In the early ’90s hip-hop was in its adolescence, shooting up and also going through some wildly creative growing pains. Lisa Leone, a Bronx-born photographer, was there to document that growth. With her eye behind the lens, Leone captured Grandmaster Flash at the top of his game, the Fugees strumming out acoustic rap on Harlem rooftops, and Nas taking control of mics across the five boroughs. She quickly became a force on both coasts, shooting young legends like Snoop Dogg as they first realized their greatness. With its groundwork laid and new sonic structures being built, ’90s hip-hop quickly became one of America’s most powerful cultural forces–and Leone’s photos are a glimpse into the heart of it all.
Leone’s life at that time revolved around music. Her gift for capturing artists at their most unguarded moments has made her work a chronicle of hip-hop like no other. In her frames we see furrowed brows and eyes wide with wonder. We see the process, more than the product.
Working as a photographer on music video shoots and album recording sessions, Leone had a deep affection for her subjects–she saw them as people first, artists second and stars a distant third. Today she lives in Miami and works full-time with the National YoungArts Foundation, guiding a new generation of young artists, but the Bronx will forever be her home. A new exhibition of her music photography is on display at The Bronx Museum though this weekend (January 11th) and she just released a book compiling her work, entitled Here I Am.
In an interview with Okayplayer, Leone revealed what she loved most about hip-hop in the ’90s and how, back then, the places meant as much as the people.
OKP: What in general drew you to hip-hop photography? Was it “Right place, right time”?
LL: I never thought about hip-hop photography. I was a photo major at the High School of Art and Design, and in the ‘80s, there, you had Doze from Rock Steady, Mare139, other famous graffiti artists…it was before hip-hop, before Wild Style and all. These are the guys that were in all those films and made them all and I was a photo major. So I just used to take pictures of them, and then all those movies came out and people were blowing up and so they needed pictures, so I would photograph them.
Then I got into the music. I was a little bit of a b-girl and it was just natural. I was in New York City, I was there and I was taking pictures. And then people kept asking me to shoot.
Then I went to RISD to major in photography, and I interned, during the summer, on Do The Right Thing, so I met a lot of people doing that. When I graduated the following year I got a lot of work through that same crew, who were then doing a lot of music videos and recording. It was just that kind of path—it was always something that I was into and New York at that time was very special and very different. Just like how hip-hop was very special then and very different. I miss it, a lot.
OKP: Getting into the 1990s, then, which shoots remain the most vivid in your memory?
LL: Definitely the shoot with Snoop and Fab when there was a shootout in Long Beach, that’s very memorable.
That was for Snoop’s first video, and Fab invited me out to L.A. to shoot it. He said “Why don’t you come and take pictures?” I said “Alright,” and somehow got myself out to California, to Long Beach–and it was the first time I’d experienced West Coast gangs. That was interesting because seeing them I was like “Oh, you guys are a lot scarier than I thought.” Because being from the Bronx I thought “You guys live in houses, what’s the problem?” But these guys had teardrops on their face and curlers in their hair and tattoos on their neck—it’s very fashionable now, but back then you didn’t see people everyday like that. In New York, when people were tough and coming at you, you felt like they were going to come for something or you could at least talk to them. In L.A. it was a different game.
On the shoot we moved locations into a park and all of a sudden I hear helicopters hovering and police sirens, and everyone was running, and Fab’s like “Oh my God, let’s get out of here!” And I said “Why? “They’re shooting!” And I’m still trying to shoot photos, actually, because there’s crazy imagery going by. Fab’s yelling at me saying “You’re gonna get shot, let’s go!” And at the time Fab didn’t drive, so we got in my car, swung out of the parking lot and got out of there.
Then a couple weeks later they resumed shooting [the video], but obviously at a closed set with lots of security around. It was interesting, because that’s when I finally met Snoop. Snoop was like “Weren’t you the one driving Fred that day at the park?” I said “Yeah” And he said “Yeah, you cut me and Suge off.” And I thought “Oh my God these L.A. guys, they spot you. They see who’s doing what.” And I said “Yeah, I did, and I was getting the hell out of there.” So, that’s absolutely memorable.
I think another one that’s memorable, just because it was a great vibe and felt so good, was the “Vocab” video for The Fugees. There was just something about it. We were up in East Harlem and it was rooftops, and then down in the streets–there wasn’t anything dangerous or strange, but there was something that was just special in the way of vibe. It felt good.
OKP: Can you tell us a little bit about shooting with The Roots?
LL: That was on the set with Charles Stone directed that video. Charles and I went to college, actually. It was cool, a very mellow set. I just felt like it was very quiet and relaxed. There was a lot of cool technical stuff about the shoot. The Roots are so cool, it was really mellow and fun and relaxed. At some videos people are 5 hours late or there’s attitude. But the director was all so cool and from Philly. It was just a great vibe and wonderful.
Questlove was actually just in Miami, DJing, and I went over and threw him my book as he was rushing off the DJ stand. I just shouted “Here!” There was security all around, and I just wanted to give my book to Quest. They thought I wanted him to sign a book, and I kept saying “No, this is my book, I want to get it to him!”
OKP: What did you learn directly–artistically–working with all these young rappers and producers?
LL: When you’re thinking about producing or writing lyrics or doing photography, it’s all under an artistic umbrella, and so I used to look at other people’s process. I found that really interesting, and I think that’s why a lot of my photos aren’t the kind you might see from that era. They’re not the staged shots of people posing. I liked to sit and be in an environment and watch and learn and see what was going on as an observer and student.
OKP: How about shooting Nas and the Illmatic sessions in 94.
That was amazing.
OKP: Did you know of Nas before?
LL: No, not at all. I can hardly remember why I was even there—but that would be normal. The difference between back then and now is that then you might be hanging out with someone, and they would just tell you to go somewhere and shoot. It was much simpler, you’d just go check a place out. Friends would visit each other on sets. I’m sure it happens now, but it was more about the creativity and community and less about celebrity in the ’90s. Now, things are very commercial and pop. It’s a billion dollar business, it can’t not be. I don’t think it’s as relaxed, either. I think people become megastars. It’s all so guarded and secure.
So that session, with Nas, that I got to be at was incredible. I was just sitting there and listening to Nas, Q-Tip, Large Professor and Premier discuss tracks and thoughts—listening to things and discussing.
Also, don’t forget: at that time, there were no cellphones. The only people who had cell phones were maybe record producers. Russell Simmons had one that was the size of his arm. But basically when you walked in with a camera you were the only person with a camera. There weren’t 1500 people taking cell phone pictures, tweeting—there wasn’t as much distraction. That’s what I remember in the studio. When you’re not connected to a phone or social media, there’s just a lot more time to be and to absorb and focus.
OKP: When I was looking at some of your pictures I was really struck by the environment and the surroundings just as much, or maybe even more, than the subject that’s in the frame. Did you ever think about how you were capturing a scene, and a place just as much as a person?
LL: Absolutely, thank you. You’re probably one of the only people that has pointed that out. That’s very definite and intentional when I’m shooting. I don’t like shooting in a studio—I’m not someone for a white background. I feel like the textures of the streets, or wherever we are, are important. I like natural light. The environment plays a huge part for me in where we are and what we’re shooting. The backdrop of, say in the Fugees video with all those buildings, it’s the city. Surroundings always play a major part. They go hand-in-hand.
OKP: Do you still consider yourself a fan of hip-hop today?
LL: I do, but to be honest I don’t listen to a lot of hip-hop now, I don’t know a lot of hip-hop. In my car I’m still listening to Backspin, the Sirius station of old school hip-hop. I listen to that everyday. I’m still listening, but just to old school stuff.
OKP: Have you shot any hip-hop recently? When was the last time that you shot an MC or producer?
LL: I have to say the last time—it was a long time ago. I shot the video—I did the cinematography—for the Nike Air Force 1 25th Anniversary video with Rakim and Nas and Premier. That was the last time that I shot anybody. I kind of left in about ’95 or ’96 and started working on Eyes Wide Shut with Stanley Kubrick and that consumed four years of my life.
OKP: What did you do on Eyes Wide Shut?
LL: I started off just doing research pictures, but it just grew and I became the set decorator and then I did all the lighting and film tests with Stanley. Then I did the second unit, and so a few weeks of work turned into four years. We totally hit it off. He’s from the same neighborhood as my family in the Bronx. So you know, there’s an instant way of speaking for us. That was an amazing, amazing opportunity.
I’ve always been open-minded about my career, though. I’ve never thought: “I’m going to be the next Annie Leibovitz” or the best photographer in the world. There were certain opportunities that I thought were amazing, and I just jumped in. It’s been kind of all over the place but it’s fantastic—it’s brought me to some incredible places.