Monday, March 21, 2016

Chuck D.

Chuck D. Toronto, 1988

THESE WERE VERY IMPORTANT PICTURES FOR ME. Looking back on the first five years of my career as a photographer, they might have been the most important pictures I took. In fact, I might not be here right now, posting all these old photos and writing about them, if I hadn't taken the initiative to find a hotel room and barge in because I really wanted to get a portrait that no one seemed to want to help me take.

Public Enemy were on their way to being the biggest rap group in the world when they came through Toronto between the release of their first and second records. I don't imagine a lot of people would have predicted how big they'd become based on Yo Bum Rush The Show, but I know that music critics like myself had been singing their praises since we heard the first single. I'm sure it was because they were a sensation with music geeks and rock critics like myself that I would have never predicted how huge they'd be.

Carlton Ridenhour - aka Chuck D - was a unique front man in hip hop, then and now, with a stentorian delivery that he partially cribbed from sports announcers. He didn't rap about rocking the mic or getting paid; he wanted to challenge his audience and tease out that strand of protest that went back to early rap tracks like "The Message." He flattered you that you knew what he was talking about, and that would end up being a winning strategy for at least a few years as the Reagan years transitioned into the first Bush administration.

I don't know if I was strictly on assignment for Nerve when I was wandering the hallways of a charmless downtown hotel looking for Chuck D's room, but I knew that I wanted to get his portrait. I do remember that the publicists at CBS records had been singularly unhelpful, but that a friend had tipped me off that he would be talking to a group of local fans and reporters at his hotel, but he wasn't sure about either the time or the room number.

I finally found the room, and the informal press conference in session, with Chuck on a couch in the corner while about a dozen or more young men hung on his every word. I introduced myself and leaned back against the wall by the door, scanning the room for a good backdrop. The space was as generic as the hotel itself, and tiny at that, but it didn't matter because by the time everyone started clearing out and I began setting up my single light stand, Chuck had made it clear that he really didn't much feel like getting up off the couch.

Chuck D. Toronto, 1988

When Public Enemy broke big at the end of the '80s, they were considered revolutionary, not just for their black power politics but for their sound, which dispensed with the cyclical drum loops and increasingly smooth-sounding production of rap records in favor of clattering rhythm samples and dissonant walls of noise.

This was shocking for everyone but two groups of people who embraced Public Enemy immediately: rock critics and fans of punk and metal - two demographics that were glaringly white. For my part, years of listening to hardcore punk and bands like Pussy Galore, Sonic Youth, the Swans and Einsturzende Neubaten (alongside my earlier love of funk and Philly soul) had primed me for their sound, and I'm sure that's why it seemed like everyone at Nerve tripped over themselves to write about Public Enemy.

For at least a handful of years at the turn of the '90s, I could call myself a fan of hip hop without a smirk or a qualification. When I pulled out my camera in Chuck D's hotel room, I'd already done a pretty decent shoot with Eric B & Rakim and a couple of forgettable ones with the Beastie Boys and LL Cool J. I'd been to enough rap concerts to know they were generally dismal affairs that started late, ended too soon, and featured acts rapping over their own records - performing a ghost duet in unison with themselves.

Chuck was polite enough but obviously didn't want to put too much effort into my session with him, so I set up my flash and umbrella and hoped that I'd be able to shoot tight enough and blast in enough light to blow out the wallpaper behind him. He ran through a catalogue of what were already becoming standard hip hop poses and hand gestures, and I'm damned if he wasn't making duck lips in nearly every shot.

Chuck D. Toronto, 1988

The shot at the top was right next to the frame that ended up being on the cover of one of the last issues of Nerve. I managed to dodge the background to white with some effort and some contrast filters. Looking at the shots now, the wallpaper doesn't bother me as much, especially now that I can blur it a bit in Photoshop.

Nearly two years later, after It Takes A Nation of Millions and Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing took the band mainstream, I'd just begun selling photos to NOW magazine while working on the classical floor at A&A's Records on the Yonge Street strip. I was on probation with Irene Grainger, the photo editor at NOW, while she was figuring out whether she wanted to take on a new photographer, but one day my girlfriend (who was working there as a music critic) told me they needed shots of Public Enemy, and that no one - much to my shock - apparently had any.

I printed up the shot at the bottom pretty much as you see it, clean and stark with the background blown out, and took it in to Irene. A couple of weeks later they were on the cover of the magazine, which was fortunate since it was the same week I got fired from A&A's - my last ever real job until I ended up as photo editor at the free national daily over a decade later. Irene decided I was worth the risk, and I was suddenly a full-time freelance photographer, making the whole of my income from pictures.

The busiest years of my career as a photographer happened to overlap with what looks now like a golden age of hip hop, and I ended up documenting a bit of it - a series of shoots that I'll be featuring this week on the blog.

As for Public Enemy, I don't think I'm the only one whose affection for the band soured a bit when their onstage security chief and Minister of Information, Professor Griff, gave an interview where he echoed the rote Protocols of the Elders of Zion antisemitic conspiracy boilerplate he'd just absorbed from a Nation of Islam publication. The group's public ties to Louis Farrakhan made this pretty much inevitable, and while that led to Griff's exit from the group for a few years, it gave notice that an old (blood) libel was back, and would insinuate itself into leftist politics with increasing vigor over the next quarter century.

Does that cast a shadow over my old photos of Chuck D? Yeah, probably, but it doesn't change the fact that this very simple shoot, executed at the edge of my youthful competence, ended up being a turning point in my career. 


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