Contact High: Jamil GS On Photographing Jeru the Damaja As the ‘Sun Rises In the East’
"Staying positive is all about mental kung fu." Jamil GS
In our series, Contact High: The Stories Behind Hip Hop’s Most Iconic Photographs, writer Vikki Tobak talks with those who have played critical roles in shaping hip hop imagery. They offer a rare glimpse of the creative process that went into the making of each photo.
Getting access to the original and unedited contact sheets, we see the “big picture” being created and can look look directly through the photographer’s lens. Photographers typically don’t show their contact sheets. They’re a visual diary. Film negatives on a roll of analog film allowed these photographers (and now us) to see the full range of images in order to develop the “money shot.”
In our latest installment, Jamil GS explains what it was like to photograph Jeru The Damaja, a once nascent member of The Gang Starr Foundation and rising rap star.
New York, 1994
“The early evening rush hour is in full effect down the New York City streets as Jeru, incognito with smooth dark skin and pushed back baby locks bops and weaves through the stalled cars sipping on a fresh squeezed carrot juice. Except for a few respectful glances, Jeru goes virtually unnoticed, strange for someone who’s being hailed as the best thing to hit hip hop since Rakim…”
…so opened the story I wrote for Dazed and Confused magazine back in 1994. I was also putting in work for Jeru’s label Payday Records which made the story easy to write as I already knew Jeru and besides he didn’t always love talking to outside press. He was thoughtful, rooted in Afrocentric discourse and a conscious deep thinker as his lyrics attest to. Photographer Jamil GS was also a regular at Payday as well, trusted by the artists (which included Gang Starr, Group Home, Jay Z and more) and the management to capture authentic and raw portraits of a culture that was back then still relatively tight knit. Having shot some of hip hop’s most formative visuals, Jamil had a good eye early on.
Photographing Jeru was a natural for Jamil. “Staying positive is all about mental kung fu: Tiger Style. And Jeru was very into that. His song “Come Clean” was being played in the street and the New York energy was really being harnessed by that song. The drum beat was dirty with a swag that lets you know it’s from Brooklyn and Jeru’s voice and sharp lyrics chop like machetes in the Blue Mountains,” recalls Jamil.
Also at the shoot that day was Afu-Ra, a talented rapper in his own right and good friend of Jeru’s. Afu was also a devout student of the martial arts, as well as chess and made an appearance on Jeru’s song “Mental Stamina.”
The shoot was timed with the release of Jeru’s The Sun Rises In The East and the single “Come Clean” is now widely considered a classic, 100% Brooklyn and a street anthem in the truest sense of the word. Jeru had been brought up by Gang Starr, appearing on “I’m the Man” off their 1992 album, Daily Operation.
In an interview with Complex, storied hip hop A&R man Dante Ross recalled “That song would come on and you would have to hide your gold chain cuz you might get robbed.” The song has been described as “pure Brooklyn” hypeness that makes you “wanna punch someone in the face.”
“His rhyme flow is left field. He had a battle voice,” DJ Premier recalled in the same interview. To complement Jeru’s distinctive flow, Premier used three samples for “Come Clean,” most memorably the stark drippy drumbeat of Shelly Manne’s “Infinity.” The shoot would be similarly abstract and next level, kung fu poses, pager on the hip and all.
Jamil GS: It was the summer of ‘94 and The Sun Rises In The East had recently been released like a positive bomb in the city. Come Clean was a street anthem and dance floor banger that I had the pleasure of enjoying on my daily journey. Jeru is a cool King from Brooklyn, and I am big fan. His undeniable potent lyrical and vocal skills and Rasta righteous inspired path continue to inspire. He is a visionary and some artist see and predict the future. Just look at the album cover. Still, even considering his newfound status on the way to stardom, he maintained an honorable humbleness. Jeru rolled through with his partner in crime Afu Ra, a chill and talented dude as well. We weren’t friends but would hang out on the same downtown set so there was a relaxed familiarity on the set.
Honestly, this was so early in the game for me that I was still exploring. It was early in my career and I had no preconceptions about Jeru. The important thing for me that day was to provide high quality lighting and a professional environment for Jeru to be himself. Towards the end of the shoot we started talking Kung Fu and started exploring that with Afu-Ra in some shots, and that ended up being my favorites.
The Camera Nerd Out
Hasselblad 553 ELX using Kodak VPS color negative film and Tri-X b/w film.
What was the process of looking at the contact sheet like? Was there an obvious stand-out shot?
Editing the contact sheets was half the fun. As I was shooting, I was looking at the occasional single frame polaroid but wasn’t seeing entirety of the images. You were left with a heightened anticipation for a day or two until your film batch came back from the lab. There was always plenty of room for error, so the mixture of relief and excitement gave me quite a rush. I always look for a mix between graphic harmony and personal presence and expression when it comes to choosing final images of people. My choice, like any choice in life, is always colored by the state of mind I am in, so at the end of the day I chose what stood out to me in that moment.
You were shooting a lot of early hip hop during this time. Talk about what that was like?
I was invigorated whenever given the opportunity to work with people and artist that had either influenced me in the past or who played a part in enriching my life culturally in the present. I was in the thick of a movement and culture that was heading to horizons beyond any of our imaginations and expectations.
You mentioned that you were really into kung-fu imagery. Can you expand and also talk about how that came into play during the shoot?
Come Clean is described as Kung Fu on record that was 100% Brooklyn and also had this Zen beat made up of what sounds like a wooden xylophone with a reverb played inside a monastery hall in the Himalayas.
What photographers/creative did you admire?
Being a by-product of BeBop Jazz, I grew up with music and the imagery surrounding it, from record covers to billboards and posters etc. My father Sahib Shihab, was a jazz musician on the scene and was a closet photographer who managed to capture some authentic shots that inspired. Other photographers include Roy Decarava, Francis Wolff and William Claxton. I was also still inspired by early day graffiti kings like LEE, DONDI, SEEN, ZEPHYR, FUTURA and Rammellzee and some fashion photographers like Richard Avedon, Jean Paul Goude and Jürgen Teller.
What made you first want to become a photographer?
I was into painting and wanted to be a graffiti king, but seeing how the aforementioned artists had already killed at such a high level, I couldn’t see anything left to be said through that medium. I also had a fear of repercussions with the law. Determined to express and explore myself visually, I then looked to fill a void and photography seemed like a medium fairly untapped within my world of interest, namely street culture.
Additional Contact Sheets
The Contact High Project, conceived by Vikki Tobak and published exclusively on Mass Appeal, will culminate into a book and exhibition. Check out the Contact High website, Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter for more info.