Contact High: Photographer George Dubose On What Biggie’s First Photo Shoot Was Like
"If you don’t know, now you know." -Notorious B.I.G
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.”
Photographer George Dubose was the first professional lensman to photograph an unknown rapper by the name of Christopher George Latore Wallace who was on the come up as Biggie Smalls. Here, Dubose takes us to a now infamous corner in Brooklyn for Biggie’s first photo shoot…
The corner of Bedford Avenue and Quincy Street in Brooklyn is by now synonymous with the origin story of one of hip hop’s native sons. The intersection is where a baby-faced, confident AF Biggie Smalls participated in his first public rap duel during a late 80’s impromptu block party. That corner, the surrounding streets, the bodega half a block away at the corner of Washington Avenue all inspired the rhymes that encapsulated Big’s portrait of life in Bed-Stuy. In a neighborhood that is now referred to by real estate agents as Clinton Hill and struggling with issues of gentrification and diversity, the then-and-now of Biggie’s corner is complex.
It made sense then that when it came time for the 19-year old Biggie to choose the location for his first professional photo shoot, he insisted on that corner. With his boys. In your face. Drop the mic. Here we go. Photographer George Dubose recalls that nobody had ever photographed Christopher Wallace Besides Biggie’s friends and his mother. These photos show the raw energy of a young emcee on the brink of greatness as the Notorious B.I.G..
In hindsight, Dubose regrets not taking more photos that day. “If I was telepathic, I would have shot more film, at least some color,” recalls Dubose. As this was a “no budget” shoot and Biggie was unknown to anyone at that time, I only shot 36 frames and got the hell out of Dodge.”
The shoot was done as a favor to Mr. Cee, Big Daddy Kane’s DJ, who asked Dubose to go to Bed-Stuy and photograph the young rapper that he had produced a single for. The single was to go on a compilation album for WKTU, a prominent radio station in late-80’s New York. Mr. Cee wanted to use the photo for the back cover of the vinyl album cover.
Dubose, who now lives in Cologne, was already a well known hip hop photographer having shot multiple covers for the likes of Biz Markie, Big Daddy Kane, Masta Ace, Kool G Rap and Roxanne Shante , Run DMC, Mobb Deep and so many others. But, realzing that relationships are everything in hip hop, agreed to do Mr. Cee a solid and came out to shoot these photos in a nod to the Biggie’’s stomping grounds.
George Dubose: Since I had gotten so much work from Big Daddy Kane and put together so many packages for him, I thought I could throw a “freebie” to Mr. Cee. I did have to tell Mr. Cee that I wasn’t going to Bed-Stuy with any camera equipment unless he came along.
At first, Mr. Cee and I met Biggie and his DJ 50 Grand. Biggie was standoffish and pretty cool, not friendly at all, no smiles. I think beyond our introduction and my posing instructions to Biggie and Fifty, there wasn’t much conversation between us. Apparently, the corner of Quincy Street and Bedford Avenue was Biggie’s “corner” where he sold weed and it was important was to include the street signs in the background of my shots with Biggie. That forced me to shoot from a very low angle, up at Biggie so the street sign was visible in the camera frame.
Of course, the posse shot is a powerful image due to the fact that Biggie was given an Uzi machine gun to hold. There is another shot of Biggie and Fifty that was underexposed and when I brightened it and raised the contrast, the background got “blown out”. I like this shot in particular because Biggie is so serious and Fifty is grinning. That image makes me think that Biggie is holding a knife in the viewer’s stomach and is saying “Gimme Yo’ Money!” and Fifty is grinning saying, “Yeah man, you better do it.”
The Camera Nerd Out
I used a Canon F1 with a 35mm lens and probably Kodak’s Tri-X processed in Agfa Rodinal. I like the way Rodinal defines the grain of the film rather than making the grain soft. Grainy films are usually my favorite.
Was the graffiti in the background already there when you decided to shoot?
There was graffiti all over the place. There was no conscious effort on my part to include or omit any of the graffiti. I was just looking for a place to pose the 20 guys in Biggie’s posse that showed up “out of the blue.” Only after close examination on my part did I recognize that some of the graffiti referred to or was done by Biggie.
You mention that you regret not shooting in color that day. The black and white seems to capture the time pretty well.
Much of my concert photography and other work is done in low light levels and I became a fan of grainy film. I haven’t found a PhotoShop “trick” that will produce an image with a grain structure similar to analog films.
Talk a bit about the pose. Was there a moment you knew you had “the shot” or did you just let them do what they wanted?
Most of the musicians that I have worked with throughout my career would have their hair stand on end at the mention of the word “pose”. The only posing that was done was to position Biggie and Fifty so I could include the street signs in the frame. When I got to the posse for the last two shots on the roll, the only posing I did was ask them to get closer to each other and then asked Biggie to point the Uzi anywhere but at the camera. But then I looked into the viewfinder and I saw that he was pointing an it at me. So again I asked him and then took only two photos. I was at the end of my roll and was like ‘Thanks. That’s it, we got it.’
What was it like to watch Biggie became as big a star as he did?
When Biggie was killed, Bad Boy Records licensed one of my shots from this first ever photo shoot and used it in a video about Biggie. I knew that Bad Boy and Puffy-what’s-his-name had used the photo but they never paid my resale agent. I asked my agent about that and they were afraid to “make an issue” about it. Mr. Combs still owes me $400!
Watch 17-year-old Biggie Smalls freestyling.
Follow George Dubose on his website.
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.