Tupac facing off the camera with his signature front-tie bandana, middle fingers up; Biggie Smalls in a fedora and shades; hip-hop trio Salt-N-Pepa striking a pose in leggings, bomber jackets, and heavy hoops. These are but a few of the iconic images now inextricably linked to the beats and rhymes of old-school hip-hop. Before entering the cultural mainstream, hip-hop—a movement that included breakdancing and graffiti—was born in the 1970s amongst black and Latino youth in the South Bronx. At block parties and disco clubs, DJs spun records and MCs entertained crowds; out on the streets, neighborhood gangs engaged in breakdancing battles, while graffiti crews tagged walls and subway cars with their art. Below, we highlight 12 photographers who captured the movement on the rise, from street scenes in New York’s outer boroughs to the album covers that cemented Run D.M.C., LL Cool J, and Snoop Dogg as the stars of the ’80s and ’90s.
Chi Modu, Biggie WTC, NYC, 1996. Image courtesy of the artist.
Chi Modu, Easy E, Los Angeles, CA, 1994. Image courtesy of the artist.
Nigeria-born, New Jersey-raised photographer Modu is most famous for his iconic 1996 photo of Biggie at Jersey City’s Liberty State Park, with the World Trade Center looming in the background. As director of hip-hop magazine The Source in the ’90s, he shot more than 30 covers and became close with Biggie, Tupac, Mary J. Blige, and LL Cool J in the process. Modu strives “to show them as human beings and maintain their strength, but letting some vulnerability come through”—a skill evident in his simple, close-up black-and-white portraits of Tupac in 1994 that present the rapper at ease. These photos are featured in his upcoming photo book, Uncategorized: Tupac Shakur (2016), published 20 years after the rapper’s untimely death in 1996.
Brian “B+” Cross
Brian "B+" Cross, Snoop Dogg, Los Angeles, 1997. Image courtesy of the artist.
Brian "B+" Cross, Snoop Dogg, Los Angeles, 1997. Image courtesy of the artist.
In 1990, Cross moved from his hometown in Limerick, Ireland, to Los Angeles to pursue graduate studies in photography. Encouraged by a professor to apply his passion for hip-hop to his art, he began a project titled It’s Not About a Salary: Rap, Race, and Resistance in Los Angeles (1993), a book of photos and essays featuring West Coast rappers and their stories, as well as the cultural and political history of the city. Along with album covers for artists like Q-Tip, Easy E, and Damian Marley, his iconic photos of J Dilla—in his home studio and record stores around Detroit in the last years of his life—are emblematic of Cross’s intimate approach. “Those kind of honorific, hero worship photos aren’t really my thing,” he once said. “I’m much more about somebody’s vibe.”
Ricky Flores, Tanco, South Bronx, 1984. Image courtesy of the artist.
Born to Puerto Rican parents and raised in the South Bronx, Flores bought his first camera as a high school senior and began to photograph his friends, family, and neighborhood in the ’80s. Increasingly disturbed by the media’s stereotyped portrayals of his community, he wanted to show the full gamut of their everyday lives—from drug use and destructive fires to community protests and dancing in the park. His black-and-white photos document urban teens sweeping the floor at nightclubs—including one particularly striking image that catches a tracksuit and Converse-clad teen in the midst of a breakdance battle.
Michael Miller, Tha Alkaholiks, Wet Brain, Los Angeles, 1993. Image courtesy of the artist (@MikeMillerPhoto).
Miller grew up listening to hip-hop in Los Angeles’s Westside in the ’70s and originally got into photography while traveling around Europe. Though his primary motive was “to date models,” as he would later recount, the young photographer quickly met success, landing gigs for fashion brands and record labels alike. His first rap album cover was for the debut solo album of Arabian Prince (of N.W.A.) in 1989; in 1994, he captured now-iconic photos of Tupac in locations across L.A., from an old train yard to Elysian Park, including the now instantly recognizable shot of the rapper flipping off the camera with the mixture of bravado and vulnerability that would come to define his career. “I watched history being made on countless sessions,” he later recalled. Miller’s extensive record of the hip-hop scene in L.A. is chronicled in his 2012 photo book, West Coast Hip-Hop: A History In Pictures.
Lisa Leone, Yo-Yo, MC Lyte, Brandy and Queen Latifah, "I Wanna Be Down" remix video, New York City, 1994. Image courtesy of the artist and HVW8 Gallery.
As a B-girl from the Bronx, Leone grew up dancing and MCing in her neighborhood, immersed in the early days of hip-hop before it transformed into a global phenomenon in the ’80s. When her friends began to star in films like Flashdance and Style Wars in the early ’80s, Leone, then studying photography in high school, began to take their publicity photos, and fell naturally into music. “You’d be hanging out and you’d get a phone call, like ‘come down, we’re shooting ‘Big Poppa’ over at Nell’s,’” she recounted in a 2016 interview. “And I live down the block so I would just walk over.” Leone went on to photograph the rising stars of the ’90s—among them, Lauryn Hill and Wyclef Jean jamming out on a Harlem rooftop, Grandmaster Flash in New York’s Rock Steady Park, and Snoop Dogg on the set of his video for “Who Am I (What’s My Name?)” in Los Angeles.
Janette Beckman, EPMD Babylon Long Island, 1989. Image courtesy of the artist.
Janette Beckman, A Tribe Called Quest, NYC, 1990. Image courtesy of the artist.
Expat British photographer Beckman got her start shooting another youth subculture—London’s flourishing punk scene—for cult magazines like The Face and Melody Maker in the late ’70s. In 1982, she was asked to photograph the London stop of the first international hip-hop tour, which featured acts like DJs Afrika Bambaataa and Grand Mixer DST, Fab 5 Freddy, and the Rock Steady Crew. Falling head over heels for the young movement, she moved to New York the next year and forged a career capturing iconic portraits of MCs and hip-hop groups emerging in the ’80s—Run D.M.C., Big Daddy Kane, and Public Enemy among them. Her photos see Salt-N-Pepa hanging out in front of a deli on the Lower East Side, the Leaders of the New School in front of their Long Island high school, and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five posing for their epic Gold album cover in a Rolls Royce showroom.
Sue Kwon, Biggie Smalls, 1997. Image courtesy of the artist.
Starting her career at The Village Voice in the ’90s, Korean-American photographer Kwon documented poetic snippets of NYC street life, from Jamaican night clubs in Queens to Covenant House runaways—and hip-hop’s biggest stars, including the Wu-Tang Clan and Biggie Smalls. Since then, Kwon has photographed artists for record labels like Def Jam, Sony, and Loud Records, and her images have appeared in The Source, Vibe, and Paper. In her 2009 book Street Level, she published her archive of hip-hop photographs, along with portraits and street scenes of everyday life in and around Little Italy, Chinatown, and other multicultural neighborhoods from the late ’80s through the 2000s. In one now iconic image from 1997, Biggie opens a bottle of champagne as he celebrates the completion of his album Life After Death—just a month before his death, and the album’s release, in March.
In the late ’70s, Cooper was working as a staff photographer for the New York Post when she encountered a young graffiti artist, who quickly introduced her to the stylized signatures scrawled across walls and subway cars throughout the city. She then befriended legendary graffiti writer Dondi, head of the graffiti clique CIA (“Crazy Inside Artists”), and snapped him on his late-night “trainbombing” trips to rail yards in Brooklyn—the start of a treasure trove of images documenting the music, art, and dance of hip-hop in the city of its birth. “For me, the illegal part was always the most exciting part, and what really interested me was the idea that kids would go to great lengths to do art and that they were doing art for each other—mostly adults didn’t understand that,” she said in 2015. In a subway station in Washington Heights, Cooper also took the first known photos of breakdancing featured in mass media.
As a 16-year-old in the early ’80s, native New Yorker Cheuse was already shooting bands in nightclubs across the city, even using a school payphone to ring up The Clash at their Manhattan studio to request a shoot. The ambitious teen would go on to photograph the Beastie Boys (his close friends) and other hip-hop and reggae artists for publications like Rolling Stone and SPIN. One black-and-white portrait from 1984 depicts a baby-faced LL Cool J donning a bucket hat and track suit in his Queens neighborhood; another sees two members of Run DMC, with their classic fedoras, striking a pose at Silvercup Studios.
Left: Gillian Laub, Lil Kim getting fitted, 1999; Right: Gillian Laub, Da Brat and her girlfriend. Images courtesy of Benrubi Gallery.
Laub photographed Bad Boy Records stylist Misa Hylton at work, crafting the unforgettable looks of the ’90s. One of her first commissions captures Lil’ Kim being fitted in a fuzzy white bikini top and butterfly-encrusted, mink-trimmed jeans; another sees the star at the Beverly Wilshire in a bedazzled choker, fur jacket, and white go-go boots. Now a well-known portrait and documentary photographer and filmmaker, Laub recently directed and produced the HBO documentary Southern Rites (2015) on segregated proms in the South.
Joe Conzo, JDL and Grandmaster Caz of the Cold Crush Brothers at Club Negril, 1981. Image courtesy of the artist.
With his point-and-shoot camera, Conzo photographed friends and classmates around his neighborhood in the South Bronx in the ’70s. While attending high school with Easy A.D. and Tony Tone of the legendary Cold Crush Brothers, he was invited to become their official photographer, accompanying them to nightclubs like Disco Fever and Harlem World for their early, pioneering performances. “I didn’t set out to document what was happening. I was just documenting my friends,” he said. The grandson of a well-known South Bronx activist and the son of a Latin music historian, Conzo carries his family’s commitment to the community forward, providing an invaluable glimpse into youth culture at the moment hip-hop was born. Most recently, the costume designer for Netflix’s ongoing series, The Get Down, looked to Conzo’s images to research the teen fashions—nylon jackets, knee-high socks, suede Pumas, and high-waisted bell bottoms—of the time.
New York-based photographer Mannion—who once worked as an assistant for Richard Avedon—is celebrated for his album covers circa the ’90s and 2000s, including Jay-Z’s 1996 classic, Reasonable Doubt. Mannion’s covers see artists in unconventional scenarios and costumes, DMX emerging from a bathtub of blood, Ol’ Dirty Bastard in the guise of Rick James, and Lil Wayne dressed as an astronaut, to name just a few. “I’m not into imposing a far-fetched vision, or some gimmick photography with a gelled-out world with disco balls, Ferraris and unicorns,” he said of his style. “I am a classic portrait photographer who wants to attach to someone’s heart and soul in that moment as well as make them look as incredible as they can look.”