Every time I thought of Biggie, I always thought of him as a big, fat West African King (laughs). Puffy wasn’t so into it, he kept saying that he worried Big looked like “the Burger King.” So Big was trying to reassure Puffy and it turned out fine. From the contact sheet, I chose the one photo I thought was most poignant. The images are all pretty similar. I usually don’t give photo editors a lot of choices.
At the time, hip hop images were pretty stereotypical for the most part. A lot of it wasn’t beautiful. Boring…people being in jacuzzis. Imagery made for teenage boys. Not this one. The shot is the shot, and it’s iconic.I still have the crown, too.
The Camera Nerd Out
I used a Mamiya RB67 on Fuji film, and I cross processed the film (Cross-processing, also known as ‘x-pro’, is the procedure of deliberately processing one type of film in a chemical solution intended for another type of film.)
Did you ever imagine this photograph would become so important?
There are images of black people, rappers or not, that you don’t see in American culture. You rarely seem them as regal. When you see something different, you embrace it. The image is very stripped down, you only see his face. The fact that he died made the symbolism stronger. He had to die for this image to have that symbolism. The king sacrificed.
With that said, how does this portrait figure into the larger conversation of the way people of color are portrayed in visual culture?
So often it seems that black people have to be social works. I’m a photographer; I’m not a social worker. I’m a black dude and I will do the kind of work I want to do. I know what it’s like to be a black guy. I’ve been one for almost 50 years. I have no interest in negative portrayals of black people or showing people at their worst. Even if it’s real. That shit bores me. Most black people are just living their lives. Images are propaganda.
Biggie died three days after this photo was taken and then the issue of Rap Pages came out. What was the reaction?
Someone called to tell me that the image was being carried throughout Biggie’s funeral procession in Brooklyn. The photo was posted all along the route. That was important to me. This photo is about hip hop, but it’s also beyond that. It’s people perceiving you as the best. When people die young, they are mythologized.