Over the last decade, the history of hip-hop has been documented in many ways, from publications like Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop to the lauded Netflix series Hip-Hop Evolution (now in its second season). The genre’s legacy is inseparably woven into the fabric of American culture, and its significance is constantly felt through all popular forms of music and sound. But one crucial aspect of hip-hop’s history remained untapped: what about the iconic visuals we associate with the genre? What’s the story behind that infamous photo of Biggie Smalls, his crown tilted on the side of his head, unflinchingly used, worn and recreated as often as Che Guevara’s Guerrillero Heroico? Clocking the gaps in this photographic history, journalist Vikki Tobak decided to reach out to the photographers responsible for the seminal images and now-infamous photoshoots that visually define hip-hop.
Tobak’s substantial career in music journalism (by way of working at clubs and record labels in Detroit and New York City) saw her grow up with the photographers who captured the fashion, neighborhoods and legacy of hip-hop’s iconic figures. Focusing on each photographer’s artistic process, Tobak started compiling the contact sheets that surround these recognizable images, including work by photographers who dedicated their lives to candidly documenting the scene. The result is Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop, an impressive book of full-page spreads of images, contact sheets and the stories behind each shoot.
In this interview for LensCulture, Tobak speaks about the early hip-hop journalism scene, the inseparability of sound and visuals, and the importance of including these image-makers in the greater history of photography.
LensCulture: I think it’s important to refer to Contact High as a project, not just a book. And this project came together because of your incredible experience in music journalism and, by way of that, music photojournalism. You’ve had an interesting career, but what are the major turning points that led you to this project specifically?
Vikki Tobak: Because Contact High is such a sweeping historic book, it includes a lot of details for hip-hop heads that are more obscure than mainstream, and that all came very naturally. I guess it’s best to start at the very beginning. I grew up as an immigrant kid in a predominantly African-American city: Detroit. My family immigrated there from Kazakhstan when I was five years old, and everything I learned about music I learned through that city. Motown is really embedded in the fabric of the air there, and all the things that I absorbed about America and culture – both good and bad – were through the lens of music. In the 80s, I started hearing hip-hop – around the time that Public Enemy and other groups were popping up. I loved the music, so I became heavily involved in the Detroit club scene as a teenager.
LC: So then what prompted you to move away from Detroit to New York?
VT: I wanted to move to New York to be a part of the magic that was happening in music there. When I moved to New York, I got a job at an independent record label called Payday Records. At the time, they were managing Gangstarr and were putting on a lot of golden era hip-hop groups. And at night, I worked at this club called Nell’s, where a lot of hip-hop artists would hang out. Between those two jobs, I became really embedded in the music. At Payday I was the Director of Marketing and PR, so I was this 19-year-old going with all the groups to their photoshoots, acting as a liaison with the media. I was hearing a lot about image-making, and meeting a lot of photographers.
LC: That must have been a very crucial – albeit accidental – professional experience to go through.
VT: Definitely. It was interesting because I got to hear about the decisions from the point of view of the artist and how they wanted to be portrayed, and how visuals played a role in the lyrics that they were writing and the music they were creating. In truth, they were these bigger, legacy-building decisions. After that, I became a writer, and wrote for some of the early hip-hop magazines. I was a music journalist, and then I became a culture journalist, and then I eventually went on to work at CNN and CBS.
LC: I have this obsession with music journalism from the 80s and 90s. I feel like there was this era that I never quite experienced firsthand, when those long-form, intricate features on musicians were actually possible to write. I remember reading a feature on Snoop Dogg and being absolutely floored by the access and candid nature of the artists – that just doesn’t happen today.
VT: Yeah, the access was really something else.
LC: You really get that feeling that someone’s been hanging out with an artist for a week, watching and observing them, but also becoming a companion in their daily routines and schedules. As a journalist, how did you see that style of writing change and why do you think it did?
VT: The access back then was so different because it was such a smaller scene, and the stakes just weren’t as high. Hip-hop was just starting to become this global force, and there wasn’t much money in it at the time. There weren’t as many brands and sponsorships, so it just wasn’t that hard to get access. Both writers and photographers really could just spend multiple days with someone. And you know, we didn’t live in the age of Instagram, so people weren’t as protective of their image, because for the most part, images would just go on an album cover, or they would function as a press photo in a magazine once a month or sometimes once a year.
It even goes all the way down to fashion. This was a time when Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren didn’t want hip-hop artists wearing their clothes. They actively rejected them, and that gave birth to a lot of independent clothing brands, like FUBU and Rocawear. That small DIY scene really impacted the access at the time – it was very organic.
LC: How do you think the book reflects that organic scene?
VT: We were all quite young, and a lot of the photographers and writers were not journalism school kids. A lot of us were getting in where we could, writing for where we could, and we were often writing and photographing for free. Everyone was just kind of making their way together. I think that’s what sets the book apart from similar books about different genres. The photographers in this book were often just like the artists, making their way and figuring it out – making mistakes. Today we live in a whole different world, where hip-hop is the mainstream language and culture. All the brands are dying for hip-hop artists to sit in their front rows and wear their clothes. Making this book really made me think about the irony in all that.
LC: So when did you start reflecting on this era in music journalism, but by focusing on photography specifically?
VT: I started to see how these big news organizations treated their archives. They were very meticulous about how they had their contact sheets and archival footage organized. I stayed in touch with everyone from my years working in music, and I started thinking to myself, Wow, hip-hop is over 40 years old now. And we do have this same archive that these big news organizations have – it’s just dispersed between individual photographers. I started reaching out to different photographers to start doing some research, and then I started interviewing them one by one.
LC: In your introduction to the book, you say this project looks at the “imagery that shaped the sound” of hip-hop, which is very poetic. It’s interesting to think about photography’s role in shaping the genre, because like you said, imagery is crucial in the construction of culture. When you look through these album covers of early artists, you can really see how they’re invested in the visuals as a representation of the sound. When did you start realizing there’s a synergy between images and sound in hip-hop?
VT: It amazes me how a kid outside of the United States, who doesn’t speak English and who might not understand the lyrics of the songs he listens to, can look at a photo and understand so much. That is so powerful. When you look back on those early photos by Joe Conzo Jr., Martha Cooper and Jamel Shabazz, they’re all about reclaiming power, dignity, and demanding respect of their individuality. They are meant to stand alone.
I think of these images as embodying everything the music stood for, and still stands for today. All these choices – the poses, the clothing, the setting – were choices made by the artists, who were young people of color. What’s powerful is that it was so organic, and there were photographers who knew where to point their cameras at that particular moment. Joe Conzo went to high school with the Cold Crush Brothers in the Bronx. He was in high school when he took a lot of these photos, so to me that gut instinct of what the music had was also present in the photographers. The same skillset was present for both the music and the visuals that were being expressed.
LC: So what got you hooked on the contact sheets in particular? I think a straight history of these seminal images is substantial enough, but incorporating this whole other layer of outtakes is really special.
VT: It came from my own love of looking at contact sheets from every genre. The Magnum Contact Sheets book was a major inspiration for this project. It sparked something in me, and I started thinking about all these producers, friends, neighborhoods, spaces and clubs that didn’t make it in the money shot – but they were still incredibly instrumental. Looking at contact sheets is like watching a movie unfold – the sequence is very cinematic, and you get to see so much more.
LC: And in that same vein, even though this project is rooted in images of familiar, famous faces, you really focus on the photographers behind the camera. You shed light on the image-makers who have been anonymized by their seminal shots. Why was it important for you to focus on this side of the artistry?
VT: The history of hip-hop has been told in so many different ways now. We have books about lyrics, books about the socio-political climate that gave birth to hip-hop, television programs and extensive documentaries. But we haven’t really heard from the collective of photographers. When I was thinking about who to include in the book, I had two sets of criteria. Yes, there are these iconic images, but there are also certain photographers who really dedicated their lives to documenting the culture. It wasn’t like one day they were photographing Bob Dylan for Rolling Stone, and the next day they were photographing Biggie. So there are a lot of photographers in the book who didn’t necessarily make one iconic image, but I knew I wanted their story to be a part of this project.
Jamel Shabazz is a perfect example. I wasn’t sure what image I would get from him, but I knew that I really wanted him to be part of the book. He was out shooting people every day, and is a massive part of telling that story. Sure, we could have included commercial photographers like Annie Leibowitz or Mark Seliger, but hip-hop wasn’t important to them on a personal level.
LC: What are some of your favorite treasures that you uncovered throughout all these archives? On the reverse side of that, were there some photos you knew you wanted to include but couldn’t find?
VT: Oh yes, I really wanted to get the 2 Live Crew As Nasty As They Wanna Be cover image, which caused a big controversy when it came out because it was considered borderline pornographic. But the photographer couldn’t find any of the outtakes! The same thing happened with the Eric B. and Rakim Paid in Full cover – those are all lost. But then there were some really great surprises. We actually found Eric B. and Rakim’s Follow the Leader photos, which are really incredible and symbolic, because they’re both wearing Dapper Dan.
LC: I really love the Ricky Powell slides you include in the book, because they’re more about photographic slides as these little slices of history in and of themselves. They’re objects, not images, with his handwriting along their boarders.
VT: Ricky’s photos are incredible, and they’re so personal – they are him. What I love about his collection of slides is that it’s not all celebrities. It’s everyone in his life, which really speaks to him as a photographer and as a person. You might have Oprah on one slide, and then the next one is of his dog. He also took incredible notes, and wrote stories on each of the slides. You really feel his hand in all of it, and you feel the beautiful messiness of it, which is also so important. In this day and age, a lot of what we see is such a polished, finished product. Even when we’re told it’s imperfect, we know that a lot of work went into that imperfection. Ricky and I both worked at Paper Magazine in the early 90s, and even when we were making this book, he still called me the intern.
LC: That’s adorable. Let’s talk about the structure of the book, in terms of its sequencing and textual decisions. Having amassed so much content, how did you decide how it should be presented?
VT: I had an amazing editor at Random House who suggested I organize everything chronologically, because I was really struggling with what to do. I was thinking about presenting the work alphabetically, but when she made that suggestion it all clicked. It made more sense to tell the story of how hip-hop changed at different moments, and how the visuals changed with it. When I turned in the manuscript for the book, it was much longer than it is now – we had to leave a lot on the cutting room floor. There’s so much more to each story, and we could talk a lot more about different technical aspects of how each photographer worked, but a lot of those details were cut out. In a way, I feel like it’s a blessing, because people seem to really absorb the content – it’s just enough. There’s a great balance between looking and reading.
LC: Questlove wrote such a beautiful foreword for the book, and he gets right to the crux of that inseparability of sound and image in relation to album covers. How did that collaboration come about?
VT: I knew that visuals were very important to Questlove, and to The Roots in general. They used a Jamel Shabazz photo for the cover of Undun, and a ton of different photos for Things Fall Apart. I would see pictures of him from the early 90s and he’d always have a camera with him, so I had this sense that he really thought about photography and loved it.
One day, on the Contact High Instagram account, we posted an early magazine shoot of The Roots that photographer Alex Arnold had done for an indie magazine. I posted some of the contact sheets from the shoot, and Questlove started commenting saying, “You know, I cannot stand this photo. I hate it so much. I wish I could buy it from the photographer and destroy it so that it would never be seen again.” He was hilarious. So I messaged him on Instagram asking what his favorite photo is, and asking him about when he started thinking about how The Roots were being photographed. Because this shoot was obviously a prime example of them just thinking, whatever, and then looking back and regretting that nonchalance.
So I asked him to write the foreword, and he did an amazing job. He wrote in depth about the Gordon Parks’ Great Day in Hip-Hop shoot for XXL Magazine, which really meant a lot to him. And I loved the way he traced the line through hip-hop and jazz imagery, because jazz is really the prequel to hip-hop.
LC: I wonder, how has this work been received in the music world vs. the photography world? It’s heavily rooted in both, but I came across this work through my love for hip-hop – not through the channel of photography writing, even though it’s incredibly important to the history of the medium. Who have you found to be your primary audience?
VT: I’m so glad you picked up on that, because it’s a really important detail. It’s interesting because when I was putting together the book, I really thought that the photography world was going to dig deep into this content, and I’ve been a bit surprised by how much more the music world has embraced and been excited about the work. Obviously this is part of a larger issue in the genre, where photos of certain people are perceived as valid or not valid. These photographs are definitely a part of a larger conversation in Black photography, and how men and women of color – young people – have been photographed throughout time. That deserves a firm position in the conversation on photography.
LC: Yeah, this isn’t a book about celebrities. It’s a book about the photographic work that visualized their history.
VT: Exactly. It’s about more than just one person, or one artist, or one photographer – or one writer, for that matter. I wrote the book, but it’s really not about me at all. It’s not about Jay-Z, it’s not about Tupac, it’s not about Biggie. It’s for everyone, and I really want to celebrate the everyday-ness that went into the foundation of hip-hop. That’s what I want people to focus on. Especially today, it’s so hard to see past the idea of a celebrity. I want people to look at these contact sheets and look at the neighborhoods. Look at the Bronx, look at Brooklyn, look at these places of everyday-ness that gave birth to what is now a massive global force. The music world is definitely feeling that, and the photo world will have to catch up eventually.
An exhibition of the incredible work in
High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop
will be on view at the Annenberg Space for Photography
from April 26, 2019 to September 8, 2019. The exhibit will include rare videos,
memorabilia, and music to demonstrate how the documentation of a cultural
phenomenon impacts not just music, but politics and social movements around the