If Diddy had his way, one of the most enduring images in hip hop may have never been made. The year was 1997, the photographer was Barron Claiborne, and the photo was Biggie Smalls portrayed as the King of New York. Diddy, however, thought the golden crown made the rapper look like the Burger King. Barron got his way. Three days later Biggie lost his life in a drive-by shooting in LA, and Barron’s image was held aloft at his funeral procession, and remains seared into popular culture to this day.
It’s iconic hip-hop images like this one, the original contact sheets from the shoots, and the real stories behind them, that author Vikki Tobak has collected, curated and uncovered in her new book Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop (Clarkson Potter). Speaking to Grazia at Sole DXB, Vikki – who, along with Barron Claiborne was flown in by Reebok to ensure a return to the nostalgia of the ’90s and heritage of the Aztrek sneaker – reveals how starting her career working in PR and marketing for Gang Starr’s label and management company meant she had already built the trust among the early hip-hop photographers she needed to pull off such an ambitious project decades later.
“I was a music writer for a long time, then I became a producer at CNN, and I saw how they were treating their archives,” Vikki explains. “They were very meticulous, very organised, they’d reference them all the time. I was inspired how all these archives exist but nothing existed for hip-hop photography.” Until now, that is. “I wanted to go back into the hip-hop analogue archives and organise all the different documenters of the culture under one roof.”
However, don’t expect “a bunch of photos of rappers looking cool,” she warns. “That’s not the kind of writer that I am, and that’s not the story I was trying to tell. When people curate or write about hip-hop photos, it’s always done to be cool. And I didn’t want to do a cool book. I wanted to do a real photo book – a book that would stand the test of time.
So you see Mos Def at police brutality rally,” she cites as an example. “The contact sheets take the focus away from the celebrity, and broaden it out to what the community was, what the neighbourhoods were, and the imperfect moments for the artist too. Showing all those mistakes in the contact sheets – the artists working it out over time – that’s more human, than cool.”
The book begins in 1979 with Joe Conzo Jr’s portraits of Tony Tone and Kool Herc, and documents hip-hop culture up until A$AP Rocky draped in the American flag captured by Phil Knott in 2012. “I had two sets of criteria when approaching the book: there were certain photos we have in our collective consciousness as people who were into hip hop, or people who were into music culture – so Barron’s Biggie was an absolute must, Janette Beckman’s Slick Rick, Drew Carolan’s album cover for Eric B and Rakim Follow the Leader – these are iconic. No question,” Vikki insists. “But I also wanted to make sure that I included certain photographers – even though they didn’t have an image from them in mind at the time – who were very dedicated to photographing hip hop because they thought it was important. Someone like Jamel Shabazz – I didn’t know what photo of his I necessarily wanted, but I knew definitely knew I wanted him in the book. I feel like I need to stand up straight around him,” she laughs.
Surrounded by power brands such as Tommy Hilfiger at Sole DXB, Vikki observes, “It’s a great irony to see that now. If you look, in the late ’70s where the book starts, and you can trace it through those moments where Tommy Hilfiger, Polo, and Timberland begged hip-hop artists, ‘Please don’t wear our brands’. It gave rise to all those independent designers like April Walker, Karl Kani, FUBU. Every step of the journey, hip-hop culture bugged the system in a really cool way.”
- Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop by Vikki Tobak (Clarkson Potter) is out now. Visit contacthighproject.com for more info
Photos: Courtesy of Vikki Tobak