Thursday, March 24, 2016

Ice Cube & Yo-Yo

Ice Cube, Toronto, 1990

WEST COAST RAP WAS OFFICIALLY THE NEXT BIG THING when I did these portraits of Ice Cube and Yo-Yo in late 1990. I'd bought a bootleg cassette of NWA's Straight Outta Compton on the street in NYC a couple of years previous - the illegal download of its day, and a sure sign that the audience for a new record was both large and eager. After the record hit big and caused all the usual controversy with "Fuck tha Police" there was a contractual disagreement between Ice Cube, the group's main writer, and their management, and he was soon on the road promoting his first solo record, Amerikkka's Most Wanted.

The concert was at the Concert Hall, aka the old Masonic Temple, and I did these shots in the same room where, a year before, I'd done my portrait session with Fela Kuti. The client, according to the Big Ledger, was Network magazine; I have no memory of Network at all, the internet remains mute on its existence, and the Big Ledger doesn't record any other jobs for them, though I did apparently send some prints to Edna Suarez at the Village Voice several months later.

(UPDATE: My friend Marc Weisblott tells me that Network was a magazine published by Sam the Record Man, one of Canada's now-defunct big record retailers, as a copy of Tower Records' Pulse.)

Ice Cube, Toronto, 1990

Cube - born O'Shea Jackson - arrived with a big entourage, and I have a whole contact sheet of pictures of him and locals and members of his posse posing together. I did the shoot with my Rolleiflex and a new toy - a 12"x24" soft box that I'd just bought, hoping to get a more focused light from my single Metz flash on a stand. I sat my subject in the middle of a row of old seats against the wall of the basement room, just a few feet from where my Fela shoot had happened. He didn't need much direction, having already mastered the art of a burning, confrontational stare that allowed him to dispense with the usual corny hand gestures and rap poses.

As I worked on my prints in the darkroom, I kept burning down the edges of the frame to create a sort of halo that radiated from Cube's face; it took a few test prints before I realized that I was trying to copy the look of an old religious icon, the kind I associated with the early Church and Eastern Orthodoxy.

We didn't have a lot of books in our house growing up, and the closest thing I can recall to an art book was the family Bible - a gilt-edged old volume with a loose cover and several sets of colour plates bound into it at intervals. These were devoted to reproductions of ancient religious art and old master paintings of scenes from the Old Testament and Christ's life. They were the whole of my art education for many years.

DJ Chilly Chill & Yo-Yo, Toronto, 1990

Ice Cube, like most rappers, was hit with accusations of sexism from his first records on, and his answer was to sign Yo-Yo - 19-year-old Yolanda Walker of Compton - to his record label. Her first record wouldn't come out until the following year, but she toured as his opening act and I made the session a two-fer by shooting her portrait for an upcoming piece in HMV magazine.

Yo-Yo launched herself at the head of something called the Intelligent Black Woman's Coalition and it would have been nice to have featured a solo portrait of her, but my favorite frames from my shoot with her feature her DJ, Chilly Chill, regarding her in the background. Once again I was using the sorts of details I loved in Renaissance history and Biblical paintings - the little interactions you see in groupings of background figures. Shot with cross-processed slide film, it has a vivid tonality that I've tried to emphasize by desaturating the colours in the background.

Yo-Yo is still around; she released four albums before her fifth was shelved by her record company in 1998, dated Tupac Shakur and appeared in two of hip hop's most iconic movies - Boyz N The Hood and Menace II Society - before moving on to television. She's married to the former mayor of Highland Park, MI and runs her own hip hop school, and appears in GTA: San Andreas. In 2013 BET announced that she'd star in Hip Hop Sisters, a reality show about female rappers trying to re-launch their careers, alongside MC Lyte, Monie Love, The Lady of Rage and Smooth, but I have no idea if it ever aired.

Ice Cube has had a long career in music, TV and film, producing TV and movie series like Barbershop and Are We There Yet? He's written seven movies and produced at least a dozen, including last year's Straight Outta Compton, based around the early history of NWA. He's released fewer records as his Hollywood profile has grown, though like Ice T the onetime scourge of law enforcement has played police officers with increasing regularity.


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