“I speak with criminal slang, that’s just the way that I talk yo, vocabulary spills, I’m ill…” – From “Ebonics” by Big L
When I first discovered Hip-Hop I was in the 6th Grade. The year was 1997 and I was eleven years old. It came to me one fine morning in the form of a music video on MTV (back when MTV actually played music videos, dig.) picked up on the beloved family Zenith.
It was being transmitted from the island of Manhattan in New York City over 600 miles away. The song was called “Triumph” composed by a little known group of MC’s from the outer boroughs of NYC called the Wu-Tang Clan.
This was their second record. This was my first dose of REAL Hip-hop.
It was like nothing I had ever heard before.
Well, before, you know, I was into Criss-Cross, (yes I rocked my pants backwards in their honor) and Coolio (now who didn’t love “Gangsta’s Paradise!?” Better yet, who didn’t love Weird Al Yankovic’s cover of Gangsta’s Paradise “Amish Paradise!?”) And let’s not forget about the Fresh Prince and Jazzy Jeff.
But the Wu-Tang Clan was different. It was gritty, dirty, raw, from the underground, and cold, cold as the coldest winter in Michigan, and it hit you in the face – ¡BAM! – like a spiked bat.
And it had so many members too, each with multiple identities and wild styles, telling stories of the their lives, of the urban New York City reality in which they were raised, one far different from my own, and in their own lexicon, their own linguistic and emotional grammar.
It was like a new language to me, an original brand of hip-hop, an original sound concocted with elements from Islamic philosophy, chess, mafia lore, Kung Fu flicks, and comic books.
I couldn’t even understand at first (kind of like Spanish). I could barely understand anything they were saying or rapping or singing, but I was drawn to it, the cryptic vocabulary, the rhythms and rhymes, the crunchiness of the beats that made my eyes blink every time the snare hit, the grittiness, and the energy.
I found love. There was no doubt about it. Not to mention I just thought it all sounded so cool…dope, true, fresh-2-def, fly, sick, sly, live, righteous, ill.
And little did I know then, but writing about it now — this discovery would go on to change my life in 3 very important ways:
What I mean is that what started with the Wu-Clan sent me on a trajectory all over the world, sonically speaking, in search of new and different varieties of this music called hip-hop, starting in the boroughs of NYC.
One coast would lead me to the next.
There I discovered the Oakland California sound, the gangsta-gangsta sound, the g-funk era sound, they hyphy sound– records of artists like 2 pac, Dr. Dre, N.W.A, Snoop and Nate Dogg, Warren G, E-40, to name just a few more.
But this wasn’t before I went down to Georgia to find the southernplayalisticcadillacfunkyflow of Mr. Andre3000 and Big Boi of Outkast, and the high pitched soulful harmonies and hooks from Cee-Lo Green, or poems flowed over beats by Big Rube, among just a few more of the greats.
I went from this emcee to that emcee, from this deejay to that one, from one wild style to another.
And over the years, I consumed it all.
I developed an acute ear for this mysterious street code rhymed over beats and breaks, and I absorbed and incorporated each and every new word I could find of this ever changing and highly fluid dialect of hip hop music into my very own lexicon, my own speech patterns, my own forms of verbal expression.
Aside from the language, what I found most compelling in hip hop music was the energy. It was a counter-culture in which I found an immense energy — a life force of emcee’s, graffiti writers, deejays, dancers and artists expressing themselves in new ways and in new words and new sounds.
It was all so fascinating. And I wanted to be apart of it. And soon, I quickly became addicted to trying to capture that energy on film at live shows.
This compulsion not only kickstarted a need within me to take photographs, but also gave me the drive to… well… drive!
As in road trip, hit the pavement, kick dust and go, to take off to the far reaches of the Michigan mitten in White Lightning (a most worthy title for my beloved ’91 voyager) in search of live hip hop shows with all of my best cohorts, cronies, homies, panas, bruvas, friends, and amigos.
You see, with a photograph I found that I could isolate the pulse of my favorite rhythm, my favorite lyric or chorus, a dance move – freeze it – and take it home with me to hang on my wall above my record collection.
A photograph helped me to remember the excitement, that electric feeling running up and down my spine, the sweet pain in my neck from rocking my head too hard to the beat, that unified bounce of the crowd, my shirt full of sweat, a fist in the air – the soul sonic force of 2 turntables and a microphone — with lots, I say, lots of decibel amplification.
And so that’s what we did. We road tripped for hip hop shows and I shot photos.
And before I knew it, I started to shoot street art and graffiti. I started to shoot my friends. I shot them at parties. I shot them skateboarding. I shot them on road trips. I shot my family. I shot my city. I shot mama-nature, I shot myself, I shot, was shooting, a whole lot of photos.
And in this process, photography, the art of making photos, became my own form of expression, a creative way to document my own journey through life, the people I meet, and the things I love.
It became a way to discover new places and new things, to look for beauty in the ordinary, to tell stories, and ultimately to remember — to remember those ever fleeting moments and emotions, to try to preserve and make the most of them, to make the most of the very finite time on this earth that day by day seems quicker to pass me by.
Through Hip Hop, I first fell in love with language, the creation and destruction of the ever changing meaning of words.
Through Hip Hop, I got my first taste of traveling, the first taste of freedom that a 16 year old kid has when the keys to a vehicle are in his hands, and one that can fit his whole squadron of friends, with music on blast and the open road before him.
Through Hip Hop I became a photographer and the camera (a.k.a the soul taker) has been by my side ever since…
What initially compelled you to travel? To take photos? To pursue your art? Can you place the source?