamaican jerk spots and more…
Call it backpack consciousness, Brooklynism, golden age. Whatever you want to call it, London-born photographer Eddie Otchere was on it. After graduating from the London College of Printing in 1993, he caught a lucky break when the Wu Tang Clan made their UK debut. That day Otchere met ODB, RZA, Meth, Red, and the rest of Shaolin’s finest, going on to produce some of the most memorable portraits of Wu and a number of other music icons including Jay Z, Snoop Dogg, Biggie Smalls, and perhaps most notably for true rap fans, the 1998 cover shoot for seminal hip hop group Black Star. Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star was the only studio album from Talib Kweli and Mos Def (who now goes by the name Yasiin Bey).
The album was widely recognized as one of the most next level hip hop albums of all time for it’s independent aesthetics and forward-thinking lyricism. The title is a reference to the Black Star Line, a shipping line founded by Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey. Two emcee’s and one album that was equal parts street prophecy lyricism and political transcendence.
By the time Otchere was asked to shoot the cover, in the late 90’s, he had already moved to New York with “a bag full of mixtapes, promo vinyl and magazines from my hombres in Europe,” and was working as the photographer for underground hip hop label Rawkus Records. It was a loose set up with Otchere bopping around the city by day as a promo rep for a London label delivering Junglist tapes to the likes of Armand Van Helden. Rawkus was one of his pitstops.
“I’d arrive in mid-town Manhattan around 4:20pm and head straight to Rawkus HQ by way of Fat Beats or Rock & Soul, indulge in a blunt, discuss everything from world politics to Nate Dogg’s hooks and agree to do some fresh shit,” he recalls. On one such mission, he was asked to document Mos Def and Talib Kweli. Otchere approached the shoot from the perspective of a documentary photographer to reflect a deep sense of authenticity. Having grown up in London public housing, or council estates, listening to jazz, Otchere developed his love for realistic visuals early on.
Otchere recognized Black Star as more than just a record and more of a consciousness that was permeating the scene at the time. “Photography is casting shadows on paper, cooked in waters and chemicals. It’s about this planet and my relationship to it,” Otchere has said.
“Every photo I see of Yasin and Kweli from that era feels so timeless, like perhaps they are hard bop jazz musicians and not emcees,” says Jarret Myer, co-founder of Rawkus Records which released the Black Star album. “Brian Brater and I were record collectors so we had strong feelings about the beautiful imagery of jazz LPs from about 1955-1965. We gravitated towards beautiful images that felt authentic and non-commercial. It’s funny because Yasin had a very strong sense of fashion, but the Blackstar photos never felt like fashion shots. They felt very accessible and I think that was part of the appeal.”
Eddie Otchere: The shoot took place in Brooklyn on a Saturday morning in 1998. We all met at the Rawkus Offices on 676 Broadway, and Black Shaun drove us in his jeep to Nostrand Avenue. I stopped for a Guinness Punch at the Jamaican spot opposite The Black Lady Theater, as that was our base camp in Brooklyn. The landmark was our location and we shot the cover on the street, and the single cover on the roof, above the Jamaican jerk place.
Mos Def struck me as some sort of savant and Talib as a social political theorist who happened to form rhymes. They seemed like learned brothers who, with their eloquence and wit, could not only string sentences together to uplift our collective consciousness, but could also add the musical inflections that kept heads bobbing and an entire generation bouncing to their style of poetic Brooklynism. With Talib, I was more aware of his contribution to Nkiru books as I would, as a matter of principle, always head to this bookshop in Brooklyn where he once sold me a book of poetry by Phife Dawg’s mom.
I have no recollection of styling meetings or being directed in any way. We agreed that we had to do the shoot in Brooklyn under Brooklyn skies. To me, they were the postmodern incarnation of the Garveyite back to Africa movement that emerged in New York 100 years earlier. This movement sought funds to create a Black Star Line to transport skilled African Americans back to Africa as the logical conclusion to 400 years of western servitude. I knew where the core of their vision was coming from, and a century after Garvey, we now had Mos Def and Talib. I saw Black Star as a consciousness as well as a concept album.
It’s logical to me how it works in traditional hip hop. First you gain the recognition of all your peers on the block before you take your hood, your city, your state, your nation and then the world. So we went back to the block, and when we were there many people would come up to talk to Mos Def. They knew him as Dante; today he is Yasiin Bey. The love was there, these men had earned their place, these men could carry the torch for Brooklyn.
Black Shaun was driving, Mos Def was in the front seat, and myself and Talib were in the back. We met in the morning and were finished by lunchtime. There was no set, set pieces or set ups; it was just another day in Brooklyn with a Bronica 6/45, Mamiya C330, Minolta x700 as well as a Canon Rebel. To be honest, on the Brooklyn Bridge, Mos revealed an idea he had about building a big band tribute performing hip hop classics called B.I.G.G.I.E. They had so many ideas that the shoot was just one extended conversation of ideas. It was on the way back that I tabled the idea of doing the follow up album cover shoot in Ghana, West Africa—the home of the black stars. Somehow I felt that this album was the first in a series of episodes, the next stage being a more overtly afro-centric one.
After the shoot, I spent days printing in the darkroom and looking at the shots I got. I then sent the package to New York. But I had no idea one of these shots made the cover of the album or the single ‘Respiration’ until I saw it in a record store! I never even billed them for the work I did because I respected their vision and their steez, and this was mutual. Black Star never went gold, but Black on Both Sides, the follow up album did, so Mos Def sent me a gold disc. I had been a fan of Mos’s latest single “Universal Magnetic” and had remembered his voice from the Bush Babees record Remember We, and he had to voice and this sound, cut with patois and b-boy values.
All round they’d begun seeding ideas and ideologues that really engaged my consciousness to a new hip hop, albeit black middle class hip hop which was brownstone Brooklyn-centric as it was apparent certainly to them, that it was dangerous to be an emcee. They’d started to realize that the war on rap which fallen 2 of its biggest stars was reaching its apex.
The Camera Nerd Out
Bronica Etrsi 50mm lens. And a Super 8 cine camera. When it comes to film I’m a magpie, like the bird. Never shooting the same stock but divergent stocks so I had varying film feels for every artist. Upon reflection I shot it mainly on European film stock. Bringing rolls over and bringing them back to process. At the time I would develop my film and print from negatives in the darkroom. Its under a red light where I make my decisions. I really only trust the designers to determine what’s good. It wasn’t until I started digitising that I made contact sheets.
Street style and culture seemed very organic and authentic in this moment in hip hop history. What are your thoughts on capturing it on film?
Hip Hop like Black Star was derided at the time, it was referred to as ‘back packer hip hop’. This is when Bad Boy began to dominate the style and spirit of hip hop, eventually moving it into pop. Rawkus were outsiders in many respects. No one in this quarter of Hip Hop wore jewelry as such. I had an Eastpack backpack filled with CD’s, a note pad, a camera, and a couple of phat markers and a cocktail stick container filled with Purple Haze.
What was your career like at the time of this shoot?
My career has always been a mashup of divergent occupations. I was at that time working for the Box as a video director, crafting the Boxtalks programme. Shooting for Rawkus was part of my mission to give independent hip hop a fighting chance. I had made some visits to Vibe magazine to try and shoot for them but I fell out with George Pitts over a conversation about Indian music. That seems to typify my experience with corporate culture, they had no clue and were arrogant to boot, which I had no intention of supporting. So my photography was independent, and my own cultural interests in supplying Drum and Bass to America also meant that I sought to cut out corporate middle men.
What photographers and creatives did you admire?
Daniel Hastings for his cross processing and full frame prints, in particular the Pete Rock and CL covers and his MC Serch Here It Comes sleeve too; Haze is not a photographer, but his layouts were ill and it was because I began to recognise the work of hip hop photographers by the record sleeves, I have to give credit to the graphic designers including Nobody, chief graphic engineer of Rawkus, for listening and calling in other designers to assist like Brent Rollins. Drawing Board who were handling the design work on Bad Boy sleeves. B+ or Brian Cross just because his work is sublime; George DuBose for his set pieces and dedication to the Cold Chillin’ label. Albert Watson and Lawrence Watson – not related – but Albert for his large format lith prints and Lawrence Watson because I adored his Eric B & Rakim shots for the uk edition of ‘Move the Crowd’ single. I’m a fan of the 90’s school of photography but before hip hop. It’s the legends such as Henri Cartier Bresson and Eve Arnold. Recently I’ve come to admire Vivian Maier as well.
What made you first want to become a photographer?
It was the Magnum photographic exhibition ‘In Our Time’ in 1990 at the Hayward Gallery that lit me up and got me on the path to photography. In particular, a sublime photograph by Eve Arnold of Malcolm X. She is without a doubt the greatest of all time, depicting people with the utmost sensitivity – she was a true, humanist photographer.
What was the process of looking at the contact sheet like? Was there an obvious stand-out shot?
I developed the black and white film myself and I would go from negative to print. I never made contact sheets back then, I would have landed in London on Monday morning, immediately started dropping of colour films at labs and deving the black and white myself. By the following day I’d be in the darkroom printing until the Fed Ex guys arrived. No one ever saw the contact sheet, ever. I’d produce an edition of prints that best reflected the day’s work; my judgements were made from the negs that looked right under a red light. The negs show form and grain, while the contact sheet reveals the narrative. I wasn’t interested in narrative at the time, the urgency was their projected value as visionaries riding a Brooklyn-conscious poetic renaissance and as a double act, I was looking for duality in form alone. These thoughts defined my thinking and my lith print process produced high contrast sepia toned prints.
How does it make you feel looking back on these after all these years?
I feel that this shoot not only typifies my style but also exemplifies my politics. Forming a collaborative partnership with New York Jews, a Murdoch and an elite group of college graduated black folk. This is the only way good products or good ideas are crafted into being. A true consensus of a community will produce a true account of our times, both in song and in pictures. We didn’t just hashtag our desires and wished they’d come true; we built everything ourselves from the ground up and when I think about the personnel at Rawkus no one was from one place. The diversity of this small label was far greater than any record business I’ve seen since. I’m not surprised that this album is bundled along with other albums from major labels as a classic. All round they’d begun seeding ideas and ideologies that really engaged my consciousness within a small but distinct community of Hip Hop heads in New York. Black Star had started to realise that the war on rap, which by then had just taken the scalps of two of its biggest stars was reaching its apex. The as yet unsolved murders of Tupac and Biggie proved that rappers were in danger. There was no intention by the systemically racist judicial process to bring about a resolution to these crimes. Black Star’s counter was to add consciousness to the hip hop movement. In retrospect it will seem surreal that the state would directly interfere with the lives of rappers in order to destabilise the black community, but this is the state of play.
Do you still shoot analogue or make contact sheets?
I’ll always and have always shot film. I still buy records and I still write my name on walls. I’m so 20th century that I’m indelible. I now make digital contact sheets. I’m afraid that I scan more than I print. When I print I make my own paper and I practice and preach the holy trinity of photography as defined by Ansell Adams: choose your camera, create your negative and master your prints. This is the way of the photographer. Don’t be misled.
The Contact High Project, conceived by Vikki Tobak and published exclusively on Mass Appeal, will culminate into a book and exhibition. Check out the Contact High website, Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter for more info.