rediscovered photos of the 80s hip-hop scene
Sophie Bramly’s intimate snapshots of Fab 5 Freddy, Afrika Bambaataa and Run–D.M.C sat in a drawer for 30 years.
Run-D.M.C. and DJ Kool Herc
During the early 80s, on Saturday nights at the Roxy in downtown Manhattan and at the Bronx River Center, acts like Run-D.M.C., Afrika Bambaataa and Fab 5 Freddy created a totally new scene in New York. French photojournalist Sophie Bramly moved to New York in 1981, when she was just 21, and began photographing it all - when no one else was paying attention.
"I guess I was a spoiled brat," she says. "I was working at top magazines like Paris Match in France and I didn't realize how rare an opportunity that was. I wanted a change." After a few months in the city, she saw the New York City Breakers at a party in Union Square - "this bunch of guys took the stage and started spinning on their heads, shoulders and backs. I was just, like, "Wow! What is this?" - and suddenly, she says, she felt like Joan of Arc: "I had to photograph this thing and nothing else mattered."
For four years she hung out with some of hip-hop's most legendary pioneers. Her photos, though, look more like snapshots of friends - shot in artists' houses as well as in clubs. They capture all the wild energy of the scene's early years, as well as many of its freshest looks. "My approach was different because we were friends or had friends in common, so I could be trusted," explains Sophie. "Also, there weren't a hell of a lot of people who cared about [these artists] and what they did. The fact that I was a girl, coming all the way from France, probably helped too."
Last week, Walk This Way, a new book of Sophie's images, launched at Colette in Paris. Sophie, who hosted a hip-hop show for MTV Europe when she returned to France (and who now runs an amazing site about female sexuality, secondesexe.com), spoke to i-D about revisiting her images.
Did you know immediately that something important was happening in New York? What was the energy like?
I don't think I did. And I don't think many people can analyze a new artistic movement and figure out that it's going to be important. It had more to do with my instinct. The energy in NYC was mad back then. It wasn't only the music itself, but also - for me at least - it was the fact that it was a bit transgressive: this was music played in the streets by renegades, outlaws. I probably felt like I was rebelling, too.
Where did you hang out back then? What were the best clubs?
I went to the Roxy religiously. I was there from the minute it opened to the minute it closed. It was a huge roller disco in downtown Manhattan that turned into a club once a week, and every hip-hop lover from all five boroughs would be there. It was wild, with incredible DJs (Bambaataa, Red Alert, Jazzy Jay, D.St.) and live acts. It was basically our main spot. Then I would go at least once a year to Bambaataa's Bronx River parties, especially for the anniversaries of the Zulu Nation.
There was such a strong look then - how important was what you wore?
Looks were of major importance. They were a form of social status. Everyone had lots of sneakers and they had to be immaculate white (the idea was "I'm rich enough to have new shoes"). They were mainly Adidas and Puma, as were the sweatpants and jackets. Then I think it was Dapper Dan who came up with the genius idea of creating fake monogrammed Gucci and Vuitton fabrics to make custom clothes for artists. And everybody was wearing large 14-carat gold chains, and the girls had gigantic earrings.
Was hip-hop affecting social conditions in the Bronx? What role did these artists play in the community?
From my perspective, I would say that Bambaataa's idea of telling kids to stop killing each other and direct that energy into whatever talent they thought they had turned out to be magic: to this day, the Zulu Nation has an impressive amount of members around the world, who are all still following that idea. So he was probably a major influence in helping kids find better options than becoming gang members.
How involved were women in the scene?
There were plenty of women in the clubs and at block parties, but very few on stage. The Double Dutch girls were part of the scene, but they were never at the forefront and I don't believe that any one group ever reached fame. One girl, Peaches, was a pretty famous dancer and appeared in the movie Beat Street. Another one, Pink, was a famous graffiti artist and she was a lead character in the cult movie Wild Style. The Sequence was the hottest girl group, but girls were definitely a minority in the scene.
The way men used to see them as either "sisters" or "hoes" probably didn't help. Women probably felt more comfortable somewhere in between. It took time for women like Mary J. Blige, Salt n' Pepa, MC Lyte and others to cut their own paths.
How were your images received when you first brought them back to Europe?
In Europe, we never had segregation, so instead of looking at black people doing something interesting, people here saw a bunch of kids doing interesting things who happened to be black. That made the whole difference, and it was the main reason why the scene was recognized first in Europe and only much later in the US. I surfed that wave: magazines like The Face in the UK or Actuel in France and Wiener in Germany were happy to show photos from inside the scene, by someone who could also help them understand more about it.
After having kept my archives in a drawer for over 30 years, I'm more sensitive to the way people look at the photographs now. Before it was all about being sensational, and now people are moved by the sweetness of it all, I think.
You've done so many interesting things since these pictures were taken. What are you focusing on now? And how does it feel seeing the photos in a book over 30 years later?
I've never had career plans, instead I get moved by things and get carried away by them. In the early 90s, I was all about the Internet, and in the past 10 years it's been all about women's sexuality, and now it's more about transhumanism. After all these years, I can finally see a pattern: empowerment and intimacy are my main subjects.
This book is very important to me because I've always wanted to give back the hip-hop community some of what I took. I can't not share their own souvenirs, not give them back the emotion of that moment, when everything was possible and on the verge of changing so many people's lives.
'Walk This Way' is out now through Galerie 213.
Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Photography Sophie Bramly