Picturing Hip-Hop For more than three decades, Ernie Paniccioli has been photographing many of rap music's most important artists. He's revealing the stories behind some of his best-known photos.
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Picturing Hip-Hop

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Picturing Hip-Hop

Picturing Hip-Hop

Picturing Hip-Hop

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For more than three decades, Ernie Paniccioli has been photographing many of rap music's most important artists. He's revealing the stories behind some of his best-known photos.

Ernie Paniccioli. Getty Images hide caption

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Ernie Paniccioli.

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I'm Farai Chideya. And this NEWS & NOTES.

In hip-hop, the music matters. But so does the image. A lot of rappers like getting in front of the camera as much as being behind the mike. And photographer Ernie Paniccioli is happy to oblige. His book, "Who Shot Ya?: Three Decades of Hip-Hop Photography," captures legendary hip-hop crews, graffiti artists, breakers and modern rap celebrities. Hey, Ernie.

Mr. ERNIE PANICCIOLI, (Hip-Hop Photographer and Author of Who Shot Ya? Three Decades of Hip-Hop Photography): Peace.

CHIDEYA: So I lived back in New York when you had the opening for this show and that was a scene in and of itself, just to see some of the people who were in the pictures, standing in front of the pictures. It was a trip. It was like a mirror. And, you know, being in front of the camera is also the name of the game. It's part of the hype. It's part of the publicity. So what got you behind the camera?

Mr. PANICCIOLI: I started as a painter and an artist. And I became infatuated with the graffiti that was virtually ubiquitous. And I started photographing the graffiti murals and started meeting the people who made them who brought me to the parties and introduced me to Grand Master Flash and Afrika Bambaatta and so on. And that was my entree(ph) into back in the '70s.

CHIDEYA: Almost 20 years ago, you became the chief photographer for the hip-hop magazine, Word Up!, which I totally remember.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: And do you remember your first shoot or any of your early shoots for Word Up!?

Mr. PANICCIOLI: I remember fighting with these three young ladies who were just terrible to work with, and I fell in love with them. That was Salt N' Pepa. And to this day, we still laugh about those early fights because if I tell them to turn right, they turn left. And, you know, it was - they were raw…

CHIDEYA: They would just fight you on general principles, huh?

Mr. PANICCIOLI: Yeah. And to this day, we love each other. We laugh when we, you know, look back at that.

CHIDEYA: Have you ever had a situation where an artist really was out of line in a way that you felt was dangerous to you or completely inappropriate as opposed to just a little cranky or willful?

Mr. PANICCIOLI: No. I've had artists put guns on me, but it was always for photo shoots and things of that nature. I think that I carry myself in such a way that it negates that type of mentality.

CHIDEYA: Now, your personal background is Native American, I think Cree.

Mr. PANICCIOLI: That's correct.

CHIDEYA: And so, how did you, as a Native American, relate to a culture that came out of the black and Latino experience in the Bronx?

Mr. PANICCIOLI: Very, very easy in that most of the people of African descent have some degree of Native American blood, and to a degree that is still controversial all the way around. One thing that was related to tribalism was that when we talk about hip-hop, we think of a rapper, actually I have to break this into the conversation.

Hip-hop is composed of five elements, and all of them are tribal. The MC is basically the griot(ph). The DJ is basically the drummer. The graffiti arts or the aerosol arts is basically what we've always done. We've always done sand paintings and quilts and so and so forth. So that has always been part of our culture, or speaking that storytelling, or oral tradition has always been part of our culture. The DJs, of course, is the drummer, has been part of our culture in Arizona(ph). And the fifth element, which is knowledge, wisdom, over standing, basically was the tribal holy men or the elders or the medicine men.

CHIDEYA: How do you relate to - given all that, the question of how the messages of hip-hop have evolved, I mean, you have seen the three decades of hip-hop unfold, are you worried about it? I mean, there's always this question of, you know, is hip-hop still real? Is hip-hop still connected to the people? Is hip-hop still conscious? How do you fall on issues like that?

Mr. PANICCIOLI: Well, in my book, and I was advised not to write the essay, and in my book, I was very clear that - and I wrote it in 2001, I was very clear that hip-hop was about to become colonized, and that this weapon that we're using to communicate our language, our fears, our troubles or desires is about to be co-opted and used as a weapon against us. Of course, I was advised not to do it. It had nothing to do with hip-hop. It was a political rant, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

What troubles me is that hip-hop, basically, could have been and should have been to some degree a voice for the voiceless and a voice of revolution. And instead, it's become a corporate - selling cars, and hamburgers and T-shirts.

CHIDEYA: Do you think that because of your view, do you think that hip-hop will die eventually? Or be - I mean, you know, I think about a lot of music forms that started in the black community like jazz, like rock and roll. And part of the process was the forms becoming popular, and then crossing over, and then black artists actually taking a backseat often to non-black artists. Do you think that it will be a situation where hip-hop evolves to an unrecognizable point or dies or what will happen?

Mr. PANICCIOLI: I believe that hip-hop has always been with us from the first day, from the first people on the earth, and it'll always be with us. It trends (unintelligible) calls itself different evolutionary things. It calls itself jazz, or it calls itself bebop, or it calls itself punk or Afro-punk. It's always going to be there because it is the combination of our voices or desires and our dreams, and that's art.

And art keeps manifesting whether it's hip-hop or neo-soul or whatever, it's going to always be there. And, yes, it's being co-opted by those who are not part of a struggle that created it.

CHIDEYA: I want to ask you about some of the specific pictures. You've got a picture of Jay-Z and he - how old do you think he was then, because he looks like a baby?

Mr. PANICCIOLI: Yes, he does. And I was at a party in Atlanta that he flew me down to. And he came up to me with all bunch of - he's all posse and it looked like he's about to get into a fight with me. And he says, is that your picture with the gold teeth, that picture of me? I said, yeah, why? He said, you're getting paid for that? I said, yeah, why? He says, good, get your money, man. And he gave me a big hug and he broke into a smile.

And this is the funniest thing you're going to hear all day. He said, keep getting that money. I said, thank you, I will. And he says, you know, basically, I have no shame in my game. That was me. That's what I look like. I said, good, because I'm going to keep publishing the picture. And then he threatened me. He said, you better be careful. I said, why. He said, because if you remember, I had a camera back in those days, too.

CHIDEYA: Oh, that's funny. He's going to try to take over your game.

Mr. PANICCIOLI: Because I have pictures of you, too, Ernie.

CHIDEYA: Oh, that's great. What about your photograph of Mos Def?

Mr. PANICCIOLI: That was at a video shoot with Q-tip from A Tribe Called Quest. I think it was called "Body Rock." And that was the first time I met him. And Q-tip told me, he said, man, you got to watch this guy. You got to listen to him. He's amazing. And Q-tip is basically a laidback guy and I've never heard him basically be a fan of anybody like that. And, of course, his words rang(ph) true.

CHIDEYA: You've got this classic picture of Queen Latifah that just says queen. What was that like?

Mr. PANICCIOLI: Wow. Unfortunately, she didn't carry on with that proud tradition, but she created a culture. It was so strong and so powerful, and just so people know that we are here, and we're not going anywhere, and we are beautiful, and we do have our roots traced to Africa, and we do have a continuum in America. Visually, it was like one of the most stunning shoots that I'd ever done. It was a low, you know, very low budget.

It was me, her and a camera and some paintings in the background. And I was really taken with her, and she's very strong. And we hung out a long time after that. She's very strong, very, very assertive, very clear-headed person and she was - what? - 17 or 18 when we did that shoot.

CHIDEYA: Well, Ernie, we got to let you go, but it was a pleasure.

Mr. PANICCIOLI: Thank you very much. I'd like to…

CHIDEYA: Photographer Ernie Paniccioli, his book is "Who Shot Ya?: Three Decades of Hip-hop Photography."

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