Contact High: Photographer Jamil GS Brings Us Back to Jay Z’s First Official Press Shoot
"The payment wasn’t too bad either."
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 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 takes us back as a baby-faced Jay Z (when he was Jay-Z) poses for his very first press photos and has “no doubt” that he will one day own a yacht…
New York, 1995
“Disruption is basically hip hop,” says photographer Jamil GS. He should know. Having shot some of hip hop’s most formative visuals, Jamil had a good eye early on. During the spring of 1995, only 6 months into his professional career, the Copenhagen-born lensman captured a 26-year-old Hova for a press shoot that speaks to hip hop’s early years of posturing, pose and politics of the photo.
Jamil was hired for the gig by Patrick Moxey, founder of Payday Records/Empire Management who was known for surrounding himself with sharp AF A&R people such as Dino Delvaille who not only signed Jay Z to a singles deal on Payday but also worked with Mos Def as part of his first group UTD. (Full disclosure, this writer worked for Payday/Empire during this time).
Growing up living between LA, NY and Copenhagen, Jamil’s multiculturalism came naturally. His father Sahib Shihab was one of the founding members of Bebop Jazz from New York. Jamil spent his formative years with some of the early crews in Copenhagen to bomb the trains in the 80’s. From there, skateboarding, hip hop and graffiti culture were a natural progression when it came to photography subjects.
Plugging into the early hip hop street style, Jamil went on to shoot campaigns for brands such as Supreme, Adidas, Yves Saint Lauren and Converse and has also chronicled Jamaica, one of his great passions, in photos and through various collaborations. His latest collaboration is with A Thousand Words ATW and features the ‘Jay Z Lexus tee.’ Mass Appeal spoke to the legendary photographer about Jay’s first big shoot, cardboard vanity plates and the moment HOVA knew he’d own a yacht someday.
Jamil GS: “The year was 1995 and I was only 6 months into my solo career as a professional photographer when I got a call from Patrick Moxey at Payday Records/Empire Management asking if I wanted to shoot this up and coming rapper from Brooklyn named Jay Z.”
“The shoot was Jay Z’s first professional press shoot, paid for by Payday and Polygram records. Jay had made a name locally dropping mix tapes and selling cd’s out the back of his car and Payday had just signed him to a singles deal with chances that he was gonna blow. Even though I was a dedicated Hip Hop head I wasn’t familiar with Jay Z at the time, not many were and couldn’t even spell his name right. But Patrick Moxey had a nose for quality and talent and already worked with several great artists that I respected, so I took the assignment.”
“The payment wasn’t too bad either. These were the early days of my career as a professional photographer. At this point, I had worked with Chuck D, Russell Simmons and Jeru the Damaja but I believe this was my first check from a major label.
“I was impressed by the fact that Jay had brought a custom-made vanity plate [that was] made from cardboard. We used some gaffers tape and stuck it on top of the existing plate. He had also brought some bottles of Cristal that he placed by the windshield inside the car. This is some pretty clear symbolism and Jay knew exactly what kind of image he wanted, even back then.”
“I also did some shots at Battery park, just to be in the middle of all the wealth. I asked him to pose in front of a giant yacht and told him that one day he would own one himself. He smiled and responded ‘no doubt.'”
I knew I wanted to get a good shot on the Lexus and I was happy we nailed that, I printed two other shots that stood out and looking at it now, I think I found some more.
It was a mixture of sexy logistics and wanting to catch some iconic New York shit. Being that Jay lived in downtown BK, I decided to go to the waterfront by the river cafe on Water Street where we could also get a hint of the NY downtown skyline. Later we crossed the bridge to Wall Street and Battery park City. The idea was to shoot him surrounded by all symbols of material wealth like the twin towers and Luxury yachts.
Damon Dash and Kareem Biggs were at the condo and around for part of the shoot, plus the friend from VA. A few of Jay’s friends came to pick me up from my Avenue A apartment in their Lexus. This was the same Lexus from the “Dead Presidents” video. I remember him saying, damn there’s a lot of freaks around here, and there was. That was back when Alphabet City was still funky.
We drove to Jay’s condo off Atlantic Ave in Brooklyn and then headed to downtown Brooklyn next to the Riverside Cafe. I was inspired by the album cover of Donald Byrd’s A New Perspective. It was low key and good vibes, no crazy entourage, which allowed us to go fairly unnoticed and even steal a shot on a luxury yacht in the harbor.
The Camera Nerd Out
I shot on a Pentax 6/7 medium format pre-digi days. I used a wide angle and a fisheye lens and the film was Kodax Tri-x 400, the only b/w I used.
Jay was just a baby in these shots. What was your first impression of him?
I remember thinking that Jay was resourceful. It wasn’t a big production and to save money Jay had me picked up by a friend he used to dribble with down in VA, and we went to Jay Z’s new condo he had just moved into off Atlantic and Flatbush. It was a spacious duplex and he was clearly amped and proud of it and asked if I wanted to shoot there, but he had just moved in, so it was sparse and didn’t have much character yet and we decided to hit the streets instead.
Did Jay have ideas about how he wanted to be styled or shot?
I had a clear idea of how I wanted to shoot Jay and luckily it synchronized with Jay’s own ideas. Being influenced by an old Donald Byrd Blue Note album cover, I wanted to try something with silhouettes of cars. Jay came prepared with two Lexus GS’s and a custom made vanity plate that we stuck on with gaffers tape. Jay also strategically placed two bottles of Cristal in the windshield. As long as we got those elements down, he was open and cool with whatever I wanted to do.
Talk about the street style and culture at that time….
The cherry of street style and street culture had just been popped. Being underground for almost two decades, hip hop street culture, especially from New York, was going mainstream. I lived the culture and was lucky to be a part of shaping it visually.
What photographers/creative did you admire?
Being of American royalty and Jazz heritage I was fed a steady dose of Blue Note record covers and others of the BeBop era, so the creative collabo of Reid Miles and Francis Wolff made a lasting impression. I also liked Jürgen Teller for his “straight from the hip” reality-style approach and found it fresh.
What made you first want to become a photographer?
I was a kid running the streets and I had a genuine need to visually express myself. I did it through graffiti but had to curb that due to legal reasons. Looking for a new medium I chose the camera and felt it hadn’t been used to represent my generation properly. There was a void and I was gonna make it street with a hip hop approach, using something old in a new way. Disruption is basically hip hop.
You have a real love for Jamaica. How did that develop?
My weak spot aka love for Jamaica is a long-standing relationship that started with love at first sight. It started 23 years ago when I was just a youth evolving from loving reggae music to being drawn to the place and the people that originated it. The JTB(Jamaican tourism bureau) has an old slogan, and it may sound corny to some but it’s true: “Once you go you know” That’s how it unfolded for me enjoying the full sensory experience by being in the place physically, seeing, smelling, hearing, tasting and feeling the vibrations all at once. It was as explosive as my first brush with Hip Hop when hearing “Planet Rock” or “The message” for the first time. There exists a luxury for the senses, especially for anyone who loves music and the culture that surrounds it.
I’ve done allot of work there and I am currently in the post-production phases of a big commercial project that revolves around a cornerstone of Jamaican culture.
I plan to return there soon with a music and visuals project.
Tell us about your upcoming apparel collaboration with these images
About five years ago Koe Rodriguez got at me about his projects A Thousand Words aka ATW, that focused on photographers and art for our musical heritage beginning with the birth of Hip Hop. He had already collaborated with legends like Jamel Shabazz, Martha Cooper, Joe Gonzo and Ernie Paniccioli, so I was honored and happy that he approached me about collaborating. We’ve been building for a while and now one of the conversations are materializing into a wearable art piece.
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.