What’s the first thing you think of when you think of hip-hop? Is it the lyrics? The production? The cult of personality surrounding popular artists? Journalist, author, and art lover Vikki Tobak argues that visuals are most linked with hip-hop. In her new book, Contact High, Tobak puts together a stunning visual history of hip-hop told through contact sheets, the raw images taken by photographers before selecting and editing a final shot. Throughout our conversation, Tobak and I discuss her personal journey and experience with the music industry, how hip-hop has changed over the decades, and the distinct connection between what we see and hear that has cemented hip-hop as a zeitgeist-defining artform.
Kyle Whiting: First of all, I just wanted to say thank you so much for doing this interview!
I was sent over a copy of the book, and it’s amazing – the images, and the contact sheets – it’s a side of music that I didn’t really even consider before getting the book. I feel like some people don’t really see the connection between hip-hop and photography instantly. What made you understand this connection so well, and why do you perceive the connection to be so strong?
Vikki Tobak: So, two reasons. One: hip-hop now is over 40 years old, so it’s had enough of a history and story arc to where we have these iconic images that are imprinted into our collective unconscious. You know, there’s Biggie in his crown, or Tupac giving the middle finger.
KW: Going off what you were saying about these photographers wanting to capture life, we’re seeing a rise in this really emotional and personal level of hip-hop. So I they’relike that concept of the photographers and artists being there to capture that sentiment of “real life”. Going back to the introduction of [Contact High], you bring up the idea that music is this kind of universal language that connects across cultures. So for you, how did hip-hop and soul music play a role in developing your own personal identity when you moved [from Kazakhstan] to Detroit?
VT: I’m an immigrant, and my family came here from Kazakhstan, and I didn’t speak English. So, growing up in Detroit, I heard music: early soul music, house music. And a lot of times, you know, it’s the visuals [which] kind of helps you imprint what your community is, and what you are. I became a very visual person because of that, and then Detroit raised me musically, which kind of rooted me in black music, which was just so part of the ether in Detroit. So I was in high school when I started hearing all of that late 80’s [music]. Public Enemy, EPMD, all those kind of late 80’s groups that started coming out, and I knew that that was all happening out of New York. So I said to myself, “I’m going to move to New York and become a part of all that.” I didn’t know how, and I didn’t know what I was going to do, I was just drawn to it.
KW: So who do you think was the most influential artist that helped you make the decision to move [to New York]?
VT: In high
KW: So what artists and photographers do you think have been the most influential in inspiring you to
VT: I would say Gang Starr for sure because of that early relationship [I had] with them. Janette Beckman has been incredible. Danny Hastings, also, he had shot a bunch of Payday stuff and then went on to shoot the Wu-Tang [Clan] cover I wouldn’t say it was any one or two artists or photographers in particular, but those were sort of my first go-to’s because I just felt so comfortable with them.
KW: And speaking of Janette Beckman, I loved her shoot with André 3000. In the shoot, he’s wearing an iconic fur hat and those baggy floral embroidered pants. Apart from being a musical genius, André is known for being a somewhat controversial style icon. I love that he refuses to adhere to ‘traditionally masculine’ clothes – I love seeing those boundaries pushed in fashion. On that topic, how have you seen hip-hop’s somewhat pervasive sense of toxic masculinity change over the past twenty years?
VT: André 3000 is a perfect example of that. He designed a lot of his own clothes in both the Janette [Beckman] shoot and the Michael Lavine “Stankonia” cover. He was kind of thinking out of the box on fashion and styling in visuals, from a very esoteric way that predates, you know, now. We talk about toxic masculinity in hip-hop, and with black and brown men especially, [and how] that’s really being analyzed now, but you can look back at all these photos, and there’s a range. You have photos like the Janette Beckman / Slick Rick photo, where he has this little Fendi bag with him.
And then, you see a lot of that 90s, baggy, rugged, masculine, crew-look. And I think the culture has moved on from that, but I think that [we] should still be really [celebrating] what those artists were doing, not that they were being toxically masculine, but just that they were claiming their power in a society that didn’t give it to them. I think the diversity, then, that artists like André lent to styling was just like “whatever we look like, or whatever we sound like, or whatever we put out there, you’re going to respect it, and we’re going to be whoever we want.” I think it’s all just part of this conversation on the history. I think it’s an evolution.
KW: And even the iconic shot of Biggie [Smalls]- The King of New York – that’s such a powerful photo, a traditionally masculine photo, but it’s of him seizing that title, seizing that power, and showing “this is who I am.”
VT: Yeah, the photographer, Barron Claiborne, tells the story of that shot in [Contact High]. He says, “I had been seeing a lot of cliche photos of rappers on boats, or rappers [wherever]. I told Biggie and his people I’m not interested in photographing Biggie if he’s just going to come in sweatpants.” Barron envisioned Biggie as a West African king – it was all about bucking the trend of portraying rappers and black and brown men in a certain way. So to make him regal, to claim his place in hip-hop – that was Barron’s vision.
KW: Definitely. And one of my other favorite shots from the book is the shot by Ricky Flores, “B-Girls in the Bronx.”
VT: I actually think that women have been a part of hip-hop – a very visible part of hip-hop – from the start. People often ask me, “Was it hard to find women photographers to include in the book?” And I say, “Absolutely not!” I did not have to try hard at all. There were so many women. Delphine Fawundu, who traveled to Queensbridge to photograph Mobb Deep. Sue Kwon. Janette Beckman. Martha Cooper. There were a ton of women who were up in there, doing their thing – from the photographer’s perspective. From the female MC’s perspective, certainly the ratio was lower, but when you see early photos of [Queen] Latifah, or Salt-N-Pepa or Roxanne Shanté, you see that they were there at all the key moments. Then you have Aaliyah, who had a different style, and you have Erykah Badu who was in that neo-soul/hip-hop moment. And later in the book, you have Nicki. That kind of shows that women have been there all along, and they’ve been very diverse. There’s all this controversy of “should women be sexy in hip-hop,” or “should they try to just rock it like the men,” should they do this, should they do that? And the whole point is that the artists are diverse, and they should do whatever the hell they want. And they should look however they want, as long as that diversity is there. Again, it’s just about claiming who you are, owning that, and letting the photos show that. And that’s life. That’s people.
KW: There’s one shot toward the back [of Contact High] of Tyler, the Creator. His whole [Odd Future] Collective represented somewhat of a turning point [in mainstream hip-hop] in that they were able to gain success and notoriety without needing a big label to handle any of their production, or management, or distribution. They self-produced all their songs, videos, and other media. As technology is improving and becoming more readily available, we’re seeing barriers to entry for music production and distribution become a lot lower. Do you see this change as good or bad?
VT: Young Guru wrote an essay for the book
KW: So speaking again toward more current times, what album covers have caught your eye as being somewhat iconic or legendary?
VT: It’s harder nowadays with album covers, because you see them on a screen. It’s harder to have that connection. But definitely A$AP Rocky’s Long.Live.A$AP. I also loved Nas, with his last album [Nasir]. He used the Mary Ellen Marks photo – I thought that was super cool… and Kanye’s use of the Whitney Houston bathroom for [Pusha-T’s] Daytona, which I didn’t think was really cool, but really interesting. The way that artists now are thinking about images to connect with their sound is a little bit more esoteric, it’s a little more complex. Maybe it’s in a good way, because it’s not just “oh, I’m going to put my face on there,” or pose with a car. Now it’s more like, “Wow, we’re going to get real deep and next level with some of our imagery.” It’s not so obvious. It makes people say, “What the fuck?” We live in this very visual time, where artists are using images not to fuck with people necessarily, but to make them think a little harder and make them have opinions on it – either [good or bad].
KW: And speaking of Kanye, he was more known for using the images of the bear, and then the artwork by [Takashi Murakami]. But even that’s totally changed – his past few album covers were put together at the last minute. For ye, he just snapped a picture while he was in Wyoming and just used that – what do you think about that?
VT: It kind of just matches his workflow. It’s very much part of his random genius, where he just messes with you a little bit. I think it’s very him – I think that’s cool. Also, I think the Kendrick Lamar covers have been really interesting. You look at his usage of covers, and the photos have been these ‘found photos,’ or candid photos, like, in front of the White House. To Pimp a Butterfly was incredible. And also, DAMN. too! Just him, in the white t-shirt –
KW: right, with the red text across it –
VT: Exactly. The red text, and the weird pose – it’s all just really conceptual. Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, with the polaroids with the writing on it – all that is really just pushing boundaries forward. It’s not trying to reference a certain time that’s not their time, cause their time is now, and they’re
KW: Definitely. And one of the first artists I think of when I think of an esoteric sound and visual style is Frank Ocean. I think his Blonde album cover will be so iconic in the future.
VT: Exactly. And to your point about pushing buttons of definitions about what’s masculine and what’s not, I think Frank Ocean does exactly that.
Contact High is now available for purchase at most major bookstores and online retailers.