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“HERE I AM”: DOCUMENTING THE STUDIO SESSIONS OF “ILLMATIC”

A NOTE: Today, 25 years ago, Nas released a timeless record in hip-hop’s history: ‘Illmatic’. The landmark didn’t go unnoticed by die-hard fans of the Queensbridge rapper and mentions to this date were seen popping on Twitter feeds. The buzz threw me on a hunt for a chat I had with the photographer Lisa Leone, published on HUCK back in 2014, following the release of “Here I Am”, a monograph immortalising early 90s hip-hop artists and, most specially, the studio sessions that birthed Illmatic. Today is of celebration, then; of remembrance. So dive right in for a trip through nostalgia and street rap vibes.

Nas’ Illmatic is legendary. The genre-defining album is now 20 years-old and is still revered as one of hip-hop’s most brilliant legacies. You would think if you had been present during those recording sessions, the experience would be hard to forget… but not for 47 year-old photographer Lisa Leone.

Lisa was right next to DJ Premier and Nas in the studio, shooting history in the making but didn’t dwell on the experience until two decades later, when she started digging through crates of her negatives and uncovered hundreds of shots from hip hop’s golden era. Her iconic images – that feature the biggest lights in a scene burning oh-so-bright – are now to be printed in the book “Here I Am”.

Lisa Leone was born in the Bronx, the cradle of hip hop, and became renowned for photographing the soon-to-be icons of rap, graffiti and street dancing around the US, but also in Paris, through the ’80s and into the ’90s. She was deep in all of hip hop’s elements and went on to direct Just for Kicks, a documentary about hip hop’s infatuation with sneakers before becoming Stanley Kubrick’s photo researcher.

What exactly is “Here I Am” and why bring the project together now?
It’s a book on early hip-hop in the late eighties, early nineties, about what hip-hop originally meant. It’s about dance, graffiti, rappers and emcees. For years friends of mine who know me from the eighties and nineties have asked when I was going to do my book and I always replied it just wasn’t the time yet. So three years ago now I went into the crates and got all the negatives and slides and started scanning them and I realised I just forgot half the stuff. I didn’t even remember I was in the recording studio for Illmatic [laughs]. I mean it was twenty years ago. So I was amazed and people started seeing it and saying it was time. So that’s how it happened.

Why did you get involved in the hip hop scene back then?
I went to High School of Art and Design, which back in the eighties was called the High School of Graffiti and Breakdancing. Mare 139, Kel 1st, MinOne, Fabel, like all the graffiti legends from that time went to that school. So it was very organic, those were just my friends and we all grew up together. Once breakdancing and graffiti got into galleries and everything took off, they were like, ‘We’re going on tour, we need pictures of ourselves’. I was a photo major in art and design so I would take photos of them. It was a very organic process, I just grew up with it.

Where did you shoot the work?
The photos are mainly from New York, but there are some from LA, like from Snoop [Dogg]’s first video. There’s even some from Paris, because I went there with Fab 5 Freddy and we did a story on hip-hop there. I also went back there to shoot a video of Guru and MC Solaar. So I always been involved with Paris too.

How does hip hop today compare with the era you were shooting?
I’m really not connected to the hip hop scene anymore because it’s so different, it’s very commercialised now and it’s a very different animal. What I want to bring about with this book is that, back then, it was really about community and something fresh. Everybody knew each other and people would go visit other people’s videos, support each other, go visit each other in the studio, which I’m sure still happens sometimes. There was really a sense of creativity and community and excitement, which I think has been lost now because hip hop just became another version of pop music.

You had the chance to photograph recording sessions, like the genre-defining Illmatic by Nas. What was it like in the studio and what were you trying to capture?
Whenever you go into a [photographic] situation you want to first feel what’s happening in the environment before you take photos. You have to tune in and feel the vibe so you can understand what you’re trying to capture. You have to be sensitive to that. I think with Illmatic – and you can see it in one of the pictures of [DJ] Premier’s face – there’s this feeling that something was happening, there’s this excitement that they’re on the verge of something huge happening. There was also a sense of calm but you still had that electricity that something was going on. When I saw this kid [Nas], I thought that was intense, it was serious. That’s what I was trying to capture, the atmosphere of being on the verge of something big that was taking hold.

Also, don’t forget it wasn’t digital, so there were only thirty-six frames in a roll. You had to be very discerning about when you’re going to snap that photo because it was expensive and you don’t have four hundred rolls, so it would be like waiting and waiting… and then shoot. Now I see people shoot and they’re not seeing anything, they are just clicking and clicking and later on they’ll look for the moment in the edit room. I think it’s very decisive for you to look for the moment when you’re in the environment and not just when you get home by yourself. It was a different way of doing things.

What impact do you hope the book will have?
I’ve asked some people to write things about [the photos], like Fab, Mare, Fabel, Nas; to look at the pictures and talk about that time, what was it in their mind, because now hip-hop and the whole machine of it is such a different animal. I want the younger generation to see what it was really like in the beginning, when it was in that ultra-creative stage and maybe push artists to do something new and different. [Nowadays] you have some underground stuff that is really exciting, but I wanted to bring back a time that was really authentic and community based and creatively driven. That was the real thing about the book.

How did you go about the curation process?
I’m working with Michelle Dunn Marsh who worked at Aperture Foundation, so you can’t get better than that. She now has her first self-publishing venue, Minor Matters Books. We just spent about five hours one day in LA and went through every single image. Then she started playing around with some layouts and from there I would look at the layouts and have more discussions. It was just a process of going back and forth on what works and what doesn’t. Michelle doesn’t know a lot about hip-hop, which was kind of interesting for me, because she was coming at it with a pure photographic sense. She’d choose them because they were strong, not because they were portraying someone known. I was glad to have her so she could really discern in that way and then I’d come and balance that, like choosing some guys to be in the book. That’s how we kind of worked it.

Which of the images is the most remarkable for you?
There are different ones for different reasons: obviously the Nas pictures because they came with the most incredible album [Illmatic]; the pictures of Fab 5 Freddy because he’s a dear friend and we travelled a lot around the world doing work together, so it brings back memories; the photo of Rosie Perez because she’s a dear friend and she’s so powerful and she was directing her second video; The Big Daddy Kane I love because it’s a funny story to me. We were in the studio and he was making fun of my camera, saying like, ‘Why are you shooting so slow’. So I just said I don’t come to your studio and tell you how to work so just relax [laughs]. I love the Fugees image on top of the rooftop. It so captures that time. You see the buildings in the back and you still see them and the clothes they are wearing. It just captures that early nineties hip-hop. So each one has a story. There’s not just one.

How did you move in to music video production and later end up with Stanley Kubrick as a mentor?
I went into cinematography from photography. I was shooting music videos and I became friends with Kubrick’s daughter, Vivian. She worked just around the corner from me. [In 1996], she said her father was starting a new movie [Eyes Wide Shut] and he needed some research photos. She wouldn’t pay me but would buy me film. As a favour to Vivian I said yes, of course, never thinking that anything would come out of it. I gave the photos to her, she sent them to her father and he said those were the best research images he’d ever seen. So I went to work with him for a few weeks and that turned into four years, although we only spoke on the phone for the first year before actually meeting.

He was from the Bronx, where my family’s from, so there was an immediate language; we just clicked. We became close and I went to London to work on the production, doing lighting and film tests with him, and came back and did second unit. It was amazing. Working with him was like working on a student film because it’s a very small crew, so you’re always learning and he’s so open to teaching if you’re into it. He’s a kid, it was just his passion. He trained my eye, he thought me so much about composition.

What other plans do you have for the future?
I’ve been working on another series of photos about the essence of women artists and have also been developing a feature film about a family in the Bronx and their relationship. I’m also working with this non-profit organisation, the National Young Arts Foundation, so I can give back to young high school arts students. That’s really great, been really fun.

A chat for HUCK. Here’s a link for “Here I Am“. And find out more about Lisa Leone on her website.

IN THIS HERE MOMENT WITH TOMMY GUERRERO

Full-disclosure: I only came to know about a guy called Tommy Guerrero, who happens to be a prolific musician and an even more iconic skateboarder, about four years ago. Yet, I can tell you that ever since, he became a figure that I closely follow – whether reading some (farily rare) interviews or digging deeper into his incredible musical legacy.

On that note, it’s Tommy’s music that brings us here together. You see, when I was introduced to his signature trip-hop beats by a friend, it was by way of “Soul Food Taqueria”, the album that landed on the ever innovative Mo’Wax imprint in 2003. Such record is still one of the greatest welcome cards to Tommy’s abilities, both as a multi-instrumentalist and a musician with a flair to experiment with a multitude of ambient sounds. If “Soul Food Taqueria” was sunny and warm, for instance, “No Mans Land”, which was released in 2014, had a more tense atmosphere, like a storm brewing on a desert.

I may have mentioned only a couple of albums, each one built decades apart, but in-between these projects, Tommy Guerrero released a generous collection of records and collaborative projects, thus assembling a body of work that never looses touch with the times. And proof of that ever progressive direction is neatly carved in the latest addition to Tommy’s sonic estate: “Road to Knowhere”.

Released at the tail end of 2018 on his Too Good label, Tommy’s most recent album draws on his recent explorations of outlandish sounds rooted in Afrobeat and Ethio-Jazz tones. It’s an exploratory journey through dusted rhythms and surf rock spells, which sees Tommy further developing the architecture of his music.

In the midst of his crazily busy schedule, Tommy found some time to tell me more about “Road to Knowhere”. More than focusing solely on the elements that piece together such intense record, I was particularly interested in knowing about how he balances his daily duties with music-making or where he sees skateboarding fitting these days in his life. Along the way, he threw some wisdom gems about letting the flow of the creative process take you wherever it may be. Reading it through, I feel these are words worth holding on to for a good while.

Hey Tommy! I was just reading the two-paragraph description about “Road to Knowhere” on Bandcamp and it says that in the midst of your activities as a designer and art director, your found the time to become a recording-artist. What keeps you busy these days and where does music fit in your day-to-day life?
My days are not regimented. I have so many different things going on that I prioritise my list on a daily basis. The one constant is my son – when he’s with me, everything else is off the table. Music happens when I’m either working on an album or have a string of shows… Or sometimes it’s just when the inspiration strikes and I feel the need to be creative.
Then I’ve also been making small screen prints with a Gocco printer and stencils – I need more than one creative outlet or I’ll go crazy. Also, I’m working on a collaboration with FTC that should drop in August as well as a few other projects. [There’s] always somethin’ brewin’, which is good.

Yeah, keeping that inner-fire burning. But about your latest album, I find it as rad as your previous ones. I’m a particular fan of “Soul Food Taqueria” and “No Mans Land”. Where do you feel you’ve progressed your sound and art in “Road to Knowhere” comparing to your past projects?
“Road To Knowhere” differs in at least one very specific way- almost every song is in 6 and not standard 4/4. It happened naturally. Every time I’d pick up my bass, it’d end up being in 6 – so I went with it.
I’ve also been listening to a lot of Ethio-Jazz, Afrobeat, Highlife, Taureg, so I think that has seeped into my being. I also play most of the drums/percussion on the album. Chuck Treece plays on a couple of songs and Matt Rodriguez plays on other couple ones.

So your references are based in what you’re tuned into at a particular moment…
I’m informed by what I’m listening to and what moves me at that time; whatever has an emotional impact – that’s what I’m drawn to. I also love surf guitar tones, big verbs trem and delay – they create a sense of space. I have a desire to move to the desert… but I can’t handle the heat! San Francisco is neither hot nor cold relatively speaking.

Is there anything in music that you feel you still would like to achieve but you still haven’t arrived there yet?
I’ve achieved something?! That’s new to me! I just go where the muse takes me. I have a new album that I’ve recorded with Chuck that is my approach to Dub. Live drums and bass and then layered sounds and instruments. Fun shit. It’ll be out in Japan in April or May.

Who are your role models these days motivating you to keep on producing and putting music out?
I don’t have any role models. It’s all a very solo journey. The need to be creative is what drives me. Instruments just happen to be the tools or medium that I work with. I like making shit. It’s more about the process than the end result.

Fair enough. And what vibes or emotions get you amped to create music?
Hmm… It can be a tone, a rhythm, a riff. Anything – even non musical. Or it can be playing music with friends – that’s the best.

Would you say that skateboarding culture – and your legacy in it – has a way of shaping and informing your music?
Not sure that it does other than the DIY ethos – just like punk. The fuck it attitude. Just try and keep trying – fall down and keep getting up.

How often do you skateboard these days?
I just skated before writing this. But not daily as my body – knees and back, specifically – won’t allow it. But I still have the fire, which is frustrating at times. I want to skate, but I’m shutdown by physical limitations. But I had a good run.

What important important lessons are you collecting along the way as a musician?
As long as the music is coming from an honest place, don’t worry about what people think or about attaining accolades or rewards. The music will take care of you. It’ll see you through good times and bad.

I liked those words, man! Are we going to be able to see you playing in Europe anytime soon?
I’m working on a tour in August right now – we’ll see if it comes together. It’s difficult as it’s expensive. That’s one of the main reasons I never tour. I have to hire a band and pay them on top of all the travel expenses and so on. It all comes out of my pocket usualy. My hope is to just break even.

A chat for Staf Magazine. Photo by Claudine Gossett. Album cover by Nathaniel Russell

UNEARTHING GEMS OF FEMINIST REGGAETON WITH CLARA!

Clara was in the soak-up years of her youth when she stumbled on reggaeton. “It was at Pirámide, a club in A Coruña that ceased to exist,” recalls the DJ and producer raised in that port city in the Galicia region of Northwestern Spain. “The track ‘Dale Don Dale’ from Don Omar came blaring on the speakers and I immediately became mesmerised. It was like a naive teen-crush at first listen.”

It was the early noughties. Reggaeton’s alchemy of brazen Hispanic raps and steamy beats hatched in Puerto Rico was surging on the global mainstream circuits. In the U.S., the genre built up solid traction cross-culturally, but where it really took off was in the latinx barrios stretching from Los Angeles all the way to Miami, where communities elevated this sound to a cathartic state of mind – a hymn to their unique identity. As the scene expanded, reggaeton leapt over the State’s outlines and bloomed like a devil’s ivy in young hearts around the globe.

But while reggaeton’s narratives of love, sex and pride mirrored mostly the experiences of the latinx based in the American continent, its yarns weren’t equally perceived across the pond. Perhaps for that reason, teenagers in Galicia generally deprecated reggaeton’s folklore, describing their consumption of it as a corny guilty pleasure. “This was a sound we’d dance to in the clubs or secretly in our bedrooms” reminisces the 29-year old, currently based in Brussels, Belgium. “You just didn’t want people to discover that you listened to reggaeton on your headphones. It was like an invisible social norm. So for a long time, I also made a distinction between this music for fun and the serious one I’d listen to regularly, which verged on alternative and indie music.”

Following a period of eclipse, reggaeton found its edginess back on the global limelight midway through this decade. Artists like Arca revolutionised the sound by pushing its boundaries into unexplored sonic landscapes and inspired young producers and dj’s to ride the resurgence wave by delving into the scene’s past as a way of reinventing its present and future. Clara is definitely on that restrict group of underground artists that dusted out old-school reggaeton gems to give them an unexpected second life. Only she emerged with a distinct purpose: unearthing the female reggaetoneras that you’ve never heard before. “After I started DJing at parties and bars where I’d play a bit of reggaeton, I decided to search for girls singing this music,” says Clara. “I found it strange that reggaetoneras didn’t get much visibility and when I asked people if they knew of any singers, they could only come up with Ivy Queen. So I went on researching and came to find out that there are actually a lot of reggaetoneras out in the shadows.”

Ever since she took up this challenge, Clara cemented a distinctive signature aesthetic by blending hard-hitting rave sounds – she cites Lotic or Kamixlo as references, for instance – with feminist reggaeton. And when it comes to the latter, her selection of tracks can at times be uncanny: it’s not unusual for Clara to lit up the dancefloor with an unlikely reggaeton joint mashed up with a pop beat. By pop I’m talking about Reel 2 Real’s ‘I Like to Move It’ or some Kylie Minogue type of hit. “In the 00s, it was usual for them to mix a lot of pop samples that were huge in America into reggaeton,” says Clara in an uplifting tone. “I really love that because it adds some humor to the music while reinventing the pop culture through different tastes.”

At the tail end of 2015, and after years perfecting her outputs, Clara – under the alias Clara! – released her debut mixtape Reggaetoneras through Sister, a collective for female, non-binary DJs that actively supported her research. The following year, she joined the Belgium imprint Gravats and enhanced her outputs with Reggaetoneras 2 (2016) and Reggaetoneras 3 (2018). As a statement to her soaring appreciation by the crowds – particularly that of alternative niches -, both projects, released in cassette format, sold out within days.

“What I strive for it to showcase the work of these singers,” says Clara. “Cassettes are a format that I enjoy, but releasing 100 limited copies wouldn’t give them the visibility that I’ve envisioned, so I insisted in sharing the mixes on Soundcloud so that everyone could have access to it.”

On the matter of social aspects of reggaeton, Clara points out that reggaetoneras have been around for as long as their male counterparts, but their success was chained to the gender politics surrounding the scene. “It’s like what happens with women who are DJs: we aren’t looked the same way as men and people are a lot more demanding when it’s a woman playing  music,” she says. “The same happened to these female artists, so many stopped singing because they weren’t enjoying the same success.”

Another element in the equation has to do with the lyrics, which to this day are broadly perceived as biased towards women. A logic that Clara is aiming to reverse. “When I tell people that I like reggaeton, they tell me that women shouldn’t listen to it because it’s a very sexual music and that’s really machista,” she says. “Women can be as super sexual as men. On some tracks, girls sing about going out, dancing with anyone and enjoying themselves; on others, they say how they like when men give it to them – and there’s never a moment where they hint on someone’s forcing them to do anything. I like this shift in the narrative where women put themselves at the center of the conversation.”

Clara assumes the aspiration of someday meeting the pioneer reggaetoneras of past eras, although she reveals a particular self-consciousness when picturing the possibility those encounters becoming real. “I’m European and I fear them saying that I’m culturally appropriating their music. It’s really important for me to make it clear about where this music comes from so not to look like that we created this or that we’re here to save these artists from anything. I really respect them and I don’t have any intentions of appropriating anything – this is their music. And I don’t know what it’s like to live in Puerto Rico, for instance, so we have different lives and points-of-view on things like feminism. So if I’m to produce something on the lines of reggaeton, it will be through my perspectives.”

While Clara confesses that beatmaking is an art she has yet to grasp, she recently gave a shot at singing on the EP Meneo, which resulted from a collaboration with Brussels based producer Maoupa. “It’s really hard to be objective with our voice, you’re always doubting that it will sound good,” she says. “But people liked it, so we kept on going with it and I ended up enjoying the process.”

Reggaeton has been riding an ascending curve in recent times. Artists like J-Balvin or Bad Bunny are awakening the masses to the scene, but Clara mentions singers like Karol G or the more indie Bad Gyal and Tomasa del Real as female voices levelling out the field on their own terms. In a climate where more female and LGBTQ+ artists are seemingly bound to emerge (on her last mixtape, she included a track by the trans artist La Bori), Clara is broadening her research to also include producers. And with her plans firmly set on releasing more mixtapes in the near future, she’s definitely one to keep under the radar throughout this year as she further explores her aesthetics against the patriarchal backdrop of her sonic references.

“I just want to showcase that women can sing about whatever they like, that men can dance in a music video and be sexualized or even highlight woman-on-woman or man-on-man,” she says, her gentle voice tone turning lively. “I can’t change the world, but I’m humbly trying to make a difference.”

A chat for Nation of Billions. Photo by Coquelin Photographies.

BASKIN’ AN END OF YEAR SWELL

On my last surfing sesh before returning to my regular adulting life in London, a close friend of mine called our recent rendez-vous in our homeland, Portugal, the “best surf trip ever”. In the surfing lore, a claim like that usually comes cheap. Embellished descriptions of epic sessions and memorable travels are weaved into this culture’s secular narrative; its legacy built on a strong tradition of oral history classes that take place on any given lineup or lifeless parking lot overlooking a surf break. Put differently, a lot of the staggering stories detailed by regular ocean gliders – including your host here, obviously – emerge as  figments of personal perceptions, then pieced together by every crease of our brains…

Shit. I digress. To dig further on the matter of folksy lineup tales, let me point you to an interesting piece written by Tetsuhiko Endo a good while ago. That said, from here onwards, you’ll just have to take my word for it – or of my man’s to begin with. And fact of the matter, as I revisit memories of our past explorations – in locations such as Azores Islands, Ireland or Northern Scotland -, I come to the realisation that he was onto something; his view on our trip wasn’t far off from reality.

The story has it that by the tail end of 2018 and dawn of 2019, the wild shores of Western Portugal were graced with a perfect combination of solid swell and chilly offshore winds. It had been years since the community braced for a similar period of consistent waves in a Portuguese Winter and judging from the torrent of Insta-stories filed by ecstatic wave riders, the whole coast had been pumping, with riders from up and down the country basking in on some nuggets.

With the promising forecasts, there were plenty of options at hand. It was just a matter of adjusting our timings with the Full Moon tides and work up the best alternatives to escape the pressing crowds that would be bobbing pretty much on every spot. So we ended surfing in different places, although for most days we parked ourselves at a particularly isolated break where we slurped some perfectly shaped emerald lefts for three or four hours straight without a living soul in sight.

On my last day of the trip, the waves and wind aligned altogether in the most spectacular of ways around that spot. The waves rolled through with mathematical precision one after the other, dumping their energy on the reef in slow motion while carving smooth, yet powerful barrels. The lineup held up to these features the whole freakin’ day – and with only a couple of ocean dwellers regaling on such feast.

Funnily – or tragically – enough, one of those riders wasn’t me. You see, for a couple of weeks, our routine consisted of rising at 6am, zooming through ghosty roads for an hour, trail coastal towns for waves and then surf until every muscle screamed with ached. The latter eventually caught me up, leaving my energy levels absolutely drained. It also added up to a series of bloody, crater-like blisters on my feet, which made it hard to kick the fins or simply walk. So for as much as the waves appealed to one’s spirit, I ended up leaving the gear in the car, then trudging (painfully!) through the reef at low tide and shooting some landscapes, fully taking in on the surrounding wilderness. In the end, I didn’t grieve the least bit about it.

You’d be excused to think I was mad for letting that session slide. Yet, I guess that, over the years, my experience in searching for waves changed. I went from being a horny surfer mindlessly chasing the next ride as if it was the last one to becoming a more grounded rider, absorbing and appreciating the experience of waves, elements and landscapes as all being part of the same equation. Come to think of it, I dig that personal growth.

Looking through the rearview mirror, my man was right. Our perceptions met halfway through: reasons were abound for what made this trip back home the most memorable one to date. More so, it gave us a much needed peace of mind to face the bleak, not-as-thrilling Winter in London. Believe that.

LOOKING INWARDS

Say goodbye to my openness, total eclipse
Of my shine that I’ve grown to miss when holding shit in
Open my lids, my eyes said my soul is amiss
The signs say we close to the end.

— “Eclipse” by Earl Sweatshirt