The development of hip-hop has been the blossoming of a rough, yet beautiful, urban art form. In it’s humble beginnings however, many were unsure of its ability to resonate with a large scale audience. Though it has seen its phases in intensity of expression, hip-hop at its core was anti-establishment, much like the punk rock movement of the 70s. Black artists and perspectives had been marginalized in the mainstream media, from music to film. Beginning at the grassroots level, DJ’s and artists used turntables, vinyl records, mics, and rhymes as their form of expression. Before long, their stage became a global audience. “If you think about rap music in it’s inception nobody thought this shit would last fuckin’ 5 years,” said Phonte, a critically-acclaimed rapper and vocalist for the Foreign Exchange. These stories of the development of hip-hop and the culture that surrounds it are highlighted in shows like Netflix’s The Get Down and FX’s The Breaks, of which Phonte is an actor and a writer. These stories of evolution and diffusion are also seen in biopics like Notorious, which follows the short career of the larger than life Notorious B.I.G., and Straight Outta Compton, which follows the formation and fallout of 90s rap group NWA. The latter had an outstanding debut at the box office and became the highest grossing music biopic of all-time. A testament to the popularization and globalization of hip-hop around the world. However, video production is often dramatized. The actors are not the artists whose music fans became obsessed with. Additionally, films like Notorious and Straight Outta Compton have received criticism from non-fictional characters for its inaccuracy. For a more authentic view of the past, the development of hip-hop, and the true nature of its artists, one must look towards photographic documentation. Photography has been a central component to hip-hop and urban culture since it’s popularization. Here are a few of the greatest photographers, who have documented the genre’s progression.
Tupac playing craps by Mike Miller
Most photographers are outsiders attempting to capture a narrative, but not Estevan Oriol. He is as just as much a contributor to the narrative, and hip-hop culture, as the artists he shoots. As the Los Angeles rap scene was developing, Oriol had worked as a club bouncer, a tour manager for House of Payne and Cypress Hill — of which he was also a part time DJ. Through these experiences Oriol gained connections within the music community, as well as within the LA gang culture. The latter is also a major theme of his work. As rap flourished, so did Oriol and his brand. He has become a household name and a highly sought after artist by mega brands like Nike, MTV, and Apple, looking to enhance their marketing campaigns with his unique vision.
The Game by Estevan Oriol
Eminem by Estevan Oriol
When you think about longevity and adaptability, Johnathan Mannion’s name definitely comes to mind. You’d be hard pressed to find a portfolio with more iconic album covers; which include Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt (1995), Nelly’s Country Grammar (2000), and Young Jeezy’s Recession (2008). He is by far one of hip-hop’s most celebrated photographers. His Brooklyn studio has seen the likes of Aaliyah, DMX, Lil Wayne, and many other greats. And he keeps on working with the new generation, including artists like Kendrick Lamar, Future, and Nicki Minaj, to create some of this era’s iconic portraits.
Jay Z by Jonathan Mannion
Lil Wayne by Jonathan Mannion
Lisa Leone is one of hip-hop’s original documentarians. As an NYC B-Girl she saw its roots and trans-cultural diffusion. Much like Oriol, Leone was an insider and an aficionado. As a youth, she began taking photos of her friends who were receiving national attention as rappers, and along the way, Leone formed lasting relationships with figures like Puffy, Fab 5 Freddy, and graffiti artist Mare 139. Her connections allowed her to access some of hip-hop’s historical moments, like the recording of Notorious B.I.G.’s music video for Big Poppa, and she was the only person allowed to shoot a photo documentation of Nas’ Illmatic recording sessions. In addition to photos, Leone was an understudy of Stanley Kubrick during “Eyes Wide Shut,” and has helped create a number of music videos.
Nas recording session for Illmatic by Lisa Leone
Snoop Dogg by Lisa Leone
George Dubose is the self-proclaimed, “original old school photographer,” of hip-hop, and all jokes aside, he may be right. He began his career shooting photos of the new wave and punk scene for artists like Madonna, the B-52’s, and the Ramones. But when Dubose began shooting hip-hop artists, it was still an uncertain time for the genre; it hadn’t reached a commercial nor a suburban audience, and the grittiness and rawness of hip-hop’s beginnings were ever-present. “I was the only white guy around,” says Dubose, in an interview with Frank151. “When I was doing it there were no white kids liking it.” During this time, Dubose shot photos for emerging acts like Biz Markie, Afrika Bambata, Run DMC, and many more. Through his career, he’s produced over 300 album covers for musical artists.
Run DMC by DuBose
Notorious B.I.G. by DuBose
Mike Miller is the second Los Angeles photographer featured on this list. He made his career in the 90s shooting album covers and portraits for many of the West Coast’s hip-hop legends. Tupac, Snoop Dogg, Eazy E, and Nate Dogg, to name a few. His photographic roots began as a youth in a Venice, Los Angeles, backyard shooting the original Z-Boys. After college he spent some time in Europe, where he began shooting photos again for fashion models. When Miller came back to his hometown of LA he began shooting covers for musical artists. Some of these artists include Warren G, Ice Cube, and DJ Quik. Miller is still a dominating force in contemporary rap music, working with current artists like A$AP Rocky, Goldlink, and YG. A quick look at his photos reveal the creativity and artistry that has made Miller a popular name.
A$AP Rocky by Mike Miller
Tupac by Mike Miller
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