Illustration by James Neilson
The photographers had two phone conversations over two weeks. They spoke about finding their styles while shooting hip hop legends, crossing over jobs with Mos Def and capturing the moment a love heart cloud appeared over J Dilla’s grave.
B+ (aka Brian Cross) is one of Limerick’s greatest exports. Since 1990, the photographer has been based in LA where he has worked alongside the hip hop community – writing a seminal book about the culture ‘It’s Not about a Salary: Rap Race and Resistance in Los Angeles’ in 1993 and creating some of the most recognisable album artwork and videos for artists like Damian Marley, J Dilla and DJ Shadow.
Eddie Otchere is a London-based photographer who’s best known for his vast series of portraits from hip hop’s golden age, including shots of Jay Z, Aliyah and Biggie Smalls. He also documented the birth of drum n bass culture in The Metalheadz series and is behind the Brightrooms in London, an organisation devoted to developing traditional darkroom learning practice.
Eddie: It struck me that the bombastic wasn’t the way you approached things with your style. That’s when things really started to impress me because I’ve never been one to overcook one’s work or productions.
B+: The first few years after I got out of grad school, I was like ‘let me just do whatever will get me a gig!’. After a while I thought I should try to actually make a contribution. That was the period that I was still doing documentary-style shit, but I started to add more editorial stuff as well and become more self-conscious about it.
Eddie: I know what you mean. Early on in our careers, we’ll shoot to any style that excites us, but we really are trying to get the work. So editorially, where did you find your freedom? Where did you get the chance to just shoot and dress it up, just get into the zone?
B+: I earned my freedom in editorial. I was already shooting art shit and I did that book in ‘93 so there was always this other side that I took more seriously. At Urb magazine I had a chance to really mess around. I ended up at Rappages as the photo editor and we actually started to have resources instead of 3200 speed film and a wide angle lens and go to the club.
Eddie: That was our crossover, we both shot for Urb at the same time and that’s when I was getting closer to your work. So fast forward, for me stylistically after ‘Why Hip Hop Sucks in ‘96’, there’s two things that strike me: That and the Dilla stuff that you did much later on. Did you approach the DJ Shadows and the J Dillas in the same way? Did you want to frame them by the vinyl and by the life they live – or lived?
B+: Well at first, as a practical matter, I always have seen a real similarity. I have a real affinity for archive builders and archive keepers, whether it’s vinyl or whether it’s books. That was always one of the fallback arguments you could make about the culture. I was always always fascinated by that shit because I was raised in Ireland and we didn’t have old jazz records or soul records so when I first came to the States that was really part of the draw, that I could get records for cheap. I was always fascinated by guys like Shadow. It’s hard to get a record past that guy.
‘Entroducing’ was the big breakthrough and a big part of it was how it looked actually as opposed pulling the flash and making everything garish and weird. It had an impact on the culture. It had to do with the music of course, but that record was a big breakthrough for the way that I shoot and that was the Mochilla moment too somehow.
Eddie: Yes, exactly.
Basically I’m there, we’re driving from the chapel to where they are going to bury him, in Forest Lawn. It’s everybody like Busta Rhymes, Pete Rock, Questlove, and I’m not gonna take out my camera right now in front of everybody.
B+: Maybe I’m getting the same version of your style as you’re getting of me? I don’t know if there’s a pre-Eddie and if there is you’ve done a good job of hiding it. I remember from your Urb days that you you could make a lot out of moments that other people might consider ‘in between’ moments you know?
think it comes back to wanting to document the scene and shoot landscape rather than portrait. Trying to document the scene and then being forced to – or having to, for commercial reasons – pull out the Bronika and shoot portraits which was really what I was being paid to do.
In my heart of hearts, I just really wanted to document the scene and the environments and the spirits of the individuals who were pioneering the sounds at that time. I still feel that way about photography, about keeping it… dare I say real? Can you keep photography real these days? I think it comes back down to the archivist. You want to become the social historian, you want to put everything in context: the street, the air, the scene, the global temperature at the time. You want to make sure that we’ve got all that on celluloid, and certainly it’s pushed me harder into film more than ever before.
B+: Hell yeah, man!
Eddie: Just to bring it back to yourself: is it Mochilla or is it Dilla 12 that I have where there’s a heart in the sky? It’s on the other side of the hill and it’s a funeral scene?
B+: It’s his funeral… it’s Dilla’s funeral.
Eddie: And he’s buried in L.A. and not Detroit?
Eddie: There’s that heart in the sky and I’m going to assume that was pure coincidence that no one paid for a plane. You walk away from the scene and you take a step back and then in the distance this happens and you frame up. Is that right?
B+: Basically I’m there, we’re driving from the chapel to where they are going to bury him, in Forest Lawn. It’s everybody like Busta Rhymes, Pete Rock, Questlove, and I’m not gonna take out my camera right now in front of everybody. In my mind I’m like, you gotta leave people with their grief. So we park up and I had the Xpan in the car and it’s Valentine’s Day and when I’m walking up to where everyone’s gathered around the grave I see the plane and I’m like ‘oh shit!’ and I run back to get the Xpan out and there was two hearts at one time and by the time I came back with the camera there was only one. You know yourself, you make your own luck and I’ve been lucky over the years.
Eddie: Absolutely. Those things are beautiful and those scenes are beautiful. And I’m lovin’ the way you shot on an Xpan – what a camera!
B+: Oh yeah man, what a camera, is there a fuckin’ better camera really?
Eddie: When it comes to rangefinders there’s a whole other conversation to be had about the joy of the rangefinder and that viewfinder. But the Xpan, you can watch the scene unfold and shoot and because you’ve got the left and the right you can just see things come into the frame. That is a luxury that people don’t really understand because otherwise you’ve got to shoot with two eyes open.
So what’s next Brian? I know you’re engaged but what’s next? Where’s your heart at next?
B+: The big thing that I’ve been working on for the last four and a half years is a book which is out in the fall called ‘Ghost Notes’. It’s like a survey of the last 20 years of shit.
Kahlil Joseph and his brother have made this space in L.A. called The Underground Museum which is a really exemplary space in terms of reaching into communities and underground communities.
Eddie: I love it, love the title and ghost notes are so important as well. I remember we had a little pop up show in East London and one of your pieces was hanging – the one where the crate of records is on fire in the desert? I got into a half an hour conversation with some crackhead about that. He walks in and gets deeply emotionally attached to this image and he’s asking all kinds of questions like: ‘Why is he burning the record?’, ‘Why is it a Motown record?’, ‘What’s the story?’, ‘What’s going on? Why? Why? Why?’. I really couldn’t help him. I was saying structurally, its composition is really beautiful but I really do not know the narrative behind it, and no one else in the building could help me so, just so I know what’s going on…
B+: It’s a replica of a photo montage made by Brent Rollins on the Nia album for Blackalicious. It’s a photo collage of a bunch of records and equipment or whatever and there’s a kid sitting there in the middle of it and the concept was that we would recreate that but for real and we would use tape machines and gold records and whatever somewhere completely different. The name of the record was Blazing Arrow and we’ll set it on fire. It was supposed to be the cover of the record but if you look in the middle of it there’s two speakers that were on fire. This was around the time of 9/11. I had so much artwork that got pulled because of 9/11 – three different records, that’s why it wasn’t the cover they went with a different cover.
Eddie: It was a weird one that 9/11 thing because it sucked a lot of the air out of New York and L.A. changed dramatically after 9/11, L.A. became more friendly and more human I don’t know what happened but L.A. before that for me was a really difficult town. It was really cold and surreal but after 9/11 it became warmer and I don’t whether that was because a load of people from New York just left and ended up in L.A. or whether L.A. just, by comparison realised that it needed to become more human?
B+: That’s interesting, you know I’ve heard that about New York and it makes sense about New York but I’ve never heard that about L.A.
Eddie: You know that classic photographic trope of American culture where you go to the East Coast of America and take a car all the way to the West Coast all across America and you take a camera with you? Have you done that?
B+: No. I’ve gone from L.A. across the South a few times but I never made it coast to coast. It was record driven though. Both times it was with Shadow and we either met him out there or he drove out there with us and going from one record dealer in some weird town to another record dealer in some weird town.
Eddie: That’s amazing you’re still living the crate digger’s life. What I’m starting to become conscious of is living this hip hop life through photography. Do you feel as though you’ve been living your life through photography?
B+: It starts out where you think: ‘I could actually do something useful here, this is a situation where this is the shit that I love and there’s very few with my level of skill doing this kind of thing.’ But there’s a profound difference between the kind of level of thinking I’ve ever done relative to somebody like Shadow or Madlib or Dilla or 100 other people. When J Rocc says: ‘you’re my favourite non-DJ DJ,’ like ‘for a guy who doesn’t DJ you play decent records,’ like ‘well for a guy who isn’t a footballer you play football really well’ like is that a compliment?
Eddie: A back handed one yeah. So filmmaking. Was it something that came naturally or did you feel as though you were pushed into those side of things?
B+: I feel much more comfortable as a photographer but I like the challenge of it. I like the different kinds of audiences that it affords you. It’s a different kind of headset in terms of figuring out the camera’s going to do this, the person’s going to do this. It’s not as natural as ‘just fucking stand there and let me figure it out,’ you know? I’m not a traditional director type.
B+: Let me tell you a funny story. Years ago I was in New York and I was shooting the cover for Company Flow’s ‘Little Johnny From the Hospital’ which was El P’s instrumental record dealing with the trauma of being abused as a child. They were really happy with the results and they said: ‘You know Mos Def’s record’s coming, maybe you should do it?’
I knew Mos already so they sent me over to the studio where he was recording and he said: ‘You know I would be super down for you to do it B but I had it in my head that this cat in England called Eddie Otchere, and I want him to do it.’ He tried to reach out to you and you weren’t available and I ended up doing some photographs with Mos.
In the end, the label changed their mind and I was already back in LA and they said they wanted the front of his face and the back of his face on the record. His idea was to have the front of his hands and the back of his hands on the record which is what I had shot but it didn’t end up making it, my photos are on the inside.
Eddie: Mos for some reason, I could never understand this, but he sent me a gift. He sent me a gold disc for the ‘Black on Both Sides’ cover and I was really grateful.
B+: That’s so funny, I never got one and my photos were on there!
Eddie: That’s surreal because I was like ‘that’s really nice of you Mos but I never shot this shit!’
Eddie: How are you doing with shows and space. How do you engage with the physical and space?
B+: No man, not to any great degree. At a certain point I kind of walked away from that world. I felt it was too limiting. The people that were making decisions about what was shown and how it was showing, it was too intimidating for me, I wanted something more democratic. But that has started to happen now, like Kahlil Joseph and his brother have made this space in L.A. called The Underground Museum which is a really exemplary space in terms of reaching into communities. The kind of people who wouldn’t normally find their way into commercial galleries or museums.
Eddie: I’ve spent the last 20 years trying to break that in terms of developing guerrilla shows and more happenings and experiences and less of this editioning and pricing the work to the extent that no one can afford it. Less of the elitism and all that nonsense. More spectacle, more show, more theatre, more entertainment.
B+: That’s why I love Banksy man, I’ve done a lot of work with him over the years and I love the optimism and the belief in the power of people’s ability to see things that he has done, that’s inspiring. It really felt like something new. Not that he doesn’t, in the end, have a keen understanding of how the marketplace works but he kind of inverted things in an interesting way and understood context in a way that was sophisticated.
it’s very much about rebuilding the dark room around the work, where I will have an exhibition and I intend to put a dark room in the middle of the exhibition to democratise the desire of people to have certain icons on their walls but without the burden of financing it. That’s what I learnt from Banksy, going down to his Santa’s grotto in soho back in the day. Taking out a car loan just to buy a couple of Kate Moss’s and then flipping ‘em five years later for 30 grand, that’s what he taught us to do on the ground. ‘I will create the hype, I’ll create all the bullshit and the truth around the hype but you can invest in that and you can make the return on it.’
Why not apply that to everybody? And since photography is so much more democratic than art why not make it more democratic in that sense? These questions and more I really want to figure out. That’s why I’m pushing contact sheets over prints because they are the most minimal of the photographic image but also the most valuable in many respects. Now I’ve had this conversation with yourself I’m going to push this forward. I’ve always liked the idea of a ‘J Lib’ style project where you take a J Dilla and you take a Madlib and you put the two together and see what happens next.
B+ latest book ‘Ghost Notes’ drops in the autumn. Pre-order that here.
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