Contact High: Chi Modu On Shooting Nas Before ‘Illmatic’

In the 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.”

Here photographer Chi Modu reflects on the time he photographed a pre-Illmatic Nas at home in Queensbridge

Queensbridge, NY 1993

Today marks the 23rd anniversary of Nas’ seminal debut Illmatic. One year before the album dropped, photographer Chi Modu traveled to Queensbridge Houses to visit the 19-year-old MC (still known as “Nasty Nas”) in his element. The resulting photographs, intimate and visually poetic, offer a rare glimpse into the world of an artist on the brink of greatness. Young Nasir Jones sits on his bed in one shot, a stuffed panda bear behind him, a bullet hole in the wall above his head. Another contact sheet strip shows Nas outside of Queensbridge rolling, vibing etc… These strips, both pre-Illmatic, were taken on two separate occasions. Modu took the photos on assignment for The Source magazine where he was the photo editor at the time. A photo from this shoot would accompany the magazin’es original 5-mic review of Nas’s debut album,which was written by then intern Miss Info.  


At the time the photo was taken, Nas had released his debut single, entitled “Halftime, in the fall of 1992. MC Serch, who later served as Nas’ manager, reportedly heard “Halftime” during a studio session and put it on the Zebrahead soundtrack that he was executive producing. That led to a record deal with Columbia Records and the rest is Illmatic history.


Having shot over 30 cover photos for The Source in the 1990s, Modu captured everyone from The Notorious B.I.G. to Mobb Deep, Mary J. Blige, and LL Cool J. As a result, the Nigeria-born, New Jersey raised photographer now possesses a remarkable archive of images. From the start, he had a sense that hip hop’s visual culture would be important. A pivotal player in the formative years of hip hop photography, Modu developed strong relationships with the artists he shot, seeing himself both a documentarian and an ally in the early efforts to establish hip hop in both voice and visuals.

The Shoot

“His intelligence screams to you. What I mean by that is that Nas was super intelligent and a thinker. You sensed that when you walked into the room. Even when he was younger, he was mellow and wise. I was post college already and I knew this cat was smarter than me. He grew up fast in that world. To me, he was always an old soul and you can feel that in the images. A kid that grows up in Queensbridge at 18 or 19 is like a 30 year old.”


The Shot

“Shooting Nas in that setting was really cool and that kind of access is rare nowadays. I didn’t think much of it at the time because his bedroom didn’t look that different from mine. I do remember thinking, and still think, about how genius can come out of chaos. In fact, that’s usually where genius comes from. If it survives, that is.

“People don’t always realize the value of images in the moment. Years later, people want to reflect and you can’t force it. There’s a time to reflect on certain imagery to understand what that time was and what it means for history.”


The Camera Nerd Out

“The exterior shots were taken with a Nikon 35mm and the bedroom photos were shot using a Mamiya 6×7 medium format.”

The Q+A

Tell us more about your approach to photography.

My approach to hip hop was to document the movement. I approached it as a photojournalist. As a storyteller. Not a studio or portrait photographer. I keep it professional but when I looked at these young brothers back then I appreciated their energy and they could feel that. I wasn’t viewed as an outsider, I was viewed as an ally. It was a different time. You had to be an ally. The image, that brand that lives forever..sometimes even beyond the music. Pictures are very important and I knew how important they were even as I was taking them. Our generation, those of us who came up in hip hop, changed the world.

What percentage do you think you shoot film vs. digital?

I’m trying try to slide back to shooting 50/50 digital versus analog. There are advantages to digital. But all of my hip hop stuff you see is mostly on slide film. There’s a permanence – and nuance and depth — to film that digital cannot match. I like shooting on the Leica M240 and Leica M7 film camera. I love the Mamiya RZ 6×7, which is what I shot a bunch of covers on. And also the Sinar 4×5 I love too.


Follow Chi Modu on Instagram and and
The Contact High Project, conceived by Vikki Tobak and published 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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