The Culture Crush
Society Is Everybody's Business



by Fab 5 Freddy

I grew up in a house filled with books, newspapers, and magazines— analog content of all kinds. We had subscriptions to all the major names like Life, Time, Newsweek, Look, The New Yorker, Popular Science, Esquire, and of course, Ebony and Jet. My dad was an intelligent, curious guy who followed current events, global politics, cultural goings-on, and music, especially jazz, and those traits rubbed off. I remember my dad had a cherished vintage copy of Esquire that he and his friends would often pull out and discuss. There was a two-page spread of a photo that would come to be called “A Great Day in Harlem.” My dad and his friends would pore over this photo of several dozen top jazz musicians all posing in front of a townhouse in Harlem.

They’d marvel at how incredible it was that these important musicians were all together at the same time for this picture. Like a game, they’d excitedly call out every name in the photo. “There’s Thelonious Monk, standing next to Mary Lou Williams, that’s Lester Young, and look at Dizzy.” Now it’s like magazines barely exist anymore because technology has transformed so much—and that smartphone in your pocket, that’s one of the main reasons digital dominates. Because of all that info around me growing up, I had a keen sense early on of what was going on in the world, and even before I could fully comprehend all the written words, I’d look at those pictures again and again. Like the classic adage, pictures for me were worth way more than a thousand words; I’d say ten times a thousand for my inquisitive self. 

As a young Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, teen navigating the rough and raw New York streets in the ’70’s, I began to follow the mobile disco DJs who would inspire the creation of hip-hop music. Little-known names like Grandmaster Flowers (the original Grandmaster), Maboya, Plummer, Pete DJ Jones, and many others were underground street stars drawing thousands of cutting-edge inner-city youths to their park jams, block parties, and self-promoted disco events. By the late ’70’s, hip-hop music was getting stronger in the streets, led by popular DJs and their rapper sidekicks. City- wide, hood stars were emerging and the news was spreading through the word-of-mouth grapevine.

As the Sugar Hill Gang, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Funky Four Plus One, the Sequence, Treacherous Three, and Kurtis Blow began to release records that made an impact on the charts and on ears outside of the city, the first hip-hop coverage in print began in black teenage pop-music mags like Right On!, Word Up!, and Black Beat. These magazines were mainly filled with color publicity photos from labels and articles akin to press releases. Most journalists saw budding hip-hop culture as a passing fad soon to fade away.

But I felt deeply, early on, that this was beyond a fad or a trend—and was determined to play a part in proving it. I’d been plotting and planning my assault on popular culture in the late ’70’s, focusing on transitioning my graffiti painting ideas onto canvas, then into galleries, museums, and ultimately becoming a serious artist. I was also closely watching the emergence of the punk rock and new wave movements, and seeing the massive coverage these movements were getting in the press and “zines.” One of my more successful ideas was to put all of this in a movie, thinking it would validate graffiti artists, DJs, rappers, and break-dancers as real creative artists by cinematically changing the perception. This led to me connecting and collaborating with Charlie Ahearn on what became hip-hop’s first feature film, the cult classic Wild Style.

The Lower East Side was my stomping ground, and to promote the coming release of our film in 1982, the East Village Eye, one of the neighborhood’s prominent counterculture publications, decided to do a big story on what was happening with the film and the culture that inspired it. They published several articles, including a cover story, getting into the fashion, the music, the dancing, and the graffiti art featured in the movie. In fact, it was the first time the term “hip-hop” was used to describe this new movement—and just like that, hip-hop journalism was born. 

Ten years later, in the early ’90s, hip-hop was like a cultural revolution unleashed, raging globally. My show, YO! MTV Raps, was getting record-breaking ratings and turning millions on to this exciting new phenomenon. To learn more about what was happening in hip-hop, you ran to your local newsstand to grab the latest copies of The Source, XXL, Rap Pages, Stress, and Vibe. You’d spend quality time turning the pages, absorbing all of the content, and soaking in those pictures, scanning every detail closely as you looked at them again and again. Young urban people of color, who were loud, proud, black, and bold, in new styles of clothes, jewelry, and sneakers, were very far from the norm, and you had to look long and strong to adjust to the radical newness of it all.

Until recently, serious photographers, like those whose work you see in this book, went to professional photo labs like Duggal or Modernage here in New York City to have their exposed film developed. An employee would hand you a legal sized envelope with your negatives and contact sheets, full of rows of smaller examples of the photos you shot. With anticipation throbbing, you’d pull out the contact sheets to see what you got for the first time. If you got it right, maybe one, two, or a few photos would illustrate an article soon to be published. But the rest of the dozens of shots taken would often never be seen again.

Reprinted from Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop. Copyright 2018 by Vikki Tobak. Photographs copyright 1998 by Gordon Parks. Published by Clarkson Potter, an imprint of Penguin Random House, LLC.

One of those photographers is Lisa Leone, a longtime friend whose shots of me on the set directing Snoop’s first video—for “Who Am I? (What’s My Name?)”—catalogued a project I’d spent nearly that entire summer trying to finish after gang violence broke out the first day of the shoot. Police helicopters (ghetto birds) swooped in, hovering overhead, and they shut us down—forbidding the video to be shot in Snoop’s hometown of Long Beach. Lisa hung in there for a couple of weeks, her first time in LA, and later caught the shot of me pensively looking at Dr. Dre, waiting for his feedback to a scene I’d just shot and was showing him on the video monitor. I also asked Dre when Snoop would show up for other important scenes I needed to shoot. 

Dre let me know he liked the scene I was showing him and he also told me Snoop had gotten caught up in a “187,” L.A. slang for a shooting, and was laying low. Eerily like the title of the song Snoop would soon release, “Murder Was the Case.” Trust me, I was numb when I heard that news. My connection with the beginnings of hip-hop in France are one of the most exciting chapters in my creative life. Right there as it all went down in Paris and New York City was another photographer, Sophie Bramly, a North African–born, French-raised hot girl in the mix with a camera. The shots Sophie took are some of the culture’s rarest and least seen images. She took important photographs in the early ’80s of seminal players in the hip-hop game in New York and later Paris as the culture was beginning to blossom. Her shot of me in a trench coat coming from a White Castle in the Bronx with a few “murder burgers,” as we jokingly called them, is for me like time traveling, or going back to the future.

Renaissance man Gordon Parks is one of my most significant creative influences. As a youngster in the 1970’s, seeing Shaft—the game-changing film he directed—was a transformational experience for black youth like me, because black heroes in movies simply didn’t exist. I’d later learn of Gordon’s forever dapper elegant swagger, his writings, his music, and his groundbreaking photography of the black American experience in Life magazine and elsewhere. In 1998, I got a call to head up to Harlem for a photo shoot. The idea was to re-create the renowned photo my dad and his friends loved so much: Esquire magazine’s “A Great Day In Harlem.” This would be the hip-hop version that ended up being a three-part foldout cover of XXL magazine. When I showed up on 126th Street off of Lenox Avenue in Harlem for the shoot, there were hundreds of people on both sides of the street, buoyantly greeting and chatting with each other; the vibe was like being at a summertime block party. 

I was happy to see so many friends and familiar faces, innovators and giants in hip-hop culture. Debbie Harry and Chris Stein from Blondie, De La Soul, Jermaine Dupri, Ice Cube, Rakim, Luke, A Tribe Called Quest, Fat Joe, and Slick Rick who I’m standing right behind in Gordon’s photo. It was a well-represented gathering of everybody from every era and everywhere, all on one side of the street in front of the original building and the buildings on either side, a total of three townhouses and the stoops filled with over two hundred members of the hip-hop family. Across the street was the maestro, Gordon Parks, in his eighties at the time, talking to assistants who were scurrying about and relaying his instructions on a bullhorn, trying to get us to stop chatting and ogling each other and get in position for the picture. I went over to quickly introduce myself to him and humbly bowed while shaking his hand. He said he was aware of my work and had learned a lot watching YO! MTV Raps, then he smiled graciously as he put his pipe back in the corner of his mouth, and he went back to looking through the lens of his camera. I stood there a moment, dazed, feeling a historic chill, and getting goose bumps knowing this was a special and very rare moment, to be surrounded by so many peers and comrades while being photographed by my hero.

A few years ago, I realized my great day in Harlem was almost twenty years ago, a place I now call home. I came to the profound conclusion that Gordon’s “A Great Day in Hip-Hop” marks the end of the golden era—a time frame from the mid ’80s to the late ’90s that gave us a constant stream of some of the most important, influential, and fundamental artists and music in hip-hop history. Everyone from Run-DMC, Whodini, and LL Cool J to Tupac, Biggie, Jay-Z, and Nas, were all born, bred, and collard-greens-fed in the boroughs of New York City. This would all change soon after, as the headquarters shifted to Atlanta, Florida, New Orleans, Texas, and other locations across the United States. Rappers from these areas now had their turn to dominate as the digital revolution rolled in hard, changing the way we access music and how we see images.

Thank you, Vikki Tobak, for taking us there, back to the golden era of hip-hop photography in all its analog glory.

Order your copy of Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop here

FRED “FAB 5 FREDDY” BRATHWAITE is a hip-hop pioneer, visual artist, and former graffiti artist. As the original host of MTV’s YO! MTV Raps, he was responsible for bringing hip-hop culture into the living rooms of mainstream America and around the world. His numerous projects in art, film, music, and television include New Jack City, Juice, Who’s the Man?, Just for Kicks, and Wild Style, which he also produced, stars in, and composed all the original music for. 

*Essay reprinted from Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop. Copyright 2018 by Vikki Tobak. Banner Photograph copyright 1982 by Sophie Bramly. Published by Clarkson Potter, an imprint of Penguin Random House, LLC.