Rarely Seen Images of Biggie, Flash and More from Rap’s First 25 Years
Lisa Leone was still a student at New York's High School of Art and Design in 1982 when she began photographing the burgeoning hip-hop movement, which at that time was confined almost entirely to the city. "It was a time of graffiti and breakdancing," she says. "There would also be park jams and you'd run into artists like Afrika Bambaataa. It was an innocent time and I just started taking photographs."
She went on to become one of the most prominent photographers of the scene, and she soon got into film, working with everybody from Spike Lee to Stanley Kubrick. She recently went through her hip-hop archives to assemble the book Here I Am – Photographs By Lisa Leone (click here to order it by July 31st) and an exhibit at the Bronx Museum of the Arts that runs from September 13th, 2014 through January 11th, 2015. Here are the stories behind 11 of her photographs.
The Notorious B.I.G.
"This was taken right around the time of the video shoot for 'Big Poppa,'" Leone says. "We were at The Show in Philadelphia. I just loved Biggie, though his lyrics about women weren't great. But you can't deny his skills."
Mr. Wiggles and PopMaster Fabel
"I shot this in Tribeca in the very early 1990s, maybe 1990. I went to high school with Wiggles and Fabel. They were very close and true originators of that style of dance. They needed pictures, so the three of us went onto a couple of rooftops in Tribeca and just all around the city. It was very organic. This photo was taken in an alleyway in Tribeca."
Fab 5 Freddy
"I know this picture well because it was taken in my apartment. Fab and I are very close to this day. He's an artist, but also a filmmaker and a director. We really clicked through our shared love of the visual medium. We used to go see movies together all the time. I think this photo was taken in 1995. We were just hanging out at my place, maybe on our way to a movie. I can probably do a whole book just on Freddy. He's such a cool cat. A lot of people don't quite understand who he is. He's really a Renaissance guy and he bridged the uptown and downtown cultures."
"I shot this in Rock Steady Park, which is on 97th Street and Amsterdam Avenue. The city didn't name it that, but it was the name since most of Rock Steady lived in the neighborhood. In the 1990s they started doing Rock Steady reunions there. There would be DJs and people would dance. It just brought that old school flavor back to the park. I shot this image of Grandmaster Flash at one of those anniversary shows around 1993."
"I love looking at this picture of Queen Latifah because of the wonderful, hip leather jacket she's wearing. This was taken in Irvington, New Jersey, on the set of one of her music videos in the early 1990s. The director shot some stuff on a stage and then went to a neighborhood where she grew up. It's incredible to think of what's happened to her since then. She's just taken over the world."
Mary J. Blige
"This was shot at Mary J. Blige's record company when she was first signed. I was in there doing some work when they were like, 'Do you want to meet our new artist?' I sat in on a meeting in the conference room. I said to her, 'Do you mind if I just snap some pictures?' I happened to have my book and I showed her that I was a photographer. She was like, 'Sure.' This is before she even had a music video and she was really shy and quiet. Things have changed since then! She went on a whole ride, really a train wreck at times in her personal life, but that's a whole other story. She really took care of herself after that, though."
"I have little memory of why I was there, but I shot Nas while he was making Illmatic. It's the 20th anniversary of the album and so Sony put the album back out. It turns out nobody has pictures from the sessions besides me. They were really excited when they found out I had them. It's hard to imagine how casual things were back then, but I'm sure somebody just called me up and asked if I wanted to go down to the studio that day."
"This was also taken at the Illmatic recording sessions. Different people were rotating in and out, and I happened to be there when Q-Tip came in [to produce the track 'One Love.'] My friend Edon is a photographer and total hip-hop head and he started looking through my archives recently. He was like, 'Are you kidding me? Do you know what you have?' I had absolutely no memory of taking those photos. Again, it wasn't an assignment or anything. I just happened to be there."
"I shot Treach [from Naughty By Nature] on the set of a video. I don't remember which particular one this is from. I did shoot 'O.P.P' and this definitely isn't from that. It's definitely from the early 1990s. I just have so many pictures of Treach. I shot him all the time."
"This was taken at the video shoot for 'What's My Name?' in Long Beach. It was his first video. This was taken in the studio. A few days before this we were shooting in a park and all hell broke loose. There were gunshots and helicopters and people running. Gang stuff was happening, so we had to shoot the rest of the video indoors. I got this about three days after the shootout. I remember when they put together the part where he morphed into a dog."
"This was taken in East Harlem when the Fugees were shooting their video for 'Vocab.' I got this image when Wyclef was sitting in an abandoned lot between takes. I don't know if the chicken was brought in for the video. In East Harlem back then there were chickens just walking around. People in Spanish Harlem want to get their chickens fresh. It's horrible the group broke up so early. You could just imagine what else could have come out of them. People were chattering in their ears and they were kids. That's always bad."