Chi Modu and pictures that brought hip hop into focus

Music videos and photography have had a powerful impact, and have been very important in helping develop music icons for decades, says Stevie G in his Downtown column
Chi Modu and pictures that brought hip hop into focus

Notorious B.I.G with the Twin Towers in the background, photographed by Chi Modu, who died this year.

When we think of the music culture we love we often have a visual image in our head straight away. Music videos and photography have had a powerful impact and have been very important in helping develop music icons for decades and decades. James Brown, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Prince, Bob Marley, Tupac, Biggie, and Beyonce, are just a few artists that spring quickly to mind here, but in truth, it can be almost anyone famous.

The photographers who take these shots are unlikely to ever be celebrated as much, and are happy to stay behind the scenes, but it’s always worth acknowledging their contribution to the culture too.

This year hip-hop has already lost two of its great photographers, in Ricky Powell and Chi Modu, and both left a huge mark on hip-hop culture. Closer to home we have amazing photographers too, and it’s always worth acknowledging that one of the most influential photographers in hip-hop history, Brian Cross, is originally from just up the road in Limerick.

When news of Chi Modu’s passing broke last weekend, his photos were quickly shared all over instagram and other social media sites. I had heard of Chi Modu and was aware of some of his most famous shots, but it only struck me then how much of them I actually knew. Album covers for Snoop, Method Man and Mobb Deep were accompanied by shots of Tupac, Biggie, Mary J Blige, Ice Cube and more legendary figures from most particularly the 90s, the decade where hip-hop really became a commercial juggernaut that took over the world.

These photos are all amazing and capture the transition of hip-hop from its ’80s innocence into a time where the innocence was left behind. The photographer’s own passing adds extra poignancy, but many of these rappers would soon pass too, and it’s hard not to get nostalgic looking at the striking shots of Pac and Biggie and others. Biggie standing in front of the twin towers, which he had referenced in “Juicy”, captures hip-hop and indeed New York only a few years before the world changed forever.

Ricky Powell, who died recently too, was an important figure in documenting the previous era of hip-hop, in the ’80s, at a time when hip-hop transformed itself from being a subculture in the Bronx into something much bigger.

The other major elements of hip-hop, such as djing, breakdancing, and graffiti, are still important now, but back in the late ’70s and ’80s all of these elements were much more pronounced. Acclaimed artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat were largely unknown by the time Powell started photographing them, but it was his work with Run DMC and the Beastie Boys which helped expose this still relatively new music genre to the masses.

Both of these great photographers captured musical movements just at the right time, before the masses got on board. The art and photography was obviously important in promoting this music culture too. The fact that a guy from Limerick did the same in Los Angeles always fascinated me, and in early 1994, I purchased It’s not about a Salary, an amazing book of essays, interviews and photos by Brian Cross (aka B+). Again, the photographer was there at the cusp of an amazing era, documenting artists such as N.W.A., Cypress Hill, The Pharcyde, Freestyle Fellowship in an era when the West coast was taking over.

In subsequent years B+ has become known as one of the most important photographers and film makers in hip-hop, and he has famously shot everyone from Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu to Kendrick Lamar and J Dilla. He also published the amazing Ghostnotes: music of the Unplayed, and he is very active promoting hip-hop and its many connected sub cultures.

In Cork, Deirdre O’Callaghan, has created an unbelievable body of work over the last couple of decades, spanning the world of street culture, music, book publishing, and advertising. From her work with the original Dazed and Confused team, right up until the present day, she has shot important music artists such as De La Soul, Gang Starr, Questlove, Tony Allen, and more, and her book projects have been amazing too (these are well worth checking out!).

Also in Cork, the photographer and film maker Lovro is currently documenting the underground drill scene here, and again, it’s another example of a talented photographer capturing a music genre just when it’s on the cusp of something special!

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