Sure Shot: Photographer George Dubose on Big Daddy Kane, Biz Markie, and Mainstream Hip Hop
You may not recognize his name, but you've more than likely marveled at this New York City-based photographer's iconic images.
Have a conversation with this New York City-based photographer, and you’ll get the pleasure of discussing a diverse cross-section names, including Andy Warhol, The B-52s, The Ramones, Madonna, and Kool G. Rap. Get comfortable, throw on your favorite pair of Cazal shades, leather biker jacket, or bangle-style wrist bracelets and enjoy these tales of what is easily one of the coolest eras of music from one of the coolest places pop culture has ever seen.
Mass Appeal: So, New York City in the ’80s. What were you doing there, and how did you fall into what was then a very vibrant underground and mainstream musical scene?
George Dubose: I wanted to be a portrait photographer. I wanted to go to photography school, but I realized the best way to get practice was to be a fashion photographer and do catalogs and advertising photos. I also liked music a lot, and my bosses would let me borrow their cameras to go out to jazz clubs and photograph musicians. I had a deal with one club in Brooklyn that let me have full access to the venue if I gave them 16 x 20 inch prints to decorate the club. While doing that, I photographed Eddie Palmieri and others. My heart wasn’t in jazz music, I liked rock ‘n’ roll.
I was invited one evening to go see a group play at Max’s Kansas City, by some friends who worked for Andy Warhol’s Interview Magazine to see a group from Georgia called The B-52s. When they asked me to come along, I explained that I didn’t have any money, and they explained that I was on the guest list, so I could get in for free. I took my boss’ camera, went to Max’s Kansas City and photographed The B-52’s first New York City appearance. That was the beginning point for me as a music photographer.
So, insofar as that era, when you’re taking these iconic photos, were you cognizant of how incredible they were, or were you just taking pictures?
I was just taking pictures! I liked music and I liked photographing music. I wasn’t really making any money [for taking photos] at the time, it was just something that I liked to do.
You spoke about Andy Warhol, and I wanted to ask about his influence on music and on the scene in general. He was a patron of so many clubs and had very diverse tastes. What about Andy allowed him to define what was cool in that era? How did his tastes affect things?
I think Andy was just a really curious person. Some people see something new and they turn up their noses and act shy, while others see something new and they get really curious and investigate it further. Andy was the latter. In those days in New York City, there was so much new happening. Kraftwerk was coming over from Germany, punk rock was coming from The Ramones, hip hop was coming from the South Bronx, there was so much different new stuff. I just lumped it all into a new wave. The first time I heard “Planet Rock” by the Soulsonic Force, that was Kraftwerk’s music, so to me, hip hop was just another kind of new wave music.
So, you’re well known as a hip hop photographer and attended many hip hop shows in those early days. I was hoping that you’d be able to really explain how hip hop fit into New York City nightlife. Things are so separated now, but back then, it wasn’t. How did it all work? How did these disparate scenes coexist?
In the past 20 years, young people have gotten very specific about what music they listen to. Speed metal versus heavy metal, electronic body music versus techno, I can’t keep up all of the nuances. Back then, hip hop was just another type of new wave music. My first exposure was “Planet Rock” by Soulsonic Force,” and then I started working with Biz Markie and he was doing the beatbox thing and the lyrics were funny, I mean, I didn’t know that it was different.
I never went to the South Bronx house parties where DJ Kool Herc started mixing instrumental tracks with his own raps. The whole New York scene was just one kind of new thing. There weren’t any “hip hop clubs” in like 1978 or 1979. I’d go to the Mudd Club, and they’d play hip hop, Michael Jackson, Kraftwerk, just a big mix of stuff.
In examining your shots, one major thing stands out. Rappers have a different way of interacting with your camera than performers from any other genre. To you, what about rappers made taking their photos a different experience?
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. The Talking Heads and The B-52s, they thought they were cool. The Ramones, they were just their own thing, and cool didn’t matter. But Biz Markie and Big Daddy Kane and Kool G. Rap, they had a fantasy vision of how they wanted to be portrayed in a photo. Oftentimes it was taking the name of the record or a concept from the musician.
Big Daddy Kane had written some songs for Biz Markie for Biz’s first album (1988’s Goin Off), so I knew Kane would be a success. Kane was 19 when we shot his first album cover. We had a meeting at Cold Chillin’ Records’ offices, and Kane told me the idea for the first cover was that he wanted to be carried on a chair with poles by two big black guys in the front and two big black guys in the back. There were also four dancing girls in front of the whole thing throwing flowers with four dancing girls behind throwing flowers. So, my first question to Kane was, “Where am I going to shoot this production? Central Park?” There were like 16 people involved, plus himself. As well, even on 12-inch vinyl, I explained to Kane that his face would be far away. He’s a good looking guy, so the girls should want to see what he looks like.
We distilled his idea of being Black Caesar into him sitting on a throne with three slave girls with the scene done up in purple and gold to give it a royal feeling. I took Kane’s idea and worked it down to a workable image for packaging.
Amazing. So, I wanted to also ask about artists you saw for the first time through your lens, and before hearing them sing or seeing them dance, you knew immediately that they were a star. Like, you look at the shots you took of Madonna, and her star quality is obvious. Were there any others?
I’ve been listening to music since I was five years old and I’ve always been into the newest music. I grew up in the south in Atlanta, Georgia and Chattanooga, Tennessee, and I listened to my transistor radio. So, I have a good idea of what’s been done. When you see something new, it’s a big plus. Then, you see someone doing something similar to something that had been done before, like Madonna. I knew that her singing was okay, but she had this sexiness about her that she seemed nervous about, but the star quality was there. It was the same with Big Daddy Kane. He just was a cool guy. He was laid back and quiet, but he had deep thoughts and it worked.
I wanted to get back to talking about artists you shot, namely Kool G. Rap. The photos you took of him are really graphic for that era. There’s guns, he’s hanging people, it’s violent. What were those shoots like?
Kool G. Rap wasn’t one of the rappers I was close to. Let’s just put it that way. I worked with him on several occasions, and I didn’t know much about his background. He had ideas that were outlaw. We had one cover concept meeting and his idea for “Live And Let Die” was to be robbing a bank, and he wanted to point of view to be from a surveillance camera inside the bank. He wanted that black-and-white, grainy video from back in the day of a bank surveillance camera as he and DJ Polo were robbing a bank. They had me running around for two weeks to find a bank location. I tried to find a bank that would let us shoot, but I was having zero luck. Instead, I turned the idea around to being the inside of a Brinks money truck with big stacks of money sitting inside of the truck, with the doors open and there’s Kool G. Rap and DJ polo blasting away with the most high-tech pistols we could rent from the armory. G. Rap was cool with that idea. However, when I presented it to Cold Chillin’, the product manager said that unfortunately, the weapons distributor in Texas said that no more guns for rappers could be sold through their chains. Walmart was also saying, “No more rappers with guns.” So, we couldn’t have them rob a bank or a Brinks truck.
I turned the idea into G. Rap and Polo hanging two narcotics agents. The agents were standing on chairs that were connected to chains that were connected to rottweilers. The dogs would pull the chains and the chains would pull the chairs, the chairs would fall away from the agents’ legs, and the agents would be hanged. This was a long way around to having a cover that would make G. Rap happy, that being him killing a couple of narcs, without the use of guns.
Wow. Okay. There’s two different eras of rap that you worked in, that being the ’80s and the early ’90s. What were the differences you noticed as you saw rap beginning to cross over into the mainstream?
First off, there was no hip hop fashion. It didn’t exist. Biz and some of the other rappers would go to Dapper Dan in Harlem and custom make clothing. On one of Biz’s first covers I did, he’s wearing leather short pants and a leather short sleeve shirt with Louis Vuitton luggage logos printed all over him. I told him he looked like a walking suitcase. I remember the first time MC Shan came out with some Karl Kani clothing and that was totally new in the market. It was significant because that was the first time I’d seen “hip hop clothing.”
At the beginning, hip hop was underground music, and as it gained popularity it went from small labels like Sleeping Bag Records, Profile Records, and Cold Chillin’ Records, and then the major labels saw the success of rap’s record sales—but not a lot of radio play—and they got interested and started picking up the labels. Warner Brothers picked up Cold Chillin’, and I could see that hip hop was starting to not cross over yet, but getting more popular. The first crossover I saw really was after I did the cover for Biz Markie’s Diabolical Biz Markie album. The front cover is a mad scientist. Well, that’s supposed to be the back cover. The picture on the front was supposed to be of a cereal box with Biz eating breakfast with DJ Cool V with musical instruments falling out of the cereal box like Christmas tree ornaments into a bowl. The name of the cereal would be “Diabolical Crunch.”
When the album was released, they did a video for what they thought would be the hit song, “Just A Friend.” The video company saw the mad scientist picture with Biz in a white wig and they turned that around into Biz as Mozart playing a clavichord singing “Just A Friend.” I’ll never forget that video being out for one or two weeks and I was standing in a New York City deli waiting to pay for my ham sandwich and this white guy in front of me mentions “Just A Friend.” I said, “Holy shit, it’s crossed over.” It was the first time I’d realized that hip hop had broken out of the box. It was on MTV, and it had crossed over to the white youth of America.
All Biz’s covers were of a clownish nature, which was more palatable to white America than Public Enemy with targets.
That’s quite telling. In any event, I wanted to finish up here by asking your thoughts about photography in the modern age. Between Facebook and Instagram, imaging for artists is a very different sort of industry now. Your thoughts about this development?
You mean the one-inch picture of an album cover that downloads with your iTunes so you can see what the cover looks like on your iPhone? Well, it means that my career is over. I’m living in Germany now, and the music scene in Cologne, where I live, allows me the ability to shoot bands on-stage all day long and do CD covers. I still do work for back issue releases or when artists need CD covers or have vinyl releases. To be honest with you, I have no idea what’s happening with these newer artists. I hear what’s new and I like a lot of it, but I couldn’t tell you what these people look like. I don’t use iTunes, I don’t listen to MP3s. CD is as far as I want to get, and I listen to vinyl when I can.
Prints from George Dubose’s vast collection of photographs are currently available via Peabody, Massachusetts-based company House of Roulx.