Contact High: A Visual History Of Hip-Hop
By Vikki Tobak, Foreword by Questlove
Clarkson Potter; hardcover, 288 pages; $40.00
Vikki Tobak has put together an impressive look at the work of hip-hop photographers told through their most intimate diaries, their contact sheets.
Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop takes readers on a chronological journey from old-school to alternative hip-hop and from analog to digital photography.
There are rare outtakes from over 100 photoshoots alongside interviews and essays from industry legends, such as Jay-Z, Notorious B.I.G., Kanye West, 50 Cent, Erykah Badu, Kid Cudi, and Nicki Minaj.
Questlove has provided the foreword, and there are also essays from Bill Adler, Rhea L. Combs, Fab 5 Freddy, Michael Gonzales, Young Guru, DJ Premier, and RZA.
“When I set out to do this project, I wanted to focus on hip-hop’s visual identity. Most people knew what hip-hop sounded like but what did it look like? For hip-hop artists, that one pose, press shot, or album cover would play a major role in shaping their personas. It was in many ways, their one shot to show the world that they had the skills, style, swagger, and bravado to be an icon. And so I wanted to see more deeply how these decisions were being made, about the origins of this imagery, and how it would ultimately shape the visual culture of hip-hop.
“My own love of music started when my family emigrated from Kazakhstan to Detroit when I was five years old. I started school not speaking English, and it was the music on early Detroit radio, Stevie, and Aretha, and early house music, that gave me a window into what I came to understand as America. In the early ’90s at nineteen years old, I moved to New York from Detroit and got a job at Payday Records/Empire Management. At that time, Payday represented some of the most important names in underground hip-hop: Jeru the Damaja, Showbiz & A.G., Masta Ace, Mos Def’s first group, Jay-Z’s first singles deal – but Gang Starr is what the label was really known for. I worked with them, as the director of publicity and marketing, as they were recording Hard to Earn. I would accompany them on all their shoots and interviews, and I got immersed in that world. I learned what it was like to see the images being created in real time. Later, I became a music and culture journalist interviewing new artists for Vibe, Paper, ego trip, and Mass Appeal, who were kind enough to host the Contact High series as I researched for this book. Working closely with those artists and witnessing hip-hop’s nascent times laid the foundation for my love of hip-hop and all that it represented.”
Music and photography enthusiasts will go crazy for Contact High, the definitive history of hip-hop’s early days, celebrating the artists that shaped the iconic album covers, t-shirts and posters beloved by hip-hop fans today.
Here is the story behind Barron Claiborne’s photo, Biggie Smalls, King of New York:
“Renowned photographer Barron Claiborne’s “King of New York” photo has become one of the most recognized images in all of hip-hop as a symbol of greatness, remaining one of the most iconic representations of the genre’s proliferation into American visual culture. The contact sheet, especially the one with the rare smiling Biggie, is a de facto holy grail of contact sheets.
“Notorious B.I.G. arrived at Claiborne’s studio at 100 Greenwich Street near Wall Street. Biggie, accompanied by Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs, Lil’ Cease, stylist Groovey Lew, and a few others, was ‘open to whatever’ Claiborne had in mind for the photo that day. Claiborne, working on a commission for the cover of Rap Pages magazine, had his idea ready. The self-taught photographer wanted to portray Biggie as a king – the King of New York, to be exact.
“Biggie left Claiborne’s studio that day and headed straight to the airport to the airport for Los Angeles. Three days later, he was killed in a drive-by shooting outside of a Vibe magazine party at Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.”