As the director of publicity and marketing at Payday Records in the early 1990s, Vikki Tobak worked with acts like Jay-Z and Gang Starr as they were beginning their careers. “There was this inflection point where hip-hop started to realize its power,” Tobak says. “[Artists] realized that images — what they wore, how they looked — worked together with the music.”
Her 2018 book, Contact High, documents that era through contact sheets with never-before-seen outtakes from some of hip-hop’s most iconic photo shoots. Originally shot for use on album covers or in magazines, but lost until now, the photographs in >Contact High tell hidden stories of artists on the verge of becoming superstars and rap legends at their peaks. For Tobak, the project was a way of treating hip-hop’s past with the same dignity she saw in the photo archives at CNN, where she later worked as a producer.
“They’re like a diary,” Tobak says of the images, many of which are also on display through August 18th at the Annenberg Space for Photography in L.A. “A lot of photographers never intended for these to be for public consumption.”
One of the most important photographers in the book is Janette Beckman, who shot Run-DMC in 1984, Salt-N-Pepa in 1987 and A Tribe Called Quest in 1990, among many others. Beckman came to New York City in 1983 from the U.K., where she had documented the punk and ska scenes; she says her accent helped disarm the rappers who would become her subjects.
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“It was actually great for me being a British person, to shoot some band like the Ultramagnetic MCs in the Bronx, because I was probably the first British person that they met,” Beckman says. “‘Cause people didn’t really travel back in the day. They’d go, ‘You ain’t from here,’ and I’d go, ‘No, I’m from England.’ And then we’d start a conversation and it would be really useful.”
Later on, in 2003, Beckman recalls André 3000 and Big Boi playing her a then-new Outkast single during a photoshoot to see if she liked it. “I didn’t know it was ‘Hey Ya,’ but they kept playing this song, and it was hypnotic,” Beckman says. “I was like, ‘What’s this song? It’s going to be a huge hit.’”
Perhaps the most iconic photo shoot featured in Contact High is Barron Claiborne’s “King of New York,” taken three days before the Notorious B.I.G.’s murder in 1997. In the well-known version, the scarlet backdrop intensifies Biggie’s steely glare and the flash of the crown on his head. In the version in Tobak’s book, the rapper is flashing a charming grin instead. “I knew nobody would even notice that it was a plastic novelty crown — and they don’t, because no one ever asked me about it,” Claiborne says. “People look at him and they think of a king. He had the crown already. I just put a plastic one on his head.”
The Annenberg Space show features photos and contact sheets that made the book along with others that didn’t. The exhibit is divided into themes, ending with an area titled “This Is America.” “It’s a lot of the photos from the book that speak to hip-hop’s dominance in mainstream culture now,” Tobak says. “And how it touches every part of the culture — from style to everything.”