The Real Story of How That Nas and Tupac Photo Was Discovered
Inside the week we all caught a Contact High
Last year our good friend, journalist and producer, Vikki Tobak started the Contact High Project. Rooted in a belief that there were stories to tell not just about hip hop’s most iconic images, but also about the shots that weren’t chosen as the shoot’s main selects, as well as about the photographers and the shoots themselves. The idea became a weekly MASS APPEAL column, Contact High, which launched in June 2016 with an interview with Janette Beckman about her 1989 shoot with Slick Rick.
Earlier this year, Tobak landed a deal to turn the column into a book: Contact High: Hip-Hop Visual Culture, set for a Fall 2018 pub date through Random House/Clarkson Potter. In September, the Contact High Project was featured in the Photoville exhibit at Brooklyn Bridge Park. And then this week, the Contact High Project broke the hip hop internet when Tobak discovered and then posted a never-before-seen photo by Al Pereira (currently a photographer for the New York Jets, who’s also embroiled in a lawsuit with Kendall and Kylie Jenner over that weird line of shirts) of a young Nas with a young Pac at a party at OG NYC spot, Club Amazon in 1993. Though other images from that shoot had been seen, including shots of Biggie with Redman, and the night itself was forever immortalized in hip hop history as the night Biggie and Pac kicked it at the Palladium, the shots of Nas and Pac together shocked heads around the world, and even surprised Nas himself.
Here, we catch up with Tobak to find out exactly how she discovered the shot now seen around the world and all things Contact High.
So let’s talk about the discovery of this photo.
Well, there’s this one image that’s out there with Biggie and Tupac. It’s super well known, and Redman is in it too. So I said to the photographer, “Show me the contact sheet for that image.” The photographer is Al Pereira. He shot hip hop a ton back in the day, but then he put away all his contact sheets for awhile because he went to go work for the [New York] Jets. But he has his stuff super organized, so he sent it to me. I was looking at it with the other shot in mind, the Biggie and Tupac one. So I was looking at it and there’s a lot of people on it and I noticed in one of the photos it was Nas…like a baby Nas. This was a year before Illmatic even came out. [Pereira] puts these great little stickers on his stuff, which not a lot of photographers do, so I got to see what it was and what day it was shot.
You discovered the picture!
But by accident ! I was like, Oh cool! There’s a baby Nas! Everyone was like, Holy shit! A photo of them together hadn’t existed! So I didnt know that until the internet told me. I actually didn’t know that a picture didn’t exist of Nas and Tupac, so when I was putting it up, it was kind of in the spirit of like, Hey, Nas was there too! Like, look at what you uncover when you look at contact sheets! So that was really like a surprise for me, too.
What was Pareira’s reaction when you told him Nas had been in the photos?
I’m like, I think that’s Nas. Is that Nas? And I texted him and I’m like, Do you know you have Nas in these contact sheets? He’s like, Oh, I remember being annoyed that all these people were getting in my shot, because at the time really only Redman and Pac were the only famous people. I totally didn’t even think about Nas back then because it was before Illmatic and I was really trying to get Tupac.
You can even see where he made a mark where he was gonna crop it, like a Diddy crop! He wanted to only get the two famous people in there. And that’s the spirit of the project, to see how the photographers made their selections. I just thought it was so funny that he was going to put this cropped photo out.
But before digital photography, photographers would just shoot on the same roll, so you could see where they were.
So what happened when this photo hit the internet?
So, I have an Instagram account and I didnt want to put the whole sheet on there because I wanted to save it for the book. So I just put up this frame and captioned it something like, “When you haven’t looked at a contact sheet for years and realize Nas was there too,” and all of a sudden the internet explodes with, It’s fake. This is fake. This is totally fake.
Everyone thought it was Photoshop, right?
Everyone thought it was Photoshop. Pete Rock reposted it and then he was like, I don’t know if it’s real. I was reading the comments and literally everyone was like, It’s fake. So I posted another picture and I was like, Everyone is saying this is fake. You guys want receipts? Let me show you this. Then people started slowly believing and reposting. Then it went viral, and a lot of people were hitting up Nas to confirm it. I think even he thought it was fake for a while because I guess he didn’t remember that day.
Another thing, a lot of people were saying that this was from the Palladium from a concert that happened this night. There was a concert at Palladium. There’s a bunch of photos of Pac that night, but I don’t think Nas came to [that show]. So the photographer, he shot the DJ battle, then he went to this party at Club Amazon, which is where he got the first contact sheet. Then he went to a party at Palladium later in the night and that’s where Pac performed. So a lot of people who believe the photo was real were saying that it was from that night at the Palladium, but it wasn’t. It was two different events, but the same night. You can see a ton of people were there: Chuck D, Flava Flav, KRS-One. Also, this was a good friend of Nas’ that died, Draws. Nas posted about it. Two of the guys in the photo are good friends of his from Queensbridge.
So what’s usually your process when uncovering all of these photos? How do you usually go about it?
I usually find a photo that’s well known and that we’ve all seen. Sometimes it’s an album cover, sometimes it’s a magazine cover or sometimes it’s just a photo. And then I usually reach out to the photographer and just interview them about it and get them to pull their archive and go through it. What I love about it is that you know the main image. But it was really cool to see Nas’ really close friend at the time right next to him, or the person that was standing five feet away, or like seeing Puffy look on as Biggie and Redman are hugging. All those moments that aren’t necessarily good photos, but they tell a story. It’s like watching a movie. I just feel like photographers are so unsung and that’s why I started doing this. They were there documenting this stuff. Also, these guys weren’t famous yet, so what made you leave your house at night with your camera and spend the whole night taking these pictures? Like did you know? A lot of them were like, I was just such a fan of hip hop. Nobody wanted to run these pictures, so to do this you really had to love it and feel it. You hear about the artists obviously, but the photographers that documented this, I just want to celebrate them.
So do you have anything juicy in the book you think the readers are really going to be looking forward to?
There are gonna be a lot of images in there that are gonna have people like Wow! Like Kanye’s College Dropout and Dilla outtakes. Oh, and also the recording of Illmatic in the studio. So there’s a lot of good stuff!