intimate images of biggie and the fugees from hip hop's golden age
In the 1980s and 90s, native New Yorker Lisa Leone became one of the nascent genre’s critical documentarians simply by being present in its collaborative culture. Now, she shares rarely exhibited portraits of hip hop golden age artists in Berlin.
Hip hop and Lisa Leone share a birthplace: the Bronx. And much like the genre's pioneering DJs, MCs, graffiti artists, and breakdancers from the borough, the photographer wasn't aware of the larger cultural impact her creative output would make in the decades to come. Leone spent the late 80s and 90s documenting what's now considered hip hop's golden age, a richly collaborative period in which some of the most enduring superstars (among them Biggie Smalls, Nas, Lauryn Hill, and Mary J. Blige) were just young New Yorkers with something to say. How You Like Me Now? — a new exhibition of Leone's portraits from this period now on display at HVW8 Gallery's Berlin outpost — is a unique window into hip hop's culture and community captured at its most critical moment of transition: the final days before it exploded into the global mainstream.
"I grew up as a B-girl with Rock Steady, with Fabel — so it was kind of like I was involved in hip hop before it hit the world, I guess," Leone told i-D earlier this year. "It was more like a community back then, everyone knew each other, it wasn't so guarded, it was really open to a creative flow like, 'hey, what are you doing? There's a studio, there's a music video set, could you do this, could you do that?' There was an excitement about what was happening." That spirit of creative collaboration led Leone to document what have become some pretty defining moments in hip hop culture: she captured a 19-year-old Nas in the studio recording his debut album Illmatic with Q-Tip and Large Professor (Leone's photographs appear to be the only visual record of the seminal sessions). An image she considers her best was taken behind-the-scenes of one of The Fugees's first music videos, Vocab. It shows the legendary Lauryn Hill and Wyclef Jean perched on a Harlem rooftop in a moment of stillness.
How You Like Me Now? collects these candid moments. In doing so, it sketches both a city and a hip hop community that, largely, no longer exist. As hip hop hit the mainstream, it became a multi-billion dollar business; many lyrics no longer seek to communicate sociopolitical street realism, but larger-than-life cash flows. And, as anyone paying rent in NYC right now can attest, the days of dirt cheap creative production in an even dirtier city are long over. Leone's photographs transport us back to that time and place, when raw new voices and visions ruled the Rotten Apple.
How You Like Me Now? is on view at HVW8 Berlin through November 12, more information here.
Text Emily Manning
Photography Lisa Leone