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.