revisiting the golden era of hip-hop with photographer lisa leone

​Lisa Leone witnessed Nas recording 'Illmatic,' the rise of The Fugees and the golden age of hip-hop.

by Oliver Lunn
Feb 18 2016, 4:20pm

No one who grew up in the 90s knew just how beloved the decade would be to those coming of age some 20 years later. No one thought, "Hey, two decades from now, I bet everyone will be wearing denim jeans and flannel shirts, and talking about Clueless and Kids." No one knew just how much nostalgia the very sight of a T-shirt with a picture of TLC on it could induce. What we didn't know back then was just how high we'd be riding the waves of 90s nostalgia in the year 2016.

It's the same for photographer Lisa Leone. She was smack-dab in the middle of that era, photographing decade-defining artists like Nas, The Fugees, House of Pain, Snoop Dogg -- yet she had no idea how important her photographs would be as time capsules of the period some two decades later. In her photobook Here I Am, she lassos a selection of these together, capturing the faces that now encapsulate hip-hop's golden era. I called up Leone to discuss witnessing the genius of Nas first-hand, the energy of New York City in the 90s, transitioning into cinematography and working with the legendary Stanley Kubrick on Eyes Wide Shut.

Back in the early 90s you were photographing artists like Nas and Snoop Dogg. Was there something specific about those artists at that time that you wanted to capture?
I think when you're in a time you don't realize how important the time is. You're just kind of like, 'oh, hey, this is cool!' In the Illmatic sessions [with Nas] there was definitely a vibe in the studio that something special was going on. You could just see as Nas was rapping, it was like, 'wow, something special is happening.' He was like 19 at the time.

Were you a big fan of Nas then?
Well no one really knew who Nas was, because it was his first album. So I wasn't a fan yet. 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. 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.

So you were you in the studio with Nas during the recording of Illmatic. What was that like?
You could just feel something magical was happening. It was the usual studio thing where people were trying to figure stuff out and whatever, but when he was having those moments where he was on the mic, everybody was just quiet, like, woah, this is just insane. Something was happening and people knew right away.

Did he say much to you?
I was there for the day and I remember having a conversation with him about the record company or something. Because he was so young, I remember saying something like, 'do what you want to do, don't let anybody tell you…' not that he was gonna let anybody tell him what to do, but I felt like because I was older, the feeling of seeing this artist and wanting them to do their thing without being parented. In the studio situation, I was taking pictures and once in a while we'd have a quick conversation, but they were working and taking it seriously.

You have to remember, at that time there were no phones, there was no digital, it was all film, there were no other cameras, so it was like one person with a little Leica. Now it would have been like ten people and iPhones and constant photographing, you know. It was very different back then.

Did the artists you worked with have their own ideas about how they wanted to be portrayed?
No. People were a lot less aware of image at the time, I think because there wasn't all this social media, it was a lot more organic, because it was film, you couldn't even see the picture. There wasn't this immediate need to see the image. That feeling hadn't been born yet. Sure, Grandmaster Flash and Furious 5 had their ideas about outfits and their image that they wanted, but that's something different.

Tell me about the shoot with The Fugees up on the rooftop.
We were all up there, and behind me were 25 people running around a rooftop. We were up there filming the "Vocab" video and there was a moment where there was just quiet and I captured the moment. That's the other thing about the difference between digital photography and film: with film, it's not about shooting every second and figuring out what you have later. It's about being in the space and feeling what's happening at that moment and trying to be a part of that and capture that.

Were music videos or films ever an influence on your work back then?
At that point my influences were photographers like Arnold Newman, Cartier-Bresson. I was very interested in reportage, street photography, the work that Arnold Newman was doing photographing artists. Music videos were so new at that time that they weren't an influence at all, because I feel like we were making them and starting the influence. But then, later, cinema became a big influence for me.

Your book Here I Am brings these images together. How do you feel about that time now, looking back?
It's kind of unbelievable. Like I forgot a lot of the pictures I'd taken -- the fact I was in the Illmatic sessions. I'd forgotten that!

That's crazy. 
My friend who's younger than I am is a total hip hop head -- and I was just like, let me see what I've got. And he was looking over my shoulder and was like, 'Are you kidding me?! What are these images? WHAT?!' And I was like, 'oh I forgot about this.' That's cool. Seeing the photos again, there's all this other stuff -- memories of that time, the energy of New York City -- this nostalgia that's kind of gone from New York now. 

And you're a cinematographer too?
Basically I started shooting music videos and then, because I went to work with Stanley Kubrick for four years on Eyes Wide Shut, I stopped shooting music videos. And then when I came back later, music videos were completely different; all of a sudden the budgets were $2 million. (When I was around I shot a TLC video for $250,000 and that was a huge budget.) So after working with Stanley I started to get into directing. And from there I just went into independent features, documentaries and so on.

So what was Kubrick like?
He was great. I started off doing research and then I went over and became a set decorator, I did all the lighting tests and film tests in New York in the second unit. If you were into it -- if you were really into what was happening -- he was very open and sharing and everything. So we just became very close. When you're working on a Kubrick film it's like a student film: there's like six people working on the film! So it gets very intimate. He was amazing, very generous, and you can imagine how much I learned.


Text Oliver Lunn
Photography Lisa Leone

New York
lisa leone