Contact High, Vikki Tobak’s profound visual history of hip-hop, celebrates the beauty of photographic archives and proves once again, the truth is in there.
“I always wanted to do this project as a book and the editors over at Mass Appeal were people who I’ve known for a long time. So they said, “As you are researching, why don’t you publish it with us as a weekly series sort of thing, just until you get a book deal?” The intention was always that it was going to be a book, but Mass Appeal sort of housed it while I was in research mode.
The groundwork started many, many years ago. My first job when I moved to New York from Detroit was working for a hip hop management company and record label called Payday Records and Pirate Management. I got it because I was kind of doing odd jobs here and there. I worked at this really important club at the time called Nell’s, and then one of the people that I worked with there was like, “hey my buddy who runs Payday needs someone to work there.” I was like “Yes!” I love music. I love hip hop. I loved all the groups they worked with. I started there in the Lower East Side in a little office. Gangstarr was the big group they were managing at the time. I was the only woman working there, we had a small staff. I started accompanying all the groups to all their photoshoots and media opportunities. So I met a lot of the photographers back then. There are a lot of photographers in the book, people like Danny Hastings, even Janette Beckman; I was sort of the person who took these artists around to the photo shoots.
So, you know, that whole process, it’s based on a lot of trust. I remember going to Guru’s house and having to literally wak him up and be like, “Come on! You’ve got a photoshoot, get it together! Get on your outfit.” So very quickly, at like 19, I was made the director of media and PR at the label. Again, we were small and very boot-strappy. So that was sort of my first experience with all this. Through all of that I also understood how the images were made. Who was the team? How do the artists feel about how they were being portrayed? I think especially with young, mostly men, of color, who were making music about these big political, social issues a lot of the time, their image was really important to them.
Very easily, a photographer who didn’t know the culture, or didn’t think that deeply, could use a camera and make images that might last forever, but in reality were not representative of the music or who the artists were. So, you know, I sort of felt like how these images were made was just as important as the making of the music and what you’re trying to say about yourself. I just developed those relationships with the photographers early on and kind of got to know, by seeing certain photographers at the shows, which ones were really dedicated to the music and the culture, versus who was just shooting it for Rolling Stone and the next day just going and shooting something completely different. Nothing against those kinds of photographers, they make some amazing photos, but that’s sort of when my mind started immersing into the bigger story of these images and the music and how it all worked together.
So, after that I also started writing. I started freelancing for Paper Magazine. I became their DJ columnist. I started writing for all the early hip hop magazines, like Vibe. Rob Kenner, who was an editor there at the time, is now an editor at Mass Appeal. So that’s what I mean, I really knew them from back in the day. A lot of that team is now at Mass Appeal. I just really fell in love with the writing part of it and felt like I really knew the music inside out. I started doing more culture writing. Eventually I went and worked for CNN and CBS, kind of more mainstream, political news, which in my mind was just an extension of hip hop and the kind of stuff that was being talked about in the lyrics. Except, now it was being played out on a global stage.
A lot of those early hip hop lyrics talked about police brutality, financial inequality, how finances are allocated to the inner city versus Wall Street, who gets tax breaks, or access to housing. And when I worked at CNN in New York, their big beat was Wall Street. Covering Wall Street and understanding how that all works and just being like “Wow, Chuck D was totally right!” It was all right there. It made sense in the lyrics. For me, it was all tied together. Where some people might think it’s such a big jump, I was like these are all things I was trained to know about by listening to hip hop of that time.
I was lucky enough to be around in the early ‘90’s. Gangstarr was very political. Guru and Premier. They understood the 360 of it all. So I was kind of trained by those guys, who in a lot of ways to me were speaking these truths that were much bigger than what I went to cover later at CNN and CBS. When I went to work at those places I also worked with a lot of cameramen and archivists and photographers and I started to see how these big news organizations treated their archives. How, years later, they’d go back and pull certain things. They would re-tell the stories. So I kind of fell in love with archives too. Specifically photography and the moving image. I really saw the value of using the archives themselves to tell stories.
So fast forward, around the time I started doing the book, I was working for Bloomberg and had an epiphany moment. I was like “You know, hip hop has kind of had enough time now where they too have archives of images. It too has a group of photographers that really captured and documented all these moments from the late ‘70’s onward.” So just by curiosity, I was like, “I wonder about all these images that are embedded in our memories, you know, like Biggie in the crown, the first pictures of Jay-Z, all these very iconic images; who was in the background of them?” I decided to go to all of the photographers and say, “Show me the moment before you got that perfect shot!” So I just got really curious. I loved the Magnum Contact Sheets book, but when I looked at it, I thought, “I want to read this book, but I really want it to be all about hip hop imagery.” And so I decided to create that book. I knew all the photographers already and a lot of the artists, so yeah!
I just decided to start interviewing the photographers one by one. Janette Beckman was actually the first story we did for Mass Appeal. Janette and the Slick Rick photo. The one where he’s grabbing his crotch. So, I just kept going. We did one photographer each week, one photo with the contact sheet. A lot of these images, the photographers hadn’t looked at in years, so they too loved noticing new things. We uncovered an Al Pereira photo that’s a very infamous photo of Biggie, Redman, and Tupac together. And also on that contact sheet, when we were going through it, there was a strip of images of Tupac and Nas. It was already funny, when Al tells the story of some “big guy” trying to get into his photo of Tupac and Redman, and that it turned out to be Biggie Smalls himself before he was signed. You can even see the photographer’s marker on the contact cropping him out of the shot.
So on top of that, it turns out there had never been a photo of Tupac and Nas together. Al never realized it was on the contact sheet because at the time he took it, Nas wasn’t famous at all. It was in 1993, and Nas’s first album didn’t come out until 1994. He was just some kid, recording and making his way, and ruining the shot. And Al, being the kind of photographer that he is, was like “I’m going to get the photos of the people that I can sell to magazines, and that is Tupac and Biggie.” So that photo, when we uncovered it, it meant a lot to Nas, because it also had one of his closest friends, who ended up passing away a few years after the photo was taken, in the photo with him. And it also sort of proved to the world that there was a moment when he and Tupac were just these young guys trying to make their way in the world. They weren’t enemies or two huge celebrities with warring camps.
DJ Premier wrote an essay where he talks about the fact that there was a tradition that at the end of the photoshoot, the crew/posse would take like a “crew shot” at the end. So you see a lot of that too. There’s this one photo from one of their shoots and their all in there. Premier had a gun and one of his friends was kind of brandishing the gun in the photo, playfully. And Premier was explaining, if that was during Instagram, or a time that they ever thought that photo would be a public photo versus just for us, they never would’ve done that. They would’ve over thought that to the max. For the most part, there weren’t stylists at these shoots. Dapper Dan is like an enigma onto himself. He’s amazing. But people were wearing his clothes because they wore his clothes, not because they were going to wear it to get photographed. So all those brands, like Karl Kani and eNiche and Nautica, that was really just what they wore. There was the whole Polo Ralph Lauren phenomenon.
I think the ‘90’s streetwear trend right now is being brought back and analyzed and over-analyzed. It wasn’t the same as it is now. People would just buy the clothes. They weren’t any endorsements. It just wasn’t a big machine like fashion is now, it was more authentic. If they were wearing something, that’s what they wore. Take that same Al Pereira contact sheet. Everyone knew Tupac and Nas and Redman, even Nas’s friend Drawz, who passed away. But no one knew who this one guy was, but he was wearing the Polo Ralph Lauren Polo Bear sweater in it. And at this time, there was a subculture going on called the Lo-Life’s. So the Lo-Life’s were a notorious shoplifting gang from Brownsville. There were like hundreds of them, but they were kind of like a crew, and obsessed with Polo. They wore Ralph Lauren everything. So if you see kids during that time (they’re still around) in head-to-toe Polo, they were probably part of the Lo-Lifes’ crew. And it probably means everything they wore was shoplifted. Shoplifting was a huge part of who they were, and they were proud. They’d come with like 50 people and run into the store. It was a whole thing, there are books on them.
Anyway, that mystery guy in the photo ended up reaching out to me on Instagram and was like, “Hey, I’m the guy in that picture.” And I was like,“That’s so cool!” So I tagged him. I asked him if he was in the Lo-Life’s and he said that in fact he still was. It’s part of his whole subculture, they still get together every couple of months, though the older guys don’t shoplift anymore. I just thought that it was awesome that he too was in the photo. We keep uncovering more evidence.”
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Photos reprinted from Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop. Copyright 2018 by Vikki Tobak. Photographs copyright 1993 by Al Pereira. Photographs, “Jay-Z” copyright 1995 by Jamil GS. “Kendrick Lamar” copyright 2007 by Jorge Peniche. Published by Clarkson Potter, an imprint of Penguin Random House, LLC.