You were originally a B-girl, what was it like being a part of the culture so early on?
It was amazing, when you’re young and doing your thing, you’re not thinking about being a part of a culture, you’re just doing your thing. So it was a lot of fun [laughs], it was a way of getting energy out, dancing, running around the streets. It was amazing, I didn’t realise, now looking back I can say, “wow.” There was definitely this energy around it, now I understand there was something there because it was new and exciting, and people were challenging each other because there was no one else in the world doing it. It was pre-Internet, pre-cell phone, it was very intimate.
You witnessed the birth of hip hop, did you ever imagine the genre being this big?
No [laughs]. I didn’t because I was so young, Russell Simmons and those guys, they’re older, so they were able to have a little bit more of that, “Oooh we could do something with this” [laughs] I would have never pictured it on this level.
How did you get into photography?
Photography happened when I was young, my Uncle had a makeshift dark-room in his bathroom. When I was like 10 or 11, he brought me in there to print and I saw my first print coming up in the developer. Then I wanted to go to high school for art and design, and apply photography to that. It started pretty early for me, around 15 I got seriously into taking pictures, then Art and Design was my major. Around that point it was the 1980’s, 83’ or something and I was close to Fable and all those guys. They needed to get acknowledgement and they needed photos, they started to need headshots [and] press photos, so they would say, could you take a photo of me? It kind of like started [that] way. I would take photos for Rock Steady and photos for friends and they just blew up, you know how the rest of the story goes.
Who was the first musician you ever photographed?
For me, I was shooting dancers and graffiti artists before musicians. I don’t know because I used to photograph musicians at park jams, like Rock Steady Reunion and that kind of thing. It would just be in the park, like Grandmaster Caz or Busy Bee. I guess in the early 1990’s, late 1980’s, it started to be more of the music video scene. It’s so funny, I don’t remember the first artist. I think I was on set with Heavy D & The Boyz, Big Daddy Kane.
You released your own book, ‘Here I Am’. Was it difficult to decide on which images you wanted to showcase?
I didn’t even scan all my images, I went through them and scanned a bunch, there’s a whole bunch more. I’m planning on doing a show in Miami with a bunch of images that haven’t been seen yet. It was good because Michelle Dunn Marsh, the publisher who edited the book, knew nothing about hip hop at all, which I think worked in my favour because she looked at them purely as photos and what she was feeling from them. We did a bunch of layouts, we did a six hour sit down and edited down a bunch of the photos. Then she was like, “Let me play with these and see,” but because she had no idea, she was [combining] images that wouldn’t match. Biggie and Snoop together, this doesn’t feel right to me and she would laugh. I said you pick the cover, let me see what you come up with and she picked NaS. Again she didn’t know anything about hip hop and when my book came out, it happened to be the 20th anniversary of ‘Illmatic’. I asked her, “Why did you pick that photo for the cover?” She said, “You see that guy?” pointing at Primo. She was like, “He looks like there’s something magical, something really important is going on right now.” I said ‘Michelle, “Ok, it has to be the cover, you’re right.” It was helpful working with somebody who knew nothing about hip hop, she was looking purely on the photography tip. I was into photos because I have the memory but maybe it wasn’t such a great photo. You need somebody with an adjustive eye when you’re doing that kind of thing.
This is an extract from Viper’s AW17 NOMAD issue. Buy physical and digital copies via Viper World.
Words by Ricardo Campbell
Photos by Lisa Leone