The Godfather of hip-hop photography.
A trip last February to the Beautiful Losers exhibition, Milan, highlighted that our potted history of the record covers wasn’t exactly watertight. We realised we had missed out influential heads, and furthermore might be wrong in theorising that the evolution of music packaging has lead to visuals being fine art. Perhaps it hasn’t been a linear progression, maybe it was down to different philosophies producing different types of work. Bonafide decided that the best thing to do would be to go back in the day and speak to an OG creative heavyweight. That someone was George DuBose.
DuBose has been producing record covers for over 30 years. He was the first photographer to shoot Madonna, is credited with most of The Ramones covers and produced important record covers for ‘80s and ‘90s hip-hop pioneers such as Biz Markie, Big Daddy Kane and RUN DMC. We caught up with the godfather of hip-hop photography and asked him about his colourful life in film and his approach to creating iconic artwork.
How did you become involved in photography and what has driven your career?
As the result of a happy LSD trip in college, I decided to change my life’s direction from the study of law to the study of photography. My photography career has been focused on making my clients look their best in a photograph. The graphic design aspect to my work came much later when I was encouraged by Tony Wright, the creative director of Island Records to design my own projects after I had taken the photo. Needless to say, I always treat the photos that I am designing with respect and let the photo influence the rest of the overall design.
You have worked with many people from what is an iconic age. Your images, especially from the Cold Chillin era, essentially document the birth of hip-hop music. Can you summarise your initial feeling about working with hip-hop artists?
At first, I thought that hip-hop was a part of ‘new wave’. I was part of the ‘downtown’ art scene and would hang out at the Mudd Club, CBGBs and when I was on the guest list, Studio 54. At the Mudd Club we were exposed to a wide variety of contemporary music, Blondie’s ‘Rhapsody’, ‘White Lines’, Man Parrish and other hip hop music was often played, but we hadn’t heard the expression ‘hip-hop’ nor were we aware of the roof parties in the South Bronx. Unless you knew somebody going to these parties, it was ‘no-man’s land’. Several of the hip-hop artists, like Fab Five Freddy, would come and hang out with us in the Mudd Club.
It was my later work with XCLAN that led me to realise the depth of messaging that some hip-hop artists were trying and able to attain. From the view of lyrical politics, I am still surprised that Lumumba Carson and XCLAN even BEGAN to work with me at all. In the end, they made me feel as if I was an important member of the XCLAN, owing to the fact that I pulled the covers together in such a powerful way that reflected their philosophy, even though that
philosophy could never be mine.
Following on from this did you think the legacy of those artists would stretch so far and create such a powerful culture?
Absolutely not, my generation was used to seeing trends come and go, it was just another trend to us. I am still surprised at the universal appeal that hip-hop has around the world and that it has become one of the longest lasting musical genres…. ever!
Was your interest in hip-hop purely musical or did you take any interest in graffiti and break dancing?
My interest in hip-hop was purely from a professional point of view. My only contact with hip-hop artists was at their photo shoots or the necessary creative meetings for those covers. I was interested in graffiti and worked with Rammellzee and Bil Blast, I often saw break dancing on public display around Times Square, but I wasn’t involved in the culture. I did photograph the New York City Breakers for their publicity shots. Hip-hop was all around me, but I wasn’t recognising it as a separate culture. It all seemed ‘new wave’ to me.
In our correspondence you mentioned that, in reference to a creative approach, your philosophy, as opposed to the work of Saville, Ehqhestionmark etc to creating artwork for records is quite different. Can you elaborate and explain exactly what you try to achieve when you are commissioned to do artwork for a record?
Some designers are content to flex their creative muscles and produce wonderful designs that have absolutely nothing to do with the style of music contained in the subsequent package. These designers think that the cover is an outlet for THEIR creativity. The musician has little or no input. The buying public is not influenced by the cover to buy the music. The buyer most likely already knows what music is contained therein and would buy the record in a brown paper wrapper.
By having creative meetings with the musician, I find it possible to listen to their music and get inside the musician’s head. Further discussions with the artist will allow the art director to conjure up images that reflect the artist’s lifestyle and the music he/she is recording.
Assembling all this input, it is possible for me as a photographer to come up with photographic images that reflect the musical style, the style of the artist themselves, their taste in clothing, their environment or the environment where they would like to live, the car they would like to drive, etc.
This gives the musician the feeling that the package is ‘his/hers’. I want my artists to be as proud of our package as they are of their music. That’s the way it is supposed to work, n’est-ce pas?
As the art director of Cold Chillin, what kind of image were you trying to project about the artists and the music being produced?
It varied from artist to artist. Biz, we tried to capture his humor and class clown image. Kane, we always tried to depict as Black Caesar in the lap of luxury. Shante, we tried to glamourise her. Kool G. Rap and DJ Polo along with Grand Daddy IU, we tried to give them the ‘gangster’ image, sometimes the gangster fashion look of the 1930s or in some cases, a modern gangster look, as on the cover of “Live and Let Die”, cop-killing ninjas. Without guns…
From the beginning, I always tried to give my hip-hop artists images that would be comprehendible by the massive white youth market in the US. I finally and clearly achieved this goal when I executed the cover of ‘The Diabolical Biz Markie’. We put Biz in a white afro, looking like a mad scientist. The video company turned the white afro into a white powdered wig and put Biz, as Mozart, playing a clavichord. The song was ‘Just a Friend’ and when one day I heard a white guy humming the melody in a NY deli, I knew that Biz had finally crossed over. It was the video and the white wig that MTV played that got Biz his first gold record…
Excerpt taken from Bonafide Magazine issue 01. Grab a copy here and read the rest of the piece.