discover unseen images of biggie smalls in dj semtex’s brilliant new book
This coffee table tome reveals iconic rare imagery and examines the art and the artistry of hip-hop culture.
As a DJ, broadcaster, and now author, DJ Semtex is not only one of the world's very best of disk-spinners, he's also played a part in the careers of everyone from Dizzee Rascal to Kanye West. An influential figure whose own contribution to the culture continues to be key, it seems fitting that the latest study of hip-hop comes from the Manchester born DJ. Hip Hop Raised Me is a beautiful dedication to the beautiful culture spanning five decades and a wealth of topics, from dissecting the success of Dr. Dre or considering the curse of the white rapper. The book is bursting with rare imagery from the likes of Normski, Janette Beckman, Nabil Elderkin, and Eddie Otchere. Semtex talks i-D though his unique take on the Bronx-born culture.
Semtex wrote most of the book — initially 80,000 words, later cut down to 48,000 — in Shoreditch House.
"Actually mostly under that clock in the corner," he notes. "It's wrong to say it was easy because it was a lot of hard work, but it came together in a pretty straightforward way," he says of the 450 page tome that features over 1000 illustrations and commissions from infamous Bronx collective Tats Cru and London tagger Pref iD. "It was a really rewarding experience because it made me realize a lot about myself and how much of an impact hip-hop has had on me. Hip-hop is everything I do, basically. When I traced it back, it all started from graffiti, getting up, tagging, all of that. Everything stems from hip-hop. So there was some self-evaluation involved in making this book, and at the same time, it was good to recall what did happen, historically, and how's that affected what's happening now — particularly in the UK and the success that British MCs are now experiencing."
Hip Hop Raised Me is, in a way, inspired by Kanye West's infamous car crash of 2002.
"I didn't set out to do a hip-hop book," says Sem. "Apart from [Jay Z's] Decoded and the Chuck D biog, none of these hip-hop books meant anything to me because I felt like they were either dewy-eyed interpretations or very patronizing." He wanted to create something more meaningful that made sense of his own story. As a young teen, Semtex lost his arm — an experience he details in Hip Hop Raised Me —and began to consider how his own experiences, and that of a certain Chicago rhymer, may be relatable in book form to other people. "I'm a massive Kanye West fan and in Through the Wire he talks about the car crash that nearly killed him. He says, I turned tragedy to triumph. That line has always resonated with me. I thought about taking 10 really inspiring stories from 10 big names and really going into the details of how they turned their lives around, in the same way I was forced to after losing my arm. I thought that might be a subject that would inspire kids to want to pick up a book." The book's publishers, Thames & Hudson, liked the concept but wanted Semtex to widen the scope, and instead focus the book more broadly on hip-hop and less on the individual stories.
But that was a daunting idea.
"I was like 'Nah, I'm not writing a hip-hop book. It's like writing religious scriptures, you can't touch that!" But then another line in another song sparked a different idea. "I'm a massive fan of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis fan; "Can't Hold Us" is one of my favorite tracks. There's a line that says, That's what you get when Wu-Tang raised you.' It made me think, 'Public Enemy raised me, and beyond that, hip-hop raised me.' So that's where I came up with the title. I thought it was the most respectful way to do the book, covering the culture from my perspective. I've done a lot of things over the years, be it breakdancing in youth clubs, DJing raves on the grimiest Cheetham Hill estate, to doing club shows, festivals, touring with Dizzee. I've interviewed people all over the world and got an insight into people's success at very key points in their careers." So it's a collection of all he's seen and experienced over the last three decades as a hip-hop head. "Yeah, it's basically everything I've ever said on air, in an interview, or even at the end of a night in a club talking shit. There's been a lot of those; me and Clara Amfo at Deviation Carnival afterparty talking about Yeezus for an hour. Me, Benji B, and Saskilla in a club had the deepest convo about the various strands of rap — Shoreditch rap, shank shank rap [laughs], and so on. That's what the book is; all of these conversations and experiences I've had over the years."
Chuck D wrote the foreword (nbd).
Over the years, Semtex has established close relationships with both hip-hop legends and upcoming upstarts; from touring the world with Dizzee to helping Kanye to break Europe, he's earned the respect of many of your favorite rappers' favorite rappers. When it came to finding someone to pen the book's forward, he headed to the top of the hip-hop chain to a figure who has been a key influence since his teenage years. "I wrote Chuck a detailed email laying everything out that I wanted to do with the book. A day later, I got a 'yes' and a few days later his words dropped into my inbox. As someone who has been incredibly inspired by Public Enemy, I felt so lucky, so blessed."
Many of the images in the book haven't been seen before.
Normski, Eddie Otchere, and even new kids on the block like Ciesay and Soulz from Places + Faces contributed never, or rarely seen, imagery to Hip Hop Raised Me. "I'm not a deeply religious guy but I'm a believer in things happening for a reason," Sem decides of procuring pictures that could have cost thousands to clear. "The way I met Normski as a teenager [in the late 80s when Normski was in Manchester to cover Public Enemy's first UK shows] and we developed the relationship over years and years. It got to where I can call him and say 'I'm doing a book' and he turned up with an entire catalogue. That doesn't happen. His images tell a story of the late 80s, early 90s when hip-hop was popping off over here [in the UK]. That's the thing; most of these shots haven't been seen before. Most of the people around the world haven't seen a lot of these pictures. It's a moment in time." Otchere's images of Wu-Tang and Biggie are similarly striking and also rarely seen. "I showed Raekwon the book the other day, and he looked at the images that Eddie took when they first came to the UK — he'd never seen them. There are shots of Biggie from when he first came over here. He looks like he's in Brooklyn but he's not, he's in Shepherd's Bush."
Reactions to the book have been varied — and unexpected.
"There's only so many times you can say 'I've got a book out can you social it,' so I wanted to do something different and shoot artists' reactions," says Sem of steering away from the usual social media messaging for the book's promotion. He's been fascinated to watch — and film — reactions when giving rappers the book for the first time. "The things the MCs pick up on is stuff you would never dream of asking them about. I showed [the book] to Lil Yachty and he started talking about how important Flava Flav was. Given how much bullshit he's been getting lately, and here he was talking about Flava's style, the music of Public Enemy, everything. To film him reading the book, studying the images of Flava Flav, it's deep. Danny Brown was talking about how he grew up listening to Boy In Da Corner, which in itself blows my mind. It's really cool to see how the book brings out other people's reactions and their experiences of being raised on hip-hop. That's what I was trying to do — make it more inclusive than some sort of definitive tome according to me."
He might not have two hands with which to scratch and mix, but Semtex is your favorite DJ's favorite DJ.
"I'm better than DJs with two arms — I shit on DJs with two arms. I mix with my mouth! I'm a problem out here," laughs Sem. "I love DJing more than anything else; I always want to go harder than the next person. Nothing will get in my way of what I want to do. People have been through worse. The reason I've never spoken about my arm before, is because no one ever asked — probably about 30 people throughout my life have ever asked. I wanted to talk about it in the book because I wanted to give it a context; I wanted to show how I turned something into nothing, a negative into a positive. You can do whatever you want. You can either sit at home and internalize it, or go out there and kill it." You can guess which option he chose. "You've got to encourage people to come through and encourage people that they can do it too," he insists. "Because a lot of people think you can't. You have to keep putting stories out there and inspiring people in as many ways as possible. This book explains why I'm doing what I'm doing. Like, I could really run for Prime Minister, if I wanted to. I really could. Any of these people out here could be a person that changes everything. You can turn your life around at any point, if you choose to."
Hip Hop Raised Me, published by Thames & Hudson is out today and available here.
Text Hattie Collins