February 27, 2018

Sitting Down with Chi Modu

World-renowned photographer and documentarian Chi Modu speaks on his iconic snaps and what led him to become a hip-hop great.

Sitting Down with Chi Modu

World-renowned photographer Chi Modu — most known for his iconic hip-hop snaps — continues to convey incredible stories, documenting diverse lifestyles around the world, all through the lens of a camera.

Photography and hip-hop have always been deep passions of mine, and two things I’ve always gravitated towards.

The idea of telling a story through a carefully-captured single moment in time was mind-blowing. Equally interesting was the ability to bend the rules of grammar and tell story through rhythm and poetry.

A pillar in the documentation of hip-hop history, Chi Modu comes from humble beginnings. Chi is someone who documented the hip-hop movement, nearly three decades ago, and captured iconic moments and pictures of larger-than-life personas. The legends of the game. He now continues to travel the world and document other movements and stories.

His name may not ring a bell, but his work has left a massive hand-print in the concrete of hip-hop history. A history that continues to grow and evolve daily.

In the same way hip-hop can transport the listener into a world of thought they may not have lived through or have first-hand experience of, photography is able to expose and share insight of a moment in the same way, where the viewer can appreciate the art.

Being a hip-hop head for many years, it always shocked me — the amount of people who knew of Chi Modu’s photographs, but had no idea who took them. It’s often the case, with many aspects of hip-hop and beyond, that the most important figures are often found outside of the picture.

The opportunity to interview Chi Modu came up. In a quest to delve into his thoughts about photography, hip-hop, and life in general —I took it.

Grand Master Flash, Afrika Bambataa, and DJ Kool Herc; often referred to as the Founding Fathers of Hip-Hop
Gang Starr (Guru and DJ Premier) on the 6 Train
Master P for Lugz; a game-changer for business in hip-hop

Getting Down to Business

Coming up on three decades in the game, you’re considered by many to be the most iconic hip-hop documentary photographer of all-time — a pioneer in your lane. What’s the most gratifying aspect of your success, aside from being able to convey a message or tell a story through your art?

I found that the camera has been an incredible tool for me to help spread the message of hip-hop. Photographers have a responsibility with this skill that we have to use it to educate others and take them into a world that they might not know that much about looking at it from a distance. I find a camera takes you little bit closer and once people get a little closer to things, they tend to get a better understanding for them.

I think that brings the world together. Exposing, documenting, sharing, and showing your world opens it up to others to understand it a little better without having to live in it. I think it pushes back on some of the judgment that often comes from a distance once you get a look inside.

Along with bringing the world together, you really love to embrace new technology. How has that changed the way you work?

Well, photography is still photography. That’s what the people get a little bit confused today. Although we now have digital photography and people have camera phones in their pocket, it’s still the concept of using light to illustrate things. Photography is referred to as the art and science of painting with light. The light hasn’t changed in over a million years.

Photography still has the same core concepts behind it. Composition is still the same as it ever was. I think what technology has done for me, it’s allowed me to spread my work farther and wider and made a lot more people aware of what I’ve done.

I mean, it’s gone as far as Southeast Asia, South America, and has allowed me to reach six continents around the globe. The win is when you can use technology to expand the reach of one’s photography. Social media, especially Instagram, has made this possible at a scale never before seen.
This would become the cover of Snoop’s 15th studio album 24 years later; “Neva Left”
Eazy-E in Compton, California, showing off his beloved lowrider
The OG, Eazy E
Biggie showing his more human side, backstage at the Jon Stewart Show on his birthday

Definitely; technology’s reach is something that has exponentially grown year over year. Social media — it’s completely changed the world of hip-hop. Any individual is now able to have an opportunity to “make it” using a cell phone in the palm of their hand. This wasn’t possible two decades ago. What are your thoughts on hip-hop’s increased accessibility? Pros and cons?

Well, I want to push back a little bit on the concept of “make it.”

I think people sometimes think being able to be seen means you’ve arrived. Or, being in a place where there are a lot of celebrities means you’ve arrived. I don’t think you are really judged whether you’ve arrived or not until you look at it through the rear-view mirror of history.

Everybody has a pen; very few can write like Ernest Hemingway or James Baldwin.

What I mean by that is that it takes time for you to actually “make it.” — Just because you get a snapshot or a lucky image along the way, doesn’t mean that you’ve arrived. I think that’s where people sometimes get confused. Yes, everybody has the technology in their hand, but having the tools doesn’t make everyone a storyteller.

Everybody has a pen; very few can write like Ernest Hemingway or James Baldwin.

To be able to tell good visual stories, you have to take the technology at hand and use it to express what you saw and what you want others to see. That’s really what the skill is which has little to do with equipment.

So, yes, I think equipment has expanded and it’s made photography reach further and wider. Many more people can access a camera, but it doesn’t really change the results in the end.

You get a lot more quantity with the pervasiveness of cameras but you also get a lot more bad photography as well. I can’t really say that the ratio of good imagery has increased. I think it’s the same ratio of good that we’ve always had.

Sure, exposures may get better, but just a good exposure does not make a photograph or else we wouldn’t still be looking at pictures from the 1920’s and marveling at them. There was no digital then or matrix metering at that point, but the imagery is still of a high standard.
Nas in the bedroom of his Queensbridge Houses crib, a few months before the release of Illmatic
A bullet hole rests above Nas’ head; a glimpse of it can be seen in the previous picture

What’s your photography gear looking like for 2018?

I find that now I tend to go a little bit lighter these days. For years and years, I was a camera guy carrying camera bags all the time. I prefer it to be light these days because I found the more discreet I could be, the easier it is for me to get closer.

I tend to shoot shorter lenses, so that requires me being closer to my subjects rather than long lenses where I can be 10, 20 or 30 feet away. I actually like to be two, three feet away from my subject, so short lenses and light rangefinder cameras are my preference.

Right now, I currently have a Leica M7 film camera in my bag, a Leica M 240 digital and a Leica Q as well. That’s my current camera bag but throughout my career, I’ve shot Nikon, Mamiya and Sinar among others.

Many of the more popular Tupac images were taken on a Nikon, some of the portraits were on a large format Sinar 4×5 or on a Mamiya RZ 6×7. I go small format 35, medium format Mamiya 6×7, large format Sinar 4×5. That’s kind of my range in equipment.
Notorious B.I.G. in front of the World Trade Center towers; Chi says he kept the Versace shades

How do you go about picking the final photograph for a publication? For example, the photo shoot with Biggie with the World Trade Center in the background, there’s maybe a few dozen different shots you took, but only one is known.

When you look at a photo shoot, there tend to be a lot of other photographs from it that also have value. Sometimes the one that’s selected is selected because it fits the particular design of the magazine cover that day or the message a magazine is trying to express.

When you go back and look at a photo shoot from 20 years ago today, you look at it with a different set of eyes. The image that is published in a magazine is usually the one that people embrace in the short term. I’ve found that I can introduce an alternate photograph 20 years later, from the same shoot, and then that one can become the new “known picture.”

It’s really just taking the public where they haven’t been, sharing what you think will achieve your message on the cover of the magazine, but what you put on the cover of a magazine is a little bit different from what runs in a museum or what actually stays forever. They’re not always the same image.

I did Method Man’s "Tical" album cover with Def Jam.

On that cover, they did a bit of an illustration play with my imagery. The picture that they actually distorted a little bit in the corner is a very, very strong picture when it stands by itself.

That picture actually ended up living longer than the album artwork interpretation of it.

Sometimes the things that are put forth in the beginning aren’t always the things that’ll live and stay historically.

That’s why I tell people, “Never throw out your photographs because you never know. 1999 eyes are very different from 2009 eyes, which are very different from 2019 eyes. So, hold onto your imagery.
The picture slightly manipulated, found in the bottom left corner of Tical
The iconic grill-and-cigar snap of Method Man
Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg in the studio, months before the release of “Doggystyle”
Snoop, Dre, and Daz (Dillinger) working on Doggystyle — Snoop’s debut album, that would change G-Funk forever

Who’s to credit for inspiring you to get into photography? How did landing a spot at The Source during its prime go down?

For me, photography, I wasn’t really inspired by a particular photographer. I was inspired by the ability to take photographs. The minute I touched the camera and saw that I could record what I saw and share it with others, it blew my mind. That had me dive as deep as I could go into it. My initial training is really as a documentarian photojournalist.

I saw myself doing newspaper work, magazine work, kind of like a beat photographer in a way. Those doors weren’t really opened to me back in 1990 and The Source was. It was starting to bubble up. I heard that this magazine was happening when I was doing some freelance work at The Amsterdam News in New York.

I found out about The Source and I went down there and talked to them. They weren’t extremely organized at that point, but they had a lot of energy and they were ready to go. I was fortunate I had good camera skills, so I’d come there and be at the ready. I had a beeper. I remember people would call me on my beeper.

When called, I’d go out on assignment and eventually, all the artists saw me as the guy. They would stop for my camera to show up in the magazine, so it became a direct relationship with me, the magazine, and their fame. That’s pretty much how it went down. Over the years, I got close to a lot of them. Not so close where we were hanging out, but close enough where we could take good photographs.

I emphasize that point because they were my friends, but that’s not what I was there to do. I was there to take photographs. I didn’t have to be their friends to do that. My feeling was I’ll get them comfortable, but there is a distinct difference between what I was there to do and what they do.

They do music. I do visuals.

Bring the visuals and the music together, that’s the winning formula. I always knew that was my goal and that was my focus.
A photograph of Mobb Deep that would later become the album cover of their second studio album, The Infamous

Those two aspects are definitely important to interlace to ensure interest. You’ve taken hundreds of thousands of photographs. Are there any that stand out more than others outside of hip-hop you’d like to share?

I’ve taken hundreds of thousands of photographs. Absolutely. I’m still impressed with the pictures that I have to take, not just the ones that I’ve already taken.

That’s the beauty of photography. There’s always this pursuit for the next one.

I enjoy photographing people, any version of them, be they just regular people in their house cooking living their normal lives or a celebrity who is still a regular person I try to show them as they are — that’s my goal as a documentarian.

I find that the photographs that move me the most are the ones that are as simple as it can get, but through simplicity, you really learn a lot about the complexity of the subject.
Dre, months after The Chronic dropped, an album that would be revered as one of rap’s most influential albums of the 90’s
Mobb Deep (Prodigy and Havoc), Nas, and Raekwon sharing a moment
Taken during the recording of Mobb Deep’s An Eye for An Eye (Your Beef Is Mine)
The song which resulted from the sessions above

Photography for you. Is it a mission that turned into an art, or art that turned into your personal mission?

Photography is my life mission.

Along the way, we run into certain tools and things we bring along that help us achieve our goals. My goal with a camera was to use a camera to show the viewer another perspective on things. Was it my mission first? Yes. It was my mission, which then other people started to call it art because I don’t really think you call your own work art.

To me, it’s like someone else calling themselves beautiful. You leave that to others to decide. As you see on my Instagram and all my accounts, I let my work speak for me. I kind of keep myself out of picture because I think you’re only there to see the photographs, so I can sort of stay out of the way. It’s probably better if I do.
Tupac contact sheet; the top-right snap was eventually used as a cover for his posthumous album Better Dayz
The back tattoo(s) was finished a week before this shot; Chi says it’s as if Tupac knew life was short.
Thug Life

You‘ve said that artists these days are more controlled and less honest. This is a popular opinion that will compare to the hard-core in-your-face aesthetic of hip-hop two decades ago.

No. I think there’s a little bit of confusion.

The point I’m trying to make here with artists today compared to artists in the past is that, artists in the past let you a little bit closer to who they were. Their brand, even though now it seems like everybody’s a brand today, back then, they weren’t really brands — they were artists.

Now, there’s a downside to being just an artist because you don’t always make the best business decisions, but one thing about it, your art stays pure. What I find today is many of the artists are so focused on how they look, they actually don’t give you a real feel of who they are.

I’ve seen a lot of photography around artists today, not a whole lot of it is storytelling documentary style. A lot of it tends to be snapshot moments, a nice picture on stage, a nice picture at the bar, at the club. But you don’t really get to know that much about the person.

I mean, look at Drake as an example. A very public figure and you see him a decent amount. But we really don’t know that much about him because the photographers aren’t allowed to go much deeper.

I think for him, as well as a lot of artists, for your longevity, you have to let people in a little bit closer. The more human they think you are, then the loyalty doesn’t fade once you gain a little bit of weight and you’re not putting out hit records anymore.

I think people have to think a little bit beyond the moment.
Nasty Nas outside Queensbridge North Houses, two years before his debut album Illmatic would drop
Wu Tang Clan posting up on Staten Island, right before their debut album Enter the Wu Tang (36 Chambers) released
3AM in BX; KRS-1, Fat Joe, and TATS Crew
Chi and Kendrick Lamar, often referred to as one of the leaders of hip-hop’s new generation

Who are you listening to these days?

Rapper wise? I mean, I listen to a lot of different rappers.

I still appreciate Kanye, Vince Staples is in pretty heavy rotation, Kendrick Lamar I like a lot. ASAP’s first album, not sure what he’s going to come with now, but I did like his first album. I even like some of Drakes songs as well.

I like music and I like the music that they’re doing today. I don’t like this comparison between real hip-hop and mumble rap. It’s all nonsense to me. I mean, let people express themselves musically — how they choose history will decide whether they’re relevant or not. You don’t have to shoot it down. History will tell you the truth.

I do listen to some rappers today, but all genres evolve.

What are your thoughts on the spread of hip-hop culture? Do you feel as if some people sometimes take it the wrong way and fail to recognize the roots?

Well, first of all, I don’t like hip-hop being called a culture. I mean, what’s a culture, really? You know what I’m saying?

I think if you want to call it a lifestyle, okay, that’s one thing. But even that’s a little superficial. I look at hip-hop as an art form. It was a voice of the people. You can go wherever you want but if you leave the roots, and to me the roots are the voice of the people, you lose your soul.

If you’re going to become the voice of Nike, and Louis Vuitton, and Supreme, that’s not hip-hop. It doesn’t mean that we didn’t flash. Rappers are known for being flashy, but the flash was secondary to the message. It seems like the flash has come in front of the message now. That may be a sign of the times.

I don’t like hip-hop being called a culture. I mean, what’s a culture, really? You know what I’m saying?

It may be a Snapchat, Instagram generation, but that too will pass because when I look at an artist, and I see them take down their whole Instagram account because they’re going to release a new album, so they want a fresh start.

They’ve got like five million followers, but a clean Instagram account. I think I saw, Future [sic] or someone do that recently. I looked at that and went, wow. That means that you don’t really have anything on your page that you value because if you can take it all down, that means you don’t really value any of it.

I think folks are getting a little bit confused with this living in the moment and forgetting that although we’re in the moment, we still have to lay down roots that will actually grow into a tree down the road.

That’s kind of crazy because if something were to happen in between when you took all that work down and his new album came out, he’d have no legacy there, visually.

I think folks are getting a little bit confused with this living in the moment and forgetting that although we’re in the moment, we still have to lay down roots that will actually grow into a tree down the road.

Be careful deleting everything about your past because it’s still there, you’re just not showing it. And if you don’t show it and people will forget you and you can’t bring it back after.

Transitioning into your humanitarian work and more personal photography outside of hip-hop, give us some background on that, the non-hip-hop work.

My style of photography is I’m a documentarian. That’s at the root of it.

When the hip-hop movement was bubbling up in the late 80s and early 90s, it was a movement. I set out to document this movement. I still do the same thing when I travel all over the world.

I’ve been to Bangladesh, Southeast Asia, South America and everywhere in between with my camera. I get the same joy going to these unique places like Yemen and Syria, with a camera, that I did photographing hip-hop because I’m getting a similar glimpse into the lives of real people. I’m able to bring those photographs out and share them with the world.

By bringing pictures out, you change people’s thinking and enhance their understanding of other people.

By bringing pictures out, you change people’s thinking and enhance their understanding of other people. Same thing I did with hip-hop, I humanized the people that some folks thought was just young bad youth that were in trouble all the time. You can look in their eyes and see they are human beings. That’s what the camera can do.

I do believe that photography, especially documentary photographer, is humanitarian work.
South Africa
Phnom Penh

What message do you want to convey to individuals who appreciate or follow your work?

Well, I mean, for all the fans of my imagery, for me, it’s really an honor, to be honest. I get a decent amount of feedback from people that send me messages all the time. It’s an honor because I feel like folks have been able to appreciate what I set out to do.It’s an honor because I feel like folks have been able to appreciate what I set out to do.

Even if they didn’t know it in 1997 or 98, but they now know it someway in a small form, but I don’t think most people realized what I did until 20 years later. That’s kind of where we are now. Because of that, I’m very grateful that this has happened while I was still alive. People have been able to see how I documented the generation’s movement. Many artists don’t don’t get experience while they’re living.

Social media and the beauty of technology has allowed my work to not be pushed to the side in favor of the young current imagery but it has placed my quality right back into the middle of it. I’m not extremely nostalgic. I don’t really like to dwell in the past. I think the past is still important to understand your present and future, but it doesn’t shape it — it guides it.

I think the past is still important to understand your present and future, but it doesn’t shape it — it guides it.

Let’s be clear — what I mean by “It doesn’t shape it” is that, people need to have a bit of an independent future. They have to figure it out on their own, but there are some things that those in the past put down that you reference, and you can always see but new generations must evolve and adapt.

A lot of the imagery you see in hip-hop today, you can go back to some of my pictures and see many of the references in it that many photographers are drawing from. That’s how it’s supposed to happen. That’s sort of the point. I’m not there running around photographing Migos, the photographers of today are. They have their people for that, but somewhere in those photographs my

That’s what I call passing it down.

Do you see yourself getting back into the hip-hop scene as a photographer full time or would you prefer it to remain a hobby, as having done enough in years past?

One thing I never was, was a hobbyist. Photography is life for me. I’ll always take pictures.

As far as rappers go and the hip-hop scene, I’m not that interested in photographing the scene because just by calling it a scene, to me, it’s superficial because I never thought about what I did in the past as I was documenting a scene. Maybe that’s the challenge I have with it today is that people look at it as a scene. Even the photographers have agents and publicists — nonsense.

Photographers are there to document and record it for later enjoyment. We’re not supposed to be enjoying and flossing in the middle of it. That’s not how our world goes because if you want to be in front of the camera, then take the full risk and go in front of the camera. Don’t do a half-behind and half-in-front of the camera.

Respect those that put their lives on the line and put their work out to be judged and chewed apart. Respect those artists. Photographers don’t have to do that. That’s why we should kind of stay behind the camera until your body of work and reputation is big enough to draw you in front of the camera, let your body of work pull you in front of the camera, not your desire to be in front of the camera.

That’s my issue with it, but when an artist wants someone to photograph them and they actually want to stay forever, they call me.

When they just need a snapshot or someone to document them well on a Canon 5D, I say, there are plenty of people around that can do that shoot.

Don’t call me for that. You call me when you want someone that can actually make a difference. Then, I’ll come.

No, I haven’t retired. I am just very picky about where I bring my camera skills because as you see, if I bring my camera, I’m probably going to capture you — properly.
The man himself

After hearing the insight, it’s clear that Chi has an extremely deep passion for hip-hop and documentation of life around the globe, alike. It’s his life mission, and something he will never cease.

It’s also incredible and entertaining to think about how a single photograph can convey such a strong message without a single word involved. That’s the power of photography in its purest form and, as aforementioned by Chi, the documentation aspect of hip-hop and its aesthetic as well as sound is evolving rapidly. This is something we should embrace, so that it may continue to grow.

There are a handful of photos that define different eras in the rap game, and Chi was fortunate enough to be at the source of it all (no pun intended) throughout the late 80’s and early 90’s.

For now, he’ll continue to do humanitarian work and spread the stories of those unknown souls in the world — those with no voice — in hopes of shedding light on their life, and allowing them tohave a voice. That’s the core of it.

It will be extremely interesting, personally, to see how hip-hop changes, and to observe it with what’s been said here in mind regarding how artists and techniques have changed.

One thing is for certain — Chi Modu’s era-defining snaps of hip-hop are here to stay.