Behind the Lens: The Golden Age of Hip Hop [PART 1]

Meet the man behind iconic images of Tupac, Biggie, Snoop and more

January 31, 2018

Between its ever-evolving impact on culture and its lasting effect on music, hip-hop is among the world's most vital American contributions. And while it's been said that jazz is the one, true American art form, we would argue that the same should be said about rap. Outsiders, rebels, artists who broke the mold - they are who define hip-hop. Of course, it's also that mindset that defines us as Americans; the freedom to be who we are and not who we're told to be. 

But when did hip-hop become such an integral part of what it means to be an American? For most of us, it was probably around the same time that we began thinking about how we want to be defined. Think back to those days and the first time you heard rap music. If you're a bit younger, maybe it was Kanye or Lil Wayne? If you're a little older, maybe it was Run DMC or even the Sugarhill Gang. Likely, however, it was Biggie or Tupac or De La Soul or EPMD or Eazy-E or Snoop, because it was those artists who helped a generation of Americans define themselves. 

The late 80s and early 90s is called the Golden Age of hip-hop because of the sheer talent and quality of the music and artists of the era. And of all the legendary, iconic rappers who helped define this era, there's actually one man who witnessed it all. From the east coast to the west coast, from the countryside to the city streets, Nigerian-born, New Jersey-raised Chi Modu has behind the lens of a camera, documenting what would define so many. 

Just after the new year, we got a chance to sit down with photojournalist and documentarian Chi Modu to ask a few questions about being there, observing history as it unfolded.

Snoop Doggy Dogg in the studio with Dr. Dre and Warren G (in back). Snoop was recording his multi-platinum album, 'Doggy Style' in Los Angeles in 1993. This photo is from the Defining Years of Hip-Hop 1990-2000 (Photo by Chi Modu/diverseimages)
Photo by Chi Modu/diverseimages

Q: Did you grow up a fan of both rap and photography? Or did one lead you into the other?

Chi Modu:  Well, I actually was always a fan of hip-hop. When I was in college Run-DMC was bubbling up, LL Cool J, The Beastie Boys, and all that, so that was my freshman, sophomore year in college, so hip hop was starting to take shape. There were a lot of mix tapes coming out of New York City, which we were close to 'cause I went to college in New Jersey, so I saw the movement happening. But at my core, I'm a photographer first, and I think a lot of people get it confused 'cause they think that just 'cause you like hip hop means you can take photographs of rappers, but it's not really the same thing.

A photographer is really an observer, and that's what I did for my career. I was a documentarian photojournalist, so my approach to photographing hip-hop was to sort of tell the stories behind the movement, and I think there are plenty of movement that occur, both before and after, but the ones that really stay around are ones that have a nice historical record of what was going on at the time. That's what I tried to do with the camera, so, yes I was a fan of hip hop, but first and foremost, I was a fan of photography.

Notorious BIG standing in front of the former World Trade Center buildings in NYC - This photo is from the Defining Years of Hip-Hop 1990-2000. (Photo by Chi Modu/diverseimages)
Photo by Chi Modu/diverseimages

Q: Nineties hip hop, specifically so-called gangsta rap, was never really seen by the mainstream as vibrant nor beautiful. Could you see that vibrancy and that beauty in the scene before you started all this?

Chi Modu:  Well, my approach to photographing rappers was that I wanted to really get you to a little bit more of the core of who they were. I saw a lot of pictures that were coming out that I thought stayed a little bit on the surface, so I felt that if you get inside the people, at least visually as far as you can go, you'll be able to learn a lot more about them. So, I did see beauty in my subjects because I respected them a lot. I didn't have the same background as many of them had. I came from a pretty stable home, pretty comfortable home, but I could understand them and I was actually very, very overwhelmingly impressed by the work and genius that was coming out of the hood. This thing two turn tables and a microphone out of the Bronx, we now see has kind of taken over the whole globe, but that's sort of the beauty of hip hop and the beauty of the black culture, it sort of can make something global, literally out of nothing.

And so yes, there's always beauty that comes out of the communities that are disenfranchised or have less, so I knew that if I could bring some of the beauty out, it would kind of bridge the gap a little bit between the fears of the subject and the topic and what's really going on. They're really speaking about their community, so that's what I was trying to do.

Tupac laughing with his friends on the roof top of the Wyndham Belage hotel in West Hollywood, CA. December 1995(Chi Modu/diverseimages)
Photo by: Chi Modu/diverseimages

Q: It's your shots of Tupac and Biggie that understandably are enjoyed the most by many fans, but which of all of your photographs means the most to you personally?

Q: Rap has certainly become more mainstream than it was in the days of Pac and Big. Have you seen this change in rappers too, perhaps in how they carry themselves or in how they prefer their image to be portrayed?

Chi Modu: Absolutely. I find that when I look at rappers today, they're quite heavily stylized, but that's not just an OG criticism because we also had stylized folks too that were flashy, a lot of jewelry and things, but I find that people talk about the brands a lot these days and the downside of that is like I always say, fashion comes and goes. It changes twice a year. So if you attach your brand too heavily to something that doesn't stay, you're probably not gonna stay as well. So, I do caution some folks is that you are the Louis Vuitton! You are the Supreme!

I was talking to my friend Havoc about this recently from Mobb Deep, and we both are in agreement. It's like, these guys are actually the brands themselves. Why are they bigging up these brands to the point where they are bringing them all back. Who knew about Balenciaga five years ago or three years ago, but now people want the sneakers. It's because the rappers are talking about it. So go ahead and talk about yourself, talk about other things, but enjoy nice stuff, but please, no more photographs on private jets, huh? It's kinda common at this point. It looks a little silly. All right, you're on a private jet. Everybody's on a private jet. It's not a big deal. Be the guy that doesn't show it. To me, that's leading. Show them a picture of yourself flossing, that's kind of following. I think a lot of rappers gotta lead and do a lot less following.

Eazy E (Eric Wight) sitting on the hood of his car in Compton, CA in 1994, one year before his untimely death. This photo is from the Defining Years of Hip-Hop 1990-2000 (Photo by Chi Modu/diverseimages)
Photo by Chi Modu/diverseimages

Q: Do you think the game itself has changed so much that we may never see a talent like a Pac or Big again?

No, not at all. I think that talents are a product of the times when they come up, and we are in a different time, so will we have a Tupac or Biggie again? Well, we won't have a 1994 again, so that's kind of a silly question, but there will be a version of them, people equally as powerful ... maybe not as iconic or remembered forever because a lot of times the people that are the most iconic are the ones that establish early in a genre. So, you can look at The Doors, Beatles, Hendrix, Joplin ... Those are names that still resonate in the rock and roll world, and in hip hop, no matter where it goes, you're still gonna talk about the Pac's, the Big's, early Nas album, all those things. It's just part of it.

So I look at that as the defining years of a genre, so once you covered the defining years of a genre, I mean ... It continues, often times it even makes more money later, but it's not quite as impactful as those groundbreaking early years in a genre. So, will there be other artists? Of course, but the artists going forward will be inspired by Pac and Big, they don't have to be Pac and Big again, and they'll be just fine.

You can currently see some of Chi's work promoting throwback radio stations on billboards throughout both Chicago and San Francisco. Chi has also recently released a compilation of candid Tupac Shakur photos from the pair meeting in Atlanta in 1994 to Pac's tragic death in 1996. Purchase UNCATEGORIZED by clicking here or pick it up wherever books are sold. Also, be sure to check back in with us soon for even more from this EXCLUSIVE interview with Chi Modu.