The ghosts of hip-hop past
Words Oisin Fogarty Graveson Photography Ricky Powell
Like free jazz, it takes control and concentration to style-out sloppy. You need to know the game before you can be in the right place at the right time. From today, Sneakersnstuff basement will be transformed into a vault of ‘right-place-right-time’ relics. SEEK X Dedicated’s solo exhibition in Berlin will bring the work of 80s hip-hop photographer Ricky Powell (a.ka. ‘Uncle Sloppy’) out of retirement.
He earned himself many nicknames, from ‘The Fourth Beastie Boy’ to ‘The Funky Uncle’. Ricky Powell held the same tongue-in-cheek authority of his monikers in his everyday life. He’s an avuncular jokester, walking the streets of New York City with his compact Sony point-and-shoot ever tucked into his food-stained blazer pocket.
We can all learn a thing or two from Ricky Powell. First: Timing is very important. Back in Code’s WInter 2013 issue, we went on the roam with him through West Village, once New York’s 80s bohemia. Back then Ricky was listening to jazz on a grubby transistor radio, cracking classic jokes, and relaying memories from the golden age of hip-hop, but all the while looking for next frame.
“I wasn’t trying to shoot the fucking perfect portrait.”
It’s a habit that comes from his days running with Run DMC, Eazy E and Public Enemy – his photos were ablaze with people seen photographed countless times, colour corrected, airbrushed. But Ricky didn’t set up his shots. He didn’t own expensive equipment or lighting. If he needed it he could hire it, but Ricky cut his teeth in the 80s with a point-and-shoot, an old school developing shop and the right subjects to shoot. His photos are free from the staging of the industry and the shimmer of money – they often look like no more than kids on an adventure, always on the brink of something. Each is a glimpse into the past lives of today’s legends.
And it all started after a messy break up with his girlfriend in ‘85, when Ricky vowed that “she would be mad sorry she dissed [him] like this”. Taking the camera she had left behind, quitting his job slinging Frozade lemon ices out of a cart (where he’d add a snifter of rum for the right price), Ricky went on the road with Run DMC and the Beastie Boys on the Raising Hell tour, and later Licensed to Ill. Appointed the in-house photographer, from ‘86-’89 Ricky captured the golden era of hip-hop, creating intimate and raw photos with the likes of LL Cool J, Eric B and Rakim. He even charmed his way into pop circles with portraits of Madonna and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Right place at the right time? Yes. Severely lucky? No.
That’s the Second thing we can learn: stay real. Ricky’s attitude was authentic. He had cheek, a wit that belonged on the street. Playing down his role as photographer, he became a welcome member of the inner circles he was photographing. The results weren’t all that different from the photos that litter Facebook and Instagram today from every kid with a smartphone and a filter library. They share the same authenticity. But make no mistake: these are relics of the golden age of hip-hop.
Running today until Thursday, Dedicated and SEEK collaborate to display this brief history of hip-hop, as seen by Ricky Powell in his heyday. Behind the politically charged tracks like ‘Fight For Your Right’, ‘911 is a Joke’ and ‘Fuck The Police’ were kids who lived in a time when an actor was president and ethnic minorities were being gunned down on the streets by cops. Sound familiar? With music taking another violent swing against the political climate today, with new artists like Death Grips, Run the Jewels and Kendrick Lamar all releasing socially charged albums over the last 18 months, we’re looking at another surge of hip-hop in the West. Politics is running full circle, and music is feeling like a platform of political unrest once again, it’s unclear if there will be a Ricky Powell of the next generation to create another gallery of relics for the future history of hip-hop, but they could certainly learn a thing or two from ‘The Rickster’ back catalogue.
Cover of To Pimp a Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar (not taken by Ricky Powell)