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George DuBose got his big break with a studio photo of the then largely unknown New Wave band The B-52’s in the late 1970s. The shot, taken in 1978 and originally in black and white, would end up being used as the cover—with hand-drawn color added to the image after-the-fact—for the band’s breakout debut the next year. Shortly after, DuBose was offered an assignment for Rolling Stone to photograph the same band. In the following years, he developed a portfolio of images that includes shots of a pre-fame Madonna—while still shopping her solo demo as part of the band The Breakfast Club—Tom Waits, album covers for The Ramones, and more.
Before becoming the first photo editor at Spin magazine in the mid 1980s, DuBose began photographing Hip Hop artists like Run-DMC and Soul Sonic Force. Tony Wright, the ubiquitous creative director at Island Records who added color to DuBose’s image of The B-52’s, offered the young photographer a position at Island Records’ art department in New York City. It was in that position that DuBose photographed Biz Markie for the rapper’s first single. Throughout the ‘80s DuBose would photograph some of Hip Hop’s earliest stars for album covers and promotional material.
Recently, DuBose, who now lives in Cologne, Germany, consolidated a career’s worth of his Hip Hop images into The Great Big Book of Hip Hop Photography. The collection traces the photographer’s work from Afrika Bambaata to Masta Ace to The Notorious B.I.G. The book is also the first time that DuBose’s previous Hip Hop themed I Speak Music series is available in one place. Given the occasion of the release—the book came out in December—Project Inkblot spoke with DuBose about his early days shooting Cold Chillin’ artists, his perspective on the budding Hip Hop scene of the 1980s, and a funny story behind photographing I.U.’s single “Who Got Da Gat.” The Great Big Book of Hip Hop Photography is a look at Hip Hop’s development as much as it is a glimpse behind DuBose’s lens. The book is available on Amazon now, but if you hit George up, he’ll sign a copy to you personally with your purchase (mine is on the way).
You’ve just released The Big Book of Hip Hop Photography, which consolidates work you did throughout your career. Can you talk about how you first began photographing Hip Hop artists after working within new wave and punk initially?
I was photographing bands at various night clubs around Manhattan. Max's Kansas City, The Mudd Club, Hurrah's, Danceteria, Studio 54 and of course CBGB's. In the beginning, the bands that interested me were New Wave, which was a very wide and open genre. Because of my work with the B52s, I became connected with Tony Wright, the creative director for Island Records, NY. Island had signed the B52s for a recording contract and the band wanted to use one of my photos that I had taken on my own to make street posters that advertised their gigs. I paid for the posters and put them up myself.
Tony offered me the chance to start an art department for Island in NYC, previously the only art department was in London. As Senior Art Director, I also was allowed to photograph and design covers for Island and for my clients that I freelanced for. One of my first black music covers was for Alphonso Ribiero aka The Tap Dance Kid. Alphonso was signed to an independent label called Prism Records and Prism was distributed by Island.
A few weeks after I shot Alphonso's cover, I got a call from Lenny Fichtelberg, the president of Prism. He told me he had another artist to shoot and was I available. I went to the Prism offices and met a young guy named Biz Markie. Biz was known as The Human Beatbox and I was impressed by the beats and scratches that he could make just with his voice and throat.
Biz's concept for his first single titled "Make the Music with Your Mouth, Biz" was that he would have his mouth full of little gold musical instruments. The kind you might hang on a Hannukah bush or a Christmas tree. I got the little instruments together and told Biz to meet me at my studio where we would do a shoot. I shot Biz with the instruments, I shot Biz without the instruments, I shot Biz alone, I shot Biz with his pal, TJ Swann and another cat, whose name I can't recall.
When I delivered the massive amount of film and slides to Prism, I asked Dee Garner the product manager for Biz, who was going to do the design for Biz's single. Deetold me that she had no idea. I told her I could do the design as well.
Biz had worn a hat during his first single shoot and I asked Biz where he got the lettering that spelled out "Biz Markie" on his ball cap. Biz told me that there were several shops in Times Square where one could buy hats and t-shirts and have iron-on lettering pressed on to the clothing.
I went to Times Square, found a shop that had this Gothic style of lettering, something similar to Fraktur. I bought all the letters to spell out "BIZ MARKIE, MAKE THE MUSIC WITH YOUR MOUTH, " I used this font for Biz's first single and that Gothic style of fonts became the most popular and recognizable Hip Hop font ever.
In an old interview that appeared in the magazine Chapter 14, you described the process of gaining traction within Hip Hop as first starting with a commission from Cold Chillin’ to shoot album covers for MC Shan and Biz Markie. You tell a great story there about the oddity of being White while photographing in some tough neighborhoods of color throughout New York. Did you ever photograph the emerging street culture of Hip Hop while in those communities, or did your work focus primarily on rappers and artists as subjects?
The late 70s and early 80s were wild times in Manhattan. It was pre-AIDS and some of the scenes at some of the night clubs were pretty wild. People were doing everything else in the bathrooms but going to the bathroom. I documented club scenes as I mentioned earlier, I photographed bands in performance, but I wasn't going around Brooklyn or the Bronx. I wasn't a native New Yorker and didn't have any contacts in those boroughs.
I was a musician's photographer. I did publicity shots for bands and pictures for their demo tapes, 7" single sleeves and 12" vinyl covers.
I heard "White Lines" by Grandmaster Flash, "Rhapsody" by Blondie, Man Parrish was mixing Hip Hop with techno, Soul Sonic Force was copying music from Kraftwerk, the B52s stole the music from Peter Gunn Theme and called it Planet Claire. I thought Hip Hop was just another part of New Wave. It was all mixed up.
I shot Roxanne Shanté in front of a broken down brownstone crack house in Harlem and she was more nervous than I was, I shot Biggie in his 'hood on the corner of Utica and Bedford, but I wasn't there to photograph graffiti or local break dancers and as I told Mr. Cee, Biggie's producer, I wasn't going to go there alone with my cameras. Mr. Cee had to come along...
I’m not sure if there are many examples of photographers that worked so significantly within both Punk and Hip Hop simultaneously in the way you did. Given that some of your most popular early images are of bands like the B52’s and The Ramones, did you see overlap between Punk and Hip Hop in the early ‘80s? The first Ramones cover you did also has obviously staged graffiti all over the place.
As I mentioned, Soul Sonic Force was biting on Kraftwerk, Man Parrish was mixing Hip Hop and techno. I was part of the "downtown" crowd and we would listen to anything new...once at least. My crowd seemed to have eclectic tastes and we didn't feel that we were "locked in" to one style of music.
My favorite club, The Mudd Club, had Frank Zappa and David Bowie as guest DJs. We would hear everything from old Michael Jackson to Plastic Bertrand. If it had a groove, we would groove to it.
I think a lot of young people today are "compartmentalized". They listen to a very narrow range of musical styles and dress in specific brands that mean various things to themselves and their peers.
I am pathologically curious and always want to hear new, new, new. At least once.
Two of your most popular images of Hip Hop artists are portraits of the Soul Sonic Force and Run DMC separately. In an exhibition of your work about a decade ago, the flyer shows both of those photos side-by-side. It’s such a wild juxtaposition, because, even though DMC’s style was very current and aggressive at the time, it seems so conformed in hindsight next to whatever SSF are wearing in the opposing photo. What was your sense of the fashion within Hip Hop throughout the 80’s?
When Hip Hop started, there was no "Hip Hop" fashion. The getups that Soul Sonic Force wore for their first publicity photo shoot clearly illustrate that. Biz Markie wore a referee's shirt and black shorts for his first single and then went to Dapper Dan, Harlem's most famous custom tailor and had a shirt, short pants and a ball cap made from brown leather with Louis Vuitton logos all over.
MTV was still over the horizon, the music and fashion we had was our own. Our lifestyles were still unattractive commercially and that made it ours alone. In those days, no one could sell us “a look” or a sound, ‘cause we were still working on creating them ourselves.
MC Shan was the first artist that I worked with who had an endorsement from a clothing label. I remember one single I worked with him on where he was "pimpin'" Karl Kani. I had never heard of KK and Shan told me that he got the clothes for free if he wore them on a cover...
Generations of teenagers have continually searched for fashion and music that differentiates their generation from that of their parents. The more the fashion and music styles appall and upset their parents, the more the kids know they are on the right track.
I wonder if you’d be willing to share a short extract from your recent book. Is there any particular story behind a cover that is your favorite or the least well-known that you could share here?
The last shoot I did for Cold Chillin’ and I.U. was a cover for a single titled, “We Got Da Gat”. To explain a little.
I.U. meant by “Gat”, a Gatling gun. These are handcranked machine guns with six or more barrels that spin as they shoot their bullets. The Gatling gun was invented by Richard Gatling in 1861. In contemporary times, the Gatling gun has morphed into the minigun that one sees on today’s Apache helicopters. What I.U. was trying to say with the title “We God Da Gat!” is that my gun is bigger than your gun.
I called Centre Firearms in Manhattan, the source for real and replica guns of all eras. I had rented guns for the Ramones “Adios Amigos”, where the Ramones were being executed by the Springfield rifles of a Mexican firing squad. I asked Centre Firearms how much would it cost to rent a Gatling gun. I was told that they didn’t have any Gatling guns available, those were all in museums. A Gatling gun in perfect working order with a 105 shot magazine and a carriage is worth more than $300,000 dollars today. They did offer to rent me a minigun for $10,000 a day.
Well, I wasn’t making a movie and the budget for this single sleeve wasn’t going to cover that kind of expense. Not to mention that this was around the time that Walmart and several large record distributors were refusing to sell any rap album covers where the guys had guns on the covers. Roxanne Shanté got away with a little lady Derringer, but that was about it. So I suggested to I.U. that we scale down the scene. I suggested that we create a “drive-by” scene. For those that don’t know, a “drive-by” is where a gang of drug dealers drives by the street corner where a rival gang is selling drugs. I.U. would be standing in the backseat of a convertible, with his hand inside his coat, as if he was reaching for a pistol in his shoulder holster.
On the sidewalk would be the “rival” gang holding baseball bats and crowbars. The idea was that I.U. had a pistol and the rivals only had bats and crowbars, giving the idea that I.U.’s gun was bigger...
I organized a dozen baseball bats and crowbars, loaded my equipment into my trusty old Volvo station wagon and drove to Hempstead, Long Island to meet I.U. and his crew. I.U. had promised to organize a convertible. When I arrived at the location, I set up a studio light, got electricity from the nearby 7-11 convenience store. I put the studio flash up about 30 feet in the air to simulate a street light.
I.U. arrived with about 20 guys. He had three nice new cars, a Saab convertible, a Corvette and a Firebird. I put my camera on a tripod on the top of my old Volvo for a high point of view.
My idea was that the cover image would look as if it was viewed through a night vision telescope. Like I.U. and the drug gang were under police surveillance. I carefully explained the concept to all the guys, I distributed the baseball bats and crowbars and then climbed up a ladder and got on the roof of my car. I told the gang that I would count 1-2-3 and I.U. would stand up and reach inside his jacket. The guys on the sidewalk would look terrified and run away.
“Does everybody understand the plan?” No smiling or laughing...This is supposed to be serious. Got it.
“Yeah we got it.”
“1-2-3!” I.U. jumped up, the driver and two guys in the back seat jumped up and they all were holding guns! I didn’t even take a shot.
I slowly climbed down from the top of my car. I walked over to the car that I.U. was in.
“Grand Daddy, you know that Dee at Cold Chillin’ had said NO GUNS!”
“Aw, come on, George. Just take a couple of shots for me and then we will do it without the guns.”
I said to I.U., “I.U., I was in the Navy, I know guns. There are two things in life that I don’t do. One, I don’t ride on the backseat of motorcycles and I don’t take pictures of guns unless I know that they are not loaded. Show me that your AK47 isn’t loaded.”
I.U. pulled back the bolt and there was a bullet in the chamber ready to fire. There was a banana clip fixed to the AK47 that was fully loaded with 50 cartridges. I looked at the four guys in the Saab, one was holding a four shot Derringer, one was holding a Glock 9mm, one was holding a “street sweeper” or an automatic shotgun with twelve shells.
Unload all these weapons and I will shoot a roll of y’all with your pieces.
I.U. clearly didn’t know his gun was loaded, he didn’t even know how to unload it. A friend had to do that for him. If I.U. had flipped off the safety and pulled the trigger, that gun would have taken out the whole crew and me along with them.
Interview by Jay Balfour
Jay Balfour is a Philadelphia based writer and editor. In addition to Project Inkblot he's written for HipHopDX, Applause Africa, OkayAfrica Bonafide,and more. Get in contact with Jay on Twitter @jbal4_ or email at email@example.com.