Contact High: The Day Photographer George DuBose Held Court With Biz Markie
Nobody beats the Biz!
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, George DuBose discusses what it was like to photograph the “human beatbox” Biz Markie…
New York, 1993
In this era of cultural remixing and referencing, it might be difficult to imagine a time when, in the late 1980s and early 1990’s, hip hop music found itself at a crossroads for pushing the boundaries. With sampling technology changing the game, the legality of what could be used and how became more and more of a legal gray area. Did unauthorized sampling violate intellectual property or create something completely new? On Biz Markie’s 1991 album I Need a Haircut, the song “Alone Again,” samples several piano bars from Gilbert O’Sullivan’s 1972 hit, “Alone Again (Naturally).” O’Sullivan subsequently sued Markie over the sample and won in a precedent-setting decision for all future sampling clearances. Biz was ordered to pay $250,000 in damages and the case was even referred to to criminal court, on the grounds that Markie was liable for theft.
Two years after the landmark case, in 1993, Biz released All Samples Cleared!, arguably not his best records musically speaking, but important for its telling album cover photo. Not quite a visual ‘fuck you’, but pretty close. In a trademark Biz tongue-in-cheek kind of way. This is where photographer George Dubose comes in.
Both the album’s title and the cover art are a reference to the legal drama of previous years with Markie playing both judge and defendant, recalling the courtroom where the sampling case was held. Dubose had already shot Biz’s previous album covers. In fact, he had photographed and designed more than 300 album and single covers, not only capturing Biggie’s first professional photo shoot, but also some of the first images for Big Daddy Kane, Masta Ace, Kool G Rap, Roxanne Shante, Run DMC, Mobb Deep and so many others. Ain’t no thing for someone who has been called “The Godfather of Hip Hop Photography.”
“The difference between photographing hip hop artists back in the day [as opposed to other genres] is that the hip hop guys were trying hard to be cool,” Dubose once told this magazine.
Growing up in the south — Atlanta, Georgia and Tennessee — Dubose listened to any new music he could get his hands on and, and with hip hop photography, he saw a chance to push photographic concepts in a new musical genre. Dubose recalls from this first shoot for “Make the Music With Your Mouth, Biz,” it was apparent that Biz had a great, self-deprecating sense of humor and to communicate that in his covers, subversive in its own humorous way. Dubose, who now lives in Cologne, Germany, frames the shoot this way…
George DuBose: Biz covered the song “Alone Again” by Gilbert O’Sullivan on his third album “I Need a Haircut.” I remember designing that cover and when I saw the credit “All songs by Biz Markie,” alarm bells went off, but I wasn’t sure why. “I Need a Haircut” was in the market for a week before Gilbert sued Warner Bros. and Biz Markie for millions of dollars. The album was later re-released without the offending track.
Biz’s following album was a response to that lawsuit and titled “All Samples Cleared.” The concept for this album was to have Biz as the judge AND the prisoner in the dock. I searched for real courtroom locations, but the witness box was always too far from the judge’s bench. So, I built a courtroom and judge’s bench in my studio with the witness stand right next to the judge. I always wanted to turn the courtroom set from this shoot into a cocktail bar in my house. As this was in an era before Macs were used extensively, I placed the camera on a tripod, so the perspective didn’t change and just moved Biz and Cool V in different positions. When I had the two final prints back from the lab, I used a pointed razor blade to cut along vertical and horizontal lines of the prints and then glued them together and re-photographed them for the final artwork.
I rarely posed my artists. I just placed them in the chosen environment or studio set and let the action happen. Occasionally, I had to tell the early hip hop artists that the pose they were making had been used recently by their competitors, which would drive them to produce something fresh and unique.
Biz never had a shell to come out of. He was always on. The only time I had any trouble with Biz was when I went to his house in New Jersey and wanted to shoot the single cover of “Toilet Stool Rap.” This was going to be Biz on the “throne.” His first album’s poster was a painting of Biz on a toilet picking his nose and this was my big chance to bring that painting to life. Biz was in a bad mood with Warner Bros. and wouldn’t come out of his room to do the shoot, until I persuaded him that this was going to be one of his best covers ever.
The process of selecting the two images that were to be combined was pretty straight forward. I chose a good image of Biz as the judge and then a funny image of him as the prisoner and then spliced them together. Once I had the two shots selected, one with Biz as the judge and one as Biz as the “criminal,” with Cool V as the attorney presenting the sample clearance document to the judge. I made a little dig at Gilbert O’Sullivan by writing large on the sample clearance “F.G.O’S. (Fuck Gilbert O’Sullivan).
The Camera Nerd Out
I nearly always used a Hasselblad for album covers that I was making in a studio. The film I used was a fine grain color negative 120 format film. Normally, I shot with transparency film, but since I knew that I was going to have to assemble the final photo from two other photos, I chose to use color negative and made direct prints.
How does this photo compare to some of your other work?
I rarely do the kind of assembly that I did for “All Samples Cleared.” I rarely use PhotoShop tricks or treatments. When I started my career, retouching was an expensive proposition and was to be avoided. We had to get it “in” the shot, on film.
Tell us about your career at the time this photo was taken?
My career was running on all cylinders by the time that I started working with The Biz and Cold Chillin’ Records. I was a senior art director of Island Records in NYC and was in a unique position of being a photographer/art director/designer of music packaging. This allowed my musician clients to work with one person to plan a concept and a design for their covers.
I had done covers for the B-52s, Lydia Lunch, Kid Creole and the GoGos. There were a lot of new and different sounds in the music of that time and it was called “New Wave”. I remember the first time I heard Afrika Bambaataa and Soul Sonic Force blasting out a car radio in NYC. The music was Kraftwerk but the words to “Planet Rock” were different. A month later, Bambaataa and his crew came to my studio for a publicity shot. I thought Hip-Hop was part of the New Wave sound.
What artists/photogs/culture inspired you early on?
Originally, I was attracted to photography because although I liked to draw and paint, I liked Realism, but didn’t have enough patience. Photography was a quicker way to capture an image. I would often see unusual objects and photograph them. When I was just starting, I saw an exhibition of photographs from the war in Vietnam and was moved by the horrific images and decided right then that I didn’t want to make those kind of photos. I wanted to make people look “good”. I found that with the correct lighting, I could make people look “better”.
While I loved the work of Ansel Adams, Cartier-Bresson, Man Ray and others, the powerful portraits of famous statesmen and presidents by Yousef Karsch, the Canadian portraitist, showed me what a photographer could bring out and portray in his subjects. Google “Karsch and Churchill” and you will see what I mean.
What do you shoot on now? Do you still make contact sheets?
I use a Canon EOS1-Ds. It isn’t state of the art, but makes file sizes that are large enough for my purposes. I use my Hasselblad about once every 10 years now and my Canon F1 was used once in the past 20 years. I love film and back in the day, I used high speed grainy film. Those days are pretty much gone.
Viewing JPEGs is best done with Preview or another slideshow app. Just getting the contact sheets for this article was a real hassle. There aren’t too many analog labs left in business, at least over here in Europe.
What percentage do you think you shoot film vs. digital?
99% digital, 1% analog. Clients don’t pay for film and processing anymore. End of story. Photography is my business, not my hobby.
What do you miss about early analogue photography and the contact sheet/dark room process?
I loved grain in film. I used Agfa Rodinal as my main B&W film developer as it defined the grain of the film I was using whether it was Tri-X or Kodak’s 2475 Recording film that police used for surveillance, very grainy and very high speed. I haven’t found a PhotoShop filter or any other software that can imitate the grain of analog film.
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.