Contact High: The Stories Behind Hip Hop’s Most Iconic Photographs, Starting with Slick Rick

In our new series, Contact High: The Stories Behind Hip Hop’s Most Iconic Photographs, writer Vikki Tobak talks with the photographers who have played critical roles in shaping hip hop imagery and bringing it into the global spotlight. They will share their stories and 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 from high-profile photo shoots, we see the ‘big picture’ being created; contact sheets let you look directly through the photographer’s lens and observe all of the other shots taken during these legendary moments. Photographers typically don’t show their contact sheets. It’s their visual diary. Not every shot worked, in fact most didn’t. Back when they were shooting with analog film, the negatives on a roll of film would be contact printed on photographic paper, allowing them (and now us) to see the full set of images that would eventually develop into the “money shot.”

Launching the series is Janette Beckman with photos of Slick Rick. Sit back, relax and let yourself see the full story behind the image.


Manhattan, 1989

Slick-Rick-Janette-Beckman

Janette Beckman needs no introduction. The London-born photographer is responsible for some of hip hop’s most classic images…Run DMC, Salt’ n ‘Pepa, Grandmaster Flash, and of course Slick Rick.

In 1989, Beckman was hired for a Def Jam press shoot to document musician Slick Rick, aka Rick The Ruler. When he stepped in front of the white backdrop at her lower Manhattan studio, something magic and simple happened—the photos that emerged captured the bravado, fun, and ‘no fucks given’ attitude that is true golden era. Here, Beckman recalls that day.

The Shoot

This photo was taken as part of a Def Jam press shoot for ‘The Great Adventures of Slick Rick’ album in 1989. It’s a legendary shot. We were all hanging out playing music in my studio on Lafayette Street in this old industrial building. Bill Adler was the press officer for Def Jam at the time. One of them had bought a bottle of champagne to the photoshoot to have some fun. Bill and Ricky walk in and it’s just super casual and light and everyone is in a good mood. This was all way before Ricky’s legal drama and charges. My studio was set up with the white backdrop and I made a mark on the ground. Ricky just stepped right up and I just let him do his thing. He stood there wearing a suit and Kangol hat. He put his bag down on the floor while holding the champagne bottle, and then just – snap! I took that picture within the first two minutes of the photo shoot and I knew that was it. He just posed himself, drinks some champagne, grabs his crotch and that was it. And I love that. To me that image and that attitude was just so hip-hop. He was very hip hop. He may be one of the best rhymers ever. There’s nothing to say except that Slick Rick is really great.

Slick Rick is British and his style that day reminded me of these cool Jamaican ska/mod kids from Brixton. He was born and raised in London to an English-Jamaican family. I used to live right near Brixton and it reminded me of that area a bit.

About one year after this photo was taken, Bill Adler and I were doing our first book on hip-hop “Rap, Portraits & Lyrics of a Generation of Black Rockers.’ We wanted to shoot Slick Rick for the cover. He came to the studio again but he was kind of different guy by then — more famous, tons of gold chains and with these two little pearl-handled guns and a crown. That was 1990 and by this time he had all these gold chains and gold rings and everything was just really blinged up. So I was taking these pictures of him with these two guns and he’s smiling this crazy smile. It was about two months after that he went and shot his cousin and a bystander. He was sent to jail so our book publisher said we’re not putting somebody in prison on the cover of that book. We ended up using Big Daddy Kane image instead.

The Shot

When I shot on film, I didn’t take that many shots because every shot had a price tag attached to it. Film was expensive so you were measured in what you shot. The thing was everything you shot cost money. You had to buy a roll of film, you had to get it developed and processed and then you had to make prints. It made you more careful when you were shooting. I didn’t shoot too many rolls, maybe 30-40 shots at the most. And we had to get it right, there was no “fix it in Photoshop.”

And so I take the shot of him grabbing his crotch. It really was on the first roll, somewhere in those first 12 shots. I just knew right away that was gonna be a great shot. And then we ended up taking a bunch of other shots but I just knew that was the one. It’s like a physical feeling that comes over you. Certain shots you just know are going to be really good. Ricky is still the guy. This was not the photo they ended up choosing for the press photo. But when I saw the contact sheet, I knew that was the iconic shot.

The Camera Nerd Out

I always shot with a Hasselblad 21/4 camera back in the day. I’ve never been one to have a lot of camera equipment. My style is a collaboration between me and the subject so I don’t need a lot of tech. I used the same camera for the Police Outlandos d’Amour 1978 album cover 10 years prior to this Ricky shoot.
I used Kodak black and white Tri X film. I used to love going to the dark room and playing some good music and make some prints.

The Q+A

Mass Appeal: Tell us about your career at the time this photo was taken? What inspired you early on?

Janette Beckman: I had my portfolio with all these big punk people and I went around to all the record companies and they wouldn’t give me any work. They said my work was to “gritty.” Finally I got a job photographing the Fearless Four and started to get a lot of work from the British mags who wanted to me to cover the early hip hop scene. I started to amass this huge archive. That was around ’83. To me hip hop was like punk—the music, the style, the attitude. The labels were all really small at the time. When Paper magazine started, I was good friends with founders Kim and David and I started shooting for them. It was such a different time. Getting rich never occurred to me. You just wanted to the work.

What do you shoot on now? Do you still make contact sheets?

I have two cameras now, a Canon Mark II and Fuji XT10. I miss film, I loved printing in the dark rooms; take a cup of tea and a sandwich and my music. The whole joy of shooting on film is making the prints.

I don’t like to have a lot of stuff when I shoot. I’m much more about the vibe between me and subject rather than having a load of lenses and doing a load of technical fancy things. I really want to keep it real between me and them.

What do you miss about early analog photography and the contact sheet/dark room process?

I know there is currently a lot of interest in analog photography. It’s interesting to me because of the cost factor. I and the early photographers wouldn’t shoot loads of film because it was so expensive. Every roll of film has a price tag. It teaches you to edit and learn how to shoot and be disciplined. With the Hasselblad’s you had polaroids to see what your but it was nerve wracking as well. You were never quite sure what you got. All before photoshop..even to this day, even when I shoot digital I try to get it right the first time and not have to use Photoshop.


Follow Janette Beckman on her: website facebookinstagram

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.

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