PRODUCED IN PARTNERSHIP WITH THE GETTY IMAGES GALLERY

Photos From Hip-Hop’s Early Days

A photography exhibit in London showcases early pictures –and poses– of the emerging hip-hop scene.

PRODUCED IN PARTNERSHIP WITH THE GETTY IMAGES GALLERY

Today, hip-hop dominates popular culture – when Beyoncé or Childish Gambino drops an album, America stops what it’s doing to take a listen. Of course, it wasn’t always that way. In the early ‘80s, before hip-hop was a Top 40 staple, English photographers Janette Beckman and David Corio were among the artists shooting the scene’s nascent stars. Throughout the ‘80s, they shot iconic album covers, press photographs, and magazine spreads featuring hip-hop superstars, one-hit wonders, and New York legends.

In conjunction with Beat Positive, Beckman and Corio’s widely touted exhibition at the Getty Images Gallery in London, Shawn Waldron, the gallery’s curator, spoke with the photographers about what it was like to capture hip-hop history.

<a href="https://www.artsy.net/artwork/janette-beckman-salt-n-pepa-in-manhattan" target="_blank">Salt N Pepa, New York, 1986; available from Artsy</a> Janette Beckman/Getty Images Salt N Pepa, New York, 1986; available from Artsy


Shawn Waldron: Janette, you were a respected photographer of the punk scene, and David, you shot for NME and other music magazines. Both of you were based in London. Did you know each other back then?


David Corio: It was more elbowing each other out of the way to get the better position because we did quite a few of the same gigs. I was shooting mainly for NME in those days while you –


Janette Beckman: — I was shooting for Melody Maker and The Face. I was Melody Maker’s second photographer; the chief photographer wasn't really interested in punk, and he definitely couldn't care less about hip-hop! He liked Led Zeppelin, so he got all of the plane trips and I got what I really wanted: the grubby, punky underground stuff. I started in 1976.


Corio: I started in '78, '79, so I missed the best of punk. When did you first hear hip-hop?

<a href="https://www.artsy.net/artwork/janette-beckman-grandmixer-dst-in-action" target="_blank">Grandmixer DST, London, 1982; available from Artsy</a> Janette Beckman/Getty Images Grandmixer DST, London, 1982; available from Artsy


Beckman: It was 1982. J. Walter Negro was a graffiti artist who put out a song called “Shoot the Pump,” so I shot him for a cover of Melody Maker earlier that year.


Corio: I was in New York in 1981 and I remember walking up the West Side of Manhattan late in the afternoon and watching breakers at an outdoor practice session. But I wasn’t really aware of hip-hop.


Beckman: New York is so intense and visually amazing when you first go there. Even now, really. There was just so much going on.

<a href="https://www.artsy.net/artwork/michael-delsol-beastie-boys-at-42nd-street" target="_blank">Beastie Boys, New York, 1986; available from Artsy</a> Michel Delsol/Getty Images Beastie Boys, New York, 1986; available from Artsy


Waldron: So, when did you first come to New York?


Beckman: In the winter of 1975 with my mom. I had a friend from art school who lived here and she immediately took me to the Pyramid Club on Avenue A. I remember there was someone all smelly with a baseball bat out front — it was really wild! All these drag queens… it was like a movie. I fell in love with it at that point. There was a garbage strike on as well, which meant snow and garbage on top of everything else.


Corio: When did you move to New York permanently?


Beckman: My friend lived in a loft in what is now Tribeca; it was really exotic. I ended up moving into the loft next door in '83. It was on Franklin Street and it was like “The Message” in real life: junkies in the alley with a baseball bat. My friend was mugged on the next street. There were so many junkies, it was dark, there were no shops. You had to walk for miles just to find a deli. There was an amazing place called Dave's on the corner of Canal and Broadway that served 24-hour hot dogs.

<a href="https://www.artsy.net/artwork/janette-beckman-leaders-of-the-new-school" target="_blank">Leaders of the New School, New York, 1991; available from Artsy</a> Janette Beckman/Getty Images Leaders of the New School, New York, 1991; available from Artsy


Waldron: When did you move to New York, David?


Corio: I traveled to New York three or four times in the ‘80s for work and moved there in 1992. Throughout the ‘80s in London, I was shooting for The Face and Black Echoes, the weekly black music newspaper. The paper didn't pay much, which was why I mostly shot black and white. Typically, you would get 10-15 minutes with the artist, which was one roll of film. I never really thought of shooting color, which in hindsight was a mistake. It's just the way it went.


Waldron: So, a lot of your shoots were like that, pressure to wrap it up in 10 minutes? Find a workable background, decent light, and go for it?


Corio: Yeah. For example, for my portraits [for Black Echoes] of MC Shan, Biz Markie, Big Daddy Kane, and Marley Marl I had about 20 minutes to shoot everything. So I shot a full roll of Biz, and for Big Daddy Kane I shot about 12 pictures. As soon as I had the picture, it was, “...all right, off you go...next one...”

<a href="https://www.artsy.net/artwork/david-corio-mc-shan" target="_blank">MC Shan, 1988, London; available from Artsy</a> David Corio/Redferns MC Shan, 1988, London; available from Artsy <a href="https://www.artsy.net/artwork/janette-beckman-big-daddy-kane-2" target="_blank">Big Daddy Kane, New York, 1989; available from Artsy</a> Janette Beckman/Getty Images Big Daddy Kane, New York, 1989; available from Artsy


Beckman: Every shot you took, every roll of film, cost money. Melody Maker paid like $30 or something for a shoot. It was good training for us because we were much more thoughtful about what we shot.


Corio: Definitely. I would very rarely shoot more than one roll. I also never worked with assistants, no one giving me another camera or doing hair and makeup.


Beckman: I didn't even know what an assistant was!

<a href="https://www.artsy.net/artwork/david-corio-public-enemy-in-london" target="_blank">Chuck D, Flavor Flav, and Public Enemy, London, 1987; available from Artsy</a> David Corio/Redferns Chuck D, Flavor Flav, and Public Enemy, London, 1987; available from Artsy


Waldron: You were processing the film and printing everything yourself?


Corio: Yeah. In the kitchen where I used to live. A regular day was to get home, develop the film, dry it with a hair dryer, and then make prints on resin-coated paper also dried with the hair dryer or left overnight. I’d get up early and deliver them next morning. I never used to do contact sheets, I would just read the neg because doing a contact sheet would take an extra 20 minutes.

<a href="https://www.artsy.net/artwork/janette-beckman-a-tribe-called-quest" target="_blank">A Tribe Called Quest, New York 1990; available from Artsy</a> Janette Beckman/Getty Images A Tribe Called Quest, New York 1990; available from Artsy


Waldron: Let’s go back a bit to November of 1982, when the now legendary hip-hop revue, New York City Rap [a touring show that played multiple cities in Europe], arrived at the Venue, a London club owned by Virgin Records. This wasn’t just music. The organizers picked up everything that surrounded it—breakers, graffiti writers, a Double Dutch team—from the South Bronx and brought it to France and the UK. Both of you were there, right?


Beckman: It was such a turning point for me. I went to the hotel [where the performers were staying] before the show and everybody looked so different from us dreary English punks. I ran around photographing them all even though I had no idea who they were. I happened to take a picture of Rammellzee and Fab 5 Freddy at the hotel. That show really had the godfathers of hip-hop in it.

Fab Five Freddy And Rammellzee, London, 1982 Janette Beckman/Getty Images Fab Five Freddy And Rammellzee, London, 1982


Waldron: It was more an expo than a regular gig.


Beckman: Yes, it was a revue. You had the Rock Steady Crew, you had Double Dutch girls. You had everything, it was the whole discipline. Futura and Dondi, the legends of graffiti — they were painting live on stage. I'd never seen anything like that.

<a href="https://www.artsy.net/artwork/david-corio-dondi-holding-spray-paint" target="_blank">American graffiti artist Dondi, London, 1982; available from Artsy</a> David Corio/Redferns American graffiti artist Dondi, London, 1982; available from Artsy <a href="https://www.artsy.net/artwork/david-corio-floating-breaker" target="_blank">Rock Steady Crew, London, 1982; available at Artsy</a> David Corio/Redferns Rock Steady Crew, London, 1982; available at Artsy


Corio: The graffiti backdrop was painted in an hour, hour and a half at the most. They covered the whole stage, and it was a big stage. The Double Dutch skipping was something else. I knew about break dancing but none of the other stuff.


Beckman: There was so much going on, you really didn't know where to point your camera.


Corio: The [Afrika]Bambaataa silhouette photo was made after the show had finished. I was at the bar having a pint when Bambaataa came back on stage. All of the lights had been killed except for the backdrop; he came to pack up his records or whatever. I was leaning against the bar, grabbed my camera, and got off one shot.

<a href="https://www.artsy.net/artwork/david-corio-afrika-bambaataa" target="_blank">Afrika Bambaataa, London, 1982; available from Artsy</a> David Corio/Redferns Afrika Bambaataa, London, 1982; available from Artsy


Waldon: Let’s talk about shooting covers and working with record companies.


Beckman: Because I had shot the Clash, the Police, and Boy George back in London, I came to New York thinking: Goodbye, Annie Leibovitz! JB will be shooting all the record covers now. Truth is, I couldn't get any work whatsoever from any record company. I would go around with my portfolio all nicely printed out and was told I wouldn’t get jobs here because my work wasn’t polished enough. Album cover photos then were heavily airbrushed, and my work had people with spots on their faces. They were not styled. They didn’t look good.

At the same time, Melody Maker and The Face kept hiring me to shoot bands like Run DMC and Salt-N-Pepa. I connected with a lot of little labels that way. When I photographed Salt-N-Pepa, they told me their first record was coming out and asked if I wanted to shoot the cover – probably because they didn't know any photographers! After that I got passed around the hip-hop community until one day I walked into Def Jam.

Def Jam was still a small little label then. I walked in and there was [label exec] Lyor Cohen with his feet up on the desk. He was shouting down the phone, "Run DMC...$100,000!" He was smoking a big cigar and I was sort of terrified. He called me over to look at my portfolio, and said, “Okay, I'm going to send LL Cool J, this new artist, around to your studio.” It was 1985 and I think it was LL’s first proper press picture. He was so young and fresh-looking — he put the boombox on his shoulder and I took the picture.

LL Cool J, New York, 1985 Janette Beckman/Getty Images LL Cool J, New York, 1985


Corio: It was just a lot more natural then. It was what they would be doing on the street, if there was a camera there or not. I never posed people. They would just mug for the camera.


Beckman: There was never any art direction. The artists came dressed in whatever they were wearing. If it was a studio picture, I'd have my simple lighting set up in advance with a Sharpie cross mark on the floor. They stood in the spot and would do their pose, like in that Slick Rick pictures where he’s grabbing his crotch. I didn't tell him to grab his crotch! He had the bag, put it on the floor, grabbed his crotch, and I took the picture.

Slick Rick, New York, 1989 Janette Beckman/Getty Images Slick Rick, New York, 1989


Corio: With the Eric B. and Rakim session, Eric B. didn't say a word the entire time. He didn't move either. Rakim was all right. [laughter]

<a href="https://www.artsy.net/artwork/david-corio-eric-b-and-rakim-portrait" target="_blank">Eric B and Rakim, New York, 1987; available from Artsy</a> David Corio/Redferns Eric B and Rakim, New York, 1987; available from Artsy


Beckman: I found it really fascinating. In some ways, the roots are similar to punk: People didn’t have money and had to be really inventive. They couldn’t hire a stylist to dress them. It's about personal style. Think of Dapper Dan: Everybody wanted to wear Gucci but they couldn't afford it, so he made his own Gucci fabric. What could be better than that? So brilliant.

<a href="https://www.artsy.net/artwork/janette-beckman-queen-latifah" target="_blank">Queen Latifah, New York, 1990; available from Artsy</a> Janette Beckman/Getty Images Queen Latifah, New York, 1990; available from Artsy


Waldron: How did Run DMC change things?


Beckman: Well, when Run DMC came on the scene the music was coming out of the burnt-out Bronx: junkies in the alley with baseball bats, rats in the basement, and all of that. Run DMC was the first group that came from a middle-class background. I think one of their moms was a teacher, they lived in a house with a backyard, they had a car; it was suburban, middle-class Queens. When I went to take that first picture I didn't know what Hollis was going to be like. I got on the train with my Hasselblad, and I didn't know if it was going to be another burned-out neighborhood. I was walking along the street with Jam Master Jay thinking, “What is this leafy neighborhood?” It looked like a garden suburb or something. They posed and were wearing Kangols and Adidas, but it was new hip-hop. They really changed the game as far as the look.

<a href="https://www.artsy.net/artwork/janette-beckman-run-dmc-1" target="_blank">Run DMC, New York, 1984; available from Artsy</a> Janette Beckman/Redferns Run DMC, New York, 1984; available from Artsy


Corio: It was quite different for me in London because the artists came here as part of tour packages, so they were out of their environment. When Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince came to promote their first single they stayed in a Holiday Inn. There was nothing flashy about it; everything was done on a shoestring budget. There were never any record company press people; you would just knock on the door and whoever you were shooting would be there.

<a href="https://www.artsy.net/artwork/david-corio-dj-jazzy-jeff-and-the-fresh-prince" target="_blank">Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, London, 1986; available from Artsy</a> David Corio/Redferns Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, London, 1986; available from Artsy


Beckman: There was never anybody saying you can't shoot here or there.


Corio: Yeah. You can't beat a brick wall for a backdrop!


Beckman: I spend my life looking for walls. I spent all of last Saturday looking for two walls in SoHo that wouldn't be crowded with people.


Corio: Or a bit of graffiti. Really strange, but it hasn't changed.

<a href="https://www.artsy.net/artwork/janette-beckman-krs-one-and-scott-la-rock" target="_blank">KRS-One and Scott La Rock, New York, 1986; available from Artsy</a> Janette Beckman/Getty Images KRS-One and Scott La Rock, New York, 1986; available from Artsy


Beckman: As photographers, you and I have always been so street in a way. It’s like, "Let's walk around the corner...there's a nice wall...sit there...take the picture.” It still works!



This interview, which was edited for length and clarity, was adapted from a longer interview.


Beat Positive, an exhibit of Beckman and Corio’s early hip-hop photographers, is on display at the Getty Images Gallery through August 4, 2018. Limited Edition images from the Beat Positive exhibit which have been hand-printed in Getty Images Gallery’s darkroom are available for purchase through Getty Images Gallery.


This story was produced by Getty Images Gallery and the FOTO Content Lab.

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